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IOS Minaret Vol-1, No.1 (March 2007)
Vol. 5    Issue 4   1-15 July 2010

Istanbul: European Capital of Culture (2010)

Professor A. R. Momin

The idea of designating selected cities as cultural capitals of Europe was conceived in 1983 by Melina Mercouri, then serving as Greek minister of culture. The European Union (or EC, as it was then known) approved a resolution on June 13, 1985 to designate every year a city in the continent as the Cultural Capital of Europe. The objective was to showcase the cultural, architectural, artistic and scientific heritage of particular cities and thereby to bring the citizens of the European Union closer together. The European Commission grants a subsidy to the selected city each year. The following provides a list of cities designated as Cultural Capitals of Europe from 1985 to 2009.

  • 1985: Athens (Greece)
  • 1986: Florence (Italy)
  • 1987: Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • 1988: West Berlin (West Germany)
  • 1989: Paris (France)
  • 1990: Glasgow (United Kingdom)
  • 1991: Dublin (Ireland)
  • 1992: Madrid (Spain)
  • 1993: Antwerp (Belgium)
  • 1994: Lisbon (Portugal)
  • 1995: Luxembourg (Luxembourg)
  • 1996: Copenhagen (Denmark)
  • 1997: Thessaloniki (Greece)
  • 1998: Stockholm (Sweden)
  • 1999: Weimar (Germany)
  • 2000: Reykjavík (Iceland), Bergen (Norway), Helsinki (Finland), Brussels (Belgium), Prague (Czech Republic), Krakow (Poland), Santiago de Compostela (Spain), Avignon (France), Bologna (Italy)
  • 2001: Rotterdam (Netherlands), Porto (Portugal)
  • 2002: Bruges (Belgium), Salamanca (Spain)
  • 2003: Graz (Austria)
  • 2004: Genoa (Italy), Lille (France)
  • 2005: Cork (Ireland)
  • 2006: Patras (Greece)
  • 2007: Luxembourg (Luxembourg) and Sibiu (Romania)
  • 2008: Liverpool (UK), Stavanger (Norway)
  • 2009: Vilnius (Lithuania), Liz (Austria)

The idea of Cultural Capitals of Europe has received an enthusiastic response from member nations of the EU. It has provided a great boost to international tourism which, in turn, has generated an enormous interest in local cultural traditions. The move has facilitated greater understanding among the citizens of the European Union about the cultural diversity of Europe as well as about its shared history and traditions.

For 2010 the European Union has designated Istanbul, Pecs (Hungary) and Essen (Germany) as the cultural capitals of Europe.

Istanbul has a spectacular location. It lies on either side of the Bosporus and is the only city that is located in two continents, Europe and Asia. It encompasses the natural harbour known as the Golden Horn. Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey and in Europe and the fourth largest city proper in the world with a population of nearly 14 million.

Istanbul: A Historic City

Istanbul has a long history. Archaeological excavations have unearthed the remains of a Neolithic settlement dating back to the seventh millennium BC. During its long history, Istanbul has served as the capital city of four empires, including the Roman Empire (330-395), the Byzantine Empire (395-1204 and 1261-1453), the Latin Empire (1204-1261), and the Ottoman Empire (1453-1922). The city was founded by the Roman emperor Constantine in 330 under the name of Constantinople. From the 6th to the 13th centuries Istanbul was frequently besieged by Persians, Arabs, Bulgars and Russians. It was captured by the Crusaders in 1203, who ransacked and destroyed the city and terrorized its inhabitants, and turned over to Latin Christian rule, which lasted till 1261.

Istanbul was exposed to Arab conquests in the first century of the Islamic era. In 664 Abd al-Rahman ibn Khalid ibn Walid launched an expedition to Constantinople which stretched as far as Pergamon. A naval expedition under the charge of Yazid ibn Muawiyah disembarked on the western shore of the Sea of Marmara in 672. Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, an eminent Companion of the Prophet Muhammad (SAAW), was a member of this expedition. He died in the course of the expedition and was buried on the outer fringes of the city. There was a lull in Arab expeditions for about forty years until Suleyman ibn Abd al-Malik launched an expedition for the conquest of Constantinople in 716, laying siege to the city which continued for a whole year. However, the siege had to be lifted due to the arrival of reinforcements from the Bulgarians and the depletion of Suleyman’s resources. In 782 another Arab expedition was launched under the stewardship of Harun, the son of Caliph al-Mahdi, which resulted in the conquest of a part of Constantinople.

