Istanbul: the western end of Eurasia

Prof. Ajay Patnaik is a senior academic at the School of International Studies in Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be contacted at patnaik.ajay[at}

Prof Ajay Patnaik
Prof Ajay Patnaik

There are many definitions of Eurasia. This author mostly had used the term ‘Eurasia’ to describe the post-Soviet states. However, geographically and culturally if any other country that comes closer to the definition, it is Turkey. While, it is part of the so called Middle East and its religious and cultural identity has Asian-Arab roots, it has also been strongly influenced by European culture, economy and politics. Due to its Asian-Arab links, Turkey has been drawn to various developments in the neighbouring states like Syria and Iraq. Its European ambitions like joining the European Union have continued unabated. It is a member of NATO and in that capacity it has been its eastern outpost. There is a bridge across the Bosphorus that links the Asian and European part of the city.

In the summer of 2014 my project on Eurasia took me to Istanbul. It is an astounding city with modernity and tradition coexisting with wonderful harmony. The city has been a seat of power for millennia. The Greeks has settled as early as 3000 BC in what is the Asian part of the city. Then in the 7th Century AD, a Greek colony was established there, which was called Byzantium, named after King Byzas who established the colony. The city became the part of the Roman Empire in the 1st Century BC and in 306 AD Constantine the Great made Byzantium the capital of Eastern Roman Empire and since then the city’s name changed to Constantinople. In the 1st Century AD, when Rome was conquered by the Barbarians, it was the Eastern Rome, also known as Byzantine Empire, which was seat of Roman power. Under the famous Roman King, Justinian I one of the most beautiful churches showcasing the pinnacle of Roman culture was created. Known as Hagia Sophia (also known as Aya Sophia), the church was converted to a mosque and minarets were added to give it a different religious look. The dome of the church/mosque is quite huge and probably one of the largest in the world, if not the largest. Hagia Sophia became a museum during the leadership of Kemal Ataturk after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

[Hagia Sophia (Aya Sophia)]
[Hagia Sophia (Aya Sophia)]

Istanbul continued as a capital under the Ottoman Turks, who under Sultan Ahmet II conquered the city in 1453 AD. The Ottomans first established their capital in Burasa and later marched on to Constantinople. I was told by one of my friends jokingly that the Ottomans arrived on the Kadikoy part of the city and it took them about 100 years to move across what is today less than half an hour of ferry ride to the Byzantine part of the city, the centre of many great monuments of Turkey. The Ottomans built a great empire that lasted about 470 years till Kemal Ataturk assumed power in Turkey and ended the monarchical rule by declaring the country to be a republic in 1923. Istanbul ceased to be capital since then and Ankara became the new capital.

During their rule, the Ottomans added their cultural footprints in Istanbul. Great monuments that were created still stand majestic in the area which was once the seat of Byzantine glory. They built their palace there. Built between 1466 and 1478, the Topkapi Palace stands at the confluence of Bosphorus, Marmara Sea and the Golden Horn. From here one could see the other shore at Kadikoy. From here one can see Russian ships coming through the Bosphorus and joining the Marmara Sea that would take them through the Dardanelles to the Aegian Sea and Mediterranean. This is the lifeline of Russian trade with the outside world, especially Europe.

[Topkapi Palace- Seat of Ottoman empire]
[Topkapi Palace- Seat of Ottoman empire]

Other monuments include the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque), the Grand Bazar, Basilica Cistern, the Hippodrome (The building no longer stands, but the obelisks and sculptures that have been collected here since Theodosius’ time in the fourth century AD remain. The four bronze horses in the facade of St. Marco in Venice used to be on top of the Emperor’s box in the Hippodrome and they were looted by the crusaders in 1204) and the German Fountain (a neo-Byzantine style fountain building at the square leading to Hippodrome that was a gift sent by German Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Ottoman Sultan during the heydays of their friendship before the World War I). All these great monuments are located around a square called Sultan Ahmet Square. There are other great monuments that stand witness to the power of the Ottoman Empire in its zenith.

[Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)]
[Sultan Ahmed Mosque (Blue Mosque)]

Ottoman Empire ended with the defeat in the First World War. With this came the end of the Caliphate that had elevated Turkey as the seat of temporal and religious power of the Islamic world. The War of Independence brought an end to Ottoman rule over Turkey, which under Kemal and his successors was so Westernised and Europe-oriented that it nearly lost its influence and links in Asia. Modernisation was penetrating deep into society. During the Cold War, Turkey moved much closer to the West geopolitically, joined Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). Later when North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) was formed as a military bloc against the Soviets, Turkey became a member. However, in the last two decades or so, there have been visible changes in Turkish society. Islamic identity is on the rise at the cost of secular and liberal space. An Islamic party is in power in recent years and Kemalists are under pressure. The army that was once the custodian of Kemalist legacy and secular constitution has been brought under the control of ruling Islamic leadership. Nevertheless, Turkey remains a democratic country with strong secular and liberal tradition. Women are active in the public sphere and many in Istanbul have no traditional/religious appearances. I was told that there are areas in the city that is strongly influenced by tradition and these areas are the main support base of the current ruling regime. Similar division exists in other parts of the country between secularist and Islamists.

