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.

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.

The Exploding City

The city hasn't grown -- it has exploded, overrun by a surge of poor immigrants from Anatolia in eastern Turkey and the Black Sea region. Migrant workers have built makeshift houses known as "gecekondus," illegal but tolerated, on Istanbul's fringes and interspersed throughout the city. These shanty towns cover the city like carpets.

The city has granted amnesty to many gecekondus and has even upgraded some of them, while neighborhoods in Istanbul's historic downtown were allowed to fall into disrepair. Istanbul's poor live in neighborhoods like Dolapdere or Tarlabasi, only 10 minutes from Beyoglu: Kurds, Roma and refugees from Iraq, Asia and West Africa live here, eking out a living as day laborers, pickpockets, drug dealers or male prostitutes.

These crowded slums, bleak satellite cities, don't fit into the picture of a shimmering Istanbul, which has previously served as the capital of three different empires.

In some neighborhoods, where lemons are still sold from horse-drawn carts, where the men sit in blackened tea rooms and the women lay out sheepskins to dry on the asphalt, Istanbul seems less of a big city than a collection of Anatolian villages dotted with old palaces, voluminous mosques and glass office towers.

Istanbul is probably the most Western city in the Islamic world. But those who take the trouble to go to the the Fatih neighborhood to pay a visit to the tomb of the conqueror Mehmed II, who brought down Byzantium in 1453, turned churches into mosques and transformed the Christian Constantinople into the Islamic Istanbul, will also discover the city's deeply Islamic side. Here the women wear black, full-length veils, and many men are bearded and wear religious caps and collarless shirts. One small section consisting of a few streets is populated almost entirely by members of a 14th-century Islamic order and has no televisions or alcohol.

But it is not just the tension between religion and the secular republic, between miniskirts and minarets, which characterizes Istanbul. The visible social inequality that plagues Turkey is more readily apparent. Wealth is ostentatiously displayed in the form of expensive cars, yachts and elite clubs like the Reina, which is designed to resemble the deck of a cruise ship. At the other end of the social scale is an entire caste of servants who work as chauffeurs, housekeepers and cooks, carrying groceries from the market and hand-washing the Range Rovers and Jaguars of the rich every day, even in the cold and rain.

Nevertheless, those who employ servants create jobs, though badly paid, and there are possibilities for the poor to become upwardly mobile. Istanbul has a gold rush feel to it, a place where Anatolian cotton porters and scrap dealers can become millionaires, like Haci Ömer Sabanci, whose family-owned holding company is now Turkey's second-largest corporation, or media mogul Aydin Dogan, one of Forbes' 500 richest people in the world.

Those with the ambition to climb the social ladder work as street vendors, selling sesame rings known as simit for 12 to 14 hours a day from three-legged stools which are wrapped in rags to make them less painful to carry on a shoulder. The fortunate ones can bring home 20 lira, about €11, a day. Other workers spend their days hauling bales of material to textile factories or rinsing greasy plates in fish restaurants.

Sinasi Yalçin sits in a jogging suit in front of a steaming glass of tea in the small courtyard of the Culture and Solidarity Club of Istanbul's Karanfilköy district. Already retired at the age of 55, he is one of the lucky ones who managed to make his own fortune.

The son of a mine worker left his home town of Sivas in Anatolia at the age of 17 to try his luck in the big city. He traveled a day and a half by train to Istanbul, his belongings packed into a single suitcase. He had little education apart from a few years spent at the village school. But he was ambitious, and he knew that he needed an education before he could have any kind of future.

At first he slept in parks and scraped by, working as a cleaner and waiter. Then he made a deal with a Jewish orthopedist, getting room and board in return for waxing the floors in the doctor's office at night. He attended school during the day and, after six years, at the age of 23, he finally finished high school.

"Istanbul is a tough city," says Yalçin. "It saps your strength and tries to swallow you up -- but it also gives you a chance." It was a chance that he seized with both hands -- after studying engineering and applied mathematics, Yalçin landed a good job with the city's electric utility.

