Despite not being Turkey’s capital city, Istanbul is the country’s most populous and culturally significant city. Situated in the Marmara region (in Western Turkey), Istanbul is a transcontinental city where Europe and Asia collide through the Bosphorus strait. The European side of the city is known for its intense commercial activity, traffic and numerous historical buildings, monuments and attractions, whereas the Asian side is home to approximately 30% of the city’s population. Istanbul is also divided by the world-renowned Golden Horn, where both Constantinople and Byzantium were founded.
From a morphological perspective, Istanbul is similar to Rome in that it is said to have been founded within seven hills, each of which is currently top by an imperial mosque. The city’s terrain may be defined as hilly and, at times, even abrupt. Çamlıca Hill is nearly 290 meters high and is the city’s highest point. Unlike the southern part of the city, the northern half of Istanbul is remarkably elevated, with certain locations exceeding 200 meters of altitude and the northern end of the Bosphorus being characterized by steep cliffs. Due to its vicinity to the North Anatolian Fault, Istanbul has experienced a number of catastrophic earthquakes over the centuries and will probably witness one more within the next few decades.
In the past, Istanbul was known as Turkey’s cultural hub, where multiple ethnicities and cultures coexisted in harmony. However, conservative political parties have been striving to promote typically Turkish traditions and values in an attempt to minimize any Western influence on the local population. Despite Ataturk’s efforts to modernize and secularize Turkey, the current national government has been persuading young Turks to embrace the Islamic religion and old Turkish practices, thus causing Istanbul to go through a period of cultural stagnation. Nevertheless, Istanbul is home to numerous museums (both ancient and modern), universities, bazaars and other attractions that make it one of the world’s most fascinating cities.
Once a truly cosmopolitan city, following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire Istanbul became increasingly homogenous in both ethnic and religious terms. As of today, Turks represent the city’s largest ethnic group, followed by a number of minorities, including Kurds, Albanians, Chechens and a few others. Most people in Istanbul are Muslim Sunnis, however the city is also home to a significant number of Alevis.
Istanbul has one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. In 2011, its PPP-adjusted GDP exceeded US$ 300 billion, which made it the world’s 29th urban area. Being responsible for nearly 30% of the entire country’s GDP and being home to approximately 20% of Turkey’s industrial workforce, Istanbul is a remarkably productive city.
The Maiden’s Tower is a fascinating tower situated on a small islet in the Bosphorus Strait. It is said that the islet was used by Alcibiades as a station for ships. When the Ottomans were trying to conquer Istanbul, the islet served as a fort where a Byzantine garrison stayed for some time. Later on, the islet was used as a watchtower. According to an old legend, the tower that lies on top of the island was built by an Ottoman sultan after he was told that his daughter would be bitten by a poisonous snake and die at the age of eighteen. In order to protect her, he had her hidden in the tower.
The Golden Horn
The Golden Horn provides access to the Bosphorus strait and is mentioned in numerous literary masterpieces. During the Byzantine and Ottoman period, it was a dynamic trading center as well as a culturally diverse area. In fact, it was home to the city’s largest Jewish community.
The Bosphorus Strait
The Bosphorus Strait is one of the main reasons why over the millennia, Greeks, Persians, Romans, Ottomans and many other populations have invaded Istanbul. Its military and commercial strategic significance made it extremely appealing to all those populations that wished to exploit international commerce.