An emblematic and grandiose metropolis, Istanbul lives at a crossroads. As Turkey in general, divided between secularism and Islam, tradition and modernity, it still doesn't know which way to go
The cold is so cold around the Bosphorus Strait that we would not be surprised if we were still treated to a completely snowy Istanbul as we had only appreciated on posters and postcards.
Indifferent to the icy wind, dozens of fishermen coexist leaning on the Galata bridge and attentive to the lines dipped in the Golden Horn.
Without expecting it, countless muezzins they activate their sacred voices and create a diffuse call to new prayer that is far from pleasing all Istanbulites, whether Muslim or not. The most attentive international press even reported that the dissonance of some of the religious singers was such that certain residents got used to using ear plugs and filed complaints with the competent religious authorities. These launched a special program to fine-tune those responsible, which alleviated the problem.
Like Turkey, and thanks to the ideological force of founder Kemal Atatürk's reforms, Istanbul is still officially secular. Even though in the overwhelming Muslim majority, its huge urban population – rivals London for the title of the largest in Europe – has many believers of other faiths, as well as atheists and agnostics. On the political spectrum, it is divided mainly between Kemalists – the followers of Atatürk's reforms – and Islamists.
The abolition of the calls that we hear echoing five times a day from the countless minarets of the city would not do a good part of the first ones.
But Tayyip Erdogan, Istanbul's former mayor, now hotly contested but still all-powerful Turkey's president, is an outspoken Sunni and supporter of Islam's guiding role in the nation's life, something the army has also been opposing.
Among other offenses, Erdogan was accused of anti-Semitism, corruption, manipulation of elections, despotism and media censorship. From several attempts to stifle freedom of communication and press, the recent case of the social network Twitter stood out, which prevailed because Google offered the Turks a free DNS server, whose code 22.214.171.124 was graffitied on the city walls by angry residents with the arrogance of the president.
On the other side of the bridge and the strait, we heard a local guide praising the merits of Istanbul to a Spanish group: “My friends, forgive me for being bold, I know Iberia has an unbelievable civilization and incredible cities but don't take me it would be bad if I confess to you that there is no city in Europe as grand as this one”. In their visitors' etiquette, the Spaniards remain silent, consent and follow their way to the peninsula full of monuments and history that we came from.
Night falls in three times. On the advice of Ari, an equally or more proud colleague who supported us in our wanderings, we pointed to the Galata neighborhood. We went up steep streets and stairs and entered the homonymous tower, where he assured us that we would have a divine meal, enlivened by a traditional Turkish variety show.
Energetic drummers open it, but the audience only goes wild when a belly dancer comes into action far more naked, seductive and contagious than most young Islamists who, like President Erdogan, continue to try to circumvent the constitutional ban. Turkish use of chador. Consistent with his conservative positions, Erdogan made a point of declaring recently at a feminist conference in Istanbul that women can never be treated like men. And he accused most of the audience of rejecting motherhood.
The highest structure in the city when it was built by the Genoese, in 1348, the Galata tower began to be used by the Ottomans, from the mid-XNUMXth century, to detect fires between the houses below. Like all those who access the conical top, we don't leave you without appreciating the lights that dot Istanbul and its reflection in the darkened waters of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus.
The next day dawns with more pleasant weather. We took the opportunity to explore the area between the neighborhoods of Topkapi, Unkapani and Yenikapi, which concentrates the most sumptuous historical and cultural heritage in the city.
At the hippodrome, we struggled to decipher some of the hieroglyphs carved on the Obelisk of Theodosius that once adorned the Egyptian temple of Karnak. We converted to the gray grandeur of the mosque and also to that of another sultan, Ahmed.
From the top of this blue mosque, the view over the Basilica of Hagia Sophia, which the Byzantine Emperor Justinian aspired to be the most striking monument in the world, which should surpass the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, delights us.
With an entrance nearby, we let ourselves get lost among the Corinthian columns of the underground cistern of Yerebatan and look into the eyes of the jellyfish heads that support two of them, without, as the myth claims, turning us to stone.
In Topkapi Palace, we covered a large part of the history of the Ottoman dynasty, who ruled vast territories on three different continents for 600 years.
We do not shy away from another of the customs of those who are discovering Istanbul: the visit to the Byzantine fortress of Rumeli, followed by the road crossing of the Mehmet Bridge that links Europe to Asia.
Along the way, aboard a mini-bus full of passengers of various nationalities, nobody gets away with showing a traditional singing from their country. With the Old World already behind us and some quiet time, the analogy that Erdogan and, whether you agree or not, the Turks in general also abandoned the opportunity to join the European Union family, due to the policies and rigid ideologies of the current leader.
In 2010, Turkish authorities closed their ports to Cypriot vessels. They have been disrespecting basic civil rights such as freedom in the most different ways. They are slow to act on discrimination against homosexuals, torture in prisons, forced marriages and violence against women, among other issues that not even the most open-minded Eurocrats would ever give in to accept what, overwhelmingly Muslim, would pass. be the third largest population in the Union.
Back in European Istanbul and now in the company of Ari, he remains committed to surprising us with the richness of Turkish culture. We got on the subway and, after returning to the surface, walked a few minutes to a demure historic building. "Well, let's see what you think of this."
We enter and find a dance hall filled with an esoteric troupe in white mystic costumes. "Have you heard of the dervishes or not?" asks us further Ari, delighted to provide us with the experience.
Lights dim. Soon after, an oriental soundtrack that combines simple percussion, strings, wind instruments and ceremonial voices takes over the hall. It sets the tone so that, in a growing trance, the Sufi dancers develop their countless meditative rotations.
Like the rest of the spectators, we let ourselves be hypnotized by the subtle beauty of those white swirls. Until the spiritual storm ends and we are thrown back into the night ice of multifaceted Istanbul.