Istanbul: city of hüzün

Hüzün, melancholy or nostalgia in Turkish, is a feeling to be found in many cities, but nowhere to the extent you can find in the streets of Istanbul.

Byzantium, Constantinople, Istanbul, the former capital of two worlds empires (Roman and Ottoman) during fifteen centuries.
It has been called “The Queen of Cities” and “City of the World’s Desire” by travelers and writers.

Straddling Europe and Asia, ruling over vast territories in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa, it was always destined, by geography and history, to be an important global hub.

Her people live surrounded by remains of imperial glory whereas they live now in a provincial city since Ankara became the capital of the new Republic.

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This feeling of being neither here nor there, somewhat always in transition, with the past still very much there and the future still to materialize fully, exacerbates this melancholy, this atmosphere of lack of fulfillment and uncertainty about who they are and where they are heading to.

Or is it the centuries´ old fate of a people, the Turks, that starting moving from Central Asia, slowly but steadily moving west, to arrive at the doors of Europe, but are not yet part of it?

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Or maybe simply the nostalgia of the times when Istanbul was the center of an empire straddling three continents, when people from Ottoman provinces (now many independent countries), could be heard chatting in so many languages while crossing the Galata Bridge or walking around the Rue de Pera?

They, or they families, remember the prominence of substantial Greek and other communities in the city life, whereas now their hitherto elegant houses are inhabited by more recent and poorer Anatolian migrants.

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It is so easy in Istanbul, while wandering around former Greek or Armenian quarters to imagine how this city felt central, cosmopolitan, where speaking several of the languages of the empire came naturally to their residents, side by side with their mother tongue.

When they could speak Turk with a neighbor, Greek or Hebrew in a shop, Persian at the imperial court and Arabic at the mosque.

When being an Ottoman from Constantinople was not at all synonymous with being Turk, and in some ways many Turks from the Anatolian provinces felt like foreigners in their capital.

Whereas now, most of these cosmopolitan citizens are gone, due to war, the new republic and later conflicts, and their place has been occupied by other immigrants, mostly Turks from Anatolia and other poorer provinces, but also economic refugees from the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

The place of the merchant from Aleppo, the official from Cairo, the Janissary from the Balkans, the moneylender from a Jewish family expelled from Spain and the sailor from a Greek island, now replaced by a Syrian refugee, a Gipsy, a street vendor from Colombo or Lagos and a Ukrainian young lady.

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However, many old families continue to keep traditional customs while, over the last century, the city has experienced rapid westernization and modernization, a population explosion that make it the biggest city in Europe with over 15 million inhabitants, and spectacular economic development. This has created sharp contrast between modern and traditional ways of life.

They live in a country that aspires to European modernity ever since Ataturk, while the Asian and Middle East influences become ever more present and EU accession recedes in the horizon.

Some of them pious Muslims, others utterly westernized. Some striving to make ends meet, others very affluent and flashy. Some firmly looking West to Europe and the USA, others looking East to Anatolia and Asia.

But all of them sharing the same rapidly growing city, the same fast developing country, the same drive to live better lives, the same nostalgia for the time when, and the place where, things were better, more familiar, more authentic.

Very different backgrounds and expectations, but similar desire to improve their lot in life.

These sharp contradictions of old imperial splendor and modern squalor, of traditional Muslim values and western modernity, of poor immigrants and new rich Anatolians, shape life in Istanbul, giving their citizens this unsettling sense of loss and disorientation, this melancholy, this “hüzün”.

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