Istanbul stands proudly unique at the intersection of East and West

Pope visit to Turkey permits opportunity to see the city’s modernity in up close

Pope Francis with Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew 1, in Istanbul. Bartholomew has a local flock of just about 2,000. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AP

Pope Francis with Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew 1, in Istanbul. Bartholomew has a local flock of just about 2,000. Photograph: Filippo Monteforte/AP

 

It is around midnight on Saturday in Mari Parseyhan’s little “Jash” restaurant, not far from Taksim Square in central Istanbul.

The guy with the accordion is giving it a lash, the entire restaurant seems to know the songs and almost all these designer-clad, diamond-spattered, all-blonde middle-aged ladies are up on their feet swaying and swirling in a definitely non-middle-aged way. Plenty of raki has gone down, great food has been eaten and everybody is having a great time as they celebrate the birthday of at least one member of the company.

When you think of Istanbul, or at least when your correspondent thinks of Istanbul, scenes like the above are not the first thing that come to mind. But then, Istanbul is a surprising place. Perhaps the first and most important surprise, especially for the traveller coming from Rome, is the extent to which things work in this sprawling metropolis of 11 to 12 million people.

It is not just that trams, trains, funiculars, buses and boats transport you all round the city in a manner that Romans can only dream of, it is also the sight of cleaners sweeping the streets and emptying the bins at all hours of day and night. And wifi networks, still a novelty in half of Italy, are freely available everywhere.

Phone coverage

Caput MundiTurkey

However, that is for another day. We all know that Istanbul represents just about the most intense East-West meeting point on the planet but what surprises is the extent to which it is also a meeting point between the ancient and very modern.

The centralised transport system offers a type of Oyster card technology that works perfectly up and down the Bosphorus. Yet when you get on the boats, you meet with a souk atmosphere where the journey is enlivened by buskers on a melancholy violin or guys trying to sell scarves, coats and kitchen utensils in the way they have done for a very long time.

In the Blue Mosque, I talk with Asgun Tunca, one of the muezzin, who call the Islamic faithful to prayer. To illustrate a point from the Koran, he pulls out his smartphone.

Such contrasts, clearly, are not unique to Istanbul. What, however, is unique to this city is its ethnic and religious past. Your correspondent was in Istanbul for the meeting between Pope Francis and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, head of 300 million Orthodox Christians.

You might expect the latter gentleman to live in a way that reflects both his title and his importance to the worldwide Greek Orthodox community. Yet Bartholomew has a local flock of just 2,000 while his splendid St George’s Patriarchal church turns out to be a sort of citadel-cum-Fort Apache in a scruffy neighbourhood just off the Golden Horn.

There is an impressive front gate at St George’s which, by way of protest, has remained resolutely shut since 1821 when the Ottoman authorities of the day held the then patriarch, Gregory V, responsible for an uprising going on back in Greece. To make their point, the authorities hanged Gregory at the front gate, left him there for three days and then threw his body into the Bosphorus where it was found by a Greek merchant boat and taken to Odessa for burial.

Complex relations

Further down the Bosphorus, another sign of the complex relations between the Greek Orthodox and the Turkish state comes in the shape of the Orthodox seminary on the island of Halki.

Closed by the state as a seminary in 1971, the monastery complex remains open, beautifully maintained and with a splendid church full of 14th- and 18th-century icons (including a black Madonna). The place looks like an empty concert hall, just waiting for the orchestra to arrive.

Deacon Kaisarios Chronis is more than happy to show me round. Nowadays, just six people live in the large complex. As two cleaners sweep up and down the ghostly marble halls, he smiles and says he has no idea when, if ever, the seminary will be reopened.

Indeed, when it comes to Turkish state-Orthodox relations or equally to Islamic-Catholic-Orthodox relations, Istanbul offers a number of ongoing, unanswered questions.

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