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Istanbul, the Cultural Center of Turkey

Updated on April 7, 2014

Istanbul is the largest city of the Turkish Republic; formerly the capital of the Ottoman empire and earlier, under the name Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine empire. Istanbul (Turkish, İstanbul) is also the seat of government of the province (il or vilâyet) of the same name. The name (often distorted to Islambol, "Islam abounding") is a popular contraction of Constantinople; it was not officially adopted until 1930.

The original city occupies the triangular, hilly promontory at the southeastern corner of the tongue of land that juts out toward Asia from the Thracian mainland. Bounded on the south by the Sea of Marmara and on the north by the waters of the narrow inlet of the Golden Horn (6 miles, or 10 km, long), it stands at the lower extremity of the Bosporus strait, which separates Europe from Asia and carries the waters of the Black Sea into the Marmara. The modern city has long outgrown these confines and today extends up the Bosporus as far as Sariyer on the European side and to Beykoz on the Asian side, westward to Eyüp in the north and to Küçükçekmece in the south, and along the Asian Marmara, including the cities of Üsküdar, Kadıköy, Moda, and Bostancı, as well as the Princes' Islands.


The population of the city proper in 1975 was 2,534,839, and in the same year the population of the metropolitan area was 3,864,493. By 1996 the population of the city proper was estimated to have increased to 8,203,329. The city is governed by a mayor (belediye başkanı) and an elected city council.

Although no longer the capital of Turkey, Istanbul is still preeminent in the country's industry, commerce, and culture. At the junction of two continents, its port has always been one of the nodal points in world communications, and since 1873 Istanbul has had rail connections with Europe and Asia. Its airport at Yesilköy (the former San Stefano) is of international standard. These facilities have made the city the focus of the country's industrial and commercial life. Most of Turkey's imports enter the country through Istanbul, and many of its exports leave it at this point. The city has important shipbuilding yards. Its manufactured goods include textiles, leather products, tobacco processing, flour milling, pottery, cement, glass, and soap.


Istanbul has acted as a magnet to the surplus population of the provinces, where economic growth has not been able to keep pace with a relentless increase in the birthrate. Public services have been swamped by this influx: water, electricity, gas, and sewerage disposal services struggle from emergency to emergency; transport would collapse were it not for privately owned taxis; traffic in the main arteries is in perpetual chaos. It is estimated that 47% of the population lives in improvised housing (gecekondu) with no public services whatsoever. While the debate goes on about the economic feasibility of projects that might alleviate the congestion—a bridge over the Bosporus, a ring-road, a subway system—like most of the world's cities with similar problems, Istanbul survives on palliative measures and improvisation, its chief hope being that its inexorably rising cost of living will discourage further immigration.

Istanbul remains the cultural center of Turkey, with numerous theaters and museums. Its adult population is 80% literate, as compared with a national average of 50%, and it has the country's oldest and largest university—the University of Istanbul (İstanbul Ünıversıtesı)—a college of technology, an academy of fine arts, a conservatory of music, and libraries containing the world's most precious collections of Islamic manuscripts. Historical monuments are well preserved and cared for, in response to a rapidly developing tourist industry, which has also stimulated the building of many first-class hotels. But indiscriminate building has destroyed the character of most quarters of the city, obscuring the charming vistas that until the recent past made it one of the most spectacular and picturesque of the world's capital cities.

Palace of Topkapı Sarayı
Palace of Topkapı Sarayı | Source

The Old City

Most of the historical monuments of Istanbul are contained within the triangle of the old city, at the apex of which (Saray Burnu) are the walled grounds of the Palace of Topkapı Sarayı (begun in 1462), which is today a complex of museums exhibiting some of the world's choicest collections of classical and Asian art as well as jewels, porcelain, and robes from the sultan's treasure. The public park of Gülhane occupies most of the northwestern part of the grounds, and outside the west wall stands the imposing mass of Hagia Sophia (Aya Sofya; built in 537). The 17th-century Mosque of Sultan Ahmed (the Blue Mosque) faces it across the wide expanse of the At Meydanı. From here the broad avenue of Divan Yolu proceeds westward a short distance. It becomes Yeniçeri Caddesi after passing the busy thoroughfare of Ankara Caddesi, which runs northward to the railroad terminus of Sirkeci at the mouth of the Golden Horn. Ankara Caddesi includes along its route most of the city's newspaper and publishing houses.

