Learning from the Omniscient City (Introduction)

Since I saw ISTANBUL first, the city has put its magic spell on me. It was only when I came to Istanbul that I realized how small I was: one single dot among millions of others, one single soul searching for meaning, one pair of eyes regarding and reflecting on their discoveries from their very own perspective. It was in Istanbul where I came to understand that my perspective – being perceivingly more multi-layered than those of people who had never left their comfort zones – was absolutely biased.

Since university I had been supporting an anti-colonialist view and had lamented the narrowness of a eurocentrical world view. Even before, when – after just one semester – I gave up studying ethnology, cultural anthropology, and Spanish studies, I felt it was no good to impose a western perspective on others. Hence, it was only when starting to regularly visit Istanbul, when falling in love in multiple ways, that I got confronted with that blank passage in common knowledge that I perceived as a hurtful spot in my mind.

Istanbul is the city that can teach you – basically – everything. Istanbul, maybe better say Byzantium and Constantinople, has seen Christian city founders, it has grown enormously and has been shrinked about a similar proportion numerous times. It has been defended against Arabic emperors and has been defended by Arabic emperors against others. The city has seen inhabitants from all places in the world. Through this day, they are busy with every kind of occupation one could possibly imagine. They always seem to be busy while at the same time apparently awaiting something in hüzün, the magical mood of the city. When Constantinople was declared the capital of the Ottoman Empire in 1453, a lot of endangered inhabitants were deported or managed to flee. So far I was informed. But until recently, I wasn’t aware of the influence that ancient writings from Constantinople had on renaissance in Italy. You can read it was those ancient writings carried by refugees to Rome which encouraged harking back to ancient times, to antiquity. Thus, the notes of Istanbul are said to have largely contributed to European renaissance, the epoche that brought along major discoveries and schools of thought just like perspective in drawing (Leonardo daVinci, Michelangelo) and humanism, the great awakening that is supposed to have brought along a rise of self-awareness in Europe.

It seems to me, the more I deal with the magical nature of the city that I call the Omniscient City, that Istanbul is the real melting pot. Ok, one of the true melting pots, fair enough. Not always have people of differing origins, ethnic groups, classes and beliefs peacefully coexisted, one respecting the other. However, if you talk to people in Taksim, you will discover stories and histories more colourful than a rainbow and you will find that in private, there are neat ties among people of various backgrounds. If you look at the architecture, you will find a variation ranging from A like Aya Sofia (Greek Orthodox Christian Patriarchial basilica 537 AD-1453, Catholic cathedral under the Latin Empire 1204-1261, Ottoman mosque 1453-1931, secularized and reopened as a museum in 1935) to Z like Zurna playing simit stalls.

Being the mosaic that it is, Istanbul has often been described as the catalyst between the Eastern and the Western world. As much as it reflects the diversity of Anatolian people, it shows housing styles ranging from modernist neo-liberal gated communities to boheme couchsurfing as a sign of socialist self-denial of possessions to rural like communities within the community of the city (using gecekondu buildings only among other types of housing). As secular and sophisticated as you find a large number of Istanbullu people with and without college degrees, as much hard-line you will find others.

Writing this, I realize that these notes can only serve as an introduction to the stories I have learned from Istanbul, the Omniscient City. The city offers a lesson to learn that seems far from having ended yet. And what I do when recollecting its first units is merely to touch the opalescent yet crinkling surface of the book of history of civilization that Istanbul is. Istanbul is the city that can teach you – basically – everything.


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