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Istanbul on Edge
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Istanbul on Edge

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By Rick GorePhotographs by Alex Webb

Anxiety fills Turkey’s biggest city: The economy is volatile, secularism is under fire, and an earthquake is coming.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Midnight in Istanbul on a hot August night, and a cheer goes up in the Neo Bar as the voice of Turkish rock diva Burcu Günes ululates through the smoky nightclub. All night the crowd has danced to Western pop, but suddenly all are riveted by sounds from the Turkish soul. The song, “Çile Bülbülüm” (Turks pronounce the ç as “ch”), is a love song, known by most from childhood. Günes has given the music a driving beat, transforming it into a pop anthem.

“Cheelaaaaaaaay.” Eyes tight shut, wincing with bittersweet emotion, scores of young people begin to wail along.

“Çile means sorrow and trouble,” one man tells me over the din. “The singer is asking her bülbül—her nightingale—why she must suffer so much sorrow.” All these youthful Turks might well be asking the same question. For Istanbul these days is on edge: the edge between East and West, between modernity and medievalism, between secularism and Islamic fundamentalism, between one horrible earthquake and the next, between prosperity and economic collapse. song

Cultural ambivalence permeates the city, creating a complexity as rich as the aromas that waft through its spice markets. Women with formfitting blouses and hemlines hovering at mid-thigh share the sidewalks of Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s liveliest street, with women hidden head to toe under kara çarsaf, Turkish for black chadors. Peasants fresh from rural Anatolia struggle to maintain the intimacy of village life while living in the shadows of skyscrapers teeming with ambitious, globe-trotting stockbrokers who drive Mercedes-Benz convertibles.

Five times a day muezzins call the faithful to prayer from minarets throughout the city. Yet after midnight on a weekend the heart of Istanbul throbs with a nightlife both boisterous and profane.

Now an economic upheaval has hit the city. Many of the dancers and drinkers in the Neo Bar watched their jobs vanish last year when a devaluation of the Turkish lira plunged the country into a depression. Those still employed find the buying power of their salaries cut almost in half.

Why so much çile? Why for so long? Nightingales aren’t exactly abundant here anymore, but I’ll search for one in other voices—like those in the Neo Bar, where another beer and another “Cheelaaaaaaaay” on this Saturday night help take the edge off the edgy lives Istanbulians are living.

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Tour the streets of Istanbul, where hospitality stands strong even amid fragile shelters “that wouldn’t hold up to an earthquake.”

E-greet a friend with this image of a vintage postcard.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Istanbul was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, of the Ottoman Empire, and until 1923 of the Turkish Republic. It was Mustafa Kemal, a soldier and statesman, who decided to move the capital to Ankara, where it still remains.

Kemal—who became known as Atatürk, meaning Father of the Turks—rescued what was left of the defeated Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I from the Allies who planned on dividing the remnants among themselves. His success in defeating the invading Greek forces and resistance to the Allies led to his election by the Grand National Assembly as the first president of the republic on October 29, 1923. His decision to move the capital to Ankara, where he had established the center of the resistance movement against the government of the Ottoman sultan and invading Greek forces, was spurred by his distrust of Istanbul as a city with long-standing ties to the Ottoman dynasty.

— Cate Lineberry

Did You Know?

Related Links
Lonely Planet World Guide
Learn more about Istanbul’s attractions, the best times to visit, and how to get around.

History of Istanbul
Discover Istanbul’s history and how it became the city it is today.

Explore Istanbul
Find out more about the mosques, museums, and monuments that make up Istanbul.


Amos, Sharon. Istanbul. Parkstone Press, 1999.

Bown, Deni. Eyewitness Travel Guide to Istanbul. DK Publishing, 1998.

Brosnahan, Tom, and Verity Campbell. Lonely Planet Istanbul. Lonely Planet, 2002.

Freely, John. Istanbul: The Imperial City. Penguin Books, 1998.

Mourad, Kenize. Living in Istanbul. Flammarion, 1994.


NGS Resources
Busch, Richard. “City at the Crossroads,” National Geographic Traveler  (March/April 1998), 96-117.

Severy, Merle. “The World of Süleyman the Magnificent” National Geographic (November 1987), 552-601.

Severy, Merle. “Rome of the East,” National Geographic (December 1983), 708-767.

Ellis, William. “Istanbul, the City That Links Europe and Asia,” National Geographic (October 1973), 500-533.

Williams, Maynard Owen. “Turkey Paves the Path of Progress,” National Geographic (August 1951), 141-186.

Williams, Maynard Owen. “The Turkish Republic Comes of Age,” National Geographic (May 1945), 581-616.

Chandler, Douglas. “The Transformation of Turkey: New Hats and New Alphabet are the Surface Symbols of the Swiftest National Changes in Modern Times,” National Geographic (January 1939), 1-50.

Dwight, Harry Griswold. “The Gates to the Black Sea: The Dardanelles, the Bosphorus, and the Sea of Marmora,” National Geographic (May 1915), 435-459.


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