Text Ilona Marx Photos Andi Zimmermann Illustration Roman Klonek
If Istanbul were a woman, she would be a real diva. She would have a majestic beauty and possess immeasurable wealth, but in her moods be somewhat capricious. Sometimes friendly, she would charm everyone with her grace and wit. Sometimes unbearable, she could drive away every admirer, and they would ask themselves whether the lady was not perhaps a little schizoid. The answer to which is yes!
How else can one explain the fact that the city on the banks of the Bosphorus, covering seven hills, has the most beautiful houses to rent while your average Istanbul native doesn't exactly lay down his weary head on a bed of roses? How can somewhere where religious contemplation plays such a cardinal role, also be a place where you fear for your life at rush hour? Does the fact that the city map distinguishes between the Asian and European parts mean that they feel they belong equally to both continents? And how big is the population really – 10 million or 20 million?
No one really seems to know anymore how many people live there. The city doesn't even seem to be very clear of its own identity. That's no real surprise, considering the eventful past of this beautiful lady: the city is almost 3,000 years old and has been conquered and deserted numerous times. As early as the mid-7th century B.C. Istanbul was a flourishing Byzantine Greek colony, when Constantine the Great elevated it to capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire. Constantine's successor Justian and his co-regent, Theodora, refined the city by erecting imposing buildings, the jewel of which is the Hagia Sophia – to this day the most magnificent edifice. In 1453 the end of the Byzantine Empire was nearing: after his victory over the Romans in the East, Muhammad II. Fatih, known as Mehmet the Conqueror, created an Istanbul of Islamic bent.
Today its Islamic past and European present merge to create a fertile, exciting urban mix. It's a bit like Turkish Delight: very sweet, but sometimes also very hard. Everywhere you are offered sweetmeats and tea, but on the other hand you also have to be prepared for a bit of rough treatment in the Hammam, the traditional Turkish steam baths, where the soaping down can be more than enthusiastic. Although famed for their proverbial friendliness, Istanbul citizens can still take you by surprise. You only need to stop and ask for the way, and already you have someone to take you there.
Laisser-faire and commitment go hand in hand in Istanbul. All the different aspects of modern life unify the city in its communities: a vibrant independent scene rubs shoulders with the ultra-orthodox Muslim community, immeasurably expensive villas on the Bosphorus, trendy shopping parades and sleepy little alleyways, in which time seems to have stood still for centuries. Sometimes Istanbul reminds you of one of the Asian metropolises, like Hong Kong or Shenzhen. But one glance at the majestic old buildings towering over the old inner city is enough to remind you of the real origins behind the heterogeneous mien of this city.