Istanbul - 2010 European Capital of Culture
Written by Serif Yenen Photography by Florian Schubert
Although it has not been the official capital since 1923, Istanbul’s unique position as the only metropolis to straddle two continents, and its distinctive old-meets-new culture, has led it to be proclaimed joint 2010 European Capital of Culture – along with Pécs in Hungary and Essen in Germany.
As a city that unites the art, culture, and religion of the East with those of the West, Istanbul is the capital of many cultures and one of the most dynamic cities in the world. The emerging creativity of the younger generation sits in comfortable contrast to the city’s rich cultural heritage.
The increase in cultural awareness, particularly during the last 20 years, is reflected in Istanbul’s cultural life. The city has assumed the role of a centre for arts and culture that attracts tourists and locals alike.
Gaining recognition as the heart of the world’s art and culture agenda, Istanbul has started conserving its culture for future generations by undergoing revitalisation, acquiring new state-of-the-art museums and cultural venues, experiencing urban transformations, strengthening the cultural infrastructure of the city, and exposing the youth of Istanbul to different art forms and creativity.
Istanbul may be European Capital of Culture for 2010, but it by no means needs special events to be worth a visit. Its sublime Ottoman mosques and Byzantine churches, its sprawling palaces and bazaars, and its spectacular location overlooking the waters of the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus are without parallel. Add the fact that Turkey is currently very affordable and the locals famously welcoming, and you have all the ingredients for an unforgettable city break whenever you go.
Exhibitions and museums
The exhibition ‘From Byzantium to Istanbul’ presents Istanbul’s peerless history from its founding until today, with over 500 works, some of which date from 8,000 years ago – discoveries from the Yenikap? excavation. The exhibition sheds light on the glorious history of a city that has served as the capital for the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, from Byzantium to New Rome, from Constantinople to Istanbul, and it brings together treasures scattered among various countries through trade, gifts, and historic events, such as the looting of the 4th Crusade.
For the first time, an unparalleled collection of selected works from 58 leading institutions, state museums, and private collections – from within Turkey and across the globe – are brought together, representing the far reaches of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires. The exhibition tells the story of Istanbul’s transformation from a Roman garrison to the capital of the empire, following the separation of Rome into East and West. It charts the stages of growth, stagnation, and ultimate demise, and its eventual rebirth at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453.
Another insight into the city’s rich cultural history can be seen at the exhibition entitled ‘99 Qurans’, which showcases the exquisite calligraphy for which Istanbul became famous during the Ottoman Empire; at the Sabanci Museum (Sep 3–Oct 24).
There is an aphorism: ‘The Quran is revealed in Mecca, recited in Cairo, and written in Istanbul.’ There is some truth in it. During the course of history, the best reciters of the Quran have always been noted as the hafiz from Cairo, Egypt. Similarly, the most elegant Qurans have been written by calligraphers from Istanbul. Aiming to verify the truth of this aphorism, the most exquisite 99 Qurans written in Istanbul are brought together.
The exhibition emphasises the importance of Istanbul and its master calligraphers, who – in the Ottoman tradition – trained their apprentices by the practice known as taqlid, or imitation, having them spend many years copying their master’s sheets before being allowed to create and sign their own works.
The Mevlevi order of whirling dervishes is a mystic group whose members are followers of Mevlana Celaleddin Rumi, a great Turkish poet and mystic. The order derived its essence, rites, moral code, and discipline from the mystical path first shown by Rumi. It was a synthesis of spiritual love attained by a combination of music and whirling, which was considered to be the basic requirement for spiritual devotion.
The Sema is a 700-year-old ritual or a rite of communal recitation that combines the poetry of Rumi, Turkish classical music, chanting from the Quran, and the whirling of the dervishes. It was traditionally performed in the semahane, and symbolised the attainment of the various levels of mystical union with God and of absolute perfection through spiritual fervour. Mevlevi culture and Sema rituals have been compiled in a project for this year. A total of 36 Sema rituals are held every week throughout 2010; seven roundtables (once per month) to be attended by local and foreign speakers; and seven classical Turkish and Sufi music concerts to be performed on a monthly basis.
Princes’ Islands (Adalar)
The cultural events are not just limited to spectacular shows, engaging exhibitions, and master class workshops. A few miles from Asian Istanbul in the Marmara Sea, and less than an hour by ferry from the centre of the city, lies the historic archipelago of nine islands that form the Princes’ Islands. Free of cars, the islands have a resort-style atmosphere and offer peace and quiet in a natural environment that is dotted with beautiful wooden houses, and traversed by foot or horse-drawn carriage. During the Byzantine period, the islands were collectively a religious centre with many monasteries. The islands came to be called Princes’ Islands because those princes who were regarded as pretenders to the throne were sent there in exile. During the Ottoman period, the islands became a neglected backwater of little interest, and settlement by a steady Turkish population on the islands came about as late as the end of the 19th century.
Currently the number of permanent residents on the islands is more than 15,000; however, this number increases more than tenfold during the summer, especially after the school year ends.
Public boats or sea buses from Kabata?, Sirkeci, or Bostanc? are available. For timetables and lines, check www.ido.com.tr.
The highlight of a variety of events held throughout the year under the DANSLab umbrella will be Dance Platform Istanbul, which will showcase contemporary and classical Turkish dance as well as genres from tango to jazz and hip hop – through workshops, master classes, and performances.
Dance Platform Istanbul kicked off in style in April with ‘Gnosis’, performed by Akram Khan, one of the most acclaimed choreographers of his generation. The winner of the World’s Best Ballerina Award, French dancer Sylvie Guillem, has also taken part, as has the Tokyo Ballet. With such a high calibre of events throughout the year, visitors during September 15–22 can enjoy the eight-day main programme, which will host choreographic platforms, run master classes, workshops, and, of course, watch a series of electrifying performances. On September 26, the final performance of ‘Barbarossa’ – based on the life of one of the favourite characters in Turkish history, Fleet Admiral Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha – will take place with a cast of more than 50 ballet dancers and soloists from Istanbul, Antalya, Ankara, Samsun, Mersin, and Izmir state ballets. The date is significant, as it is the anniversary of the Battle of Preveza (1538), in which Barbarossa triumphed over Andrea Doria, the Genoese admiral in the service of Emperor Charles V.
For the first time, Istanbul has put together a crafts map and guide to about 500 artisans working in centuries-old traditions, from book arts to wrought-iron work, and wood carving to mother-of-pearl inlaying.
Theodosius Port: Trade and Transportation exhibition November 2010, Istanbul Archaeology Museum
The port found in Yenikap? is the most phenomenal ancient harbour in the world, and perhaps one of the most active harbours of the Middle Ages. Nowhere else are there so many shipwrecks in context with one another.
Obviously, excavations and studies carried out in Yenikap? will revolutionise the knowledge of Byzantine-period ship construction. Yenikap? is the earliest settlement ever located on the city’s historic peninsula, and its find will require that the history books be rewritten.