A Cultural Tour of Istanbul, Where the Art and History of Three Great Empires Come Together

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

The Ancient World Comes to Life in an Ani­ma­tion Fea­tur­ing Istanbul’s Islam­ic, Ottoman, Greek & Byzan­tine Art

Istan­bul Cap­tured in Beau­ti­ful Col­or Images from 1890: The Hagia Sophia, Top­ka­ki Palace’s Impe­r­i­al Gate & More

Watch Dig­i­tal Dancers Elec­tri­fy the Streets of Istan­bul

An Intro­duc­tion to Hagia Sophia: After 85 Years as a Muse­um, It’s Set to Become a Mosque Again

How Lon­dini­um Became Lon­don, Lute­tia Became Paris, and Oth­er Roman Cities Got Their Mod­ern Names

Great Art Cities: Vis­it the Fas­ci­nat­ing, Less­er-Known Muse­ums of Lon­don & Paris

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.

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