Rich with cultural history and contemporary contradictions, Istanbul has an extremely intricate composition as a modern city that goes far beyond its tagline of “where east meets west”. Prior to our arrival, my understanding of the city was colored mainly by middle school history classes, in which I learned about the Roman emperor Constantine, something about the Ottomans, and a lesson or two about the Russians in the Crimea. Coming to the city and experiencing it at the ground level brought a new understanding that challenged the Orientalized paradigm in my mind, and the three lectures by Orhan, Professor Danis, and Jen added to this by giving me a much more textured understanding of the city’s history, people, and modern makeup. Istanbul seems to be full of contradictions—it is one of the oldest metropolises in the world, yet mostly filled with buildings constructed after 1950. On one hand, it is one of the largest cities in the world, and on the other, it is homogenous to a degree that undermines the its identity as cosmopolitan. Its location on the Bosporus as a bridge between Europe and Asia (but more accurately, a link between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea) also makes it a locus with a rich and unique history of migration. The final two pictures of my photo blog were chosen because I felt that they captured some of the ideas that were on my mind after our speakers’ presentations.
The sixth photograph includes a mosque, one of the stereotypical and iconic images of Istanbul. However, from my vantage point, I also captured a valley of the city that lies underneath both the shadow of the mosque and the higher (higher class and higher elevation) dwellings that we were privileged to stay at. Orhan spoke to us about the dynamics between the “citizens” and the “people” of a city—that the city is designed for the advantaged, wealthy, politically powerful upper classes, but is ultimately most used and needed by the many people who are largely voiceless and powerless. I thought about the way classes organize themselves geographically, literally creating a map of wealth in the city, where the society’s highest reside in the high places, and the city’s lowest citizens reside in the valleys. In her own lecture, Jen talked to us about the history of Turkish identity, and more specifically, the struggle to identify what a “Turk” really is. Despite a great deal of ethnic diversity, she (and Orhan) mentioned how Istanbul became systematically homogenized under a broader definition of “Turk.” In this picture, I saw a contradiction between the diversity of identities (represented by the diversity of the buildings) and the knowledge that these vastly differing things were part of one identity. As Jen concluded, I realized that this unitary, communal identity was, in fact, contradictory. The idea of what is a Turk and the reconciliation between difference in the city are both constructed ideas. Clearly, these are very difficult ideas to illustrate in an image, but as I observed this picture, it brought up those particular memories from our lectures.
The final photograph served to illustrate a more specific point that Orhan brought up in his talk. As we walked around the city, he pointed out several homes that were slated for demolition, only to be rebuilt as an exact replica of the destroyed building. The row of houses in this photograph were located in an impoverished area of the city, where the government frequently relies on legal loopholes to force families out of their homes. Instead of spending money helping people renovate their homes, the government uses far more funds to rebuild them, the real intent being to move people. This modern mentality of the state dictating and influencing settlement contrasted sharply with the “pre-modern” system of the Ottomans, in which people were largely free to form their own communities, based on systems of invitation and self-governance. It was fascinating for me to learn about the highly democratic and “modern” city planning of the past, which allowed citizens to have incredible agency and influence in their neighborhoods. Conversely, it was saddening to see that the modern state is far less progressive than its predecessor. I began to realize that time does not necessarily create progress, as we have been conditioned to believe. The idea of learning from our past and fixing old mistakes clearly does not apply in this situation. Instead of improving, the history of cities, states, and communities has merely moved in a different direction in Istanbul; from a system of self-determination, it has become a system of power, in which those with power can manipulate those without.
In conclusion, my time in Istanbul helped me not only rethink my conception of the city itself, but also the relations between people and the state, communal identity, and the contradictions that fill them. Moving beyond a tourist’s perspective and getting to see more parts of the city helped to solidify what we are learning about movement and identity.