Istanbul readies for European cultural capital

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The Independent Online

Istanbul will launch this weekend a year of art events as it becomes one of the three Cultural Capitals of Europe for 2010, giving Turkey an occasion to reaffirm its European anchor.

Istanbul, which once served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman empires, was designated in 2006 by the European Union to serve as a cultural capital along with the German city of Essen and the Hungarian city of Pecs.

The first Turkish city to be given the title, Istanbul hopes to attract up to 10 million visitors with around 170 cultural events - more than the 7.5 million tourists that visited the city last year.

The accolade also has a political dimension for Turkey, whose EU accession negotiations since 2005 are opposed by some member states, notably bloc heavyweights France and Germany, according to Cengiz Aktar, an EU expert at Istanbul's Bahcesehir University.

"There is obviously a link between the title of European Culture Capital and the European process of Turkey, if only in the possibility to show Turkey in Europe and Europe in Turkey," said Aktar, one of the supporters of Istanbul's candidacy.

The official inauguration of the city's year as cultural capital on Saturday will offer a collection of concerts, street shows and firework displays. Several museums also plan to stay open until midnight.

Some 5,000 guests have been invited to a reception hosted by Turkish President Abdullah Gul and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Ministers from some 20 European countries are also expected to attend, organisers said.

Founded by Roman Emporor Constantine in 330s under the name of Constantinople, Istanbul has grown into a sprawling metropolis of some 14 million people, spreading over dozens of kilometres on both sides of the Bosphorus Strait separating Europe and Asia.

The agency reponsible for the events, Istanbul 2010, selected about 520 projects, two thirds of which are related to historical heritage and the remaining to arts events, the agency's secretary-general Yilmaz Kurt was quoted as saying by the Anatolia news agency.

The programme will feature the opening in July of the Museum of Innocence, conceived by 2006 Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk; the exhibition "From Byzantium to Istanbul" from September to November; the European Universities Theatre Festival in May and a concert by Irish rock ban U2 in September.