After a two-week trip across Turkey seeing the contrasts between coast and interior, city and country, East and West, rich and poor, I am back in Istanbul and once again stay in Beyoğlu, formerly Pera, the Venetian and Genovese enclave right from the 15th century where European embassies and companies set up residence in the second half of the nineteenth century in order to pick the remains of the languishing Sick Man of Europe, the Ottoman Empire. It is still dominated by the Galata Tower, built by the Genovese, seen in the picture below. It is an area where churches still outnumber mosques, and where, the other day, I first heard church bells in Turkey, as the bells of Santo Antonio rang out at midday while I was working in an Internet cafe.
It is the area to meet, eat, drink, beg, dance, see films, plays, shop for art or antiques or musical instruments, enjoy Turkish rock, rap and hip hop, as portrayed in the film, Bridge to Istambul, drink coffee at Starbucks or Gloria Jeans, eat ice cream, visit numerous galleries, and buy books. It is the tribal area of Turkish punks, Gothics and darks. It is the gay, lesbian and transvestite area. It is the red light district. It was the district where I first arrived in Turkey on a snowy evening in February 2000 to see snowball fights between rival office workers. It was the area I first visited after returning from the conservative East in February this year. It is La Rambla, Soho, La Riva Gauche and Greenwich Village. It is the district I am drawn back to time and time again, as are so many visitors.
It is the area of hidden Greek and Armenian churches and Jewish synagogues, whose congregations now often number no more than a few elderly who missed the boat to New Jersey or New South Wales. It is the area of Dickensian alleyways and stern and solid Victorian apartment blocks, some of which still have Greek names like Papadoupoulos Apartmen, and around every corner one imagines a Jack the Ripper might be lurking. And it comes as no surprise that the Istanbul Eugène Sue early 20th century wannabe was called Les Mystères de Pera. It is an area of contrasts, with certain parts now becoming gentrified, as in Cihangir, where rents have soared, and others, like Tarlabaşı, remain seedy and dilapidated, and are home to Kurdish and Gypsy migrants, displaced Iraqis, glue-sniffing urchins, workers in the sex trade, pimps and thieves. I peer down its scruffy streets and see sheets are hung out stretching between appartments on the narrow streets, rather like a Sicilia d’antan.
If this nostalgia is not yet enough, catch the funicular railway, the Tunel, the second oldest underground railway in the world (London was the first), built in 1871, from Galata Bridge up to Pera and imagine yourself a European diplomat or banker in the late 19th century returning home or visiting a Parisian cafe in the Grande Rue de Pera or La Rue des Petits Champs, for French, naturellement, was the lingua franca of Pera.
It is an area of ghosts. Opposite the huge Greek Orthodox Church (open only for Sunday service) the Rum (Greeks born in Turkey) and Armenian brown stone schools are now schools for the local Turkish population. This is the area where, as I mentioned in my very first blog on Turkey, quoting from Orhan 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).
Near the German Hospital in Cihangir I discover a viewpoint over the Kabatash pier, the warehouses and old military arsenal of Karakoy, where the Modern Art Museum now stands, and the Bosphorous. The grassed area near the steps down to the Bosphorous seem to be a popular meeting-place. The grass area is littered with bottles. A group drink beer and wine. Couples sit on the steps, smoke and admire the view, as do all Istanbullus. Down below liners from Russia have arrived bringing throngs of Russian tourists. Yachts, ferries and speedboats ply the Golden Horn and the Bosphorous, taking care to avoid the oil tankers from Russia and container ships from the Turkish Black Sea ports, which have negiotated the 30 km long straits, at their narrowest just less than a kilometre wide.
I think of the pictures I have seen when the Bosphorous was so much fuller with boats, before motor transport, like that below, after the first Galata Bridge was built in 1841, but many years before the first bridge between European Istanbul and the Asian side was built in 1973.