We arrived in Istanbul for the first time in 1994 smelling of smoke. We came on a bus all the way from Athens. Back then people could smoke cigarettes in the enclosed buses and both the Greeks and Turks all smoked with abandon. The whole trip felt like a night in a smoky jazz club, but without the jazz or the cocktails. Just an occasional splash of lemon cologne for a short respite.
After a shower and a nap though, it only took us a few hours of wandering the streets of Sultanahmet to decide this was the place we wanted to settle down in for a while to teach English. It was exotic, it was lively, and we could quickly tell that the food was better here than in Greece.
I had a writing assignment reviewing hotels throughout the country, so we explored the rest of Turkey first. We hit the main attractions of Cappadocia, Pamukale, and Ephesus, while also skimming along the coast to Bodrum, Antalya, Marmaris, and Side. When we returned to Istanbul, we started work in the suburb of Bakırköy, just as winter was arriving.
Every time we had a day off, we went sightseeing. We never came close to running out of interesting things to see. Admission prices were often a dollar or two back then and the sites were hardly ever crowded. Everything seemed cheap then, actually, even on our low teaching salaries. The equivalent of one U.S. dollar could get us a big dolmuş sandwich, a large beer, four rides on the tram, two loaves of bread, 200 grams of shelled pistachios, or two round-trip ferry rides from Europe to Asia.
We seldom saw the sun the whole winter though because most of the buildings were heated with coal. Instead our students brightened up our days. They were vibrant, social, and living life to the fullest. Financially they lived week to week, however: inflation was so bad in the mid-90s in Turkey that we would pass an exchange booth, go eat lunch, and the rate was worse when we returned. We were also Turkish Lira millionaires every time we got paid. Before the government chopped off all the zeros and issued new banknotes, we would frequently pay for things with a million lira banknote. The students’ tuition price changed every month and at one point we received two cost of living increases in as many months.
Each time I have returned to Istanbul, the changes have been almost too dramatic to believe. When we wandered around Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace in the mid-90s, Turkey was hosting fewer than 500,000 tourists a year and we sometimes felt like we had the places to ourselves. Now this is one of the world’s top-10 destinations and it gets around 80 times more visitors than it did just two decades ago. For around a decade Turkey has been one of the world’s fastest growing economies on the planet and it shows. There’s clearly a much bigger middle class, the rich have gotten richer, and the infrastructure changes are like night and day. There’s far more traffic on the roads, but also a much better array of public transportation. Two decades ago nobody looked at Turkish Airlines as a major carrier, but now they fly to more countries than anyone else, their upper class cabins are superb, and their airport business class lounge is a thing of wonder.
Probably nowhere on the planet do the ancient and contemporary cozy up so close and so often as in central Istanbul. When you spend time in this long-thriving city, one era doesn’t nose out the other. Both exist in front of you and in the psyche of the people. What you have for lunch at Matbah restaurant may be what was served in the Ottoman sultan’s dining room 500 years ago. You may ride a gleaming electric tram car to see the Basilica Cistern built by the Romans in the sixth century.
It should be no surprise really that this city has changed greatly in two decades, that period being just a speck in its long history. While most cities count their past by hundreds of years, landmarks in Istanbul aren’t considered “old” unless they go back at least a millennium. Byzantium, Constantinople, then Istanbul, this strategically located crossroads is the link between Europe and Asia, between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Here when you say, “Trading is in their blood,” while walking through the Grand Bazaar, you’re talking about blood going back to 600 BC.
It’s not all rosy, of course. Turkey has clearly become less secular since my partying early days when we visited nightclubs and casinos until the wee hours. The rise in both head scarves and more restrictive press laws is starting to impact foreign investment and tourism. The bitter divide in ideology sometimes erupts in the streets and the spill- over from the meltdown in Syria creates further challenges.
This country has come through challenges before though and surely will again. The resilient Turks will remain relevant on the world stage, with a few ebbs and flows in the history books. I’m sure that after another two decades goes by, Istanbul will still be one of the world’s most interesting cities—and it probably will be 200 or 500 years from now too.
by TIM LEFFEL