Skip to main content

Minarets and malls: a city that straddles continents

Istanbul, with its skyline of domes and minarets, now dotted with skyscrapers and shopping malls, is the only city in the world located on two continents: half is in Europe and the other half in Asia.

Boats and ferries ply the Bosphorus, the narrow waterway that represents this geographical frontier, and two bridges span it. But while it is physically easy to cross the divide, psychologically it can be a lot more difficult. Many Turks find themselves torn between a European, Western identity and an Asian or Middle Eastern one.

"I don't see myself as a European," says Berrin Kale, a young teacher of Turkish at a high school in Istanbul. "I see myself more as stuck between East and West."

We are talking in a waterfront cafe on the western side of the Bosphorous, the edge of Europe, where people dressed in every style - from London fashions to hijabs - gather to drink tea and play backgammon.

"In the intellectual or cultural sense," she says, "I feel closer to Europe. But when it comes to friendships, relationships, the way we live, I feel much more eastern."

It's a sentiment shared by Saliha Erdemlice, originally from the Turkish Mediterranean city of Antalya, who now lives in Istanbul. "Sometimes I feel European, sometimes I don't," she says."I find many European people's behaviour patterns go against my beliefs. But in terms of being a civilised person, I do feel European. But in terms of social and moral values, I don't."

It's a distinction that many Turks - 99 per cent of whom are Muslim - often make: culture is one thing, morality and values another.

Opinion polls put support for joining the EU at 70 per cent, but not everyone is convinced it is a good idea. "We are not European," says Mehmet Sacar, who runs a small textile business in Istanbul. "But there is no need to have an inferiority complex about thisI I believe that Turkey can prosper without the EU. Look at Japan, or China."

Ms Kale sees EU membership as a chance to improve Turkish people's lives via a better economy and freedom to travel.

But there are also fears about what might be lost.

"My concern is that our cultural differences will be erased," says Ms Erdemlice. "We will lose our traditions and habits and our characteristics as a nation."

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you