What does "Istanbul: City of the four elements" mean?

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asked Mar 3, 2015 in culture by abc

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answered Mar 3, 2015 by abc
edited Mar 3, 2015 by abc

The story begins with the Four Elements: earth, water, air and fire. The idea that these make up the universe -an idea as old as the history of thought- has strong roots in Anatolia (Asia Minor), which is today part of Turkey. The ancient city of Miletus, in western Anatolia, is considered to be the precise birthplace of the long tradition of "Western Philosophy". The city's three most famous philosophers - Thales (624-546 BC) and Anaximander (610-546 BC) and Anaximenes (585-528 BC) - all tried to understand the universe through the Four Elements. Thales considered water to be the source of everything. Anaximender thought infinity was the originating source and that the four basic elements derived from infinity. Anaximenes believed that air was the source of everything, including the other three elements: earth, fire and water.

Heraclitus (6th centry BC), a philosopher from Ephesus - another significant ancient city in western Anatolia, considered that the cosmos is an ever-living fire and that fire is the archetypal form of matter. Aristotle himself (384-322 BC), who spent time in Assos, another ancient city in western Anatolia, considered earth, water, air and fire as the four basic elements of nature and believed that dry, wet, cold and heat were their essential characteristics. Aristotle's thoughts remained influential for thousands of years in both "western" and "eastern" intellectual, scientific, philosophical and theological circles.

It was around the third millenium BCE that people first inhabited the site of what was to become Istanbul. Over the years it accumulated many cultural layers. During the Roman era, Istanbul became a cosmopolitan city nurtured by a variety of lands and peoples - a legacy it bequeathed to the empires of which it was capital. An accumulation of minorities were virtually in the majority; under the Ottomans this harmonious social structure flourished uninterrupted for six hundred years. Until the establishment of nation states in the 19th century, this unique system protected the identities not only of those living in a particular region but of those whose populations were scattered and which were not even united by a single language.

Throughout history, then, Istanbul has been home to countless societies and cultures. Yet this "beautiful harmony", which is embedded in the city's foundations and entwined in the in the branches of its family tree, is not just a pleasant memento from a bygone era. Istanbul retains still  its rich cosmopolitan character, sometimes concealing and sometimes revealing the evidence of its unrivalled physical and cultural legacy. The city is a living example of the much sought-after meeting of civilisations - something so desperately missing in the modern world that the search for it seems almost utopian. For more than two thousand years, as if inspired by Aristotle's theory of the four elements, the city has captivated humankind's attention.

Once it was gold that people savw as the perfect blend of the four elements. Istanbul, which once ruled lands on three continents, throughout the ages has served as a magnet for migrants for whom its streets are paved with that proverbial gold. After all the traumas it has experienced since its foundation, symbolically guided by the four elements, Istanbul is now promising to revitalise the formula imprinted in its genes. In cultural and in artistic terms it will be worth its weight in gold to the world as a European Capital of Culture.


Source: Istanbul, A City of the Four Elements, 2010, p. 23

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