Remember the old adage: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet”? This oft-quoted expression is the first line of a ballad by Rudyard Kipling in which he examines the vast differences between the cultures and traditions of the United Kingdom and those of Afghanistan. This familiar, initial line is an echo of the Psalm 103:12b where a similar figure of speech is used to express the universality of the divine law that reaches across the vast distances that separate various cultures. So the ballad is not strictly about geographical borders per se, even though it is most often understood in that way. Rather, it focuses upon the mores and values of two vastly different cultures that are half a world apart.
This ballad comes to mind whenever I travel to Istanbul because this vibrant city is situated on both sides of a waterway that separates two continents. Like the Ural Mountains farther to the north, the Bosporus forms the boundary between Europe and Asia. In geographical terms, this is where East meets West–Kipling’s ballad notwithstanding!
Istanbul, a city of 17 million people, is not only a mix of East and West, but also of the old and the new. Istanbul is mystical, ancient, and modern all at the same time. Here you see everywhere the blend of influences from the two continents because in Istanbul the rich history of the East is mixed with the influence of the modern, Western world. An ancient mosque, for example, may be found adjacent to a shopping mall. Instances of Ottoman architecture are sometimes found alongside the McDonald’s golden arches! The trendy high life, the postcard tourist areas, the garbage-filled streets where refugees and gypsies live in crumbling, abandoned buildings are just some of the sights you will discover in this fascinating city. Wherever you wander in Istanbul people crowd its streets 24/7.
My most recent visit here was in 2016 when I arrived on a flight from Toronto aboard a sleek Turkish Airlines jet traveling this time with my son, Michael. Turkish Airlines boasts that it flies to more countries in the world than any other airline. The airport is located on the European side, and a taxi into the city center provides jet-lagged tourists with a quick introduction to the horrendous traffic that clogs the roadways of the world’s 5th most populous city. One traffic study listed Istanbul as the world’s second most congested city behind Moscow. I believe it!
Our hotel was located on Istanbul’s European side overlooking Golden Horn–a major urban waterway and the primary inlet of the Bosporus. This waterway gets its name from the “golden” color of its water at sunset when the rays of the setting sun dance upon its surface. The Golden Horn was a trading harbor and a large residential area during the ancient Byzantium and Constantinople periods. Connecting with the Bosporus Strait at the point where the strait meets the Sea of Marmara, its waters define the northern boundary of the peninsula.
There was no need to cross over to Istanbul’s Asian side during the journey from the airport to the hotel. In fact, many tourists prefer to visit the European side because of its many historical attractions and because it is home to two-thirds of the population of Istanbul. This means that shopping malls and hundreds of smaller shops are to be found on the European side. The Asian side, on the other hand, feels less crowded and more relaxed, with wide boulevards, residential neighborhoods, and far fewer hotels and tourist attractions.
Later that afternoon we took the popular Bosporus cruise from Istanbul to Anadolu Kavagi, which is located near the southern tip of the Black Sea. The Bosporus (literally meaning “throat”) is a narrow waterway that unites the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and, by extension (via the Dardanelles), with the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. Most of the towns and villages along the shores of this strait are heavily populated as Istanbul’s metropolitan population of 17 million inhabitants spills inland from both coasts. Together with the Dardanelles, the Bosporus forms the Turkish Straits.
The cruise along this 20-mile-long waterway is several degrees beyond picturesque. The route passes beneath two suspension bridges that connect Europe and Asia: the Bosporus Bridge and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge (sometimes called Bosporus Bridge II). These modern engineering marvels stand in stark contrast to the “old world” architecture so evident along this waterway. For example, as you depart from Istanbul there are impressive views of the famous Istanbul landmarks such as the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia.
Several ancient forts and castles also dot the shores of the Bosporus. Some of the ships that ply these waters allow passengers to “hop off and on” at various spots along the route. For instance, at one stop you can take a tour of the 19th century Dolmabahce Palace. Located on the European side of the Bosporus, this grand and imposing palace was home to the last six sultans of the Ottoman Empire. Constructed in the mid-19th century and measuring over one million square feet, the Dolmabahce Palace is easily the most impressive structure along the shores of the Bosporus.
Another impressive, though somewhat less expansive, structure is Rumeli Hisari Castle and Fort–also situated on the European side near the Bosporus Bridge II. The site includes remains of the fortified walls, towers, gates, fountains, and a mosque. It currently functions as a cultural center with an open-air theater and a museum, set within the lower part of the recently built Bosporus University Campus. The Rumeli Hisari Castle was built by Mehmet the Conqueror prior to the conquest of Constantinople.
We arrived around noon at Anadolu Kavagi, on the Asian side, and we found an outdoor café for a quick lunch. Then we took a taxi up the mountain to the Yoros Castle where there is a spectacular, panoramic view of the Black Sea. The ruins of this Byzantine castle are situated on a hill that overlooks the confluence of the Bosporus and the Black Sea.
On the return voyage to Istanbul, looking out over the waters of the Bosporus, it was impossible for me not to wonder why Europe and Asia remain so far apart culturally when the two continents are so close geographically–just a few hundred meters apart along much of this route! The sad truth is, however, that the conflicts between East and West differ so widely at the very root of what defines how societies are organized. Industrialization, free enterprise, and cultural pluralism are the defining principles in the West. These ideals stand in stark contrast to the more restrictive industrial, capitalistic, and ethnic patterns of the East. Historically, the Eastern model has favored a more centralized state, often tilting towards totalitarianism as the “accepted” form of government. These differences, and others, seem to some to be absolutely irreconcilable. So at the end of the day, not in a geographical sense but in a societal one, maybe Kipling was correct: “East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet.”