On a warm summer night the plaza outside the Ortakoy mosque is one of my favorite places to watch Istanbul kick back and relax. The plaza is only 3 miles from Taksim and Istiklal, the stars of Istanbul’s nightlife, but it’s a different kind of place. Taksim and Istiklal easily overwhelm me with their busy crush of humanity, but the plaza outside the Ortakoy mosque is a place where I can breathe freely and let my guard down.
Young couples snuggle on its benches while older married ones walk hand in hand through its square. In this neighborhood there are not many tourists, but the ones who come stop to take photos of themselves standing next to the brightly-lit mosque. Ortakoy’s is a pedestrian-only plaza where people stroll past vendors selling grilled fish sandwiches, stuffed baked potatoes, chocolate-covered waffles, and, of course, ice cream. Restaurants and bars line the walkways, but there is no pressure to enter, no hawkers standing outside calling at you aggressively.
Less than a quarter-mile north of the square the Bosphorus bridge leaps from the hills above and stretches out across the water to the Asian side. The bridge is incredibly busy, completely full no matter what time of day or night, but it towers above the square so high the traffic crossing it seems completely silent. The lights from the bridge shine down onto the waters of the Bosphorus, and the bridge’s suspension cables are often lit up in brilliant, shifting hues of magenta, ice blue, and lime green. Huge tankers pass underneath, gliding by so silently you wouldn’t even know they were there if you didn’t spot their silhouettes against the twinkling lights on the opposite shore.
The Ortakoy mosque is officially named the Grand Imperial Mosque, but don’t call it that, because you will be hard-pressed to find even one Istanbullu who knows what you are referring to. Locals refer to it simply as the “Ortakoy camii” (Ortakoy mosque). The original mosque was built in the 1700s, which would make it quite new by Turkish standards. In the 1850s it was replaced by an even newer mosque commissioned by the Ottoman sultan Abdulmecid. That is the mosque we see today. As ornate as it is, it was built at a time when the Ottoman Empire was passing its peak, beginning to sway under the nationalistic pressures brewing in its outer territories, pressures that in the decades to come would begin carving away at it.
Istanbul is represented by no shortage of iconic images. The Aya Sofya. The Blue Mosque. The Kapali Carsi. The Ortakoy mosque is one of these iconic images, too. The image of the mosque, with the massive Bosphorus bridge behind it, is a favorite image for anyone who wants to express the idea that Turkey is a bridge between East and West, that Turkey straddles two continents, that Turkey connects Christian Europe and the Muslim Middle East.
When US President George Bush wanted to show he too understood this connection, when he wanted to salve the wounds two simultaneous wars in Muslim lands had reopened, he came to Istanbul and stood on the patio outside the nearby Ciragan Palace, allowing the world’s media to broadcast the image of him standing tall with the Ortakoy mosque and the Bosphorus bridge in the background. The image’s iconic power could, for a moment at least, overcome even the animosity stirred by one of recent history’s most divisive US presidents.
The image of the Ortakoy mosque and the Bosphorus bridge could just as easily, though, serve a very different purpose. The mosque is on the European side of the water, and the bridge, viewed from Ortakoy’s perspective, is crossing over from the Asian side. We use the image to symbolize warm, fuzzy spiritual connectedness and commonality, but it could just as easily serve as a threatening image of a Muslim beachhead, Islam planting itself on the Christian shores of Europe.
I am not suggesting that this alternative perspective is truer than the one we have already assigned to the image. I am simply suggesting that the meanings we layer onto the objects around us come from us, not from the objects themselves, and for every meaning we assign, there is usually an equally plausible, but opposite, meaning we choose not to assign.
Being able to analyze an image, object, or thought from multiple perspectives at the same time, even when those perspectives are counter-intuitive or distasteful, is a muscle. Muscles become stronger when they are exercised, and travel provides endless opportunities to exercise this particular muscle. Next time you travel, remember that you have left your comfort zone and are being presented with precious opportunities to exercise that muscle. Work it out, build it up, and show it off when you get back home. Your friends and family want to see your vacation slides, but they also need you to remind them how to use that muscle.