Today many Turks are disillusioned with the EU that has been shifting the goal post so far as membership in that organisation is concerned. The Western attitude is attributed to its lack of respect for Turkish religion and culture, which it is said is the reason for West’s reluctance to accept Turkey as an equal partner. Turkey in recent years has improved its relationship with neighbours like Russia and Iran, whom it shunned during the Cold War and even for years following its end. It is taking more interest to establish itself as a leader in the Islamic world. This is reflected in its support to religious opposition in Syria and in its refusal to cooperate with the West in bombing of the ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey economically prospered quite fast in the first decade of this century. Growth has been impressive as has been foreign investment in Turkey and Turkish investments abroad. The population is educated and skilled. Istanbul is the symbol of this prosperity which is also visible in other parts of the country. In my last visit in 2008, while travelling from Istanbul to Ankara by bus, I was amazed by the quality of the highway and other infrastructure. People have a better standard of living than most Asian and many European countries. Istanbul has a rapid transport system that would be the envy of most countries around the world.

When I arrived in Istanbul, I took the metro to a certain point from where the rapid bus service starts. These buses ply on a dedicated part of the road and, unlike in Delhi, the stretch is covered with strong cable barriers due to which other vehicles including general buses cannot enter this section. The corridor covers many parts of the city. There is also the water transport. While coming back to the airport at the end of my stay, I took the ferry from the Kadikoy shore and reached another shore that is closer to the airport and takes less than thirty minutes. By the way, for the general buses, rapid transport buses, metro and ferry the same card can be used and depending on the mode different amounts are deducted. At various places and small kiosks one could pay money and recharge the card when the existing amount is less or about to be finished. Istanbul is a populous city with more than 14 million people. Normal travel inside the city takes a lot of time due to traffic congestion and snarls. The rapid bus corridor, metro and water transport makes travel easier and faster.

Turkey’s economy enjoyed a strong growth trajectory in a decade since 2003, with an average GDP growth of about 5.5 per cent per year till 2013. With an economy of about $800 billion, it remained one of largest twenty economies globally. Even during the economic crisis that began in 2009 Turkey as a strong emerging economy attracted a lot of cheap credits from the Western investors when their own economies were giving much lower returns. This fuelled GDP growth and rise in per capita income, both of which witnessed a three-fold increase since 2003 in Turkey. The best years were 2010 and 2011, when the economy grew by 9.2 percent and 8.5 percent respectively.

When the US announced the scaling down of its stimulus programme, foreign capital flowed out of the country. The boom days were over in 2013. The GDP growth was only 2.2 percent in 2013 and the currency slumped. Inflation was high at 9 percent in 2013. The good years did little to erase income inequality. Nearly 20 percent of citizens were living below half the national median income in 2013. The same year Turkey had a high current account deficit and was in need of massive external borrowing to meet the deficit. More than 9 percent of the population is unemployed. The economy was facing grim situation in 2014.

However, the country has a prosperous economy and people looked better off than in India. This is expected as Turkey’s average per capita income was $18,800 based in purchasing power parity terms as compared to $5,350 for India in 2013. One does not see slums and visible poverty on the streets. I did not see people sleeping of sidewalks in the night. The poor ones I saw begging on the streets were refugees from Syria and the Kurds. I was told there are a large number of Syrian refugees who live a very miserable life after being displaced by the civil war in their country. There is similarly large number of poor among the Turkey’s Kurdish population, who migrate to cities like Istanbul due to poverty.

Many times people asked me in the streets if I was an Arab. I asked my friends why was this so? Do I look like an Arab? My friends had an interesting response. They said that for the Turks the knowledge of Asia does not travel beyond their Arab neighbours. Thus, an Indian who looks different from Turks and is not a European or American must be an Arab. This shows how much Turkey has been delinked from Asian continent in its quest to be accepted by the West. I used to tell my friends that even if Turkey is admitted to the European Union, it would be a smaller player than if it was to project itself as an Asian power. Though Turkey’s policy has changed in recent years under Erdogan, its European dream remains strong. Many scholars I met during my stay were, however, in favour of Turkey integrating closely with Eurasia, meaning good relations with former Soviet republics including Russia, closer relations with Iran, India, China and other countries of Asia.

I had long discussions with scholars about their political system and current leadership. From these I had a feeling that similar trends are visible in India as well. When I visited Istanbul, the new government in India had assumed power. While discussing the new leader and his election victory in India, I was told that there are certain similarities between Narendra Modi and Recip Tayyip Erdogan. The Mayor of Istanbul (1994-1998), Erdogan, was instrumental in bringing his Justice and Development Party (AKP) to power in 2003 parliamentary elections. Beginning with a little over 25 percent votes to become Mayor of Istanbul in 1994 he propelled his party to a land slide victory in 2002 parliamentary elections and in 2003 became the country’s Prime Minister. Over the next three elections, his party’s vote share went up from 31 percent to over 50 percent. In 2014 he chose to become the Presidential candidate with 51.8 percent votes.

