On the Edge of Europe

Trip Start Mar 04, 2004
Trip End Jul 02, 2005

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Flag of Turkey  ,
Wednesday, March 23, 2005

On arrival in Istanbul one would think that the favourite band of Turkey is the Pet Shop Boys, particularly the song "Go West!" I say this because this country is clearly seized with the idea of joining the EU and all the real or supposed benefits this will bring. The English language daily here trumpets in its banner that it is your Guide to Turkey becoming part of Europe. The paper, which I must say is not very good, is filled with stories of the Turkish people and government trying to march towards EU membership but being clawed back by old tendencies. For instance, while sanctioned protests are now allowed an unregisterd protest on Women's Day by a mixed group of protesters resulted in the police laying a severe beating on a number of men and women. Turkey purports to be steadily meeting the Copenhagen Criteria and yet, according to sources in a new survey in the Economist, torture is still used commonly by the security services and there have been up to 21 extra-judicial killings so far this year. Istanbul, a melting pot of all Turkey's ethnicities, opinions, economic classes and any other division you can think of, is a great place to watch this hesitant transformation unfold. For some people here, even if Turkey never joins the EU, the prospect of joining has already wrought the most important, and hopefully irreversible, positive changes. Already, walking down crowded Istiklal Caddesi, from the top of Taksim Square, one feels that European values and society have sunk there way into the cobblestones.
Of course, there is far more to Istanbul than the modern life. Tina and I are staying at Orient Hostel, with is awesome bars and good staff, right in the heart of Sultanahmet. Amidst all the modernity of Istanbul, history dominates in this neighbourhood. Out one window I can see the 'museum' of Hagia Sophia, another the Blue Mosque, and a third the storied Bosphorous and the Sea of Marmara. If I had a one-wood I could hit a golf ball at the Topkapi Palace, the biggest, best preserved palace I've ever had the privilege of exploring. The emeralds, rubies and diamonds in treasures such as the Topkapi Dagger, the Sultan's swords, the thrones and turban decorations, are the biggest gems I've ever seen. In sheer karat weight this place dwarfs the Crown Jewels of England.
Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque sit across from each other, remarkably similar architecturely despite their construction being separated by 1100 years. Hagia Sophia used to be the greatest church in the world, and one has the feeling that even though Suleyman the Magnificent made it into a mosque upon seizing Constantinople, the Muslims never really felt it was their own. I stand in the park between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque and wonder if these two architectural wonders stand in opposition to each other, a stone personification of Samuel Huntington's clash of civilization theory or does their similarity speak of a co-operation and mutual respect between two of the world's great monotheistic faiths?
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