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Istanbul celebrates being a European cultural capital

Turkish city that has hosted Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman empires now a European capital.

ISTANBUL, Turkey — The only city in the world spanning two continents and host to three empires — ancient Greek, Byzantine and Ottoman — celebrated becoming one of three European Capitals of Culture in 2010.

Turkish singers, dancers, poets, dervishes, a choir and a full orchestra serenaded 5,000 politicians, VIPs and journalists in a spectacle intended to underline the city’s multicultural heritage. At the show’s conclusion, guests streamed out into the rain to the strains of the "Ode to Joy" by Beethoven, who was the favorite composer of the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. Then all watched a dazzling 15-minute firework display over the Halic Strait.

Turkish Prime Minister Teyyip Erdogan described his hometown, of which he is a former mayor, as “a little bit of Sarajevo, a little bit of Jerusalem. It’s Paris, Vienna, Madrid. It is Baghdad, it is Damascus, it is Amman. But Istanbul is mostly Istanbul.”

Turkey's famous whirling dervishes.
(Iason Athanasiadis/GlobalPost)

Stressing the tradition of coexistence between minorities, he described mosques, churches and synagogues resting on the same street.

Reeling from the dissolution of its once-mighty Ottoman Empire, the modern Turkish state was constructed as a majority Muslim country with a history of secularism stressing a Turkish Muslim identity as a building-block toward a republican identity.

But along the way, Turkey persecuted its minorities, Muslim Kurds and non-Muslim Armenians, Greeks and Jews alike. Hundreds of thousands abandoned the fledgling state from the 1920s onwards. Today, tensions continue. The head of the Greek Orthodox Church, Patriarch Bartholomew, described his existence in Turkey as being "crucified."

But Istanbul 2010 papered over tensions, putting out an alternative message of serene and peaceful coexistence.

“That is the main message they’re trying to give the EU: If you accept us, we can integrate into European society because we live alongside Christians and Jews,” said Ali Murat Yel, a sociologist at Istanbul’s Fatih University. “Even though we’re Turkish Muslims we accommodate others.”