Istanbul As a Fascinating Melting Pot – Where Eastern and Western Influences Come Together

I was in Istanbul two months ago during the month Ramadan and I can safely say that my life is now divided into two parts. Before, I believed that different cultures cannot coexist in a single community and trying to do so will always result in a difficult compromise which renders all parties involved bitter and irate. Coming from Pakistan and living now in Germany, I am acutely aware of the vast cultural differences between the east and the west. Although diverse cultures do exist in many cities in the world but real understanding between oriental and European traditions where people come together to form a progressive society were only farfetched ideals for me. This was the case until I experienced the harmonious culture of Istanbul.

Istanbul is located in the northwest of Turkey, spanning both Asia and Europe.

Istanbul is located in the northwest of Turkey around the Bosphorous Strait (a narrow channel of water dividing Asia and Europe). It is the only city in the world existing on two continents and just as its location, its culture also spans the continents of Asia and Europe. Istanbul contains over 3000 mosques, 123 active churches and 20 active synagogues and its streets are filled with people in western clothes mixed with the traditional Hijabs and overalls.  It boasts a strong affiliation with Islam along with an understanding and tolerance of the western European culture.

Misr (Spice) Bazaar in the old town area of Istanbul

The unique history of Istanbul:

The key to understanding this harmony lies in the history. Istanbul was first established by the Greeks in 7th century BC as Byzantium. In 4th century AD it became part of the Roman Empire. Constantine, the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity, ordered massive constructions projects to rebuild the city and renamed it Constantinople. It remained part of the eastern Roman / Byzantine empire for the next 1000 years until it fell to the Ottoman Sultan Muhamad Al-Fatih (Mehmet the Conquerer) in 1453 AD and became the capital of the Ottoman empire as Istanbul. The 21 year old Sultan Fatih was a visionary who ensured religious freedom between different religious communities. Not only did he called back the fleeing Christians, he also made arrangements to settle communities of Jews who were oppressed and persecuted in different parts in Europe. He ensured that they have free access to political and economic opportunities to flourish trade relations with Europe. Along with commerce, these efforts brought European art and culture of which the Sultan was a great patron. This essentially opened the doors for the people from different cultures to understand each other’s way of life: an understanding which is visible to this day. Throughout the Ottoman period Turkey continued to impress and be impressed by the European traditions. While Europe was still struggling with religious persecution in the 1900s, the Ottomans had created a harmonious and stable religious pluralistic system that guaranteed religious freedom for hundreds of years.

East mixes with west:

Aya Sofia (Hagia Sofia) has enjoyed a central place of worship in both Roman and Ottoman empires. It is now a museum, open to public.

The most popular symbol of this mixed culture is perhaps the Aya Sofia which was built in the 6th century AD as a cathedral. It remained the world’s largest cathedral until it was converted to the principal mosque in Istanbul by Sultan Muhammad Al-Fatih hence it changed faith but not its status as a symbol of pride and glory. After the formation of the Republic of Turkey it was converted to a Museum and opened to public. Another symbol of cultural harmony was Hürrem Sultan (known as Roxelana in Europe), the favorite wife of the most famous Ottoman Sultan Suleiman (the magnificient). She was originally from modern day Ukraine and belonged to an Orthodox Christian family. She founded a number of mosques, schools, bath-houses and a woman’s hospital. She acted as Suleiman’s chief advisor and rose to be one of the most influential woman of her age. A last example of cultural diversity in Istanbul are the Turkish national drinks. Raki and Ayran are both hailed as national drinks in Turkey with the former being an unsweetened alcoholic drink and the later a yogurt based salted cold drink. Both are loved by the locals and a debate is always underway about which one is more national. The east and the west are present in this city simultaneously, not in a state of struggle but supporting each other contributing to the city’s culture.

Raki (left) is an alocholic drink while Ayran (right) is a chilled yogurt based  drink to ward of the summer heat.

Islamic at heart

The first thing I noticed in Istanbul was that its history has given it a completely European outlook. A sense of relationship with the creator seems absent as locals hurry up for their jobs and businesses in the crowded traffic. Their connection with their oriental roots became evident as the time of Iftar approached. All available space around the Sultan Ahmet mosque got completely filled by small groups of families and friends who waited patiently for the right time to start eating. A crowd of people caught my attention. Here a stage was setup where different speakers and singers came and spoke or sang about Ramadan and Islamic history. People enjoyed this show a lot as it remained jam packed late into the night until the Sahoor. I later learned this same process happens around many popular mosques in the city. The people get a chance to learn about the religion and celebrate it without being prejudiced against for their opinions or clothing choices.

Istanbul has no parallel in its proud presentation of Islam and support of religious diversity. It gives hope that a harmonious society is possible if people give each other a chance at understanding.