Istanbul is a contender for the coveted title of Cultural Capital of Europe in 2010. What are the main motivations behind the city’s application?
Throughout the ages, Istanbul has been the capital of three of the longest-lived empires in history and a centre for monotheistic beliefs. For centuries, Istanbul served as the capital of many cities which today are capitals in their own right. Such a long experience enabled Istanbul to design a sui generis concept of cosmopolitanism. This design protected not just those who lived in a specific territory but also the identities of scattered populations who did not even share a common language.
Today, the world and its dynamics are different. But Istanbul has retained its vibrant legacy. Istanbul, which found the formula for a perfect harmony and which once brought different ‘others’ together, now wants to perform this role in culture and arts. Istanbul believes that the arts provide a unique opportunity to unite people from diverse and contrasting backgrounds and perspectives in harmony and mutual understanding. And Istanbul as an ECOC can serve as a showcase of living together.
There is widespread popular skepticism towards Turkey’s EU bid in a number of EU countries. Do you think this could be changed if Istanbul became Cultural Capital of Europe in 2010?
Of course 2010 is an important year. Turkey’s accession talks would have made quite some headway by then and the dynamism we are seeing in Turkey in the last few years will help to meet all the necessary criteria but then it may not be enough to persuade some 25-30 governments to be a part of EU. Most probably in many countries Turkey’s membership will be put to a referendum. And this is where Istanbul’s title as an ECOC can be useful as it will attract many people to Istanbul in 2010 and so help people to see what actually Turkey stands for. I am sure this will help ease the tensions during the accession process.
Alongside the projected political and economic gains, do you think that the success of the Turkish bid would also mean the full recognition of Istanbul as a “European” city, thereby overriding lingering doubts and disputes about the Europeanness of Turkey?
There is no doubt as to Istanbul’s Europeanness... Even at the worst times of the Ottoman Empire it was called the “sick man of Europe” not the sick man of Asia or something else. Many roots of European culture still lie in Istanbul. This will help rediscover these roots, review the legacy and also help in how to live together with “others”. Because of the events of the last six months there is a lot of ground to be covered in developing intercultural, interreligious, interethnic relations. And Istanbul’s experience can become handy.
What are the special features about Istanbul that make it European? How have these features left a mark on the history and culture of the rest of Europe?
Istanbul is one of those rare places where you can find a synagogue, a church and a mosque next to each other on the same street. If I may repeat a quote from Louis de Bernières’s best-selling novel 'Birds Without Wings,' “The vast Ottoman Empire, shrunken and weakened though it now was, had made it normal and natural for Greeks to inhabit Egypt, Persians to settle in Arabia and Albanians to live with Slavs. Christians and Muslims of all sects, Alevis, Zoroastrians, Jews, worshippers of the Peacock Angel, subsisted side by side and in the most improbable places and combinations. There were Muslim Greeks, Catholic Armenians, Arab Christians and Serbian Jews. Istanbul was the hub of this broken-felloed wheel, and there could be found epitomised the fantastical bedlam and Babel, which, although no one realised it at the time, was destined to be the model and precursor of all the world’s great metropoli a hundred years hence”. This is where the problems of a multiculturalism lived long ago and the solutions found there could help us today.
There is also a lot of benefit Istanbul can take from this experience. Even the process of the application for the bid which was initiated by the civil society, a handful of NGOs who won over the support of the local administration and the central government in due time and created a unique ad hoc organization which holds together all three without written rules and take decisions by dialogue, can be a very important role model for the rest of the country as an introduction to a new decision making process…
By focusing on the Europeanness of the city of Istanbul isn’t there a risk of indirectly suggesting that the rest of Turkey, which lies further to the east of the city, is indeed less European?
Of course as in any country there are differences in the levels of development in different parts of the country. In Italy the south and north have a similar problem as is the case in Spain or Portugal or even parts of the new member states. Of course this is a process and the success of one part can play a major role as an example for the others. Turkey is an incredibly dynamic country which is changing at a breathtaking speed. So Istanbul as an ECOC will help change the others much sooner than many think.
During your preparations, do you expect to co-operate with other cities in Europe that have already held or are planning to compete for the title?
During the course of last year we have developed relations with a number of ECOCs. For example we are participating in Patras, Greece (ECOC 2006) with six different projects. We are partners in Liverpool’s (ECOC 2008) program called Cities on the Edge with Naples, Gdansk, and Marseilles. We are talking to Pécs, Essen & Ruhr Region and Görlitz and even Kiev who happens to be our contender on what we can do together in the run up to 2010 or in 2010 or after.
Nuri Colakoglu is chairman of the Executive Committee of Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture Initiative and vice president of Dogan Media Group.