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The changing face of Istanbul

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From the Eminonu ferry dock in Istanbul's "Old City" it's a short walk to Yeni Camil, the "New Mosque," but in Istanbul the words old and new are relative rather than literate. The New Mosque was completed in AD1663, a mere 348 years before we visited it in 2010, but more than a thousand years after the Old City was established. It is still called the "New Mosque" but as I stand on its plaza watching the swarm of workboats in the harbour and the turmoil of pedestrian and vehicle traffic on shore, the New Mosque seems very old indeed - an anachronism in the business-driven society of Modern Istanbul. When the evening call to prayer booms from a loudspeaker on its minaret, no one pays any attention. There is not even a lull in the frenetic pace of business on the Eminonu waterfront.

The transformation of Istanbul began in 1923 when Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) moved the capital from Istanbul to Ankara and made Turkey a secular republic. A benevolent autocrat with boundless energy and an iron will, Ataturk dragged Turkey into the 20 th century and let nothing interfere with his vision of a modern nation-state modeled on the west. The Roman alphabet replaced Arabic script. The European calendar was adopted. Sharia law was scrapped in favor of the Swiss civil code and the Italian penal code. Women were granted equal rights and religion was banished from schools and government institutions.

Since his death in 1938 Turkey's economy has swung wildly through several boom and bust cycles, but through it all Ataturk's vision of a modern, secular, westernized state has been the central tenet of the new Republic. But the country, and particularly Istanbul, are now facing new cultural and economic changes that are equally as challenging as those faced by Ataturk 85 years ago.

I met local tour guide, and long-time Istanbul resident, Baran on the commuter ferry from Sanyer to Eminonu and we talked about the changes that are sweeping over his city. "Look at those apartments up there." He exclaimed as he pointed to the crush of new buildings on the slope above the Bosphorus. "In the last fifty years the population of Istanbul has gone from one million to more than twelve million and we are running out of room to build new housing."

Ahead of us the Bosphorus suspension bridge, the 16th longest in the world, connects the Asian and European parts of the city. "When it was built in 1973," Baran tells me, "you could drive across in twenty minutes. Now, with all the traffic, it can take a commuter two hours," he pauses and adds with a sigh, "and the crowding is causing social problems as well. Every year 300,000 new residents are moving into the city. Long time residents feel threatened and as different neighborhoods compete for space there is resentment on all sides. Many of the immigrants are poor villagers from rural Anatolia who are looking for work. They are competing for living space with wealthy investors who are attracted to Istanbul's booming economy and have come to buy and develop the land. But," he adds with a shrug, "the tourist business is good and most visitors aren't even aware of our problems."

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