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New Europe

Day Forty: Istanbul

Rumeli Castle 
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Ancient and modern on the Bosphorus. A 1990s suspension bridge carries traffic between Europe and Asia, and the Rumeli Castle was the Ottoman army's bridgehead when they captured Constantinople in 1453, and changed its name to Istanbul.
Michael Palin - New EuropeA boat up along the European shore of the Bosphorus. Meeting Ara Güler and reading Pamuk's Istanbul have sharpened my senses and I search the coast for signs of the fast-disappearing yalis, the elaborately stylish timber houses built as waterfront retreats for the city's prominent families. Few have survived the weather and the insatiable appetite for property by the water, and those that survive remind me of the houseboats in Kashmir, delicately beautiful, made for pleasure not for permanence. What they do show is how Ottoman architects and craftsmen of the nineteenth century were absorbing more and more European influence. It worked both ways and the French, as Lamartine's house in Plovdiv showed, were particularly fascinated by things Oriental. (Pamuk punctures any rosy picture of this relationship by pointing out that the nineteenth-century euphemism for syphilis in Turkey was frengi or 'French'.)

We pass the well preserved ruin of Rumeli Castle, whose walls ride up the hill, almost immediately below a suspension bridge that carries six lanes of cross-Turkey traffic across the Bosphorus. Rumeli, ominously for the Byzantines, was the Ottoman word for 'west', and, completed by Mehmet II in 1452, it was the springboard for his conquest of Constantinople a year later. A victory of the East over the West, Islam over Christianity.

The new conquerors of Istanbul are still to be found beside the Bosphorus and one of them is Sakip Sabanci, once a cotton-picker from the southern city of Adana, now a self-made businessman of such wealth that some say he owns Turkey. He has spent a fortune turning a 1920s villa in Emirgan into a home for his fine art collection.

Here I meet Raffi Portakal, a debonair art dealer who has advised on the collection. He is bemused by the idea of Turkey not being thought a part of Europe. Even leaving aside the 500-year Ottoman presence in Eastern Europe, Constantinople was, for 1,000 years before that, the eastern outpost of Rome. Christianity survived here when Rome was being sacked.

As evidence for his country's continued interest in things Western he tells me of the Picasso exhibition he recently put on. Though entry had to be rationed to 2,000 a day, a quarter of a million people visited. This was not just the Istanbul elite, but people from all over Turkey. Indeed the exhibition will soon be going east to the capital, Ankara. For Raffi, the equation is quite simple.

'The Turkish people like the Western art, because the Turkish people are Western.' Which is why he is so frustrated about European behaviour over his country's membership of the EU. 'We know as a club member you have to accept many rules, but if the club start to create different rules... ' His words are obscured by a crowd of schoolchildren, all in neat private school uniforms, who emerge in a babble from the museum.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Forty: Istanbul
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Istanbul
  • Book page no: 100

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