The Muslim World's Most Modern City Miniskirts Meet Minarets in the New Istanbul

Istanbul, the engine of Turkey's economy, has been reinventing itself for centuries. Now the city's elite is embracing the country's Ottoman past, while the poor dream of ascending the social ladder -- and urban planners simply try to keep the metropolis functioning.

By in Istanbul

Kagan Gürsel's daily commute to work is one of the highlights of his day. The 47-year-old Istanbul entrepreneur doesn't have to worry about the stress of driving, nor is he forced to breathe the exhaust fumes with which millions of cars stuck in Istanbul's never-ending traffic jams pollute the city's air. Gürsel, who runs a hotel chain, goes to work on a boat, crossing the Bosporus twice a day.

The "Esma Sultan," an old yellow and white pilot boat named after a proud daughter of a sultan, chugs steadily through the waves of the Bosporus. Along the way it passes giant container ships, oil tankers from Kazakhstan and a gleaming white cruise liner. "The Bosporus is different every day," enthuses Gürsel. On blue summer days the sea is as smooth as silk, on stormy days the wind and rain turn the water an ominous steel gray, and in freezing temperatures the water is the color of turquoise.

Thirty-two kilometers (20 miles) long and, at its narrowest point, only 660 meters wide (2165 feet), the Bosporus is Istanbul's lifeline. Literature Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk feels the city draws its strength from the Bosporus. "If the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty, the Bosporus sings of life, pleasure and happiness," he writes in his 2003 memoir "Istanbul," a love letter to the city of his birth.

Istanbul's more affluent citizens live directly on the shore or pay a $1,000 premium for an apartment with a view of the Bosporus. Gürsel lives with his wife Merve, an interior designer and former show jumper, in one of Istanbul's most beautiful buildings: an old wooden Ottoman palace on the water in the Asian part of the city.

When Gürsel gets off the boat he has only a few steps to go before reaching the front door of his house and, behind it, a sweeping, curved staircase under a magnificent chandelier. The palatial rooms of his 450-square-meter (4,800-square-foot) house are filled with the splendors of the Ottoman era, when the Turks were still ruled by sultans and controlled the Middle East, the Balkans, North Africa and the Crimean Peninsula, as well as Asia Minor. Built in 1860, the Gürsel's villa was once the home of a princess from Egypt, an Ottoman province at the time.

The new elite is rediscovering old Istanbul's beauty and its historic legacy. In the past, the old wooden houses were neglected and sometimes even demolished or burned down to make room for streets or profitable but soulless concrete apartment blocks. Pamuk talks of a "frenzy to turn Istanbul into a pale, poor second class imitation of a Western city." In those days, the young republic wanted nothing to do with the dilapidated luxury of its Ottoman ancestors.

The Marmara hotel on Taksim Square, which Gürsel, as his father's heir, runs, is one of those much-maligned buildings from the 1970s. But the popular and well-managed property is one of the top addresses in the area. The hotel advertises its "Turkish hospitality and European style," and targets mainly businesspeople, who are now coming to Istanbul in greater numbers. The booming Turkish economy is attracting foreign investors, and Istanbul is the engine of that boom; the city is responsible for more than one-fifth of Turkey's gross domestic product.

From the Marmara, it's only a short walk to the restaurants and bars of Beyoglu, a district where a "little Europe" developed in the 19th century, complete with hotels, banks, theaters and apartments for diplomats and businesspeople. Beyoglu boasts rooftop bars with an excellent view of the Istanbul skyline, palaces and magnificent mosques between the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn. The pulse and energy of this young country, where more than half of the population is under 25, is palpable here.

Every few hours the call of the muezzin cuts through the sound of the techno music, an aural reminder of Istanbul's position as the gateway between East and West. Especially because of its glitzy nightlife, Istanbul is celebrated as the "hip city on the Horn," and as a metropolis between "minarets and miniskirts." Newsweek even went so far as to call Istanbul "one of the coolest cities in the world."

Of course, only part of this vibrating mega-city, with its estimated population of 14 million, is this cool and beautiful. Istanbul's districts are as big as entire cities elsewhere, and there are neighborhoods which even people who have lived here their whole lives have never seen.


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