The Turkish conquest of Constantinople began in the 14th century. Sultan Bayazid I laid siege to the city in 1396, which lasted for a few months. He lifted the siege on learning that French and Hungarian troops were advancing towards the city. Though the army of Bayazid I was defeated at Nikopolis in the same year, the siege continued for sometime until the Byzantine ruler conceded the demands of the Turkish forces. Sultan Murad II laid another siege to Constantinople in 1422 but in vain. His 20-year-old son Muhammad II, who later came to be known as Mehmet the Conqueror, laid siege to the city in 1452 from the European bank of the Bosporus. The ramparts of the city gave way under the impact of fierce artillery attacks from the Turkish forces. The Turkish naval fleet entered the Golden Horn on May 29, 1453, ushering in the end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of Ottoman rule.

The Ottoman Empire, named after Osman (1259-1326), an Anatolian prince who brought an end to the Seljuq dynasty, was the largest empire in history. It lasted for nearly six centuries, from 1299 to 1923. Its boundaries straddled across three continents, encompassing a vast stretch of territory extending from North Africa to the Danube and from the Near East to the Balkans. The Ottomans ruled over a multiethnic, heterogeneous population with a wide-ranging diversity of faiths, ethnicities, languages and cultural traditions.

The Ottoman forces began making incursions into Europe in the closing decades of the 14th century. They captured the city of Thessaloniki from the Venetians in 1387, which was followed by the capture of Kosovo in 1389, which put an end to Serbian hegemony in the Balkans. Following the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman rulers embarked on a series of relentless military campaigns. They seized parts of the Italian peninsula in 1480. Emperor Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566) captured Belgrade in 1521 and subsequently the southern and central parts of Hungary. Nice was captured from the Holy Roman Empire in 1543. Interestingly, the conquest was the outcome of a joint venture between the forces of the French king Francis I and those of the Turkish admiral Barbarossa. By the 16th century the Ottoman Empire was widely recognized in Europe as a formidable political and military power. In the 16th and 17th centuries it made military alliances with France, England and the Dutch Republic against the Habsburg Empire.

The Ottoman Empire held a central position in world trade, linking the Middle East and East and South Asia to eastern and central Europe. International trade was an important source of revenue for the empire. The towns of Bursa, Edirne and Sarajevo served as important conduits through which trade with Mediterranean Europe was carried out. The Ottomans exported raw silk, wax, pepper, cotton and metals to Europe and, on the other hand, acquired merchandise from eastern and central Europe. The Polish kingdoms of the Middle Ages traded extensively with the Ottoman Turks. Most of this trade—in textiles, wheat and Arabian horses--passed through Istanbul and the Black Sea ports of the Ottoman Empire.

During the Middle Ages, extensive commercial, diplomatic and cultural links between the Ottomans and the Venetian republic were established. Venice acted as the European gateway for trade with the Ottoman Empire, which was carried out largely through intermediaries such as the Jews, Greek Orthodox Christians and Armenians. The Ottomans supplied to the Venetians raw silk, cotton, coral, grains, spices and leather. In return, they imported from Venice luxury textiles, glass, soap, mirrors and paper. In the mid-16th century, Venetian craftsmen were greatly influenced by Ottoman ceramics, characterised by white-and-blue symmetrical arabesques. After the battle of Lepanto in 1571, European imports of Iznik ceramics increased substantially and their growing popularity led European craftsmen to imitate the designs, colours and motifs of Ottoman ceramics. The Venetians imported lustrous tiles from Ottoman Turkey, which were often used for church decorations. Chinese porcelain was first introduced to Europe through Turkish merchants and traders.

Venice’s generally cordial relations with the Ottomans were occasionally punctuated by conflicts and confrontations. However, the wars between the Venetian republic and the Ottomans were not motivated by religious zeal or acrimony but by economic and political factors, as in the case of violent confrontations between the Mamluks of Egypt and the Ottomans. The times of peace and diplomatic and commercial exchanges between the Venetian republic and the Ottomans were much longer and durable. Furthermore, even during times of hostility, diplomatic missions, trading activities and exchanges of gifts never came to a halt. As Stefano Carboni has observed, Venetian pragmatism and diplomatic acumen turned Venice into the most respected trading and political partner of the Near East (Stefano Carboni: Venice and the Islamic World: 828-1797. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2007, pp. 15-16).

