Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Not quite Europe and not quite Asia, the Princes' Isles in the Sea of Marmara south of Istanbul have long been a place of sanctuary for exiles and minorities. Laurence Mitchell escorts us to the islands where Leon Trotsky lived for some years and wrote his 'History of the Russian Revolution'.

article summary —

Istanbul is such a vast, sprawling, land-hungry metropolis that it is sometimes easy to forget in which continent you are standing. Europe or Asia, Turkey’s largest city carves out a large chunk of both, and strategically placed bridges and numerous ferries connect the two continental shores with a minimum of fuss. ‘Istanbul — Cultural Crossroads’ or ‘Where Continents Meet’ are commonly used tropes that attempt to make sense of the city but the reality is that in topsyturvy Istanbul there lies both Asia in Europe and Europe in Asia.

To find Istanbul’s most Islamic, Anatolian face you need to look no further than Fatih or Carsamba in the heart of Old Stamboul between the shore of the Golden Horn and the Theodosian Walls on the European side. In contrast, some city neighbourhoods like Haydarpasa and Kadiköy across the water in Asia are noticeably more European in outlook and have long served as residential areas for business-minded Greeks and Armenians. With succeeding and overlapping occupations of Greeks, Byzantines and Ottoman Turks, and hitherto sizeable populations of Jews, Armenians, Russians and others, the modern city is a palimpsest of settlement and architecture. No wonder then that Istanbul's human geography does not lend itself to easy compartmentalisation.

Given what might appear to be contempt for straightforward geographical zoning it comes as no surprise that Istanbul’s very own archipelago, the Princes’ Isles, whilst displaying all the cultural signs of being part of Europe, actually lie in the Sea of Marmara due south of the Asian shore. This is no place for continental hair-splitting though: Turkey as a landmass may well be 97% Asia and 3% Europe, but Istanbul is just Istanbul.

The Princes’ Isles are — always were — far enough away from the city to make a difference. Far enough away to escape the more puritanical aspects of Ottoman rule, racial disharmony and religious intolerance. Out of sight and largely out of mind, things could take place here that might not be tolerated on the shores of the Bosphorus or Golden Horn. Originally populated solely by fishermen and the occupants of the monasteries that were founded here, they went on to become a place of exile for Byzantine emperors who, their political capital exhausted, were deposited here out of harm’s way. It was not until the latter part of the nineteenth century that some of the larger islands became popular as resorts and summer retreats from the city. The islands’ role today remains primarily as a holiday retreat or weekend destination for wealthy Istanbullus: a leap in respectability from the times when they also offered sanctuary to troublesome minorities and high-profile foreign exiles.

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Laurence Mitchell became a travel writer almost by default having squandered his youth travelling in North Africa and India. Following a stint teaching in Sudan, he went on to train as a geography teacher, which he pursued for a decade or so.

These days he concentrates on writing and photography and, while still drawn to transition zones and cultural frontiers like Central Asia, the Balkans and the Caucasus region, is increasingly more content to explore closer to home. He loves ancient tracks, moss-covered ruins, graveyards and allotment gardens, and believes it is possible to find the extraordinary in even the most quotidian surroundings.

Despite a slight distrust of guidebooks, he has contributed several of his own to the world's literary stockpile – Bradt travel guides to Serbia and Kyrgyzstan, ‘slow’ guides to Norfolk and Suffolk (also Bradt), and walking guides to Norfolk and Suffolk for Cicerone. His travel memoir Westering, which describes a coast to coast walk across England and Wales that connects landscape, memory and spirit of place, will be published by Saraband in April 2021. Visit Laurence's blog.

This article was published in hidden europe 37.