I admit that when Rachel and I bought our tickets to Istanbul, I didn’t even know where to find Turkey on a map. But as I’ve come to learn over the last week, to understand modern day Istanbul, you’ve got to understand its history. And to understand its history, you need to know where it is.
Istanbul lies on a what is effectively an isthmus separating Europe from Asia. I say “effectively” because when you zoom in, you see that this isthmus is not a continuous strip of land, but is split by a narrow stretch of water – the Bosphorus Straight.
If you just finished conquering all of Europe and would like to continue your tour of world domination on into Asia, or vice versa, you’ve got to cross the Bosphorus.
If you live on the Black Sea and would like to ship goods to and from the rest of the world, you’ve got to traverse the Bosphorus Straight. Shut down the Bosphorus, and you turn the Black Sea into a Great Lake.
There is perhaps no more valuable piece of real estate in Eurasia than the banks of the Bosphorus. The first city there was founded seven-hundred years before Christ, and was called Byzantium. Soon the Persians rolled through and took control of the area until they got kicked out by Alexander the Great and his Greek Squad.
Then came the Roman Empire. Then the Byzantine Empire, the Latin Empire, and the Ottoman Empire.
The Ottomans converted the empire to Islam, and managed to keep control from the time of Christopher Columbus until they picked the wrong side in World War I, and collapsed under the weight of their over-expansion. Their empire had reached all the way to Vienna.
As the Ottoman Empire fell apart, a Turkish General named Mustaffa Ataturk rose up, and said “Hey, instead of trying to conquer everyone around us, let’s focus our efforts internally. And while we’re at it, let’s do away with this theocratic governing, embrace technology, give women some rights, and build some schools.” ( not quite an exact quote.)
Turkey was so successful at keeping out of everyone else’s business that they managed to sit out World War II. They allied with the US through the Cold War to fend off the USSR, which would have loved to secure guaranteed access for its ports in the Black Sea. As a US ally, Turkey sent troops to fight in Korea and the first Gulf War, but gained some street cred in the Mideast when they declined our invitation to join in on Bush v. Iraq Part II.
Today, Turkey finds itself as a literal and metaphorical bridge between the East and the West.
98% of Turkey’s citizens describe themselves as Muslim, but its culture is distinctly secular. Ataturk, who is regarded with a deity-like reverence by about every Turk we met, created a distinctly secular society, going so far as to outlaw head coverings. He felt that religion should be practiced in the home, but not a part of public policy or civics.
Today, there is increased push back on this, especially in the rural areas that comprise most of the land. The recently elected conservative government has re-instituted Islamic education in the public schools, revoked the ban on head coverings, and demonstrates an increasingly authoritarian opposition towards dissenting opinions.
Turkey’s been trying to join the EU for a number of years. They would be the first Muslim country to do so – though the UN insists that’s not why they have been so far denied. Their independence, has insulated them from the EU’s financial difficulties, and Turkey’s economy is booming. As they grow into a regional superpower, Turkey finds itself in a peculiar position in international affairs, maintaining amicable relations with Syria, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Russia and the United States.
A friend from Istanbul describes the bridges that span the Bosphorus as a metaphor for Turkey: a modern structure spanning two continents, straining beneath the tension of millions of people moving from West, to the East, and back again.