Impressions from Istanbul: Part 1

Impressions from Istanbul: Hüzün or the Melancholy of Shifting Times

  1. Modern Istanbul and the Decline of the Ottoman Empire

A recent visit to Turkey in December 2006 has brought me closer to a fascinating nation whose culture, history and people have left in me a deep impression and an enduring feeling of appreciation and admiration. In the process of getting acquainted with this land and its culture I have had the pleasure to be introduced to the writings of one of Turkey’s best known authors, the 2006 Nobel Literature laureate Orhan Pamuk ( My visit to Turkey and the readings of Pamuk have inspired me to write some lines with which I have sought to articulate my experience in the country and the thoughts subsequently generated within me.

Pamuk’s novel Istanbul is an autobiographical account which includes lavish descriptions of the author’s native city, ranging from historical information about the country and the city, aesthetic speculations on literature and art, East – West cultural considerations, and numerous photographs that greatly enrich the narration and give the reader a much better impression of the messages conveyed.


Istanbul seen from the Bosphorus

One of the most meaningful leit motives and a cohesive structural and symbolic thread in the novel is the concept of Hüzün, which Pamuk describes as a collective feeling of melancholy inherent to the inhabitants of Istanbul and is closely related to the development of the city in the course of history. Istanbul, in former times the majestic Byzantium, capital of the Byzantine Empire, was later renamed Constantinople and would also become capital of the Ottoman Empire; it is now a living testimony of the millenary history of Turkey and of the historical and cultural changes that have moulded its modern reality. Istanbul’s sense of identity, Pamuk explains, has been greatly determined by historical, geographical and cultural dichotomies, contrasts and conflicts that have resulted from its geographical position as a bridge between East (Asia) and West (Europe) and the historical and cultural mixture that this has occasioned, spanning eras of domination under Hittites (1800 BC), Phrygians, Cimmerians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines (Eastern Roman Empire after the fall of the West in 324 AD), Turks (around 1070) and Ottomans (approximately between 1250 and 1920), and sheltering various believes such as Greek mythology, Christianity and Islam – including its more mystical branch of Sufism.

The shift of times in the history of Turkey has meant the transformation, waning or disappearance of these great cultural manifestations. Hüzün is, in a way, the melancholy of such loss. In particular, the aftermath of World War I, the subsequent fall of the Ottoman Empire and the birth of the modern Turkish Republic with the presidency of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923 meant a radical historical transition that represented a shift from the grandeur of the Sultans, their palaces and the dazzling mosques they erected to celebrate Allah’s magnificence and worship Him, to the establishment of a European-oriented government and a general political, economical, social and cultural structure with which the nation manifested its aspiration towards a systematic development following western paradigms.

According to Pamuk, there is one form of Hüzün which generates from the inevitable feeling of melancholy and loss brought by the memory of those gone, magnificent times of old, an empire which has irrevocably been replaced by a modern, bustling culture that looks towards its future and the challenges it poses. Modern Turkey thus tries to cope with European society and culture while at the same time thrives to preserve a strong sense of identity through the memory of its past, its history and the wealth and richness of its ancient culture.