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Where East still meets West

COME WALK through the ancient streets of Istanbul in the cool days of an approaching winter. There is a bit of snow on the ground, and the sun dances on the Bosphorus, that narrow body of water that traditionally separates Europe from Asia.

When I first visited this thrilling city nearly 50 years ago, I thought to myself then that this was where the Orient begins. There is nothing more exotic and lovely than the sounds of the muezzins atop their minarets calling the faithful to prayer from the most beautiful mosques in all Islam. Later, when I was living on the shores of the China seas, Istanbul seemed to represent where the West begins. And both of those impressions are equally valid today.

In olden days one had to take a ferry to cross over the Bosphorus onto the Asia shore. Today there are two graceful bridges, perhaps symbolizing the recent decision of the European Union to begin the accession process that would expand the borders of Europe to Persia and the steppes of Central Asia.

As Christmas approaches, however, one begins to realize that Istanbul is still alive with Christian churches, left over from the Byzantine days of Constantinople. Roman Catholics and Protestants celebrate the birth of Christ on Dec. 25. The Greek Orthodox celebrate it too, but since they use the Gregorian calendar, rather than the Julian, their Christmas will come in early January. The Armenians will also wait until January.

And in the season of Hanukkah there are synagogues to drop into, albeit two were bombed in terrorist incidents that also damaged the huge Panayia church of the Orthodox. Jews were welcomed by the Ottoman sultan after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, and many still speak Ladino, which is to the Jews of Spain what Yiddish is to the Jews of Eastern Europe. When I asked a friend where he learned Spanish, which Ladino closely resembles, he said: "In Spain 500 years ago."

There was a day when Istanbul coursed with different religions, nationalities, and sects, and the streets were filled with the babble of a dozen tongues. For this was the capital of one of the world's great polyglot empires, and Istanbul was among the world's most cosmopolitan cities. But with the fall of the Ottomans and World War I, all that ended. Armenians in the east were transported and massacred on the suspicion that they were consorting with the Russian enemy -- a genocide which Armenians around the world have never forgotten.

In the West huge numbers of Balkan Muslims were shipped east into Turkey, even if they spoke no Turkish, and Christians were shipped west even if they spoke nothing but Turkish. This was done by international treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, under which the Jews, Greek Orthodox, and Armenians were given a recognized status in the new Turkish state which emerged from the Ottoman ruins.

The Turks nominally hold to it, but life has not always been easy. During the Second World War, for example, the impoverished Turkish state, which remained neutral, demanded a wealth tax. Since Christians and Jews were for the most part well off, the burden fell to them more than on Muslims. And if you could not pay up immediately you were sent to labor camps in the East.

Thus after World War II, many Jews emigrated to Israel. Many of the Greeks moved to Greece, and Armenians left for the four corners of the world. The old cosmopolitanism of the Levant ended.

The Greek Orthodox patriarchate for all the Greek world still remains in Istanbul, another holdover from Byzantium, but the Turkish state has not always been forthcoming with the rights of Christians to build and repair churches and train their clergy. New laws, however are being readied to make the lot of Christians and Jews easier as Turkey prepares itself for the European Union. And of the few who remain many have prospered.

One has to look to London and Paris now for the same diversity that Istanbul once stood for. The end of empire for Europe meant the influx of those over whom the Europeans once ruled. But in Istanbul most of the vibrant minorities went elsewhere. That a few remain at all, however, says something for this city and this country in a region where tolerance is in such short supply.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe. 

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