Arriving at Istanbul Airport is an assault on the senses. Throngs of people push and pull in different directions loaded down with bags and shouting at each other. Istanbul is where the Occident and the Orient meet. It is also the end of the great Silk Road. For centuries, people have been coming to Istanbul to trade.
It was here – at the Istanbul Airport – that I connected with a delegation from Pittsburgh to undertake an important fact-finding mission to Turkey. Headed by Congressman Mike Doyle and Councilman Bill Peduto, eight Pittsburghers set out to spend a week together developing a deeper, more nuanced understanding of modern Turkey – and its rich history. The catalyst for the trip was an invitation from the City of Gaziantep to become sister cities. Gaziantep is Pittsburgh’s 17th sister city – and the first sister city in a majority Muslim country.
On the drive from the airport to the historic center of Istanbul, the group had a chance to see a mass of cargo ships waiting to enter the Bosphorus as well as their first glimpse of the city’s skyline. Istanbul can be described as one of the most visually stimulating cities in the world. And, the first impressions were just scratching at the surface.
Geography – and history – have shaped Istanbul. This is where Europe and Asia meet. Istanbul is the only city to span two continents. It has a very strong and diverse historical, cultural, and religious heritage, which is still palpable today as one walks through the streets and alleyways.
The population of Turkey is over 74 million – and half of the country’s population is under the age of 29. Istanbul is the largest city in Turkey. It home to some 20 percent of population. By official counts, 14 million people live in Istanbul, but it is estimated that there are another four to six million people who are registered elsewhere but actually live in Istanbul. By comparison, five million people live in Ankara – which was declared the nation’s capital in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. Until then, Istanbul had served as the capital of the Ottoman Empire for 470 years. Today, Ankara is the center of government, bureaucracy, and diplomacy, while Istanbul continues to thrive as a vibrant commercial center.
Shielded from the global economic slowdown, the Turkish economy is still moving strong. Turkey enjoyed a 9 percent growth rate in 2011. It is expected to be a little slower this year, but still good. 65 percent of industrial exports from MENA countries are produced in Turkey
In addition to Congressman Doyle and Councilman Peduto, Pittsburgh was represented by Simin Curtis, Founder and President of the American Middle East Institute; Reverend Glenn Grayson, Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network; Aradhna Oliphant, President and CEO of Leadership Pittsburgh, Inc.; James Nathan Williams III, Director of Government Affairs for the University of Pittsburgh; and me, in my capacity as President and CEO of the World Affairs Council.
We were joined by Jean Roehrenbeck, Legislative Assistant to Congressman Doyle. Our Pittsburgh-based Turkish hosts – Serdar Ayman and Hasan Eygoren, who both represented the Turkish Cultural Foundation – accompanied us as well.
Over the course of a week, this group had the opportunity to meet with opinion leaders and decision makers from business, politics, and academia to learn more about modern Turkey. This was rounded out by tours of historic sites to understand the region’s place in history and the role of religion. In addition, we met with local business leaders and their families. The delegation visited Istanbul, Ankara, Gaziantep, and Izmir.
by World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh President & CEO, Dr. Steven E. Sokol
Editor’s Note: This is the first of several blog posts about the Pittsburgh delegation’s trip to Turkey. Stay tuned for more!