Karanfilköy is another illegal migrant settlement that managed to escape the city's wrecking ball 10 years ago. Beets and bitter Black Sea cabbage grow in the gardens of the Culture and Solidarity Club, which is fighting to have Karanfilköy and its 537 houses legalized.

Yalçin himself lives in a two-story house, the walls lined with pale yellow imitation wood paneling, and lovingly tends his garden. The constant drone of traffic from a nearby six-lane highway doesn't bother him. "I feel at home here, this is my Istanbul," he says.

'You Can Make Something of Yourself Here'

Former residents of Istanbul who return to the city are amazed at how quickly it has changed. After living in Germany or elsewhere, they are now rediscovering their own country.

Defne Koryürek, 38, and her husband spent five years in New York, where they ran a small restaurant. When she returned nine years ago Koryürek found surprising similarities between the Big Apple and Istanbul. "Both cities are dynamic and full of energy," she says. "You can make something of yourself here. It's up to you whether you want to be part of the whole, and whether you are willing to learn."

Koryürek has tried many things. She studied history and cinematography, and worked as a TV producer until she discovered her love of cooking. When she returned to Istanbul, she brought back recipes for pancakes, quiches and Eggs Benedict from New York. She now runs "Dükkan," an exclusive butcher's shop specializing in dry-aged beef. Juicy, dark cuts of beef dry in a climate-controlled glass cabinet. A label on each cut identifies how many days it's been drying.

As Koryürek fills sausage skins with meat, the door of the shop opens and a hotel chef walks in. He bends over the meat counter and selects the best pieces. Dükkan has become a supplier to Istanbul's five-star restaurants, including the Hilton, the Four Seasons, the Ciragan Palace Kempinski and Les Ottomans, a luxury hotel on the banks of the Bosporus that is bringing the flair of the Ottoman era back to life.

"In this city, you never know what the future will bring, and you have no guarantee of anything," says Koryürek. "Business is going great, but then suddenly the customers stop coming and you have no idea why." Unlike businessmen in the West, says Koryürek, one cannot plan for the long term in Istanbul. "Our customers think in the short-term. They're always hungry for the new."

Koryürek and her partner Emre Mermer, 38, an economist and the son of a cattle farmer, don't even have an official permit for their exclusive shop, which lies in the middle of Küçük Armutlu, a poor gecekondu settlement adjacent to the highway. They chose the spot because the rent was affordable. When they tried to register the company, officials at the city planning office told them the buildings weren't registered -- and so it was impossible to register a business there. Nevertheless, the authorities tolerate Dükkan, and business is booming. That's just the way it goes in Istanbul.

Istanbul is proof that chaos can be productive, but it has also brought the city to the brink of disaster. The daily traffic crisis was declared a national problem long ago. Tens of thousands of houses could collapse when the next earthquake, which has already been predicted, strikes the city.

Hüseyin Kaptan has been hired to save Istanbul. An architecture professor, Kaptan had already retired and moved to the country when the city's mayor begged him to help. The last master plan for the city is already 26 years old, and development spun out of control long ago. Now Kaptan's task is to come up with an urban vision for the next 30 years.

Plans, blueprints and sketches are stacked on a large table in the middle of his office. The problems are so gargantuan and construction is continuing at such a rapid pace, says Kaptan, that he feels as if he were "in a tsunami." At 71, he had hoped to quietly live out his days as a farmer.

The city wants Kaptan to put a stop to its growth. "We could open the doors tomorrow for a million new jobs, but we couldn't cope with it," he says. If development continues at the current pace, says Kaptan, Istanbul's population could easily swell to between 20 and 25 million in the next 20 years. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently called for a limit not just on the number of cars in Istanbul, but also on the number of new residents.

Planners want to cap Istanbul's population at 16 million. To do so, they plan to divert migration into the nearby region along the Sea of Marmara. They also plan to upgrade Istanbul's Asian districts, currently home to hundreds of thousands of people who commute to jobs in office buildings on the European side. Kaptan's idea is to transform Istanbul's economy from low-wage manufacturing to high-value service industries. Thirty-two percent of the city's work force now works in industrial production. If Kaptan and his team have their way, that number will be cut in half in the next two decades. To achieve that goal, entire districts are slated for demolition.

