The first thing that struck me visiting Istanbul again in the summer of 2006, after having spent seven years in the U.S., was the fast changing face of the city.
Many squatter’s houses (‘gecekondu’ in Turkish and translated as ‘built overnight’) in shanty-neighborhoods had been destroyed or were gradually demolished and replaced by modern mass-housing compounds developed by the government’s Housing Development Administration (TOKİ).
The Golden Horn, an ugly storage of sewage and industrial waste with a terrible odor when I visited the city in 1983 for the first time, had been cleaned.
More green areas, playgrounds and parks were created. Ottoman mosques, cemeteries, wooden houses and imperial palaces were cleaned and repaired, spurred by a renewed interest in all things from Turkey’s Ottoman past.
The renewed interest in all things Ottoman was a slow process that started during the administration of Prime Minister Turgut Özal in 1983 and gained momentum in the 1990s. The Justice and Development Party (AKP in Turkish), a conservative political party that advocates an Islamic inspired social and political agenda and a liberal market economy, jumped on the band wagon of the growing popularity of romanticizing and idealizing the Ottoman past.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, first as Prime Minister and later as President, and his ministers, mayors and other party officials started actively promoting this trend. As pious Muslims they identify and are inspired by the era of the great sultans and are proud of Turkey’s Ottoman legacy.
It permeates politics as well. The foreign policy of the governing AKP is often characterized as ‘neo-Ottoman’. Ankara wants to regain as much influence as possible, through soft power (use of economic or cultural influence) in the former territories of the sultans: the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa.
When you walk the streets of Istanbul you will notice that the phenomenon of “Ottomania” is becoming omnipresent. Many shops, restaurants and hotels have been renamed, and have now names from the time when Istanbul was still called Constantinople. You will notice hotels like ‘Les Ottomans’, ‘Sultania’, ‘Legacy Ottoman’, ‘Sultan Palace’.
In the Grand Bazaar, but also in posh neighborhoods like Nişantaşı, Teşvikiye, Osmanbey, Maçka, Pangaltı and Istinye you will find jewelry, clothes and other goods with Ottoman designs and colors. Bookshops sell more books on the history of the sultans. I even noticed a restaurant that offers ‘Ottoman burgers’. And in a bakery they offer ‘Ottoman’ bread!
In 2009 Erdoğan opened the Panorama 1453 History Museum, depicting the siege and conquering of the Christian city of Constantinople by Sultan Mehmed II.
There is a renewed interest in recipes from the kitchens of the sultan’s palaces. More restaurants offer now dishes from the rich Ottoman cuisine with flavors from the Balkans, Persia, Arab countries and Central Asia. Recreations from the delicious food that was prepared in the kitchens of the royal families from the 15th to the 19th centuries, or traditional recipes that were rediscovered in villages in Anatolia.
Recommended restaurants that offer these kinds of dishes are: Asitane restaurant, located in the Edirnekapi neighborhood next to the famous Chora Church; restaurant Çiya Sofrasi in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of the Bosporus; and restaurant Kiva, close to the Galata Tower.
The historical fiction Turkish television series ‘The Magnificent Century’ that kicked off in 2011, became an instant blockbuster, because it taps into the increased curiosity in the way the Ottomans were living. Nevertheless everybody was astonished by the overwhelming success of the series. Not only in Turkey, but in many countries in the region.
This prime time series and many other Turkish drama series were watched in almost 50 countries, even in Russia and Mongolia. They created a desire by lots of people in the region to visit Istanbul and Turkey.
The number of tourists from those countries increased considerably in recent years.
The Touristic Hotels & Investors Association (TUROB) organized an award ceremony in the Hilton hotel of Istanbul in 2013 to thank the producers, actors and actresses for their contribution to the increase of tourism.
During the ceremony interviews in many countries, from Slovenia, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece to Bahrain, Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan were shown. In all countries people said they loved Turkish soap operas and mentioned the series ‘The Magnificent Century’ as one of their favorites and the actor who plays sultan Süleyman and the actress that plays his wife Hürrem as the ones they adore.