Istanbul: There are two sides to this city’s story

Istanbul will ring in the New Year as a European City of Culture. It's a well-deserved honour, says Adrian Mourby, for they're still digging up objects that could be the oldest signs of civilisation in the history of the continent

New Year's Eve in Istanbul is always noisy. As I waited for a cab in Taksim Square, people were throwing sparklers in the air. Someone was setting off firecrackers and the crowd were shouting happily, if incoherently, at the large public TV screens. I'd no idea what was being said but no one seemed angry. It was a random celebration of noise.

In front of the modern opera house, enormous speakers were belting out Sertab Erener's hit "City of Hearts for Sale" while taxi drivers pounded their horns in time to Istanbul's unofficial anthem. Everywhere, the night was full of the smell of cordite and sizzling meat. If I hadn't been late, I might have stopped to enjoy the spectacle.

That was New Year's Eve 2009; this year it's going to be even wilder, I imagine, when 2010 ushers in Istanbul as Europe's new Capital of Culture.

Last year, after I had finally managed to flag down a cab, I sat with the driver going nowhere together for a quarter of an hour. He and I could have walked faster. It is a sad fact that anything worth celebrating always clogs the infrastructure in Istanbul. My hope had been to travel over to the Asian side to see the celebrations in Bagdat Street.

The driver was from across the Bosphorus. Yes, he told me, they party just as hard on the Asian side of Istanbul. We should never forget – and the sceptics certainly make sure we don't – that this new European Capital of Culture straddles two continents: although the Istanbul of Mehmed the Conqueror had its foundations in Europe, it long ago extended across the Bosphorus.

"I don't think we're going to make it," he told me with a sigh. "Very bad. What we need is a Metro under the Bosphorus."

"I thought you were getting a Metro under the Bosphorus," I replied.

"I am a Muslim, my friend. Always delays. Do you know what Inshallah means?"

I love this city – but only when I'm stationary, never when I'm travelling. I told him to take me straight to Ortakoy. Maybe my idea of seeing both sides of Istanbul on a night like tonight was just too ambitious.

By the time my philosophical driver and I had edged our way down to the quayside at Ortakoy, a free concert was in full swing inside a white temporary dome. This picture-postcard city-village, below the Bosphorus suspension bridge, grew up as a farming community, a market garden that fed the Ottoman capital from its orchards. Today, its ornate wooden houses are home to boutiques and souvenir shops that don't break the bank.

Above me, soaring 1.5km east, the great bridge was illuminated with shifting colours: green, then purple, then pink. A Turkish gunboat motored past in the wake of a huge Russian tanker. Noisy crowds milled around the 19th-century Büyük Mecidiye Mosque, a fussy little marble structure with two delicate minarets that contrast acutely with the vast modern concrete bridge above. Everyone was waiting for the first fireworks of the New Year to explode over Asia.

I had arranged to meet Ersun, an archaeologist friend from the University here, and, of course, I was early now. When Ersun arrived, he seized my hand in a good-natured test of strength and suggested we headed to 5kat, a late-night drinking-club. Ersun considers himself a good Muslim, but is also a lover of good wine. "This is not a problem for me. Is it for you?" he asked.

As we waited for another taxi, I pointed out posters of a man with a white beard dressed in a red suit wishing everyone a Happy New Year. Because secular Turkey doesn't formally celebrate Christmas, our Western decorations – Santa, snowflakes, fir trees and sleighs – get co-opted into the Turkish New Year. "This is our legacy from Ataturk," said Ersun. "You can thank him for the survival of the Turkish state after 1918, but also for our opera, our wine bars and Santa Claus."

Half an hour later we were propping up the bar at 5kat, which is run by flame-haired Yasemin Alkaya, a Turkish indie actress. "What's she been in?" I asked, against the din of Heavy Sufi Electronica. Ersun drew on his cigarette. "Sidewalk Sisters," he said, "Yasam Arsizi. Or did you miss the Istanbul International Film Festival last year?"

5kat is over the top in a louche, downbeat way. It's full of long red sofas, gilt mirrors and resting actors. Fortunately, there is a great view across European Istanbul to Asia from its picture windows. Ersun and I talked about exciting new discoveries at his dig in Yenikapi, then he went off to work the room, smoking, joking and slapping backs. I joined those who were lining the windows for a first glimpse of 2009.

