Early spring in Istanbul brought many surprises, the most visually stunning being the blaze of masses of bright tulips…everywhere, in parks, on roadsides, at every freeway interchange, at every tourist destination. There are several themes at work here…from the modernization and beautification that Istanbul has enjoyed in the 14 years since our first visit to the deliberate echoes of the annual festival of tulips presided over by the Ottoman Sultans. The Turks had brought the tulip from its origins in Central Asia to the Mediterranean world and thence to the famous tulip fields of Holland. To achieve the new tulipomania of Istanbul, vast numbers of bulbs had to be re-imported from The Netherlands.
Many attribute the recent economic developments in Turkey… and maybe Istanbul’s beautification… to the efforts of its Prime Minister, Reccep Tayip Erdogen, who had previously served as Istanbul’s mayor. We arrived on the day of recent lower office elections, which Mr. Erdogan’s party won convincingly. From the perspective of many in the West, this seems an uncomfortable confirmation of trends toward a stronger Islamic civic tone and away from the emphatically secular state that Kemal Attaturk bequeathed to Turkey a century ago. I suspect that, most important long term, will be Turkey’s ability to continue to advance economically, bringing its large (72 million) and well educated population further into a leading position among largely Islamic countries. But, even more is at stake, I think, in the hearts of Turkish voters. As it has done since Mehmet conquered Constantinople in 1453, Turkey will continue to straddle Europe and Asia. And the city on the Bosporus may once again be among the most influential places on the earth, providing the pivot for East and West…as it has done for most of the past 2000 years.
A little tidbit for my tax policy interested friends: we learned that there is little “tax-awareness” in Turkey. All end consumer prices include VAT, but with no identification of how much it is; and all salaries and wages are quoted in post-tax terms. If you are told that your compensation is to be, say, 4000 Turkish Lira a month, that’s what your net paycheck will show…4000TL. While merchants and employers must, of course, be aware of the tax payments they forward on to the revenue authorities, the larger population can easily ignore what tax burden is being carried by the economy as a whole. This of course diminishes the discipline on that tax burden that popular sentiment can provide. Lessons here for the US, where half of all taxpayers pay no federal income tax?
In an interesting coincidence with Republic Day in India this January, election day in Turkey is alcohol free. The FPSB Board’s dinner gathering that evening had to be held in a private suite and be served by room service. Even the hotel’s public venues weren’t permitted to serve that day. Further in response to strict Islam’s disdain for alcohol, none can be purchased after 10PM. and no advertising is permitted.
Another surprise to us was how reminiscent parts of Istanbul are of San Francisco. Somehow, on our earlier trip, we have missed the similarities: water…and water craft of all descriptions… in several directions, many hills, grand bridges, and some palm trees looking a little out of place in the quite cool spring climate.
After a week of FPSB meetings, we did have one day to revisit some of the classic tourist sites. My favorite was Aya Sofia (Hagia Sophia in Constantinople days), once the mother church of Eastern Christendom and then the chief mosque of the Ottoman Caliphate, now a museum, much cleaner and with a much tonier tourist entrance than on the first visit 14 years earlier. With the benefit of our tour guide, Onur, I learned much more about the stupendous building itself and its interiors and its history than I had believed I already knew. Onur also took us on our first real visit to Topkapi, the surprisingly modest and very pragmatic palace grounds of the Sultans (before they moved to Dolmabache, built in emulation of the Versailles-inspired royal residences of Western Europe). Commanding the tip of the old city’s peninsula, where the Sea of Marmara, the Golden Horn, and the Bosporus converge, Topkapi resembles a collection of tent-like structures, arranged in an apparent haphazard fashion…no grand avenues or symmetrical placements…much more like an encampment of nomads, reflecting the conquering Turks’ origins on the Asian steppes. From the old: an obligatory visit again to the Grand Bazaar…maybe the world’s first covered shopping mall, where, on the visit in 2000, we bought the carpet we now have in our Santa Barbara living room; this time we were determined not to purchase anything that couldn’t be easily added to carry-on luggage… to the new: a museum of contemporary Turkish art – all the works are by Turkish artists – in a set of repurposed warehouse buildings next to the Bosporus.