About Art in Istanbul
Too often Istanbul is boiled down to the trite description of "where East meets West." But dig a little deeper and you will see that this bipolar term does not do justice to the vibrant and unique culture of this city. The Turkish are notoriously proud of their warm and ornate culture and if you ask any local to sum up Istanbul and they will tell you that this is not an amalgamation of Eastern and Western values, but that it is simply "I-STAN-bul" - its own place, with its own distinct identity, and an increasingly vibrant art scene.
Home to Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Kurds; once a seat of world power, then self-conscious decline and now cultural and economic rebirth - Istanbul is, well.....complicated. It is rapidly changing, yet stubbornly clinging to its long and complicated past. It is both a world-renowned cultural classic with historical roots dating back thousands of years, and an cutting-edge contender set to rival the modern art (and economic) heavyweights to the north in Europe.
Palaces and photography exhibitions; street art and Sultahnamet; Biennials and Byzantine ruins - Istanbul has it all. The cultural encounters you will have - whether in the impressive Istanbul Museum of Modern Art, or a tiny cafe tucked away in the snaking alleys around Taksim Square - will give you a taste of the uniqueness of this place, which is not "East" or "West," but simply the one and only Istanbul.
Turks are a friendly bunch and, like many predominantly Muslim countries, consider visitors a "gift from God." You won't soon forget their gracious hospitality and maybe - just maybe - you will take some of that generous warmth back to your home country.
If you are lucky enough to get invited to a meal at a local's house, be sure to bring a gift (typically sweets; major kudos if you've pre-planned and packed something from home).
Hm, where to start? Istanbul has been continually inhabited for at least 8,000 years, making it one of the longest-running human settlements still in existence. Like a half-Asian trophy wife, this fair city was habitually fought over by powerful foreign men. Unlike a half-Asian trophy wife, this city owns some seriously prime real estate and has an extremely rich and complicated history.
A ridiculously brief synopsis of Istanbul's labyrinthine history follows. Originally belonging to the ancient Greeks, Byzantion, as it was originally known, fell to the Roman emperor Septimius Severus in 196 A.D. A relatively short time later, in 330, Constantine the Great swooped in, renaming the coveted port town after - who else? - himself. Constantinople was established as the capital of the eastern Roman empire. Despite several hundred years of invasions by Arabs, Persians and Avars, along with periodic revolts, earthquakes and fires (not to mention a few decades of harsh rule by those pesky Crusaders), Byzantine culture managed to survive. After several failed Ottoman attempts to take the city, Sultan Mehmet II finally took Constantinople in 1453. It wasn't for another nearly 500 years that it officially became Istanbul, not Constantinople, with the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923.
Politics & Economy
Istanbul is a political town and no local over the age of 12 is ever at a loss of words when it comes to politics. The current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a divisive figure that is either turning Turkey into the "next Iran" or breathing new life into the glorious Turkish Republic, depending on who you ask. Politics is an incredibly fraught topic for any Turk, which is no surprise considering their country has continually survived military coups, deep corruption and Hollywood script-worthy political intrigue (see: Deep State crisis and the "Sledgehammer" plot) since the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923 by Ataturk, a national hero. While Turkey is often lauded by international policy wonks as the shining example for secular democracy in a Muslim state (it is a parliamentary representative democracy), the reality on the ground is much more complicated.
Istanbul is the beating economic heart of the country, generating over 20% of national GDP. It is the financial center of Turkey and home to both domestic and international banks and corporations. It is also the country's industrial center, with cotton, fruit, olive oil and silk manufacturing plants dotting the city and its surrounding sprawl. Not surprisingly, Istanbul is the center of trade for Turkey and tourism also comprises a significant part of the local and national economy.
Orhan Pamuk, Turkish novelist; won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006.
Mehmet Okur, first Turkish NBA champion (Detroit Pistons, 2004).
St. Nicholas. That's right, Santa Claus was born in Patara, part of present-day Turkey, circa 280.
The Topkapi Palace is consistently teeming with crowds, but worth the requisite jostling with cruise shippers to experience the grandeur and glory of the Ottomans in their heyday. Ladies, sharpen up your elbows to get a prime view of the Spoonmaker's Diamond - a 86 karat stunna' that your man would totally get you, if he was, you know, working harder and a Sultan and stuff.
Istanbul Museum of Modern Art - Located right on the water in Karakoy, the up-and-coming (but still fairly sketchy) art hub, the city's main modern art museum is growing in notoriety along with the rest of Istanbul, attracting more internationally-minded exhibitions. It offers a well-curated view into Turkey's impressive modern, as well as more traditional, artistic canon. Conveniently located near a hookah garden for post-musuem relaxation and refueling.
-Istanbul Archaeology Museums: These trio of museums is sure to knock your socks off, whether you are a full-on history nerd or not. Istanbul is THE place for archaeology.
Holidays & Festivals
A predominately Muslim country, Turkey's national calendar ticks to the beat of major Muslim holidays, the biggest of which is the Ramadan holiday. Like much of the Muslim world, the city tends to change rhythms during Ramadan, the annual month of fasting, even for those that do not forgo meals between dawn and dusk. Some restaurants close during the day, then open right before the rush of post-dusk to break fast with a hearty meal. Traffic patterns corroborate, so plan ahead during Ramadan, which takes place during different times of the year, according to the lunar calendar. At the end of Ramadan, the whole city rejoices during the festival of Ramazan bayrami, a three day feast.
Turkey has its own set of anticipated national holidays, which mainly commemorate various milestones of the Turkish Republic, and usually involve eating something sweet.
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