There are many astonishing facets to life in Turkey. From its history to its culture, from its cuisine to the hospitality of its people. But there are all sorts of other dynamics of a vast society that can only be gleaned from living and working in the country. Having had a chance to reside in Turkey for nearly five years, the early romanticism, exoticism and self-confessed Orientalism has not quite dissipated. The lived experience is often grittier and more manic in reality, but every time I am out of Istanbul, even for a few days, I miss it like no other city. What is this magic that it holds over me and countless others? I offer my top ten list, in alphabetical order, as below.
Coffee. Coffee houses established by the Ottomans in the centres of Europe during the end of the 17th century became the fuel for conversations that led scholars, thinkers and originators to inspire each other, and what later became the Renaissance. Today, connoisseurs of coffee throughout the world cannot but wonder at the sight, smell and sip of a perfectly brewed Turkish coffee. An intense shot of caffeine is unavoidably followed by a rush of energy in thought and action. After a Turkish breakfast, a Turkish coffee is a must. For the more dedicated, a Turkish coffee follows every substantial meal, morning, noon or night. The reading of the coffee cup residue is deemed an amusing pastime. Happily, few take the utterances of self-proclaimed soothsayers at all seriously.
Culture. Being in Turkey can make people imagine that they are at the midpoint of the world, and in many ways there is no other place on earth that provides such a sense of being centred. Turkey is the bridge of civilisations. It is the place where conceivably every major Empire, at one point or another, voyaged across it, whether in retreat or expansion. Istanbul is genuinely the place where the East and the West meet now as they have done in the past. The centre of the Eastern Christian Empire for 1,000 years, it was also the nucleus of the Muslim Ottoman Empire that lasted over 600 years. It is the junction, highway and intersecting point between immense multidimensional cultures that create the conditions for what was Turkey over the millennia and what it is today.
Diversity. The Ottoman Empire encompassed a huge landmass during its pinnacle. The territory contained many different ethnicities. The modern Turkish Republic reduced its borders, but within them remains a tremendous diversity of people whose differences in language, heritage, religion, cultural traditions and historical memory linger. Some of these diversities are suspended within a profound sense of nationalism that has become the Turkish political statement to many outside of the country. In Istanbul, there is often the homogenisation of the eastern and the western, but in other parts of the country these ethnic linguistic and cultural differences are unreservedly noticeable, and wholly fascinating to the discerning observer.
Food. Much of the cuisine reflects what is common across the region in terms of meats, sweets and breads, but there are huge localised variations to consider. In the South and south-east regions of Turkey the food is noticeably spicier, while in the North and north-east parts the food is more vegetable and fish based. But on the whole it is the Turkish breakfast which is indeed legendary. Home-made jams, cheeses, yoghurts, natural honey, breads, eggs, olives, vegetables, fruits, sauces, pickles, dips and spreads are often the norm. For Turkish families and friends, meeting for breakfast is not just about consuming delightful food, but also an opportunity to catch up and engage in all sorts of conversation, taking breaks in between courses as required. A breakfast lasts up to two hours, but it can set someone up for the rest of the day. The other aspect of the cuisine is the sweets in general, for they are as diverse as they are delicious. Baklava, Dondurma, Aşure and Tavuk göğsü, which is made from chicken breast, are all decidedly Turkish even if their origins emerge from a wider domain.
History. A great deal of historical interest exists in a country that has had the world’s most recognised civilisations passing through it, settling within it, reshaping it in their own image, and eventually leaving a legacy for others to emulate, reproduce and remember. From the Hittites, to the Persians, Romans, Christians, Seljuks and finally to the Ottomans, each civilisation has left behind a wealth of archaeological and cultural significance. It not only brings to Turkey tourists from all over the world but the opportunity to continue to research and identify the characteristics of early settled communities and their organisation, including the foods, customs and beliefs systems of old and its impact on the new.
Hospitality. Because of population concentrations and the limited transport infrastructure of Istanbul, jumping on to the Metrobus and trying to get a seat is comparable to an acute case of survival of the fittest, although younger Turks almost always give up their seat for the infirm, the elderly and mothers with children. Outside of Istanbul, where the pace of life is markedly gentler, and where the environment is more soothing to the eye and to the body, the extreme generosity and hospitality of the vast people of Turkey can be witnessed in full. Much of it is nested in the Sufi traditions of humility and piety, but it is also seen among others from different backgrounds. Kindliness is found everywhere in Turkish society, from the store keeper keen to sells his wares, to the bus driver who directs passengers to their destinations, or to the family who hosts for dinner, feeding their guests the finest of home-made foods until no more can be eaten, and then offered some more.
Istanbul. The city comprises a population of nearly 18m people who live compactly among each other in densely concentrated zones of urban settlements that are loosely connected by major roads and thoroughfares. But for the people of the world who come to see Istanbul for the first time, they only observe the remarkable splendour of the ancient sites dating back to the Romans and the Ottomans in particular. The locals may proudly not even notice what lies within, but for those who are new to the city the romanticism is overwhelming. Within the old quarters there are various stores, cafes, boutiques, bookshops, restaurants and second hand furniture outfits that cater for every conceivable taste and preference. There are churches, synagogues and late Ottoman architecture that is either invisible, hidden or transformed. And connecting the eastern and western parts of the city and indeed the world is the Bosporus Sea. It is still a marvel to behold. There is no end in thinking through what may lie at the bottom of that sea.
Nationalism. Every Turk is a proud Turk whether they are Islamist or secular, Conservative or Liberal, leftist or rightist, pro-European or anti-European. Though this may be seen as a significant detail, it leads to all sorts of deeply held ideological perspectives that do not always yield or transform in the light of social exchange and interaction. Rather, the tendencies are for polarities to remain acutely embedded in the political, religious and cultural sphere. At times of national crisis, for example in the case of the Gezi Park events in 2013, different factions can unite under a collective sense of disenfranchisement and dislocation at the hands of a seemingly neoliberal authoritarian administration. This was never witnessed before in the recent history of Turkey, but it will probably never be seen again unless something similarly and singularly eventful occurs again.
Rumi. ‘Come, come, whoever you are’, said Rumi to whom he gave his knowledge, spirituality and insight on love, life and the universe. Rumi has become one of Turkey’s most famous exports, with his poetry and verse remaining enormously popular in the West. Today, the whirling dervishes perform to devoted followers of Sufism and Islam and swathes of tourists are enchanted by the symbolism, sounds and serenity of the Sema. Konya, the final resting place of Rumi and Shams, his closest follower and friend, witnesses thousands upon thousands visiting the tombs and remembering the wisdom of the ancients.
Weather. Turkey is one of the few places in the world that continues to experience the variability of the four seasons of the year. In February 2015, Istanbul had its worst snowfall for 28 years, reaching 76cm in certain instances. It locked down the city for three whole days. When spring kicks in, there are tulips blooming all over the city. Bright yellow, blue and red colours can be seen from every corner. During the summer, the days are long and the nights are short, but the heat remains everlasting. In August, temperatures near the southern Aegean coast can reach the mid-40s. The beaches are white and the water is pure blue. In many ways, it is paradise on earth. While the deficit of green spaces and trees in Istanbul distorts the effect, the shades of autumn can be seen in their full in other parts of the country, especially near the Black Sea region which is discernibly greener throughout the whole year. Linked to the weather is the light. There is something quite magical about the sunlight that emerges at dawn and dims at sunset, and in whichever part of Turkey it is.