What I Learnt About London And New Orleans In Istanbul

One of the great things about writing this blog is that I learn about London while thinking about New Orleans, and about New Orleans while thinking about London. It’s not just about place, but also about a process.

And I never said that this process couldn’t be applied to other cities too. I think about other ones as well, ones that may also seem very different at first glance but which might have some similarities with London, or New Orleans, or both, once you start to think about it.

Shanghai. Kolkata. Liverpool. New York. Lima. Harbours and deltas, money, gods and colonialism. In this light, I was interested to hear about the work of sociologist Alice Mah a year or so ago, who has written a book about “empire, capitalism, casual labour, and radicalism” in Liverpool, Marseille, and New Orleans.

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But recently, thanks to a vist there, I’ve been thinking most about another one of my favourite cities: Istanbul. It’s important to me as it’s one of my mother’s favourite places, and if you want to think about harbours, gods, empire or radicalism, or lots of other things, it’s a good place to be, physically or culturally.

Furthermore, though Istanbul may be a long way from London and an even longer way from New Orleans, there are bridges between the Turkish city and the British and American ones I usually write about here.

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One of my favourite venues in New Orleans is Cafe Istanbul, in the New Orleans Healing Center on St Roch and Rampart. Meanwhile, my area of London is home to what I’ve heard described as the largest Turkish population outside Turkey.

There is a lot that could be written about Istanbul and New Orleans and London and what they share. Visit The Museum of Innocence for a good start. But there’s one thing that I saw in Istanbul the first time I went there that has stayed in my mind and that I want to mention.

The Serpentine Column, says my guide book, “came from the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, where it was dedicated to the god by the 31 Greek cities that defeated the Persians at Plataea in 479BC”. As you can sort of see in this picture, it’s shaped like three intertwining serpents.

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It’s a beautiful, ancient piece of art, but what struck me most about it, which you can also get a sense of in the picture, is how far below street level it is. Or rather, how far “street level” has risen in the couple of thousand years since the column was brought to Istanbul by emperor Constantine I, when it was already the best past of a millennium old.

Istanbul is a city literally built on and out of shared history, traded culture and, perhaps most of all, things people have brought there and let fall. Just like London and New Orleans perhaps.

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