Turkish craftsmen excelled in making heavy silk velvets, which were especially suitable as furnishing garments and as wrappings for religious relics. Capes, dalmatics and chasubles made of Turkish-made velvets and used in Roman Catholic ritual are found in church treasuries and museums in Italy, Sweden, Romania, Poland and Bosnia. Ottoman velvets were also used as ceremonial vestments in Russian Orthodox churches. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, there was great fascination in Western Europe for Turkish art, music, paintings and architecture, which came to be known as Turquerie. Some of Mozart’s compositions reflect the influence of Turkish music.

Istanbul’s Multiethnic Legacy

For several centuries Istanbul has been a multiethnic, multicultural city where different religious communities, including Muslims, Jews, Assyrians, Armenians and Orthodox Christians lived in an atmosphere of tolerance and peaceful coexistence. The presence of Assyrians in Turkey goes back to the second millennium BC, when much of the country was part of the Assyrian Empire. The Assyrians are the oldest ethnic group in Turkey.

The population of Istanbul is ethnically heterogeneous. The Muslims, who form the majority, include several ethnic groups, including Kurds, Afro-Turks, Arabs and immigrant Muslim communities from the Balkans. The minority groups include Jews, Armenian Christians, Assyrians, Greek Orthodox, Pomaks and Romas.

The estimates of the number of Jews who were driven out of Spain after 1495 following its reconquest by the Christian rulers vary between 800,000 and 165,000. Nearly 90,000 Jews took shelter in Ottoman Turkey. Sultan Bayezid II sarcastically thanked King Ferdinand for sending him some of his best subjects, thus “impoverishing his own lands while enriching his (Bayezid’s).” The Jews who settled in the Ottoman territories were treated with honour and their religious and cultural identity was protected by the state.

After the conquest of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet allowed the chief rabbi of the Jews to retain his position and granted complete religious, judicial, educational and cultural autonomy to the community. As a result of the protection and freedom provided by the Ottoman rulers, the Jews prospered and thrived. Sultan Murad III’s wife, Safiye Sultan, had a Jewish confidante, Esther Kira. Jewish engineers and artisans helped the Ottomans manufacture advanced artillery and complicated siege engines. Ladino or Judeo-Spanish, a dialect spoken by Sephardic Jews, survived only in the Ottoman lands. The office of the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, proudly displays an original decree issued by the Ottoman emperor Mehmet II granting autonomy to religious minorities within the empire.

A substantial population of Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain migrated to Salonica in the Balkans. Salonica was seized in 1430 by Ottoman Turks from Byzantine rulers and remained under their control for nearly five centuries. Salonica’s multiethnic population, comprising Jews, Christians and Muslims, lived in an atmosphere of tolerance and peaceful coexistence for centuries. In 1921 when the Greeks took control of the city, they drove away the Muslim residents to Turkey. In 1944 the Germans exterminated virtually all the Jews.

The Ottoman Empire proved to be a haven for the Jews of Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East. In addition to the Sephardic Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, Ashkenazi Jews from Germany, France and Hungary and Italian Jews from Sicily settled in Ottoman lands. Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror invited Jews from Anatolia, Salonica and Edirne to settle in Istanbul and offered them special privileges.

Thousands of Jews fleeing persecution in Russia and Central Europe in the last decades of the 19th century were encouraged to settle in various Ottoman cities. At the beginning of the 19th century, there were nearly 100,000 Jewish in various Turkish cities. During World War II, some 15,000 Turkish Jews living in France were rescued by Turkey from Nazi persecution. Turkish diplomats in France organised train caravans to take Turkish Jews back to their homeland. In 1944, when France’s Vichy government was on the verge of deporting all 10,000 Turkish Jews living in France to Nazi Germany for extermination, the Turkish foreign minister intervened with the French government, warning that such an act on the part of the French government would lead to the snapping of diplomatic relations between France and Turkey. Vichy was forced to abandon his sinister move.

Turkey also helped thousands of East European Jews living in countries such as Greece, Lithuania, Romania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria to escape Nazi persecution. After the war, the Turkish consul in Greece intervened with the Germans to spare the Turkish Jews living in the country and organised boats to carry them to safety in Turkey. The Turkish guards at the Greek-Turkish border allowed Jews coming from Greece and Bulgaria to enter Turkish territory. Camps were set up for the Jewish refugees at Edirne.

