Istanbul: History Unfolds in the Capital of a Long-Gone Empire

Aesthetics, power and history in Turkey's most famous city.

Boys playing in construction rubble. Istanbul. 2015. Photograph by Cassim Shepard.

When people learn that I study cities for a living, the follow-up question is often “so what’s your favorite city?”

My answer is reflexive: Istanbul.

I first visited Istanbul in June 2001, a week after graduating college. I was there for a three-month summer job updating the Istanbul section of a Turkey guidebook for travelers on a budget. So I was obligated to visit all of the most popular tourist sites: Byzantine churches and forts, Roman aqueducts and cisterns, Ottoman palaces and mosques and a vibrant nightlife scene that rivaled any European metropolis. When my work was done, however, I had the freedom to explore further reaches of the city, a world away from enthusiastic carpet merchants and enticing spice shops. I could wander in the way we sometimes imagine we’d like to do in our own cities, if we had the time: take a bus line to its terminus, find the tallest hill in any given neighborhood, play backgammon on the street with an elderly man with whom you share no common language.

Cities tend to have a longer lifespan than countries or empires. And yet, even those cities that survive don’t always reveal the layers of their history as readily as Istanbul. The mosques that I visited and wrote about as tourist attractions are the perfect expression of Istanbul’s defining characteristic. It’s a palimpsest. The Aya Sofia is the grandest example, an Eastern Orthodox cathedral (537–1453) that was briefly converted during the Crusades into a Roman Catholic one (1204–1261) and then into an Ottoman mosque (1453–1931). A few years into the secular, nationalist reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the modern country’s founder, the Aya Sofia underwent what was considered to be a final transformation into a secular museum. In July of 2020, the administration of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan revoked the World Heritage Site’s secular status and decreed it will again be a mosque, provoking an international uproar. Muslim prayers began on July 24. The date is symbolic: it’s the anniversary of the signing of the 1923 Treaty of Laussane, under which the Allied Powers determined the boundaries of modern Turkey after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in World War I. In some nationalist and Islamist circles, the site’s status as a museum was a reminder of military humiliation and Western imperialism. And it’s not just the ancient layers of Istanbul’s history that inflame political passions. Gezi Park, a small and beloved public greenspace near the modern city’s center, stands at the site of a sixteenth century Armenian cemetery and a nineteenth century Ottoman barracks. In 2013, plans to turn the park into a shopping mall inside of a planned pastiche reconstruction of the barracks led to massive protests that exercised Istanbul’s strong tradition of dissent and activism. Monuments remain. Symbolic importance endures. But uses continue to change.

A mosaic of Istanbul’s monuments adorns the new stations of the Marmaray commuter train that runs under the Bosphorus. Istanbul. 2015. Photograph by Cassim Shepard.

These overlapping legacies are everywhere. Istanbul’s topography—like Rome, it was originally a city of seven hills—means you will sometimes turn a corner and come upon a breathtaking vista that reveals the city’s layers: Greek, Roman, Ottoman, European, Turkish. The layers don’t just represent empires. The persistent survival of many long-standing minority communities—Kurdish, Armenian, Jewish, Circassian, Levantine—remains visible if you know where to look despite aggressive and even genocidal attempts at Turkification. Once, when trying to visit an old synagogue, my lack of Turkish proved an obstacle with the cantankerous caretaker, until I tried Spanish. The older generation of Istanbul Jews still hold on to Ladino, the Judeo-Spanish language Sephardic Jews brought with them to the Ottoman Empire when expelled from Spain in 1492.

Like every country’s biggest city, Istanbul has populations from every corner of the country. There’s a saying that the stones and the soil of Istanbul are made of gold, in reference to the city’s eternal promise of economic opportunity. That promise continues to draw internal migrants, even if it’s seldom fulfilled. Only 28 percent of the city’s population was born in the greater Istanbul region. Still, in a certain light, the city does take on a golden hue. Especially when you are close to the water, the city shimmers. And water is everywhere.

The strategic importance of the city to the history of geopolitics is easy to see on a map. Istanbul straddles two continents. The Bosporus, the channel of water that bisects Istanbul and connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, forms the border between Europe and Asia. Bosporus literally means “cow crossing,” a direct translation of oxford, or “where the oxen ford the river,” and refers to the ancient Greek legend of Io, a mortal lover of Zeus whom he turned into a cow and condemned to walk the Earth until she crossed the straits that Istanbul spans today. Even in everyday language, my Turkish friends would refer to Asia and Europe the way I refer to Brooklyn and Manhattan, as in, “let’s go check out this band on the Asian side.” There are now three suspension bridges that traverse the strait, and each is an engineering marvel and ecological travesty. It’s far quicker to take the ferry, as hundreds of thousands of commuters do every day.

