One word describes the culture of Istanbul – complex. You will find layer upon layer of culture – traditions, religious values, music, arts and folklore. The development of Turkish culture is brought about by its taking on the culture and traditions of the lands that it conquered. Thus, you will see a wide variety of cultural influences – Ottoman, early Christian, Roman, Renaissance and Byzantine.
Istanbul’s artistry is depicted at length via jewelry, pottery, vases and costumes. Also, you will see details of Ottoman culture at the mosques’ artistic portals. Byzantine Art is predominantly expressed in religious items. Some of these are elaborate and grand and used expensive materials such as silver and gold. However, for Islamic religious art, the hadith would rather use unpretentious materials, including interior inlays, woodcarvings and ceramics. Most of the designs depict geometric forms, Arabic script and flowers. Also, there is the use of mosaics, tiles and glazed bricks. Another outlet of art would be the woven wool carpet, which is an artistic tradition that has been in the culture for over a thousand years.
The city’s arts and culture scene continued to flourish during the leadership of Ataturk, who loved music and the opera, as well as sculpture and painting. Also, in 1928, with the introduction of the Latin alphabet, literature started to thrive. The literary giants that emerged include Nazim Hikmet, Yashar Kemal and Orhan Pamuk.
As of now, there are some 20 theaters, a lot of museums, a number of cinemas and an opera house to be found in Istanbul. Add to this some 2,000-plus mosques, over 100 churches and over 20 synagogues.
The population is also diverse – there are a considerable number of ethnic groups – Armenians, Greeks, Jews, and Christians. The population is dominated by Muslims. After all, the city was the last bastion of the Islamic Caliphate, until it was dissolved in the early 1900s. As for the Christians, one also has to note that Istanbul was once the heart of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
As for a glimpse of the people of Istanbul, here are some things you should keep in mind. Remember, you are a visitor in their own country and you should respect the mores and traditions of the place.
- Handshakes and other forms of greetings: When offering your hand for a handshake, be sure to offer only your right. The left hand is believed to be unclean. Turks will tend to greet you exuberantly.
- Attire: When visiting mosques and traditional neighborhoods (particularly in the Old City), be sure to wear modest attire. This will include coverings for the head, legs and shoulders. Don’t forget to take off your shoes when entering a mosque.
- Cleanliness and hygiene: The practice of hand washing is taken seriously in Istanbul and Turkey. However, because of the current scarcity of water, moist towelettes are offered as an option. Usually, after you eat a meal, you are expected to offer your hands (palms up) to the waiter. This way, he can spray some cologne into your proffered hands.
- Taking pictures: Be careful about taking pictures, especially at military areas, state buildings and some museums. When taking the photo of an individual, be sure to ask permission prior to clicking the shutter. Remember that women, especially those in black robes called chadors, are wary of being photographed.
- Topics to avoid: Try not to talk about volatile issues such as the Armenians, the Kurds and the movie Midnight Express.