According to the “millet system” introduced by the Ottoman rulers, the Muslim population as well as the “protected” (dhimmi) non-Muslim groups were organised into communities under the leadership of their religious heads and were given religious, judicial, educational and cultural autonomy. The Jews had a chief rabbi and the major Christian groups had a patriarch or bishop. The security, freedom and honour accorded to the Jews encouraged them to make significant contributions to the development of the Ottoman Empire, especially in agriculture, industry and trade. There were extensive commercial, diplomatic and cultural relations between the Ottoman Empire and the Venetian republic. Jews, along with Armenians and Greeks, acted as intermediaries in the Ottoman-Venetian trade. Even in times of conflict, Venetians maintained a level of trade with the Ottoman by using Jewish front men. Occasionally, Jews in the Ottoman Empire served as intermediaries to European powers, especially when diplomatic relations between the Ottoman rulers and the princes of Western Europe came under strain.

Today, Turkey’s Jewish population is around 26,000. Most of them live in the capital Istanbul. There are 16 functioning synagogues and a few kosher restaurants in the city. In 1992 the Jewish community celebrated the 500th anniversary of its advent in Turkey.

Religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire, especially Jews and Christians, enjoyed substantial religious, judicial and cultural autonomy and freedom. Each religious group was designated as an autonomous community (millet) under the charge of its religious head and had the freedom to manage its religious, legal, educational and cultural institutions. No restrictions were placed on the construction of synagogues and churches. The Greek Orthodox and Armenian Gregorian communities were placed under the leadership of their patriarchs. The former included, in addition to ethnic Greeks, all the Slavs and Romanians living in southeastern Europe while the latter included not only Armenians but also Gypsies, Nestorians, Copts and other Eastern Christians.

The Ottoman sultans welcomed and encouraged the immigration of Christians from western, eastern and southern Europe. Emperor Mehmet brought back Greeks to Constantinople from Trebizond and appointed a new patriarch for them. The Calvinists of Hungary, the Protestants of Siberia and the Cossack Old Believers of Russia sought refuge in Ottoman Turkey in their flight from Catholic and Orthodox persecution. The Greek Orthodox, Bosnian Franciscans and Armenian Christians were given substantial freedom and internal autonomy in respect of their beliefs, rites and churches. The predominantly Christian regions of Cyprus and the Peloponnesian Peninsula of Greece retained their religious and ethnic character even after they came under Ottoman control. As a result of the security, freedom and economic opportunities provided by the Ottoman rulers, the empire’s Christian population increased by three-fold. Interestingly, Martin Luther lauded the Ottoman Empire as an exemplar of religious tolerance. The Christian population of the Ottoman Empire made a significant contribution to the economy, defence and culture. A Hungarian engineer built for the Ottomans a gigantic canon which could only be moved by 100 oxen.

Islamic Monuments and Sacred Relics in Istanbul

Istanbul’s landscape is dotted with hundreds of magnificent mosques. The legendary Turkish architect Sinan (d. 1588) designed hundreds of mosques, palaces, caravanserais, bridges, public baths and hospitals. Many of Istanbul’s architectural monuments have been designated as Unesco World Heritage Sites. The Sultan Ahmad Mosque, popularly known as the Blue Mosque, was built between 1609 and 1616 during the reign of the Ottoman emperor Sultan Ahmad I. The mosque is a popular tourist site. Pope Benedict XVI came to the mosque during his visit to Turkey on November 30, 2006, removed his shoes and silently prayed in the mosque.

Abu Ayyub al-Ansari’s tomb is located in the European part of Istanbul. A magnificent mosque stands in the shrine complex. Thousands of devotees visit the tomb every day. I have visited the shrine thrice, in 1994, 1998 and 2009.



Topkapi Palace Museum

A few years after the conquest of Istanbul, Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror ordered the construction of the Topkapi Palace, which was completed in 1465. The palace is located on the Seraglio Point between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, from where one gets a breath-taking view of the sea. For nearly four centuries the Topkapi Palace served as the residence of the Ottoman emperors. After the establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 it was turned into a museum.

The Topkapi Museum complex comprises royal residential quarters, sprawling gardens and several pavilions in which holy relics, a large collection of porcelain, weapons and armour, miniature paintings, jewellery, clocks and magnificent specimens of Islamic calligraphy are exhibited. The holy relics include the original manuscript of the Holy Quran that was commissioned at the instance of Caliph Uthman, one of the original letters of the Prophet, the Prophet’s mantle and his standard, two of his swords, and the swords of Caliph Abu Bakr and Caliph Uthman.

