Imagine a grand tour of European museums, and a fair few destinations come right to mind: the Rijksmuseum, the Prado, the Uffizi Gallery, the Louvre. These institutions alone could take years to experience fully, but it would be an incomplete journey that didn’t venture farther east — much farther east, in the view of Great Art Explained creator James Payne. In his latest Great Art Cities video, he makes the case for Istanbul, adducing such both artistically and historically rich sites as the İstanbul Archaeological Museum, the Basilica Cistern, the Zeyrek Çinili Hamam, Istanbul Modern, and of course — as previously featured here on Open Culture — the unignorable Hagia Sophia.
Payne introduces Istanbul as having been “the capital of three great empires, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman.” In the continent-straddling metropolis as it is today, “both ancient and modern art blend elements from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, reflecting its geographical and historical positioning as a bridge between the East and the West.”
The works on display in the city constitute “a visual embodiment of its complex history,” from the Hellenistic to the Roman to the Islamic to the styles and media of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with all of which “modern-day Turkey is now creating its own artistic legacy.”
That legacy is also deeply rooted in the past. Visit the Archaeological Museum and you can see the Alexander Sarcophagus from the fourth century BC, whose astonishingly detailed carvings include “the only existing depiction of Alexander the Great created during his lifetime.” The underground Basilica Cistern, built in the sixth century, counts as much as a large-scale work of Byzantine art as it does a large-scale work of Byzantine engineering. From there, it’s a short tram ride on the Galata Bridge across the Golden Horn to the brand-new, Renzo Piano-designed Istanbul Modern, which has paintings by Cihat Burak, Fahrelnissa Zeid, Bedri Baykam. You may not know those names now, but if you view their work in the unique cultural context of Istanbul — in which so many eras and civilizations are manifest — you’ll never forget them.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.