ISTANBUL – The Silk Road has always been more of an idea than an actual highway or path.
It is a network of ancient trading routes, a 4,000-mile swath that extends from the Mediterranean to China.
Any student of history hoping to connect the Istanbul street named "Bagdat Caddesi," a vital artery in the commercial heart of Turkey, to its Silk Road origins must look for more than a physical resemblance.
After all, this bustling shopping strip — once lined with merchants plying rare and exotic wares from frankincense and gunpowder to precious porcelain and Buddhist talismans — retains little of its ancient form.
Gone is the powder-like dust, kicked up by the bustle of people and tinted pink by the setting sun. Gone are the lanterns that infused the night air with the heady scent of oil and spice and the promise of a chance encounter with a wanderer from a far-off land. Gone is the ever-present threat of invasion by the Russian or Persian armies.
In their place stand monolithic storefronts emblazoned with such names as Burberry, Calvin Klein and L’Oreal that, along with the many other brands, provide a reference point for shoppers in the capitalist world.
These shrines to modern consumerism, jostling for space in a landscape of upscale shopping malls and high-tech industrial suburbs, offer a far different experience to that of travelers on the ancient Silk Road, a name for all the roads that have connected Asia with the people of the Mediterranean since well before the birth of Jesus.
But the street itself — named Bagdat Caddesi, or “Baghdad Avenue,” by Sultan Murad IV, who captured the city in 1638 — still bears testament to the span of the Ottoman Empire across continents. It also serves as a crucial economic supply line for the region and a catalyst for interaction between people from many different cultures.
The heavy influence of Turkish tradition that saturates so much of Istanbul is less tangible on Bagdat Caddesi. Winding through the Anatolian side of the city, the street now represents a cocktail of Western influences refined for a Turkish palate.
In contrast to the kebab stands and carpet shops typical of much of the city, the street is home to chic cafes (along with several Starbucks), luxury car dealerships and purveyors of the ubiquitous skinny jean. Markets previously dominated by locally produced goods now cater mainly to those seeking international luxury brands.
In an outdoor cafe, a heavily made-up Turkish woman smoked among a cluster of friends, their Fendi purses and the spoils from the day's shopping scattered by their feet. Turkish coffee, while still on the menu, was served less than lattes and cappuccinos.
Teens hung out under a neon-lit billboard displaying the image of a blond family in front of a Christmas tree, conspicuous in a predominantly Muslim country where genetically fair-featured people are in the minority.
Despite the vast diversity of Istanbul and Turkey's ongoing debate, from the streets to the halls of Turkey's parliament, about inclusiveness, rapid globalization and the universal language of money have removed any sense of profound contradiction.
It is as though here, on one of civilization's oldest active trade routes, the dream of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, has been realized — a dream of a Westernized nation with a uniform “Turkish” culture.
However, it only takes a sense of history — and some imagination — to find the thread that links this vibrant thoroughfare back to its grand past.