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Taking refuge in the sea
2003 / September

If we attempted to classify the most beautiful cities in the world, there would be those whose beauty lies in the work of human hand, those who owe their beauty to their natural setting, and those combining both these qualities. Istanbul is one of the most striking examples of the latter. Over its history civilizations have come and gone, each contributing to its legacy. The Megarans were the first to settle here 2700 years ago, choosing this site for much the same reasons that we love it today. If during this last period in its long journey through history Istanbul has remained one of the most beautiful cities in the world, it owes this not so much to its inhabitants as to its remarkable natural setting. In a sense, Istanbul is a manifestation of the eternal conflict between nature and man. Although nature is on the defensive, it possesses numerous features that make it a fortress not easily conquered by human encroachment.

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Taking refuge in the sea
2003 / September

First of all there is the Bosphorus, which not only links East and West and two continents, but two seas. Then there is the Golden Horn, the Istanbul Islands, its hills and the blue dome of the heavens that is a gift of its climate. This is a fortress whose walls are sea shores, whose towers are hills, whose interior is sea and exterior land. The land has gone from guise to guise over the ages, always acquiring new weapons, yet as the poet said of its antagonist, 'There is the sea, the inexhaustible sea!' Istanbul is a place that under siege by land has taken refuge in the sea, from which it is continuing to wage its resistance. The centuries when the image of an entire city was equivalent to the Bosphorus have gone by, but still this long-suffering city has never turned its back on the Bosphorus or left its orbit.

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Taking refuge in the sea
2003 / September
The direction of Istanbul's urbanisation has always been shaped by this waterway, and 'a view of the Bosphorus' is an expression etched in gold in the city's vocabulary. If not the sea, then at least the seashore dominates the daily lives of Istanbul's inhabitants. Crossing the Bosphorus remains a major preoccupation today, as in the past, and the need to get to 'the other side' is even more pressing. Crossing the sea-stepping off one piece of land onto another in the shortest time-is our aim. If only we could do it without taking our foot of the ground, like the Ottoman poet Cevri Çelebi, who never once in his life crossed the sea to the other side! Yet it is in crossing to the other side that the city appears at its most glamorous. On the ferry boat, accompanied by flocks of gulls, we can savour the scenery at our leisure.
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Taking refuge in the sea
2003 / September

Even speeding across the bridge we can catch glimpses of it, and moreover experience that enchantment of being suspended between two things: East and West, Asia and Europe, land and sea, home and work. Added to these is the pleasure of looking down from the sky onto ferry boats, merchant ships, piers and waterfront houses. The photographs on these pages not only illustrate this sensation, but the extent to which the sea still dominates and is present in almost everything that forges our bond with Istanbul. The greater our distance from the sea the more we feel alienated from the city. Even shores which on paper are possessed by land are constantly endeavouring to draw us towards the sea and place us under its spell. Mehmet Erguven has said of the superiority of sea over land on the shore: ‘Although the shore appears to be a boundary line shared equally by sea and earth, the sea has taken unilateral command of it.

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Taking refuge in the sea
2003 / September

Watching the sea from the shore concludes with the place that you have gone surrendering to it. On the shore the sea takes possession of your gaze.' It is true that we go down to the shore to see the sea and that we turn our backs on the land. In a waterfront café who would want to turn their back to the view? Even when we are at sea watching the land, the real source of our pleasure is identifying with the sea. Despite all the human activities on its shores, the Bosphorus has managed to preserve its imposing beauty and irresistible charm. So much so, that it has imperiously taken possession of a legend that really belongs to Çanakkale Strait (the Dardanelles) - the love story of Hero and Leander - and relocated it at Kiz Kulesi Tower on the Bosphorus. It is no surprise that all travellers to Istanbul give the Bosphorus the star role in their memoirs. What is surprising, is that although the Bosphorus is decreasing in relative size as Istanbul expands, interest in it is increasing diametrically.

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Taking refuge in the sea
2003 / September
So we can conclude that Istanbul's beauty-as far as it owes it to the Bosphorus-will be holding out for a long time yet. Çelik Gülersoy, the late author of so many books about the city, said that we should first take a bird's eye view of it. Although he was really speaking metaphorically and meant a historical perspective, you can take it literally. Looking out over Istanbul from the highest point you can find, what he means becomes clear. So let me dedicate this article to his memory, and conclude with these lines from Melih Cevdet Anday's poem Death of a Boat: 'In waters cut off from the shore / The land was both close now and very far / At one moment I was beside it, and at another alone.'

* Necati Sönmez is a freelance writer
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