The ancient city of Istanbul straddles the Bosphorus strait, being the meeting point of the European and Asian continents. Once the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, this transcontinental city breathes history and culture. Visiting it is like opening the oldest dustiest history book and getting lost in its captivating pages. Every part of it reflects the civilizations that have populated its land and left their mark over the ages.
The European and Asian cultures collide in this unique city that has witnessed centuries of fascinating history. And it is history that holds the answer to how Istanbul became a place of such great cultural diversity. The city was founded by the Greeks under the name of Byzantium, around 660 BC. After it became part of the Roman Empire, in the 4th century AD, the city was renamed Constantinople by the first Christian Roman Emperor, Constantine. In 1453 it was conquered by the Ottoman Sultan Muhamad Al-Fatih (Mehmet the Conqueror) and it became the capital of the Ottoman Empire, known as Istanbul. Sultan Mehmet had great plans for the city. The Christians who fled during the siege were called back and Muslims, Jews and Christians from different areas of Anatolia were brought into the city. He also welcomed into the capital people from all over Europe, creating a cosmopolite environment that ensured religious freedom and tolerance between the many cultures and communities. That acceptance of diversity and the harmony that was established can also be felt nowadays.
The mix of cultures is probably best reflected in Istanbul’s historic buildings and Hagia Sophia is the best example. Initially a Greek Orthodox basilica, it was later converted into an Ottoman mosque and today it serves as a museum, open for everyone who wants to marvel at its splendour. It’s a breathtaking architectural masterpiece wrapped in the fascinating atmosphere of a glorious history. Right across from Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, another architectural gem, offers a sight just as impressive.
There are many other historic sites that attest to the cultural diversity of the city, such as the famous Roman Valens Aqueduct that served as a water-providing system during all three Empires or the Byzantine Hippodrome that was used for chariot races.
As you wander around the city, you’ll see thousands of mosques, but also churches and synagogues. The cultural blend is also present in everyday life. The streets are crowded with people wearing traditional Hijabs, colourful headscarves and western clothes. The city’s Islamic roots are ever-present, but so is the tolerance for western culture and lifestyle.
The traditional Turkish bazaars also offer some interesting contrasts. Among the many oriental shops filled with the smell of teas and spices, there are numerous modern western shops. The mix of old and new is quite striking.
Istanbul is not a city divided by the European and Asian influences. It’s a place where diversity is harmoniously embraced in a sense of tolerance and acceptance and that’s exactly what gives the city its unique character.