A City By Any Other Name

The name of Istanbul comes from the Greek for “in or to the city.” Throughout most of its history, Turkey’s largest city and the former capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires has been The One and Only City (how ya like them apples, Noo Yawk?). And with over 12 million people within city limits that straddle two continents, it’s impossible to even get a passing understanding of a culture nearly three millennia in the making.

Despite being in Istanbul (née Byzantium, followed by Nova Roma, Constantinople, then its current nom de guerre et plume) for a week, I chilled mostly at coffee shops in the European side’s 19th century districts sipping Turkish tea and trying to write and stay dry in intermittently rainy weather. I barely scratched the surface of the Old City, but when I did, crossing the Golden Horn at sunset amidst thousands of Turks in the streets celebrating the end of Ramadan, swarms of ferries steaming up and down the channel, and stately minarets lording over lands as far as the eye could see, I felt, for a brief second, the constant bustle and flow of what was, barely even a century ago, still the world’s most important crossroads.

I know some Catholic churches in Latin America with a lock on reminding sleeping sinners that they should have their butts in the pews on Sunday morning, but the five daily prayers at the hundreds of mosques in the city ain’t no joke:

Indeed, not knowing the language proved to be a hindrance, because even though many people know some English, it’s pretty hard to connect with folk when grunts and pantomimes are the sole method of communication. At least Turkish, a non-Indo-European language (meaning it’s very hard for English speakers), uses a phonetic spelling and a recognizable Roman alphabet. I don’t know how the hell I’m going to get by in Egypt (here’s hoping a few decades of British colonial control have worked their linguistic hoodoo in my favor). I didn’t get a general concensus on Turkey’s accession to the European Union or public opinion about the relatively conservative current government or Kurdish nationalism. Hell, I could barely order a meatball dinner (köfte menü, I finally mastered). But I did get the sense that Istanbul reveals her true self at her own leisure, and that she must be courted before she lifts the veil.

Guess which moment I get thrown against the seat back in front of me:

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5 thoughts on “A City By Any Other Name

  1. But why oh why did you not choose to stay among the umpteen hotels/hostels around Sultanahmet? There's something authentic about that area that the European party district doesn't… something that remains from eras gone by. Did you manage to go for one of the Dervish shows held at the cultural centre? Mesmerising!Somehow I didn't find the language issue that frustrating. Places like Istanbul are meant to be felt, not necessarily understood literally. And the food's divine there. Where to, next? :)

  2. i'd never heard of istanbul coming from greek for "to the city" but as a direct turkish translation of "constantinople". see also: iskenderun [formerly alexandretta], edirne [formerly adrianople], izmir [formerly smyrna].ja, turkish is, in some ways, harder on indo-european ears, but it's far easier to muck through it than either magyar [hungarian], finnish, or estonian … which are all in the same language family as turkish. turkish is nearly alone in this language family for not having speakers with a high suicide rate.by the way, if you know the arabic or especially greek word for a food, being able to pull it off in turkish wouldn't be that difficult. i see on crackbook, people were suggesting that you pick up turkish for dummies [and now arabic for dummies, since you're in egypt presently], for the very little things… it's a good idea.it's a shame you didn't set up a meet with anyone via couchsurfing or somesuch site — the iftars at the end of each day of ramadan would have been a *great* way to learn a lot about the city, and a bit of turkish. [i actually learned a bit of somali this year during ramadan.]being in a muslim city at eid-al-fitr is amazing, and highly recommended. much partying accompanied by very little alcohol — my kind of party. while cape town has a large muslim community, next year i plan on being in dakar, ouagadougou or dar es salaam at the end of ramadan.

  3. Istanbul is one of my favourite cities. I lived there for a year when I was in highschool. MY school back in the states sent me there because well I studied Turkish(most students didn’t at the time). Not that many African Americans goto Turkey, but if they did they would be warmly welcomed. I think Turkey is extremely black friendly. Its similar to China in that aspect too.(exception is HongKong)… I am hoping to go back to Turkey someday maybe start a coffee shop. That’ll be my retirement plan.

    • @Kuzotz: WOW…your high school had TURKISH??!! Mine barely had Spanish classes, and that was only because people had to take two years of a foreign language to graduate. I had no problems being black in Istanbul, and actually had a good time at the two clubs I went to. I’d like to see more of the country, especially the coast, the next time around. Thanks for stopping thru!

  4. My wife and I just came back from Istanbul and we had a great time. The people there were extremely friendly and helpfully. We stayed in the Beyoğlu area and saw alot of the city during our stay

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