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Story Publication logo November 29, 2008

Forgotten Capital: Images and text


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A resurgent Turkey is shifting from a linchpin of the Western system to an independent-minded actor...


Whether Istanbul or Constantinople, this solitary city that straddles both Europe and Asia and was the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, has always exerted a splendor that bequeathed it its Greek epithet, the Vasilevousa (the Reigning/Majestic One).

Istanbul is a multi-layered city built in overlapping urban strata. Recent archaeological discoveries of skeletons unearthed in the city's Yenikapi district reveal that this Turkish and deeply cosmopolitan metropolis of 16 million inhabitants has been inhabited since the Neolithic Era, nearly 8.500 years ago.

The facades of Istanbul's buildings say as much about the cultural influences that shaped the city as a landscape moulded by successive generations of inhabitants. The city's winding lanes and grid structure demonstrate the urban layout of both a Muslim and a Western city. The traces of the numerous ethnic communities living alongside a Turkish majority are everywhere apparent. Historical populations of Arabs, Armenians, Greeks, Gypsies, Jews, Kurds are today supplemented by an ever more exotic ethnic mix of immigrants jostling to slip past the sentinels at the EU's well-guarded gateway.

In the rambling neighbourhoods stretching far inland from the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmaris into the Asian and European hinterlands, today's Istanbul has many faces: Sufis perform a sweaty zikr ceremony on a foggy January night; shoppers crowd the arcades of the grand pedestrianised commercial avenue of Istiklal; slum-dwellers inhabit the rapidly gentrifying neighbourhood of Tarlabashi; devout Christians light candles at the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate; and glittering women dance in the street at a raucous working-class wedding in the old Jewish neighbourhood of Balat. Frozen in time, these are some of the many faces that Istanbul reveals at every turn.

Iason Athanasiadis is a writer and photographer documenting the Middle East. Some of the following images were first exhibited in 2006 at the Istanbul, the Forgotten Capital exhibition in Tehran's Mehrva Gallery.

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