ISTANBUL, Turkey — The only city in the world spanning two continents and host to three empires — ancient Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman — celebrated becoming one of three European Capitals of Culture in 2010.

Turkish singers, dancers, poets, dervishes, a choir and a full orchestra serenaded 5,000 politicians, VIPs and journalists in a spectacle intended to underline the city’s multicultural heritage. At the show’s conclusion, guests streamed out into the rain to the strains of the "Ode to Joy" by Beethoven, who was the favorite composer of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. Then all watched a dazzling 15-minute firework display over the Halic Strait.

Turkish Prime Minister Teyyip Erdogan described his hometown, of which he is a former mayor, as “a little bit of Sarajevo, a little bit of Jerusalem. It’s Paris, Vienna, Madrid. It is Baghdad, it is Damascus, it is Amman. But Istanbul is mostly Istanbul.”

Turkey's famous whirling dervishes.
(Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

Stressing the tradition of coexistence between minorities, he described mosques, churches and synagogues resting on the same street.

Reeling from the dissolution of its once-mighty Ottoman Empire, the modern Turkish state was constructed as a majority Muslim country with a history of secularism stressing a Turkish Muslim identity as a building-block toward a republican identity.

But along the way, Turkey persecuted its minorities, Muslim Kurds and non-Muslim Armenians, Greeks and Jews alike. Hundreds of thousands abandoned the fledgling state from the 1920s onwards. Today, tensions continue. The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew, described his existence in Turkey as being "crucified."

But Istanbul 2010 papered over tensions, putting out an alternative message of serene and peaceful coexistence.

“That is the main message they’re trying to give the EU: If you accept us, we can integrate into European society because we live alongside Christians and Jews,” said Ali Murat Yel, a sociologist at Istanbul’s Fatih University. “Even though we’re Turkish Muslims we accommodate others.”

“This was a glitzy affair very different to our more low-profile event,” said a Greek visitor who had been involved in organizing the inauguration of Athens as a European Culture Capital in 1985. “Back then, we invited 150 guests for a modest ceremony, then retired to a tavern for lunch,” he said.

“Istanbul 2010 is selling multiculturalism,” said Marina Drymalitou, a coordinator for the Greek community of Istanbul. “Maybe it was just as well that we weren’t represented so that we wouldn’t become products for consumption.”

Istanbul 2010’s rhetoric focuses on Istanbul’s Christian heritage and a utopian vision of an Ottoman era of peace and tolerance between all of the sultan’s subjects. One promotional video shot from the perspective of a seagull in flight, shows the bird swooping over a city shrouded in fog and mysticism that featured the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate cathedral and several Byzantine churches.

“Noticeably, there is not a single shot of a mosque in this promotional video, though scenes of Byzantine monuments and Roman aqueducts are prominent,” noted Capri Karaca, a doctoral student in anthropology and Turkish studies at the University of Washington, after looking at “Turkey in All Its Colors: Representing Istanbul as a European Capital of Culture 2010.”
In other promotional videos, Istanbul’s distinctively Ottoman mosque architecture is highlighted.

In central Istanbul’s Beyoglu district, banks and restaurants sit cheek-by-jowl with Tarlabasi, a formerly working class Greek neighbourhood settled since the 1970s by Kurdish and gypsy immigrants from Anatolia. At night it becomes a center for heroin dealing and gang fights. Gunshots ring out in its winding alleys. Sitting in a basement bar on a busy avenue on the edge of Tarlabasi, psychologist Murat Yazicioglu shakes a gloomy head over Istanbul 2010.

“We’re not ready for this yet," he said. "They promised to renovate the city but if I took a walk in the backstreets just over the road, I would be robbed, maybe even knifed.”


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