Although the Ayasofia of Istanbul did not make the Seven Wonders of the World list this year (announced on Saturday), by any measure Istanbul is a world-class historical city. As first Byzantium and later Constantinople, it was capital of a Roman Empire that lasted longer in the east than in the west. It became the Sublime Porte, capital of the Ottoman Empire and seat of the Islamic caliphate. Sadly, Ayasofia (pictured left) is disfigured by internal scaffolding, but the immense scale of the basilica, built by Justinian between 532 and 537 AD, is staggering. It was turned into a mosque on the day that Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453. It is fitting, given today’s arguments over his secular legacy, that it was Ataturk who turned it into a museum in 1935.
Coming into the city from Ataturk airport, I passed through the thick walls of Constantine (which kept Ottoman besiegers at bay until 1453) before emerging into a forest of minarets perched spectacularly above a the Bosporus and the strategic Golden Horne. With a population of 11 million inside the city limits and 15 million during the workday, Istanbul is the largest city I have ever stepped foot in. Yet people are not loath to speak to anyone, especially to foreigners, whom they have the pride of sharing their land with.
I encountered no anti-Americanism in Istanbul, although it has been increasing since the “hooding incident” of 2004 where US forces ambushed Turk forces and hooded them on July 4th. In a claustrophobic jewelry shop in the conservative Fatih neighborhood I spoke to a Turk who told me that America has “all the money”, but Turks will once again “become the world’s super-power.” I asked him who he’d vote for in the July 22nd elections and he said AKP, as if it were blasphemous to suggest anything else. Ataturk’s own party, the secularist CHP, is grossly unpopular these days. The center-right voters prefer the Islamist AK Party, and the fundamentalists prefer the MH Party.
Although European on the surface, Istanbul is Turko-nationalist to the core. I half-expected the worldly elite of Istanbul to deplore the recent heavy-handed military threats to the AK party and firmly back democracy before militarism. Though I knew that being elite in Turkey meant also being pro-military, I still expected that at least some I encountered would be in favor of democracy. The opinion of most of the journalists, former diplomats and bankers who can be seen at coffee houses in the city’s Galata district is favorable toward the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), who are expected to intervene in the elections next week. The elites are overtly sympathetic to this “vanguard” of the Turkish constitution, and suspicious that the AK Party has a hidden Islamist agenda to turn their country into a new Iran. But in fact the AK Party has already been in power for seven years and most Turks are supportive of its reforms. If the elites revolt, and if the military does stage a coup, it will be just one of five military putches in the last 45 years–the last one being in 1997.