The Bosporus is much more than a border. It is a thoroughfare, the quickest shipping route between one of only three warm-water ports in Russia and the Middle East, North Africa and southern Europe. Last year, more than 40,000 vessels carrying 640 million tons of cargo passed through the Bosporous Straits, almost three times the tonnage shipped through the Panama Canal. And it’s not just cargo that passes through. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Istanbul has become a major center for professional services to attend to the needs of the rapidly growing energy sector in the former Soviet republics. Not only lawyers for oil and gas companies, but engineers and construction firms, art galleries and advertising agencies.

The population of metropolitan Istanbul exceeds 15 million, according to 2020 estimates. In 1950, the area was home to fewer than one million people. The city’s population has nearly quadrupled since 1980, making Istanbul one of the world’s most populous cities—but not for the first time. In the fifth century and again in the seventeenth, it was one of the largest and most powerful cities in the world, with dominion that stretched from Algiers to Baghdad to Budapest. That sense of no longer being the center of things pervades the older, central parts of Istanbul. It’s a particular kind of saudade that can seep into the capitals of former empires, like St. Petersburg, Vienna or Lisbon. But the palpable nostalgia was probably borne of more immediate concerns. I didn’t know it at the time, but Turkey in the summer of 2001 was also deep into a major financial crisis that both the left and right wings of Turkish politics blamed on the country’s overreliance on foreign investment and neoliberal macroeconomic policies. Looking back, it’s easy to see the rumblings of disquiet that led to Erdoğan’s rise, as he peppered his version of neoliberalism with populism, nationalism and religiosity while promising a more muscular foreign policy.

Three years before I arrived, Erdoğan was the religious and conservative mayor of secular and liberal Istanbul. He was charismatic, grew up in a poor neighborhood selling lemonade and simit in the streets and represented a new generation in Turkish politics, which had long been dominated by the military elite. But his political party flirted with Islamism and was therefore banned by the Constitutional Court, which fiercely upheld the separation of religion and politics instituted by Atatürk. In 1997, Mayor Erdoğan recited a poem from an early twentieth century nationalist poet that included a line translated as “The mosques are our barracks, the domes our helmets, the minarets our bayonets and the faithful our soldiers….” The courts interpreted this act as an incitement of religious hatred. In 1998, the mayor was convicted and resigned his position, and the next year, he was imprisoned for four months. After helping to form a new political party, he served as prime minister from 2003 to 2014. He continues to rule the country since his 2014 election as president.

For my job as a travel writer, I was supposed to be incognito, pretending to be any other backpacker and moving around from hostel to hostel to compare their prices, cleanliness and customer service. But that didn’t last long. Within a few days, I figured out which hostel was the best and moved in. I quickly made friends with the staff, especially the general manager, a Romanian man named Danutz—he went by the more tourist-friendly nickname Dan—who had been living in Istanbul for more than a decade. Dan had come to Istanbul as an economic migrant from Romania in the early ’90s, fleeing the punishing program of post-revolution privatization that led to severe austerity, inflation and unemployment. His journey reminded me of so many immigrant stories I grew up with in the US: he had a degree and used to have a good job managing a factory outside of Bucharest; he didn’t speak a word of Turkish when he arrived and started out cleaning toilets in a hostel. With hard work—plus his fluency in English and French—he quickly climbed the ranks at the hostel and made a life for himself in Istanbul. He met a young Romanian woman on holiday with her friends, and she stayed in Istanbul to marry him; their baby daughter brought delight to everyone who passed through the place. I was there when she had her first birthday, and Dan and his wife prepared all manner of Romanian delicacies and invited their friends, mostly migrants from Romania and Bulgaria, plus some of the hostel’s Turkish staff, who spent the afternoon laughing and arguing about which Black Sea country made the best feta. Dan would not countenance any possibility other than the absolute superiority of Romania’s product.

My friend was devoutly nationalistic and confessed to me on more than one occasion that he felt great shame for not living in Romania. He was not religious, but he told me he wanted to swear in a church that he would return. A few weeks into my stay, a young Canadian medical student with Romanian parents showed up at the hostel. Dan recognized his roots immediately and asked him, point blank, “If your country needs you, are you willing to fight for your country?” He was crestfallen to hear the man’s honest answer: “If Romania needs doctors, of course, but I wouldn’t go to war for Romania. Hell, I wouldn’t even go to war for Canada.”

Dan spared me this tenor of shaming, but he pressed me on why I didn’t identify with what he called my “motherland.” Why would I claim to be American, given my Pakistani mother and Muslim name? “I’ve never lived in Pakistan,” I would tell him. “I was born in the US.” Still, he would protest my choice of allegiance: he seemed to say, you can live in America, but you’re not from there; even if you raise your kids there, America is not your mother.