A part of Turkey's textile industry is located in Zeytinburnu, which with its 300,000 inhabitants is practically a small city itself. Workers cut, sew, iron and pack garments in more than 15,000 workshops in Zeytinburnu's basements and courtyards. The area's former leather tanneries, with their polluting waste water, have already been moved to Istanbul's eastern outskirts. Drawings of the new Zeytinburnu are spread out on Kaptan's desk: light-filled apartment buildings reminiscent of modernist Bauhaus designs, complete with shopping centers, playgrounds and parks.

Many mistakes were made in the past decades. Buildings were not designed to be earthquake-proof. The old section of Istanbul -- the historic peninsula where the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar are located -- was neglected and is now sorely in need of repair and renovation. Politicians have placed too much emphasis on the automobile as the primary means of transportation, and Istanbul has only a very small and underdeveloped subway system. They also allowed the metropolis to sprawl into the city's water catchment area and forests to the north and east -- a development Kaptan calls "criminal."

Stuck Between Remembering and Amnesia

Now, in the search for a better quality of life and living conditions, something downtown Istanbul can no longer offer, many of the city's affluent residents are being lured out toward the Black Sea, where luxury gated communities are springing up like independent planets.

Göktürk, located about 25 kilometers (16 miles) as the crow flies from downtown Istanbul, has turned in the space of a decade from a village into a satellite city for between 6,000 and 8,000 Istanbulites. Here life is green and pleasant and the bustle of Istanbul seems far away. For several thousand dollars, residents can join the exclusive Kemer Golf and Country Club, complete with golf courses, a manmade lake, stables, a music school, tennis courts, gyms and even an outdoor survival camp.

This is something that more and more Istanbulites can afford, and not just the established upper class. The recent economic boom has produced a new middle class who are intent on showing off their newfound affluence. To serve this new market, international fashion and luxury goods retailers, including Vakko, Harvey Nichols, Ferragamo, Fendi and Louis Vuitton, are coming to Istanbul.

Istanbul's traditional shopping street, Istiklal Caddesi, is lined with colorful little banners that read: "Istanbul, European Capital of Culture 2010." According to the European jury, the city's application for the one-year honorary title was especially "progressive and innovative." Istanbul hopes to make 2010 a magical year for the city, complete with dazzling events for tourists, European creative artists, street theater, floating platforms on the Bosporus and a trip back in time through 7,000 years of history. Dilapidated historical monuments are now being restored, including those from the city's Christian and pre-Christian eras.

"We see the title as an opportunity to recapture the lost, old Istanbul," says Nuri Çolakoglu, the chairman of the 2010 initiative. "We want to show how deep the cultural roots we share with Europe are."

Author Elif Shafak called Istanbul the "stepchild of the modern, secular Turkish republic." With its multicultural heritage, especially of Greeks and Armenians, Christians, Muslims and Jews, it resisted the young republic's myth that all were equal and members of a homogeneous family of proud Turks. Nevertheless, says Shafak, Istanbul still doesn't know exactly where it belongs. "It swings back and forth between cosmopolitanism and nationalism, between remembering and amnesia" -- a city on two continents, between Europe and Asia.

It is now evening in Kagan Gürsel's wooden palace on the Bosporus. The veranda offers a view of the bridge across the Bosporus, on which drivers heading west are greeted by a sign that reads: "Welcome to Europe." There is also a view of the fortress of Rumeli Hisari, from which Mehmed the Conqueror launched his attack on Istanbul in 1453.

Gürsel, the hotelier, studied in the United States and always wanted his country to be part of Europe. But now he is disappointed. "Why should I run after someone who doesn't want me?" he asks irritably.

Just as the Gürsels are making themselves comfortable in the library, where they like to pore over thick volumes on Ottoman history, their house is suddenly plunged into darkness. The power is out once again, another feature of life in Istanbul. And, like most residents, the Gürsels have candles at the ready.

Five minutes later, the bridge and the fortress are brightly lit up once again. Ships glide by on the Bosporus like giant shadows. The beauty of the Bosporus turns satiny black at night, and Kagan Gürsel says that he would not want to live anywhere else but in the center of Istanbul.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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