Sail the Seas and Come to the Holy City of Byzantium

I’m back in Washington, D.C., after a three-week trip to Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the Black Sea, and here is the news: the art in the new modern-art museum in Istanbul is far more adventurous than the art in the new modern-art museum in Rome.

It’s not the first time that the art scene is more vibrant in Byzantium or Constantinople (Istanbul’s ancient names) than in Rome. But, with all due deference to the Ottomans, that hasn’t happened since the Renaissance. In Rome the Maxxi was featuring the gnarled, nightmarish, self-referential canvases of Italian painter Gino DeDominicis—skillful but divorced from the world, more reminiscent of Goya than Andy Warhol. In the Istanbul Modern, by contrast, the centerpiece was a vast, splashy, and clever installation by the Turkish fashion designer Hussein Chalayan—who tops the charts in London—that posed sly questions about the role of women in society even as it showed off his tailoring work.

Anecdotal evidence to be sure—but emblematic of the vivid impressions on my third trip to Turkey in 10 years. Once again, for the third time in three millennia (not counting Homer’s), the city we now know as Istanbul and the country we now know as Turkey are becoming pivotal places in the affairs of the world. The reason, as always, is that Istanbul is a bridge—in this case not just between continents but between the Judeo-Christian secular West and the resurgent, Islamic East at a moment when that face-off defines our global era.

Turkey’s Quran-honoring but still secular government, led by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has carefully balanced bows to mullahs with bids to mutual funds in its seven years in power. With clear legislative majorities and a touch of sultanlike assurance, Erdogan is able to cut quick—and deliverable—financial deals. Turkish businessmen I talked to grudgingly like him for that—even if many worry about his push to put Islam again (for the first time since Atatürk in the 1920s) at the center of Turkey’s secular society. “Erdogan is balancing things well,” said Sahir Erozan, a resort owner who has both Turkish and American citizenship, and who used to be a restaurateur (and Democratic fundraising activist) back in Washington.

As a result, the Turkish economy is booming, fueled in part by a new wave of investment from the Arab Middle East but also from the West. A construction craze is underway. Streets in Istanbul are being ripped up for a new tunnel and train beneath the Bosporus; cranes dominate the skyline on the Asia side to the east, where suburban development expands daily. Turkey’s debt-to-GDP ratio is one of the lowest in the developed or developing world—lower, in fact, than most countries in the European Union, which has turned up its nose at admitting Turkey for years. Now the laugh is on the EU.

Turkey’s new relevance helps explain some recent headlines: why the Israelis joined Turkey in a U.N. investigation of the Gaza relief-ship incident; why President Obama just floated a new invitation to Iran to seek a deal on Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Turkey’s needs, in both cases, figured heavily in the moves.

This month the Turkish military—which still plays a huge role in the country, and which has a history of successful (and American-supported) coups—is deciding whom to elevate to top positions. The betting is that those chosen will be willing to play ball with Erdogan. My sense is that the U.S. government doesn’t mind—indeed, that it may approve of the pro-Erdogan appointments. The U.S. doesn’t have the influence over this process it once did, in any case. Then, the focus will turn to next month’s referendum on amending the Turkish Constitution to reduce the military’s traditionally large role in society—and to further erode Atatürk’s determined secularism. Again, expect the U.S. to tread carefully, on the theory that a Turkey that inches back to Islam can be the key broker with other Muslim nations.

The question now is whether Turkey will drift too far away from secularism for its own, and for everyone else’s, good. Thus far, it hasn’t. Israel’s vibrant democracy and its deep cultural ties to America and the West make defense of the Jewish state a crucial element of America’s foreign-policy agenda. But, in strategic and now even financial and religious terms, Turkey is a key—perhaps the key—to maintaining a sense of normality and peace in the region. Barack Obama acknowledged this when he took office: his first trip outside North America as president, in March of 2009, included a two-day stop in Turkey.

But my friend Sahir Erozan knew this was coming years ago. The son of a distinguished family of poets, scientists, and politicians, he came to Washington to study in the late 1970s and stayed for the long boom of the 1980s and 1990s. He’s something of a trend sniffer: “I can smell the early,” he says. His Washington restaurant, Cities, was a gastronomical and political fixture on the D.C. scene. But after George W. Bush won a second term in 2005, Erozan decided to return home and develop his family’s resort hotel on the Bodrum peninsula of southern Turkey. Now his Macakizi Hotel is one of the hippest and most popular in the country. His guests come from Turkey, the U.S., Europe, Israel, and, increasingly, Arab countries in the Middle East such as Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E.

To survey the scene at the edge of the Aegean—the music pounding; the bar crowded; the yachts bobbing at the dock; the more quiet types sitting above, sipping tea on a breezy veranda—is to be astonished. Why? Because except for some of the Scandinavians, it’s pretty much impossible to tell who is from where. And they all have iPads.

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