In an email to my own mother, I described my newfound affection for the city: “it’s like Paris and Karachi had a child.” I had grown up fortunate to visit both, but Istanbul is more ancestor than progeny, developing ideas about urban design that have influenced European and Muslim civilizations from Berlin to Baku. To be sure, the Beaux Arts buildings and boulevards in the city’s central precincts signal the fact that the eighteenth and nineteenth century Ottoman elite equated French architectural traditions with progress and modernity. And, of course, the rapid proliferation of vast concrete towers alongside low-rise squatter settlements built by their inhabitants echoes the speed of both formal and informal housing production in the growing peripheries of any Asian megacity today. Beneath the tension these twin influences exert are the extant layers of earlier cultural forces; some from grand and imperial gestures, many more from the constant accretion of humble acts of migration and adaptation.

During my first couple weeks, I visited dozens of youth hostels, cheap hotels, restaurants and bars, making sure that places were still open and that the information we had on pricing and quality was accurate. I was soon finished with the old city and began to wander further afield. As the weeks wore on, I grew tired of hanging out with only backpackers and the locals who poured them beer. I fell in with a group of young activists around my age who were pursuing advanced degrees while playing in a band and dreaming of starting a circus. We would meet on a particular small street off of Istiklal lined with fish restaurants and a few outdoor bars. We’d smoke and drink Efes beer and debate the merits of socialist versus anarchist critiques of capitalism and the need for the Turkish music scene to recognize the importance of hip-hop. We’d practice juggling in the street. We’d wander far-flung neighborhoods. They had all spent the previous couple of years volunteering with various recovery efforts after the devastating 1999 earthquake in the nearby city of Izmit. One of them worked in social services for a struggling Romani community facing eviction and the demolition of their homes in Küçükbakkalköy. I wanted to see it, but without any Turkish, I couldn’t be of much help, so I offered to take photographs as he did his rounds. Observing the combination of such staggering deprivation and creative innovation in creating homes from scrap metal and baked mud continues to influence my research and work on informal housing around the world. But at the time, I was simply honored that, through these friends, I gained access to a side of Istanbul the readers of the guidebook I was working on would never see.

Even the Turkish word for informal settlement poetically conjures the specificity of urban poverty in Turkey. What English speakers variously call slums, squatter settlements or informal housing are “gecekondu” in Turkish. The word literally means “built overnight,” allowing those who claimed land under the cover of darkness to retain it, even without officially acquiring ownership. Ottoman land laws considered most land to be public, and that tradition was never fully “modernized” by the Turkish state, which meant gecekondu settlements were more or less tolerated by the government in the second half of the twentieth century. They emerged in response to the industrialization of Turkish cities after the Second World War, and the need to accommodate a wave of low-wage workers migrating from the countryside outweighed any incentive to regulate them. In fact, local affiliates of national political parties often connected certain settlements to electricity, water and road systems in order to secure residents’ votes.

Five years later, I returned to Istanbul with a different gig. I had been commissioned by the Venice Architecture Biennale to create a series of short videos about 16 large cities around the world, and I was happy to see that Istanbul was on the list. In 2006, the Biennale turned its attention away from the jewel-box architecture of previous exhibitions and fixed its gaze on cities. I solicited unedited footage from artists in each city. Then, I edited selections into a montage that included archival footage from each city’s past and, when necessary, supplemented them with some of my original footage. Editing the Istanbul video presented challenges precisely because the city’s built environment is so aesthetically pleasing. The beauty of the images threatened to elide the city’s inequalities by turning the video into a meditation on light and shadow rather than mobility or density. In the end, my solution was to arrange the sequences spatially, to make the video a journey from the periphery to the center. Aestheticizing Istanbul is difficult to avoid.

Brooklyn Park under construction. Istanbul. 2015. Photograph by Cassim Shepard.

A more pernicious type of aestheticizing was already underway. The Justice and Development Party, or AKP—the conservative party that Erdoğan co-founded in 2001—started winning elections in 2002. The party’s platform integrated pro-market neoliberalism with a greater deference to Muslim religious leaders and practices than had been tolerated under Turkey’s once-strictly enforced secularism. In Istanbul, AKP policies manifested themselves in a commitment to large infrastructure and urban transformation projects with an eye to attracting foreign investment and bolstering economic growth. In the housing sector, the handshake deals that governed land rights in the gecekondu settlements were replaced by aggressive attempts to bring the land that housed the majority of the urban poor into consolidated ownership. Because the ownership status of these areas was never fully legalized, the redevelopment of the land—referred to as “aesthetic sanitizing”—was inexpensive and could be efficiently transferred to private developers. There were attempts at rehousing residents in higher-density apartment buildings—branded with the awkward portmanteau of apartkondu—but the scale of the redevelopment led to massive displacement.

