On a moonlit night in the backstreets of Beyoglu, one of Istanbul’s oldest districts, the worn facades and sharp-angled shadows recall the mournful character of the city that Nobel-prize winning Turkish author Orhan Pamuk described in a memoir.
But really, it’s just a glimpse.
New, brash Istanbul charges ahead, and it’s harder to uncover those pockets of dark ruin that epitomize “huzun,” the dense, communal melancholy that permeated the former imperial capital in Pamuk’s work. As Turkey strives for global status, its leading city strains to channel expansion that threatens its heritage, environment and even its identity.
An ambler can step out of the alleyways and zoom up an elevator to a hotel roofdeck for a panoramic view of the mouth of the Bosporus Strait, where an armada of cargo ships lies, and the towers of a bustling financial district. Fireworks burst by the shores of the Golden Horn inlet, so far below and so far away that the sound does not carry.
Once a backwater aching with memories of a glorious past, Istanbul today is hectically, perhaps blindly, hustling to create a vibrant future.
Istanbul, whose name derives from the Greek for “to the city,” is home to nearly 20 percent of the 75 million people in Turkey, compressing and magnifying the swirl of a democracy in progress with a Muslim identity and a Western outlook. It is the engine and the envoy for a country that wants to be a force in the world after generations on the sidelines.
At the national level, rhetoric sometimes eclipses real economic and diplomatic achievements. Turkey is a “beacon for the world,” says one Cabinet minister. Istanbul barrels ahead with the same kind of ebullience.
A documentary called “Ekumenopolis: City Without Limits” suggests congestion, real estate speculation and big projects such as a plan to build a third bridge over the Bosporus are creating a class-bound sprawl lorded over by politically connected barons of the construction industry.
Director Imre Azem said audiences at foreign film festivals were surprised at what they saw on the screen.
“It shatters their image of Istanbul. They have this nostalgic kind of image of Istanbul, with its mosques and all this tourist stuff,” Azem said. “For Turkish people, it’s kind of saying things that they already know because they live in this city and they know its problems.”
Azem, 36, grew up in Istanbul and went to the United States to study, but returned often to find a frenzy of change.
“One time I come here, there’s a park. And then the next time, six months later, the park has become a building,” Azem said. “I really just started questioning where this is heading.”
He said Istanbul was so vast that he had met some poor residents who had never seen the Bosporus Strait even though they had lived in the city for years. A common Turkish term is “gecekondu,” or “built overnight,” a reference to the shoddy apartment buildings that authorities in Istanbul condoned over decades, but now talk about replacing.
Istanbul also lives on a latent edge, wary that a catastrophic earthquake might strike tomorrow, in a decade, or not in anyone’s lifetime. Turkey lies in an active seismic zone.
An international athletics event was held this weekend in a stadium built in line with safety codes imposed after 1999 quakes in northwest Turkey killed 18,000, including some on the outskirts of Istanbul. The old building at the site housed a swimming pool, but was demolished after experts found cracks from those temblors.
The jewel of the city’s ambitions is the Olympics. Istanbul bid for the right to host the games four previous times, but Turkey’s economic growth over the last decade and its political assertiveness make it a strong candidate. Rivals are Tokyo; Doha, Qatar; Madrid; and Baku, Azerbaijan. The decision will be announced next year.
Istanbul’s rapid transformation began in the early 1980s, when Turkey, then in the grip of the military, opened the economy. Development was unleashed; urban immigration, too. Many of those swamping the cities were poor, ethnic Kurds who fled conflict between the army and Kurdish rebels in the rural southeast.
David Cuthell, whose father was the American consul general in Istanbul around 1960, remembers a city of perhaps 2 million that was steeped in deprivation and traditional values.
“It was where people handed down their shoes to their younger siblings and the girls didn’t go to school after about sixth grade. It was something out of the American 19th century, and the British 19th century,” said Cuthell, an associate professor of international and public affairs at Columbia University in New York City.
Now travelers remark on Istanbul’s ferment, which contrasts with the economic torpor in Europe. Even longtime residents might see a new office building off a main highway and do a double-take, wondering how it popped up so fast.
Split between the European and Asian continents, the city flaunts a rich menu of museums and palaces from a past that was derided by Turkey’s secular founders. A massive aquarium opened last year. A Rembrandt exhibit is showing now; Ottoman-style calligraphy is gaining popularity. A film festival starts at the end of March.
This month, the city hosts forums on bipolar disorder, wind and solar power and, according to the Turkish president, countries seeking to press Syria to stop its bloody crackdown on opponents. In April, meetings on contemporary art, investment, dentistry, superconductivity, and more.
Teeming Beyoglu, where Turks and foreigners dine and shop, was once a shell, abandoned by Greek, Armenian and Jewish minorities who fled discrimination and persecution.
In his translated memoir “Istanbul,” Pamuk remarks how the Turkish desire to modernize and turn to the West after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire “amounted mostly to the erasure of the past,” producing a void. He examines different accounts and points of view of the city, and suggests that looking at Istanbul is looking at oneself:
“Is this the secret of Istanbul — that beneath its grand history, its living poverty, its outward-looking monuments, and its sublime landscapes, its poor hide the city’s soul inside a fragile web? But here we have come full circle, for anything we say about the city’s essence says more about our own lives and our own states of mind. The city has no center other than ourselves.”