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The Strait at Istanbul

The Strait at Istanbul

Istanbul, Turkey (June 1992)

"Over there, on the opposite shore, is Asia!" my wife said, pointing across the water. We stood at the edge of Europe. This was Istanbul, a city spanning both sides of the strait called the Bosphorus. Being there on the edge of the strait that divides two continents vividly gave me the sense that the world is one.

In this city travelers from Europe catch their first scent of exotic Asia.

I came to Istanbul in June 1992. It had been 30 years since my last visit. I had come from Cairo, a little more than a two-hour flight away. Blazing red blossoms known as "fire flowers" had decorated the streets of Cairo, but cooler hues of tulips greeted us at the airport in Istanbul. Going out into the city streets, the ambience that I so dearly remembered from 30 years before had not changed: magnificent Byzantine architecture; obelisks jutting into the Turkish-blue sky; the minarets of mosques; the city's seven gentle hills overlooking the sea; the beauty of Arabic calligraphy, each an artwork in itself; mosaic murals and arabesques. Every scene was like a painting. Filling the air was the scent of spices and coffee, the aroma of barbecued lamb, the clamor of the bazaar.

There were many more cars and tall buildings than before. Suddenly, I noticed a group of people walking with heavy loads on their backs, and was told that they were on a shopping tour from neighboring Bulgaria. After the Eastern-European revolution of 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the flow of people in and out of Istanbul increased dramatically. They came from Eastern Europe to sell their wares, or to shop for goods in Turkey for sale back home.

The people are strong. To those who must struggle each day to make a living, national boundaries imposed by political powers may be no more than an inconvenience.

I arrived at my room, from which I had a view across the Bosphorus. The strait measures about two-thirds of a mile across on average. It is narrow enough to swim across. There is an old tale in these parts about a young man who so longed to be with his lover, who lived on the opposite shore, that each evening he would swim across the river to see her, and then back again. Where there is passion, distance is no object. No place is too far away. How wide, then, can the "strait" that separates country from country, race from race, really be?

The building in the foreground just overlooking the strait is Dolmabahçe Palace, once the residence of the Ottoman emperor. After the Turkish Revolution, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the first president of the fledgling country, moved the capital to Ankara. Whenever he came to Istanbul, however, he stayed at the palace. It was in a room at Dolmabahçe Palace that he died on November 10, 1938, at the age of 57. Since then, the hands of all the clocks in the palace point to 9:05, the time of the president's death that morning.

President Ataturk once said, "Cherish old friends, and make new ones." This expresses the heartfelt wish of the father of a nation--his wish that his country, which is surrounded by many neighbors, enjoy lasting peaceful relations. He was deeply aware of the dangers of being isolated from international politics. Japan, which he viewed as a model of modernization, to this day fits his description as "a country with no friends close by." This is a dangerous situation.

At the Grand Bazaar, row after row of shops form an endless virtual maze for shopping tourists. Istanbul itself has come through a maze of several thousands of years of history. Once part of the Greek world, then a center of Christendom, today it is a hub of Islam. This history has created a mesmerizing multi-layered image. A thousand shades of cruelty and glory, a thousand faces of love and anguish--the thoughts and ideas of countless lives permeate every corner of the city like an exotic scent. A diverse array of people walk the streets: Arabs and Greeks, East Asians, Russians, Eastern Europeans; people with hair as dark as ebony, as red as a sunset, as blond as strands of pure gold. This city is the world.

What is race? Harvard professor Nur Yalman, himself a native of Turkey, has said that racial conflict is not a problem between races, but a problem between those in power. The powerful tend to fan the flames of enmity toward other races in order to garner support for themselves and their aims. Where is the current of history headed?

Beneath the surface waters of the Bosphorus, there flows a deeper current. The water on the surface flows southward from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara at about two-and-a-half to three-and-a-half miles per hour. Beneath this, however, from about 130 feet down, flows a gentler current in the exact opposite direction.

Amid the tumult of the century's end, the groundwork for a global human family may not yet be complete. Anxiety about the new era has given rise to a tendency to revert to and take refuge in that old tribal consciousness known as nationalism. A dangerous movement in that direction can also be perceived in Japan. Yet beneath this current of the times there flows a gentler, opposing current.

On the evening of the day we arrived, we were invited to attend the Istanbul International Art Festival. Gracing the opening of the event was a performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, with its rousing chorus, "Be embraced, ye millions!" How appropriate a song for this city! Afterward, we went outside to watch a commemorative fireworks display. Magnificent roses continued to burgeon and burst forth repeatedly across the night sky of Istanbul.

[Adapted from an essay in Our Beautiful Earth: Photos and Essays of My Travels, by Daisaku Ikeda, April 2, 2000, Seikyo Press, Tokyo, Japan.]