My Istanbul, Then and Now

by Raisa Bruner

Four years ago is nothing more than a blink of an eye in the life of a city. But for me, it’s been a long four years — and as far as I can tell, Istanbul has changed.

I first arrived in Istanbul exactly four years ago with my family, ready to test out Asia for the first time. We stayed in Sultanahmet, just a few blocks from where the Globalist stayed this summer. We visited the Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia — and left each sight more impressed than the last. We tasted our fair share of savory kebap, baklava, and çay. Enamored with Istanbul’s glittering Ottoman past, we strolled awestruck through the Grand Bazaar and haggled for brightly colored pashminas. The Bosphorus was consistently a clear blue. The sun was always out in force. My family remembers our week in Istanbul fondly.

Istanbul is nothing if not a picturesque city, brimming with unusual skylines and waterways. (Bruner/TYG)

Istanbul enchanted me then, and returning to it last month I found it brimming with all its charms, still as seductive as ever. The smell of apple nargileh smoke; the way the mosques shine in buttery-gold light in the early evening; the odd jumble of Ottoman strangeness and European familiarity; the Grand Bazaar’s overindulgence of merchandise. These are experiences that I will associate with Istanbul always. They haven’t changed. Like any city who has been through it all, Istanbul will hold tightly to the things that characterize her.

It's easy to get lost in the labyrinthine Grand Bazaar, overwhelmed by the sheer number of stalls and options. (Bruner/TYG)

But my time in the city this summer was different. It is hard to extricate my own perceptions, altered from the simple fact of aging, from the truth of actual change. After all, I was a fresh 16 back then and traveling with the comfortable cohort of a family and a tour guide. Everything was taken care of. This time, as a co-trip planner, I was responsible for 22 students; I was 20 years old; and I was much more traveled. Istanbul was going to have to show me her beauty was more than skin-deep, more than just about decorated mosques and the shine of gold leaf paint.

The evening light in Istanbul is golden, just like the mosaics in the Hagia Sophia. Above, the New Mosque shines at night. (Bruner/TYG)

And it certainly is. The Topkapi Palace is great, but mobbed with throngs of over-eager tourists I was no longer enthralled by the intricate mosaics and impressive gems. Instead I fell back in love with the city when we stumbled into the New Mosque one afternoon just as the call to prayer began. We watched the choreography as hundreds rose and knelt in unison, a body together: Beautiful. Another day, hungry and tired after traipsing around the city, we came upon the Galata Bridge and the stalls of fishermen who sell Istanbul’s famous fresh fish sandwiches. Sitting on the edge of the concrete over the water, biting into the baguette, watching the fishing poles dangling over the bridge: Beautiful. And then another night, attending a concert by the Turkish pop band Multitap (see a report of the day we interviewed them:, dancing around with hip Turkish twenty-somethings in a loud nightclub: Maybe not beautiful, but definitely wonderful. This other side of the city, the one devoid of tour guides and American families like my own, was far more interesting to me now.

On the north side of the Galata Bridge, men run stands preparing fresh fish sandwiches. The ingredients: a baguette, lettuce, tomato, spices, fish, lemon juice. (Bruner/TYG)

I think that Istanbul is more conservative now, but she is also more overtly political. More women wear headscarves, judging from my (very un-scientific) memory comparison of my two visits to the city; but more women also seem to wear fashionable Western clothes. The last four years in the city have seen an increasing political shift towards — how to describe it? — pride, maybe, as Turkey (in the reigns of Erdogan) charts a very independent path. Tourism seems to have picked up, too, and like in so many of the destinations of cruise ships around the world, culture has been converted into commodity. Here it comes in the form of copious stacks of pashminas made in China, evil eye bracelets for a single Turkish lira, “authentic” copper tea sets, and plentiful boxes of packaged Turkish delight. I don’t remember experiencing souvenir fatigue four years ago in the same way I did this time, but maybe it all seemed so much shinier and more exotic then. I do remember feeling that this was a city to which I could come back countless times, discovering something new on each occasion.

The view back across the Galata Bridge at Sultanahmet is filled with fishing lines, the vague outlines of mosques, and usually a ferry or two. (Bruner/TYG)

I make it a point to travel to new places. But if this trip to Istanbul was any indication, perhaps I should be going back more often to places of my past, places where my memories and their modern realities coincide. I am learning that one of the most meaningful parts of travel for me is figuring out how my relationships with people and places changes as I grow and how the places have, in turn, evolved. But of course, none of these discoveries would be possible without the Globalist: conducting interviews and doing reporting with the magazine is one of the main things that has brought meaning and depth to my travel experiences.

Four years from now I hope to return to Istanbul again. The layers of history, culture, and, now, memory run deep here.

One response to “My Istanbul, Then and Now

  1. Really thoughtful piece. I enjoyed it!

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