"On! Dokuz! Sekiz!" As the countdown began someone swung open the windows, letting the cigarette smoke out and the sounds of the city in. I'd swear you could hear the countdown all over Istanbul. "Dört, üç! Iki, bir! Happy New Year!"

Suddenly, the first fireworks burst up from the Asian side. Then the boats on the Bosphorus joined in, small vessels, stacked with rockets that they pumped out with a military rapidity. Soon both sides of the city were ablaze, huge starbursts illuminating palaces and minarets along the Bosphorus, as car drivers in every direction thumped their horns. "I have just seen New Year occur on two continents simultaneously," I said to a young woman who clearly did not understand me. Only rarely in life do you get such a sense of being in the right place at the right time.

Ersun and I emerged an hour later in the company of a musician called Tolga and two other men who suddenly decided they had to go and visit somebody's mother. I do like the way that Turkish men can drink and party without getting aggressive or maudlin under the influence of alcohol. The three of us walked as far as Istiklal Street, a long fashionable pedestrian zone that was further away than I thought. Affluent Istiklal stays open all night on New Year's Eve and well into New Year's Day.

After looking into shops selling dresses that no one, not even my stick-insect 15-year-old stepdaughter, could squeeze themselves into, we parted, the two of them piling into Cicek Pasaji, an Art Nouveau arcade that I love. It's stylish with friendly waiters who never sleep and it serves reasonably priced food, but tonight I just wanted to get back to my hotel. I had an early start next morning exploring this City of Culture.

Of course, I should say cultures. Part of the joy of Istanbul is that it is several cities clearly piled on top of each other. The known records tell that it began life in the seventh century BC as Byzantion, a Greek trading colony. In 330AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine designated the city he called Byzantium "Nova Roma" as the eastern capital of his empire. Nova Roma soon outstripped Rome itself, expanding to truly imperial proportions.

After Constantine's death, the city was renamed "Constantinople" in his honour and it dominated the civilised world for a thousand years, attracting the envious attentions of the Venetians, who repeatedly raided it to finance the decoration of their own ambitious city. Then, in 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, who renamed it Istanbul and rebuilt it yet again. I suppose you could say there was another Istanbul thanks to Ataturk, a big cosmopolitan city that was no longer the capital of an Islamic empire. A secular New York to Ankara's Washington.

I awoke to a reminder of Ottoman Istanbul, hearing a muezzin switching on his sound system very, very early from the park opposite my hotel. New Year does not interrupt the call to prayer, even in secular Turkey. Down below in the Ciragan Palace, the staff had already cleared away the debris from last night's impossibly expensive ball.

I spent a morning on the Asian side of Istanbul looking at Kiz Kulesi, the tiny fairytale island palace in which a Byzantine despot is supposed to have imprisoned his daughter. It cropped up later in the James Bond movie The World is Not Enough.

Then, I then took in Anadoluhisari, the fortress on the Asian side that was built by the Ottoman army prior to the conquest of Constantinople. This city was the great prize. How many years must that mighty army have gazed across the Bosphorus, longing to make the journey that I did by taxi in a mere quarter of an hour.

At midday on 2 January I met a very tired-looking Ersun at his dig down near the ferry terminal of Yenikapi, which is off Kennedy Caddesi. At this stage, people were still speculating about what actually lay below the Bosphorus mud. All I knew was that Ersun and his colleagues were delaying the completion of the Yenkapi Metro station.

"We thought we were just uncovering a Greek port," he told me, as we parted the tarpaulin and watched one of 34 sunken boats being lifted out. "Six hundred BC we thought! Yet some of the graves down there go back 8,000 years."

Bizarrely, no one had any idea what was below Yenikapi until they started digging for the Bosphorus Metro. "We're bringing out jewellery, combs, sandals. My head of department says they've brought up more than a thousand candle-holders. I thought I knew this city, but this – it redefines everything."

Since January 2009, President Abdullah Gul has decreed that a new museum will be built in 2010 to showcase Istanbul's prehistoric finds at Yenikapi. I gather these could turn out to be some of the oldest signs of civilisation in the history of Europe. This latest Capital of Culture will have even more culture to celebrate next year.

How to get there

Adrian Mourby flew to Istanbul with Turkish Airlines (0844 800 6666;, which offers return flights to Istanbul from £154 return. He stayed at the Ciragan Palace (00 90 212 326 4646;, which offers double rooms from €253 (£226) per night.

Further information

Turkish Culture and Tourism Office (

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