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Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus

Stephen Kinzer
Stephen Kinzer

Stephen Kinzer was the New York Times bureau chief in Istanbul. He arrived in the city in 1996 and wrote a book entitled Crescent and Star (2001) when he left. Kinzer fell in love with many aspects of Turkish culture, from the poetry of Salonika-born Nazim Hikmet to the raki and meze (small plates of starters) in Turkish restaurants and the water pipe in the nargile salon. He marveled at the dynamism of the country but also described a country - then on the eve of candidate status for EU membership - in the grips of a great national dilemma: a new nation was emerging but a ruling elite refused to embrace it "or even to admit that it exists":

"Military commanders, prosecutors, security officers, narrow-minded bureaucrats, lapdog newspaper editors, rigidly conservative politicians and other members of this sclerotic cadre remain psychologically trapped in the 1920s. They see threats from across every one of Turkey's eight borders and, most dangerously, from within the country itself. In their minds Turkey is still a nation under siege  […] This dissonance, this clash between what the entrenched elite wants and what more and more Turks want, is the central fact of life in modern Turkey."

Kinzer also fell in love with Istanbul, "the world's most magnificently situated city", and especially with the Bosphorus and its rich history, spanning from the days of the Argonauts sailing to the Black Sea in search of the golden fleece to the commercial waterway of the present.

"In 512 B.C. the Persian emperor Darius built a pontoon bridge across the Bosphorus at its narrowest point, barely seven hundred yards across, so that he could march his army of seventy thousand men into Europe. Overlooking that same spot, Sultan Mehmet II built the breathtaking fortress called Rumeli Hisari, from which he set out to conquer Constantinople in 1453. It still stands, the most exquisite and delicately shaped piece of military architecture on earth."

Kinzer's most enduring Bosphorus fantasy was that of swimming across it. So one morning he set out:

"I wanted to swim westward from Asia to Europe because that is the destiny of Turkish history. We found a small inlet below the ruins of Anadolu Kavagi, a twelfth-century Byzantine castle on the Asian side, and there, after waiting for a freighter to glide silently by, I started. … To orient myself I focused on a green shape on the shore that I first thought was a yali but turned out to be a fishing vessel docked at Yeni Mahalle, the northernmost settlement on the European side. I swam to it and past it. Just thirty-nine minutes after setting out, having covered a distance of slightly more than a mile, I touched the seawall. No moment in my life in Turkey filed me with such rich and complex satisfaction."

Crescent and Star – Turkey between two worlds. Stephen Kinzer. 2001.
[ / Farrar Straus Giroux]

February 2007
Gerald Knaus

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  1. Istanbul: Pamuk's City
  2. Istanbul: Swimming across the Bosphorus
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  4. Salonica: Slaves and Trade
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