Where the continents meet

Fishing boat near the Kadiköy port

We got some time off of our Calvin classes for fall break last week, and a friend and I decided that if we were going to travel outside the region, it wouldn’t be to the west. So we found ourselves in Istanbul, sipping tea on ferries, cheering marathon runners in the shadows of the Hagia Sophia, and trying as many free samples of Turkish delight as we could in the Spice Bazaar. It was a wonderful week; we learned a lot, relaxed a lot, and met many wonderful people through couch surfing and conversations on the street.

East meets West pretty famously in Istanbul, where the European and Asian continents converge over the Bosphorus Strait. I tried to keep track of some of the ways this was true:

  • food: food stands on every corner sell köfte and döner—and burgers and dogs
  • vegetation: palm trees grow next to oaks and sycamores like the ones on the street I grew up on in Michigan
  • architecture: mosques share the skyline with skyscrapers and ultra-modern bridges
  • shopping: Gap, Lush, and Starbucks fill some neighborhoods, while others feature corner markets and vendors selling fishing line, hijabs or copper pots
  • music: CD stores feature the latest Madonna album next to the Best of Turkish Jazz in their front display windows

Of course, Istabul has been a place of cultural interaction for centuries because of its location on the Silk Road trade route, and probably the less modern examples of this weren’t as obvious to my uneducated eye. The Hagia Sofia—once a church, then a mosque, now a museum—is probably the most famous example. Still today, globalization shakes its mane in Istanbul, though it is accompanied by religious and ethnic tension, nationalism, and occasional violence.

The tradition of commerce is also still strong. From the tourist bazaars to roasted chestnut and şimit (bread ring) carts, and from döner stands to back street markets bustling with Turkish shoppers, there was just so much for sale. I’d be really interested to know what percentage of Istanbul’s population makes its living in sales and to see a breakdown of what products and types of retail are most common. Perhaps it’d be a good project for economic geography next semester.

In many ways, Istanbul seemed more modern, developed, and even Western than Budapest (which celebrated its 20th year free of communism on Friday; doubtless the political turmoil of the 20th century in Hungary accounts for much of the difference between the two cities). I asked each of our hosts if they thought Turkey ought to join the EU, and they all seemed to think that it would be good for Turkey, but also that something of its unique character might be lost. Turkey isn’t Europe, and it isn’t Asia, they said. It’s Turkey, where the continents meet.

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