Şehzade Camii
Şehzade Camii | Source

To the north of Yeniçeri Caddesi are situated the Nuruosmaniye Mosque and, immediately before it enters the open square of Hürriyet Meydanı, the enclosed warren of the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı), with its pervading air of cut-price shoddiness. Dominating the square in sober and spacious magnificence stands the Mosque of Bayezid II, adjacent to which are the charming grounds of the law faculty of the university, housed in the former Ottoman War Office. Behind the law faculty grounds rises the incomparable Süleymaniye Mosque, built by the great architect Mimar Sinan (1489?–1587). The Museum of Islamic Art is situated next to the mosque.

Two main roads fork off from Hürriyet Meydanı, leaving behind some of the clutter and congestion. The first runs northwest toward Edirne Kapısı, passing the Mosque of the Princes (Şehzade Camii), another creation of the great Sinan. Across the avenues are the lavish new buildings of the municipal administration, which present themselves in incongruous contrast. The great complex of the often-restored Mosque of Mehmed II (Faith) is the next landmark along this route. The Mihrimah Mosque, one of the most graceful of Sinan's buildings, is to be seen at the point where the route ends at the old city wall. The second road that forks off from Hürriyet Meydanı (Ordu Caddesi) proceeds due west at first, past the 18th-century Laleli Camii (the Tulip Mosque), until it reaches the open road junction graced by the 19th-century Valide Mosque. Here it splits into three main roads, each of which eventually reaches the wall. The mosques along these avenues, though often ancient and beautiful, are less imposing than the royal foundations and are the equivalent of parish churches serving their own sections. At the Marmara end of the land wall is the prison-fortress of Yedi Kule (Seven Towers), parts of which survive from Byzantine times. It is a museum today.

The railway runs along the Marmara seawall, paralleled by a pleasant promenade, and terminates at the station of Sirkeci. At that point it is connected by ferry with Haydar Paşa station on the Asian side. The Golden Horn is crossed by two bridges. Alongside the first (Eminönü Köprüsü, or the Galata Bridge) originate the ferries that ply the surrounding waters. The second (Atatürk Köprüsü) connects with a broad boulevard that medially transects the old city. The lower reaches of the Golden Horn are busy commercial waters, and above these, too, its banks are densely built upon; it is not until it approaches the Fresh Waters of Europe above Eyüp that the Golden Horn achieves any scenic beauty.

Eminönü Bridge
Eminönü Bridge | Source

North of the Golden Horn

At the Galata end of the Eminönü Bridge, the dismal streets climb steeply up to Beyoğlu, lined with banks and commercial houses. Since 1873 an underground railway (the Tünel) has alleviated the fatigue of this ascent. Midway up the hill is the old fire tower of Galata, the summit of which has been recently converted to a restaurant affording panoramic views of the city. At the upper terminus of the Tünel begins İstiklâl Caddesi (also known as the Rue Pera), a busy avenue running to the northeast. It contains the chief movie houses, theaters, restaurants, and shops. The avenue ends at Taksim Square with its war memorial. At the northern end of the square Cumhuriyet Caddesi begins. It is the heart of the tourist industry, where are to be found the modern hotels (the Hilton, the Divan), all the airline offices, and the more luxurious restaurants and nightclubs. Farther along this avenue the most expensive apartment districts of the city are located.

Another road starts at the Eminönü Bridge and runs along the shore of the Bosporus. It passes the quay of Karaköy (where the passenger ships berth), several charming waterside mosques, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Naval Museum, the tomb of the admiral Barbarossa (also called Khair ed-Dīn and Hayreddin Paşa), and the palaces of Dolmabahçe and Çıragan. A broad avenue running up the hill from the landing stage at Beşiktaş leads to the gardens of Yıldız Palace. The shore road continues up to the Black Sea, connecting the small villages that were formerly no more than summer residences for the people of Istanbul but that today are increasingly serving as spillover areas for the city's growing population.

The Asian Side

Similarly, on the Asian side Üsküdar is expanding in both directions along the shore. In the vicinity of its harbor are several very attractive mosques, notably the İskele Camii (16th century) and the Yeni Valide Camii (18th century). The avenue leading south from the latter passes by the cypress forest containing the cemetery of Karacaahmet. A branch road goes by the British cemetery for the dead of the Crimean War and then continues to the railroad station of Haydar Paşa, and to the rapidly growing suburbs of Kadiköy, Moda, Suadiye and Bostancı.


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