Events and Festivities

Before the launch of events and festivities marking Istanbul’s designation as the European capital of culture, the authorities embarked on an extensive programme of restoration and renovation of historical, architectural and cultural sites, including the city’s traditional wooden houses from the Ottoman era, tombs and shrines, fountains and bazaars. The events and programmes, which commenced in January this year, include exhibitions, workshops, musical concerts, symposia, fairs, light and sound shows and art performances. Around 170 cultural events have been planned. The city hopes to attract up to 10 million visitors and tourists in the course of the year.

The events and programmes cover wide-ranging themes and subjects, which highlight Istanbul’s historical, political and cultural links with contemporary civilizations and cultures, its historical character as a bridge between East and West, its multiethnic social fabric, its rich architectural, cultural and religious heritage and its vibrant ethos. An exhibition “Assyrians in Istanbul” highlights the city’s historical links with the Assyrian Empire and the presence and contribution of the Assyrian community to the city. Another exhibition, to be held on landscaped grounds on the shores of the Bosporus from September to November, will focus on the history of the Byzantine Empire, showcased through objects and artifacts from major Turkish museums as well as the British Museum, the Vatican Museum, the Louvre and the Hermitage. The Ottoman Empire had close military, political and cultural relations with Russia in the 16th and 17th centuries. The historical relations between the Ottoman Empire and Russia were highlighted in an exhibition on Treasures of Kremlin Palace, held at the Topkapi Palace Museum from February to May.

For centuries the Ottoman Empire acted as the Asian gateway to Europe and as a principal conduit through which Asian goods and commodities were imported to Mediterranean Europe. Istanbul served as a major centre for inter-cultural understanding and dialogue between the Islamic world and the West. An exhibition Breaking the Stereotypes, held from May 14 to June 27, focused on the images that East and West have of each other, as reflected in literature, art, music, media and daily life.

For centuries Istanbul and other Turkish cities have been renowned for their exquisite handicrafts and art objects such as glassware, metalware, wood carving, book binding and wooden, brass and mother-of-pearl inlaywork. An exhibition, with the participation of about 500 artists and artisans, will showcase Istanbul’s rich cultural and artistic heritage. A symposium on Creative Industries and Cities in the 21st Century is scheduled on November 11-12. A series of musical concerts called Music of Istanbul Architecture have been held at the sumptuous 19th-century Dolmabahce Palace, Galata Dervish Lodge, Topkapi Museum, St Irene church and the Armenian church. The International Istanbul Music Festival opened in the city on June 7. A musical and literary event Istanbul’s Languages/Istanbul Songs featured the folk songs of the city’s Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities. Another concert Balkanist—Istanbul 2010 Balkan Music Festival focused on the city’s role as a centre of music for the Balkan region.

Turkey has played a highly important role in preserving and fostering the art of Islamic calligraphy. An exhibition 99 Qurans, to be held at the Galata Dervish Lodge from September 5 to November 15, will showcase specimens of Quranic calligraphy preserved in Turkish museums. Sufi music and literature will be highlighted every Sunday throughout the year at Istanbul’s Yenikapi Mevlevi Lodge.

Postscript: Capitals of Culture in the Islamic World

Islamic civilization has made a highly significant contribution to the process of urbanization and the founding of cities and towns. In earlier times, cities in the Islamic world served not only as the nerve centres of administration and communication but also of culture, learning, architecture and the arts and scientific and technological innovations. Cities such as Madina, Fez, Isfahan, Tashkent, Samarqand, Marrakesh, Bukhara, Cordoba, Tabriz, Cairo, Istanbul, Delhi, Lahore, Seville, Xativa, Herat, Qayrawan, Granada, Tripoli, Damascus, Basra, Baghdad, Shiraz, and Sana’a were envied for their beauty, town planning, architecture, institutions of learning and scientific academies.

The Arab League, under Unesco’s Cultural Capital Programme, took the initiative in 1996 to designate each year selected cities in the Arab world as capitals of culture. The initiative was aimed at promoting, celebrating and showcasing Arab cultural heritage and at encouraging cooperation in the Arab region. From 1996 to 2010, 14 cities in the Arab region were designated as capitals of culture. These are listed in the following.

This is undoubtedly a commendable initiative. However, considering that nearly 80% of the world’s Muslim population is of non-Arab origin, the scope of the project of capitals of culture needs to be expanded so as to encompass all great and historic cities located in the Arab and non-Arab regions of the Islamic world. The initiative taken by the European Union and Unesco in respect of capitals of culture has much to offer to a prospective project on capitals of culture in the Islamic world.

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