ISTANBUL, Turkey – It has been three decades since I was in this wedge of the world. Returning to Greece and visiting western Turkey for the first time has deepened my understanding of the pivotal role these two countries have played in shaping global history from governance to culture and commerce. Separated largely by the silky blue Aegean Sea, people in these two nations have been stitched together by a hefty sense of self preservation and a level of bravado slow-roasted and tested since the days of the Old Testament.
Like a fine Turkish rug for sale in this city’s Grand Bazaar, the current state of affairs in this region are not easily unraveled or explained. Some answers can be threaded to the behavior and beliefs of the Ottoman Empire at its height in the 16th and 17th centuries, when ruler Suleiman the Magnificent deftly controlled much of the Eastern Mediterranean, including Greece.
But the Turkish Empire, with its capital in modern-day Istanbul, ended in 1922, and today there is a new balance of power at play on the shores of the Aegean. Traveling by boat, bus and foot this summer, I witnessed the tale of two countries: one rising and one struggling. Turkey is ascending, lusting to become a 21st-century influencer and economic power. By contrast, Greece is teetering like one of its countless historical sites in desperate need of restoration.
Athens is as brown and hot as it was in August 1979, when I walked the Acropolis among Greek Gods and scaffolding. Nothing has changed much, it seems. I swear, some of the same scaffolding is still in use today at the historic hilltop overlooking the central city. The airport, thanks to the 2004 Summer Olympics, is more modern, frankly, than parts of LAX, and there’s an adequate Athens subway system now. But overall the city looks tired and worn. Since the Olympic torch was extinguished, many Greeks say this country of 11 million has been in a state of decline.
The woeful economy and soaring unemployment (almost 23.5 percent) has been well documented. Athens, in particular, has a swelling population of illegal immigrants, many from Africa who have landed in search of work. Hoping to keep moving to Central and Western Europe to secure jobs, many lack proper identification papers and are now stuck in Athens, a melting pot of 4 million. They are ever present in alleys, on park benches and in the Placas.
There is mounting frustration and anxiety about what lies ahead, and that unease has even spread to some of the larger islands in the Greek archipelago that dot the azure seas. Eight years ago, Greece was the toast of the world during the Summer Games. Today the stadia built for the Olympics are monuments to what was and could have been.
“Greece is searching to recapture its identity and place in the world,” one tourism official told me. “We have a lot of soul-searching to do.”
Said a cab driver who drove me from the airport to the port: “This fall we will find out if we return to a simpler life or move forward with the rest of Europe. We wait and worry.”
Turkey is hardly waiting, and although men in the historic Galata neighborhood of cosmopolitan Istanbul constantly work their worry beads through their fingers, it’s more out of habit then deep concern. Owing to Turkey’s thriving economy, with 8.5 percent annual growth in 2011, Istanbul now boasts almost as many billionaires as those in London and Moscow, and many more than in Paris. Hence the shopping malls, the luxury gym culture and the obsession with status. Dating back to the birth of Christianity, this city, known for centuries as Constantinople, was a major stop for spice traders, conquering explorers and religious crusaders. It has been the literal and cultural bridge between Asia and Europe with portions of the city today on both continents. Istanbul was a grimy, provincial tourist city in the 1970s, and today nearly one-fifth of Turkey’s 73 million residents live in and around it. The historical gravitas of this architecturally splendid city is matched by the vibrancy of its retail and restaurant sectors.
But as Instanbul leans toward the West, large swaths of Turkey are still burrowed in its Islamic past. And herein lies its coming struggle: new versus traditional. More than 95 percent of the nation is Muslim, though Turkey has been officially secular since 1924. The religious freedom has allowed Turkey, or at least Instanbul, to evolve into a Muslim center of a different stripe. This is not Egypt or Lebanon, and the country’s youth is increasingly embracing the Starbucks culture: Jobs, home ownership and travel are priorities for young professionals.
One tour guide, newly engaged to be married and with five years of university studies, spent more time asking me about real estate in California than I could ask him about the ruins of Ephesus.
“As long as we can stay the course and avoid conflicts, Turkey’s future is bright,” the guide said in an obvious reference to the internal Syrian strife tearing apart Turkey’s southern neighbor. “We believe our time in this region is now.”