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New Europe

Day Thirty-nine: Istanbul

The Galata Bridge 
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On the Galata Bridge, which crosses the Golden Horn. The poster, sponsored by Istanbul City Council, bears the words of Kemal Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey: 'Our most sacred duty is to keep the Republic alive'.
Michael Palin - New EuropeThe train from Edirne pulls into Sirkeci Station. Not the largest station in Istanbul but the most famous, linked for ever with the Orient Express, the train that, in various shapes and forms, has connected Turkey with the rest of Europe since 1883.

It's a delightful small station with an original roof supported by three graceful rows of cast-iron columns that follow the curve of the platform.

Our Zagreb-built locomotive squeals to a halt, face to face with the man who created modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, whose gold-painted head protrudes from a stone plinth beside the buffers. With his long straight nose and beetle-browed stare he looks vaguely sinister, like a magician. Which, in a sense, he was.

In little more than ten years he created the Turkish Republic, separated religion and state, introduced the Latin alphabet, and gave women full voting rights. It's particularly appropriate that his likeness should be here at Sirkeci for he did more than anyone to turn Turkey's mindset westward, towards Europe.

I leave the station, down a flight of marble steps and into Istanbul. The city doesn't work its magic straightaway. There's a filling station and some ugly concrete blocks to negotiate before you reach the waterfront. And there you are, quite suddenly, at one of the crossroads of the world.

Nowhere do history and geography merge as spectacularly as they do here, at the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia, where the Mediterranean meets the Black Sea. The great north-south, east-west corridors converge here and the city built on these low hills, by its various names of Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul, has been at the centre of world affairs longer than any other.

The location seems to heighten ordinary experience. Views seem more dramatic, departures and arrivals more significant, encounters more promising, awareness sharper. Istanbul always strikes me as a city with a foot in two distinct worlds and I can't imagine it ever jumping completely onto one side or the other.

As Orhan Pamuk says in his book on the city, 'Istanbul's greatest virtue is its people's ability to see the city through both Western and Eastern eyes.'

I set out across the Galata Bridge, my back to the great Ottoman and Byzantine monuments, heading up to Pera, once a colony of Genoese merchants. Fishermen line the bridge and flat-topped water taxis slide beneath it with inches to spare.
On the piers are huge posters quoting Atatürk, 'Our most sacred duty is to keep the Republic alive'. These strident reiterations of republican ideals suggest that people need reminding of them, which in turn suggests that they're under threat.
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  • Series: New Europe
  • Chapter: Day Thirty-nine: Istanbul
  • Country/sea: Turkey
  • Place: Istanbul
  • Book page no: 96

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