In the transit and infrastructure sector, plans began for a third bridge over the Bosporus and a new commuter rail line, called the Marmaray, to run under the strait. The construction of the Marmaray had to be halted when a construction crew boring the tunnel unearthed an epic archaeological find: the Byzantine port of Theodosius, which had silted over centuries prior, including the remains of over 35 Byzantine ships from the 7th to 10th centuries. Further digs uncovered the oldest signs of settlement in what is now Istanbul, fragments of pottery and human remains dating to 6000 BCE. Erdoğan, by now prime minister and a major proponent of the project, was unimpressed: “Three to five pots and pans delayed the Marmaray for four years; isn’t that a pity?”

The urban transformation projects continued, justifying the forced displacement of Istanbul’s poor by often co-opting preservation laws intended to safeguard cultural heritage and natural habitats or building regulations intended to mitigate earthquake risk. It’s not just gecekondu residents who were at risk; the government’s thirst for directing capital into real estate markets led to the state-sponsored gentrification of neighborhoods that were not otherwise experiencing market pressure on rents. Countless new shopping malls were built, not only in tony suburbs with proliferating gated communities, but in some of the oldest parts of the city. Plans for a new mall on Istiklal Avenue that would destroy Gezi Park, the only public green space in the area, sparked a large protest movement in 2013. Demonstrations against the destruction of the park soon grew to encompass a range of grievances. The expropriation of public land for private profit became a symbol for the belief that government was corrupt, that neoliberal policies had widened inequality, and that 10 years was too long for Erdoğan to have been in power.

My most recent trip to Istanbul was in 2015. I was writing a book about New York City at the time, and I wanted to spend some time in the city that had motivated me to pursue a life studying, interpreting and teaching urbanism. My friends’ activist spirit was undimmed. Some of them were married and comfortably settled on the Asian side, where rents were still cheaper. All of them had been on the front lines of the Gezi Park protests. It was not about a park, they told me; it was about the brutality of the riot police and a regime that prioritized profit over democracy and the rule of law. Construction and growth at any cost were the hallmarks of the Erdoğan regime, paired with his reorientation of Turkish foreign policy toward regional interference in former Ottoman colonies, especially Syria. They quizzed me about Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, and we fell into familiar patterns of boozy debates over the best way to counter the excesses of capitalism.

I took a long walk through the neighborhood of Fikirtepe with two old friends, one of whom, like me, had become an urban planner. Fikirtepe, on the Asian side, had been a solid working-class district of modest homes, auto body shops and a few small factories. Now it was midway through a major urban transformation that promised to turn it into an upmarket residential neighborhood. New luxury towers hovered over piles of wreckage where houses once stood. There were cranes everywhere, but none were moving or hauling. Whatever construction was going on seemed to have been abruptly halted. I had to laugh when we passed a barrier protecting an enormous vacant lot, not yet cleared of its demolition debris, with a huge sign promoting the new development: “Brooklyn Park.” Even some of the destruction seemed to have paused midway through. (I would later learn that this cycle of eviction, demolition and construction, punctuated by long delays, would continue for years as lawsuits by evicted families made their way through the courts, the luxury buildings failed to attract tenants and foreign creditors ran scared. The construction boom, paid for with foreign credit, brought heavy private-sector debt that made several building projects financially untenable.)

But there were signs of life amid the abandonment. The smell of meat cooking on an open flame. Laundry hanging from a line. While long-standing residents had been evicted to make way for these redevelopments, new families from Syria were taking advantage of the skeletal remains of shelter. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, almost four million Syrian refugees have arrived in Turkey, more than any other country. Some cross overland into Bulgaria or Greece. Others pay smugglers to get them on a boat across the Mediterranean to Italy. Many more stay, especially those who have found their way to large cities like Istanbul.

My friends and I tried to chat with a group of young boys playing in the neighborhood’s remains, but they spoke only Arabic. We watched them climb a mountain of construction rubble and launch imaginary rockets, framed by gleaming yet menacing new luxury towers that would never be fully occupied. At their gestured request, I took their portrait with Istanbul’s transformed skyline behind them, proudly ascending the summit of wreckage, ready to add something new to this old city.


Cassim Shepard

Cassim Shepard writes and makes films about cities and places. He is the author of Citymakers: The Culture and Craft of Practical Urbanism (2017) and is currently working on a book about informal housing around the world, supported by fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the MacDowell Colony.

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