A Stroll around Istanbul

I  look once more from Boğazici, Bosphorous, University over the Straits of the Bosphorous, students smoking, chatting, a few girls in their headscarves, maybe more than when I was last here, in September 2005. I see the schooners and yachts of Bebek, the Russian container ships passing through the strait, the mansions of the Istanbul middle-class.

 I climb the hill out of the university, leaving my material to be copied in the Photocopy Shop between the mosque and the pastry shop. I catch a bus past the Etiler: Jaguar and Mitsubishi showrooms, Starbucks next to Gloria Jean, craft boulangeries and London pubs. The bus edges past, for Istanbul traffic is tough, and eventually I get off in Shishli, partly glitzy and multinational headquarters. Also the old Armenian and Jewish district. But the Armenian cemetery, the Greek cemetery, the Italian Jewish cemetery are all locked up today. I fail to enter: “Gelmeyin”, “You can’t come in”, the attendant tells me. 

In Nishanlishi, an older middle-class area developed in the Republican 1930s and 1940s, I see in a TV shop Orhan Pamuk has won the Nobel Prize. Minutes later I pass the Pamuk Apartments, where he grew up. Fashion shops, the Armanis and Guccis. Paris, Milan, Istanbul. The American Hospital, the Museum of the Army, the defender of the Republican regime.

I arrive in Taksim Square, the Hilton Hotel, Atatürk Cultural Centre, the meeting place of foreign football fans. South of the square, just off the Istikal Caddesi Street is the huge Greek Orthodox Church, closed as usual. Along the street are the former Armenian and Greek schools, but no Armenian and Greek children there now. Not many since the 1950s. When, according to Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories of a City: “Nineteen fifty-five was the year the British left Cyprus, and as Greece was preparing to take over the entire island, an agent of the Turkish secret service threw a bomb into the house where Atatürk was born in the Greek city of Salonika. After Istanbul’s newspapers had spread the story in a special edition exaggerating the incident, mobs hostile to the city’s non-Muslim population gathered in Taksim Square, and after they had burned, destroyed and plundered all those shops my mother and I had visited in Beyoğlu, they spent the rest of the night doing the same in other parts of the city” (p.157). 

Istikal Caddesi is Las Ramblas of Istanbul. Everybody comes here. Tourists, the rich, no longer in their Sunday best, the poor, the spivs, the Turkish Gothics, this is the place to show off, or just walk up and down. In February 2000 I visited Turkey for the first time. I had no idea what to expect. From  Poland the flight was slightly cheaper than that to Athens, so I came. At Atatürk Airport the rain changed to snow. I got off near the Istikal Caddesi and found lodging at the Büyük Londra Hotel, the Big London Hotel, where Hemingway stayed when reporting on the Greek-Turkish war of 1920-22. And then on the Istikal Caddesi, La Grande Rue de Pera, carnival in the snow, office workers taking part in snowball fights.

 La Grande Rue de Pera with its Parisian arcades is flanked by Les Grandes Embassies of the Beyoğlu district, designed by Genovese and Venetian architects as the European powers set up shop in the second half of the 19th century to seize a limb of the Sick Man of Europe, the dying Ottoman Empire. It was almost a different city: multilingual – Greek, Yiddish, Armenian, Ladino of the Spanish Jews, Italian, French, even English -, cosmopolitan Pera. But the Republican government had a strict policy of promoting the Turkish language. “Speak Turkish”, people were told in the street. And today the French Consulate is heavily guarded by police to protect it from protesters after France has just passed the law stating that denying the Armenian genocide is now a punishable offence. 

I pass the Galatasaray Lycée, founded by Sultan Abdül Aziz in 1868 to encourage the introduction of Western ideas. Just off La Grande Rue de Pera is the Pera Palas Hotel, built in 1876 as the terminal hotel for the Orient Express. Atatürk regularly stayed here, and his room is now preserved, and Agatha Christie may even have written Murder on the Orient Express, or at least some of it, here. Down to the Tunnel, the funicular railway built by French engineers in 1875 to allow European merchants to get home without climbing the steep hill, but I climb down past the music shops, and a salesman sings a long strained note to accompany the Turkish lute-like guitar he is trying to sell. Down to Pershembe Charshi, Thursday Market, electrical drills, bathroom appliances, and across the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn to Old Stamboul. 

It is Ramazan, Ramadan, four in the afternoon on a warm day, nearly two hours to go to break fast. In Pera you hardly notice it, but now it’s more obvious. Outside the mosques men are hanging around, playing with their beads, chatting, just waiting…  I take the tram up to Laleli, the garment district: Russians, Kazakhis buying goods to sell back home. Most shop signs are in Russian. I stop at the Beyazit Mosque. The mosque is empty, but there is a long queue at the Breaking of the Fast, the Iftar, Tent. Others have brought their picnics. Twenty to seven. The muezzin calls, hundreds of other muezzins then call from distant mosques. A cannon sounds. Some say a quick prayer. Others just tuck straight in. 

A little later, down at Sultanhamet Mosque, right in the middle of Ancient Byzantium, at the end of what was the Roman chariot stadium, looking towards Santa Sophia, I get caught up in the crowd of women, scarfed and long-skirted, just having eaten, who are queuing to get in to their special section, at the back. I enter and look at the beautifully decorated mosque, light red patterns on white ceilings. The courtyard is full of stalls selling Islamic devotional works, but outside, the candy-floss sellers, the kiddies’ rides are doing much better trade.   

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