John Sharp’s Thoughts on Istanbul – Portrait of a City

Paul Lawrence lived for several years in Istanbul and is, therefore, ideally placed to paint a portrait of this most fascinating of cities. SUES benefited from his knowledge and insight at our last meeting, when he made a compelling presentation, backed up with well-chosen photographs and informative maps.

Istanbul has a long history, starting its life as Byzantium and becoming Constantinople when the Roman Emperor, Constantine, made it his capital. For many centuries it was the centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, lasting long after its counterpart in the West fell. In 1453 it was conquered by the Ottomans and given its modern name: a great Christian city now became Muslim. The Ottoman Empire at its greatest extent included all of what we now call the Middle East, the Balkans area of Europe and much of North Africa. It lasted until the twentieth century, when defeat in the First World War led to the loss of much of its territory and the creation of the modern Republic of Turkey.

The old city of Istanbul is situated on a peninsula, giving it a strong defensive position, reaching out to the Bosphorus, a key link between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. It has now grown to a great metropolis of 15 million or more inhabitants.

The founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk, who moved the capital to Ankara, wanted to create a modern, secular, forward-looking state, and he was successful in giving the country a more Western orientation. However, Istanbul, located where Europe meets Asia, has always looked East as well as West, and strong Islamic sentiments have persisted. The present regime of Tayyip Erdogan has responded to these by reintroducing or reinforcing much traditional practice. He has also been able to reduce the ability of the army to maintain, as it has in the past, the Ataturk legacy.

I visited Istanbul about twenty years ago and found it a most absorbing experience.  A city with such a long and complex history always has much to show, though relics of the Christian era are thinner on the ground than the mosques, some of which are truly magnificent. The great Ottoman palaces are also worth seeing, and as in many Middle Eastern cities, much interest is obtained by simply walking through the streets. It was amusing to be, for the only time in my life, a millionaire, as the inflated currency meant that one carried several millions in one’s wallet for everyday expenses! Another extraordinary thing was that it was the season for the circumcision of young boys, and far from being simply an ominous event, it was celebrated with balloons, cards, presents etc.! We also were able to take a boat trip along the Bosphorus, and at the end of the visit crossed to Asia to take a train on what was the old Berlin-Baghdad railway to tour Asia Minor.

Paul Lawrence’s presentation helped to revive memories of days in Istanbul and perhaps will have tempted others to consider a visit.  Once again SUES was fortunate in having a lecture of such high quality.


City of faith,

Faiths, I should say,

Greek pagan, Christian devout,

Muslim militant.


You must know the truth


Having seen so much,

Weathered so much.


If anybody does,

You must know

Where truth lies;


But you look like us,

Just like us,

Mired in humanity,


Like any faith.


(This short poem inspired by Paul Lawrence’s talk should only be taken as a personal view!)


John Sharp

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