With a moderate Islamic agenda, liberal and pro-corporate economic policies and pro-US foreign policy, Turkey under Erdogan saw both economic growth and socially conservative orientation. While private corporate sector benefited from privatisation and lots of construction activities were going on, the number of grand mosques and religious institutions also proliferated. Secular institutions came under pressure through reforms in the judiciary and prosecution of top army generals. Kemalist legacy is steadily being marginalised. Incidentally, I was told by my hosts that the Marmara university campus where I stayed was to be given to a private company as a prime estate and there would be no university campus after three years.

The slowing down of the economy and government’s pro-corporate policies led to massive discontent that resulted in nation-wide protests in 2013 and 2014. The protesters faced repressive measures by the police and attack from AKP supporters resulting reportedly in 22 deaths and thousands being injured in 2013. Even Turkey’s allies were shocked by the brutality and stalled EU accession talks. Taking advantage of the investigation and arrest of his close allies in a corruption scandal, Erdogan accused the Fethullah Gullen’s Cemaat movement of a “coup” and running a ‘parallel structure’. This accusation was used to curb the opposition and introduce controversial reforms in the army and the judiciary, two pillars of Kemalist legacy.

As is known, the protests in May 2013 were against the neo-liberal policies of the government. The immediate cause was the decision of the government to demolish the Gezi park near the historic Taksim square to build a shopping mall. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest this action. Though the government relented on the issue of the shopping mall, the subsequent repression that was unleashed against the activists is an indicator of the illiberal attitude of the ruling governments towards dissent. During my visit there were many events including musical concerts to mark the completion of one year of protest. From radicals to Kemalists, different groups organised different programmes. I witnessed some events in the form of music concerts by radical left group, poster exhibitions, and also a human chain at the Kadikoy sea front, which is always crowded with locals and foreign tourists.

[Istanbul’s Taksim Square]
[Istanbul’s Taksim Square]

There are many beautiful places to visit in Turkey that are easily accessible from Istanbul. One such place I visited was the beach town of Bodrum on the Aegean Sea. Full of tourists, the beach is full of life all day. The nights become even gorgeous with lots of restaurants on the beach front, playing music and, during the period of my visit, the World Cup football. The tables are set near the shore with candle lights creating a fabulous atmosphere. If you wish to watch TV or listen to music, just across the road is the main restaurant with indoor and outdoor service facilities. Fish and olive are in great demand, though there are kebabs and other mutton and chicken dishes. Four days of baked fish and olive oil on top, swimming in the sea, walking around the bazaar near the beach, made me feel much healthier in a long time. Turkish breakfast includes invariably olives and feta cheese (made from unpasteurised sheep or blended sheep-goat milk) with green salads.

Another attractive destination is Cappadocia that lies in eastern Anatolia, in the centre of Turkey. I had a chance to visit this region. Cappadocia contains several underground cities, largely used by early Greeks Christians as hiding places to avoid persecution before Christianity became an accepted religion. There are some discovered cities, but many are still to be explored. I went to one such place. There are multiple floors, prayer area, wine making place, living area etc. under the ground. Some halls are wide and with reasonably high ceiling. But there are sections where one has to practically crawl to reach from one part to another.

Cappadocia also has many high rocks that resulted from volcanic eruptions. Over centuries these rocks eroded into hundreds of spectacular pillars and minaret-like forms. Early Christians carved out houses, churches and monasteries from the soft rocks of volcanic deposits. Many tall rocks have entrances that lead to living places, prayer area and altars and so on. The people living in them were wonderfully skilful in turning these tall rock pillars into their homes and monasteries. Many such places have frescoes on the life of Christ on the walls and ceilings. The region came under pressure at the end of the 12th Century from the Seljuk Turks and later under the Ottomans. There are hundreds and hundreds of rock caves in Cappadocia and the city is a great tourist destination today, with many going there also for hot air balloon rides.

[Mushroom shaped rock formations, Cappadocia]
[Mushroom shaped rock formations, Cappadocia]

Istanbul is one of the finest cities that is a repository of many historic and cultural artefacts that were the products of interaction of many civilisations – Greek, Roman, Islamic and modern-Western. Today, it is a emerging market economy and a middle-level prosperous country. There are visible changes in society, polity and foreign policy. My visit also allowed me to escape the summer heat of Delhi and enjoy the moderate weather in Turkey. Turkey is passing through interesting times, when the contradictions of the transition from Kemalist to a moderate Islamic country are creating their own tensions in society and in the political space. The volatile neighbourhood that includes civil war ridden Syria and Iraq are threatening to draw Turkey into the regional flashpoints. This certainly is a foreign policy challenge. Despite all these issues, the smiling and friendly Turkish people make the country very attractive. I enjoyed my stay there and was missing Istanbul when I left for New Delhi.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this:
close-alt close collapse comment ellipsis expand gallery heart lock menu next pinned previous reply search share star