Istanbul became a major tourist center, not by coincidence. Istanbul’s cultural, geographical, and historical diversity is not matched by any city in the world.
Istanbul is one of the most fascinating cities. Not only is Istanbul’s cultural and historical heritage mind-blowing, but Istanbul’s location is also unique.
Besides its unique location, Istanbul has its own culture, like New York and London.
For this reason, Istanbul is too unique to be classified as a Middle Eastern or a European city. Istanbul is a central cultural hub with elements from Europe, the Middle East, the Balkans, and Central Asia.
In this post, I will explain facts about Istanbul’s geography, culture, and history and how Istanbul shaped the Middle East.
1. Is Istanbul in the Middle East?
It is widely accepted terminology that the Bosporus Strait passing through Istanbul is the border between Europe and Asia.
For this reason, Istanbul is the only city where Europe meets the Middle East because Istanbul is located on two continents, both Asia and Europe.
Istanbul’s East (Asia) part is in the Middle East, and Istanbul’s West (Europe) part is considered to be in the Balkan region of Europe.
Istanbul is in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and the Balkans at the same time. You can easily say, Istanbul belongs to all of them.
For Turkish people, passing through continents is an easy job. You can use a public ferry line to travel to another continent and arrive in 10 minutes. This is only possible in Istanbul.
Because there is no visible boundary or difference between Istanbul’s both sides, some Turkish believe Asia and Europe are the same continents.
For this reason, Turks also prefer to state that their country is a Eurasian country like Russia.
2. Location of Istanbul in the Middle East Map
The Middle East is a term coined to describe countries in Western Asia. The definition of Middle East countries is vague.
According to the CIA Factbook, Iran, Israel, Arab countries, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijani, are located in the Middle East.
Like the United Kingdom, some countries classify Turkey as a part of Europe and not as a Middle Eastern country. Source
Istanbul’s location is marked with a blue dot on the map.
Egypt and Cyprus are other countries associated with the Middle East.
For more travel tips and hacks about Istanbul, click to read Istanbul: All You Need to Know Before Coming, and here is my guide on hotels and the best neighborhoods to stay in Istanbul.
3. Istanbul’s Culture
Istanbul has some Middle Eastern cultural elements. In my view, Istanbul is a modern city culturally belonging more to Europe and Central Asia.
Middle Eastern cultural elements are more visible to tourists in Istanbul because Western tourists like to see the exotic side of Istanbul.
You will find exotic Middle Eastern nights and entertainment in Istanbul. I emphasize the word “exotic” because you won’t find many Turkish locals attending this kind of entertainment.
Turkish people in Istanbul prefer Western-style entertainment in shopping malls, movie theaters, pubs, bars, and restaurants.
In the old days, you could encounter instances that resemble the Middle East, but today Istanbul is just like any financial center in the world.
Western culture is the official norm, and time is money. The legal and commercial sides of all transactions are ruled by Western rules.
I should also mention Syrian refugees. Recently, with the arrival of Syrian refugees during the Syrian Civil War, some districts of Turkey resemble the Middle East.
Because refugees from Middle Eastern countries settled in some Istanbul districts, in some areas of Istanbul, you may feel like you are in an Arabic country, and even Turkish locals feel like tourists in these districts.
If you are looking for day trip ideas outside the central areas of Istanbul, check my guide on Day Trips from Istanbul.
4. Istanbul’s Language
The primary language spoken in Istanbul is Turkish.
Linguistically Istanbul can be classified as Central Asian because Turkish is a Turkic language. Turkic languages are the official languages of many countries in Central Asia.
English, Kurdish, and Arabic are also commonly spoken in Istanbul. Kurdish and Arabic, yet distinctly different languages from each other, are common languages spoken in the Middle East.
5. Istanbul ruled the Middle East more than a Millennia
Most of the countries in the Middle East gained their independence in the 19th century.
Iran being the exception, all Middle Eastern countries were all ruled by Istanbul for centuries. First by the Roman and East Roman Empire (Byzantium) and then by the Ottoman Empire.
After the Roman Empire split into two parts, the East Roman Empire’s capital was Istanbul. (At that time, Istanbul was called Constantinople) and the East Roman Empire controlled the major hubs in the Middle East for centuries.
Byzantine (Eastern Roman Empire) Map – 476 AD
When Byzantium declined in power, the Turkish arrived. Turkish people not only conquered Istanbul but also adopted the traditions of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The Turkish (Ottoman) Empire’s capital was also Constantinople (in other words, Istanbul).
Under Ottoman Empire rule, Istanbul continued to thrive as a cosmopolitan cultural hub.
You can read my article to learn more about when and why Constantinople’s name changed to Istanbul.
Ottoman Empire Maps – 1566 – 1829 AD
Istanbul has played crucial roles in the history of the Middle East for centuries and influenced the Middle East more than any city in the world.
4. Istanbul Religion
The major point Istanbul and the Middle East share is the dominant religion which is Islam religion. Also, like some places in the Middle East, Istanbul has a historic Christian and Jewish native population.
The Istanbul Patriarch, the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christianity, still functions in Istanbul since the Roman Empire split into East Roman (Orthodox) & West Roman Empire (Catholic).
The equivalent of the Istanbul Patriarchate is the Vatican of the Western Roman Empire.
Head of Islam, Khalifa, was also seated in Istanbul, and they were the Ottoman Sultans.
Khalifa was the spiritual head of Islam, but Turks abolished the Khalifa institution after the secular Turkish Republic was founded.
Just another side note, 8% of the Turkish population declared that they were not affiliated with any religion and identified themselves as Deist or Atheist. Source
In my personal view, Turkish people are becoming less religious each day, and this number is definitely higher in Istanbul than the Turkish average.
Need help preparing your bucket list for Istanbul, please click to read 21 Fun and Unique Things To Do in Istanbul (A Local’s Guide)
Turkey is probably one of the few countries in the Middle East where you can watch the scenery of Mosques and enjoy your beer.
Do Turkish People Drink? Check my article if you wish to know more about Turkish drinking culture.
6. Istanbul Climate
You are mistaken if you think Istanbul has a typical Middle Eastern climate. Additionally, there are also no desserts and no camels in Istanbul. 🙂
Istanbul has an Oceanic and Mediterranean Climate according to Köppen–Geiger classification system. Istanbul receives frequent rain showers, and Istanbul has a cold winter with occasional snow.
In the below climate map, you can see how the climate of Istanbul is different from the Middle East. Turkey generally does not resemble the Middle East when you look at the weather conditions.
In the below picture, you can see the climate systems in the Middle East and how different Turkey looks compared to the Middle East.
Check out my other articles about Istanbul
- Where to Stay in Istanbul? A Local Answers with Map
- Istanbul – What Do You Need to Know Before Visiting?
- 21 Fun and Unique Things To Do in Istanbul (A Local’s Guide)
- A Local’s Guide to Unique Day Trip Ideas from Istanbul
- Why and When did Istanbul Become Constantinople? A Local Answers
- Is Istanbul Safe? Answered By a Local
- Is Istanbul in the Middle East? Location, Culture, Climate, and More
- Is Istanbul Rich or Poor? A Local Answers with Statistics
- How to Order Food Online in Istanbul? A Local Answers
- Which Water Should You Use in Istanbul? Answered by a Turkish Local
- What Languages are Spoken in Istanbul?
- Fashion in Istanbul – Places to Shop, Brands, Designers, and more
- A Local’s Guide to Istanbul – Everything You Need To Know
- A Local’s Guide to Airports of Istanbul