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Istanbul becomes one of Europe's Capitals of Culture

Construction workers stand on a structure
Construction workers prepare for the opening ceremony of 'Istanbul 2010'

By Jonathan Head
BBC News, Istanbul

Spectacular fireworks displays and cultural performances will mark the launch of Istanbul's year as one of three European Capitals of Culture.

The prestigious title gives cities the opportunity and funding to showcase and enrich their cultural life.

For Turkey, which is struggling to fulfil its longstanding aim of becoming a member of the European Union, the title has particular significance.

But Istanbul's celebration is not without its problems.

The EU flag
Turkey must meet strict conditions for EU membership

Istanbul competed fiercely with the Ukrainian capital Kiev to win this title, the last time it will be offered to a non-EU member.

The two other winners were Pecs in Hungary and Essen in Germany.

With its rich heritage of Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman history and its pulsating contemporary urban life, Istanbul is already recognized as one of the world's great cultural capitals.

But the title means a great deal in a country which has for decades aspired to membership of the European Union.

The opening celebrations will be marked by a spectacular fireworks display choreographed by the French pyrotechnician Cristoph Berthonneau.

And by a series of cultural performances set against the backdrop of some of Istanbul's greatest landmarks.

But big questions hang over how effective the rest of the year's programme will be.

map of Turkey

The organizing committee has been rocked by conflict between NGOs and government bureaucrats, with mass resignations last year.

There have been persistent allegations of corruption.

Critics say there has been too much focus on restoring well-known historical sites, and too little on contemporary culture.

And very little effort has been devoted to confronting the painful twentieth century legacy left by the mass expulsion of the Greek and Armenian communities, whose buildings, many of them derelict, still litter the city.



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