Building bridges across the Bosporus Straits has long been a contentious issue. History tells us that King Darius the Great of Persia was the first to achieve the feat back in 513 BCE. Western history has generally viewed Darius I as a ‘bad guy’, since one of his aims at the time was to subjugate the ‘Greeks’ of Athens and Sparta (who were, of course, the ‘good guys’). His dastardly scheme was eventually foiled by the sorely outnumbered but irrepressibly heroic ‘Greeks’ at the Battle of Marathon.
Hollywood scored a major hit with its cinematic version of those days, ‘300’, and is following it up with a sequel. There were some, including the people of Iran, who felt that the first film was a thinly-veiled work of American propaganda focusing on the so-called clash of cultures, East and West; with the West, representing freedom, democracy and other good things, inevitably coming out on top. Interestingly, King Darius probably wouldn’t have got as far as he did without the bridge-building skills of an engineer called Mandocles from the island of Samos – whom Western histories also insist on calling ‘Greek’.
Well, history had to wait two-and-a-half millennia for a second more permanent bridge to be built across the Bosporus. Once again, it was a people on the wrong side of that cultural divide – the Muslim Turks – who effected the construction. Perhaps ironically, the Turks were already in Europe; by far the more populous part of their largest city, Istanbul, lying on the northern shore of the waterway long-regarded by Europeans as the frontier of Asia.
That first bridge in the modern era, despite being a major marvel of engineering (it was the longest suspension bridge outside the United States at the time), and a significant symbolic achievement for the Republic of Turkey on its 50th anniversary, was given the relatively inoffensive title of ‘The Bosporus Bridge’. Fifteen years later, when a second and longer structure spanned the strait, Turks decided to be a little more self-assertive, naming it after Sultan Mehmet I, Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople in 1453. A third bridge, currently under construction, will bear the name of Mehmet’s grandson, Sultan Selim I, known in the West as ‘The Grim’, and to Turks as ‘Yavuz’. It’s not an easy word to translate, but possibly ‘One Tough S.O.B.’ comes close. Selim is remembered as the guy who established the Ottomans as Number One Power in the Muslim world, taking for himself and his descendants the title of Caliph, and tripling the land area of imperial dominions.
Turkey’s current president, Tayyip Erdoğan, continues to field criticism from several directions, and a beef some have is that he seems to see himself as modern-day sultan of a re-emerging Ottoman Empire. Whether he does or not, I can’t say, but possibly he admires some of the qualities of that 16th century Padishah. Certainly no political figure in modern times apart from Mustafa Kemal Atatürk has held centre stage for so long – and the great founder of Republican Turkey didn’t have to bother himself with elections.
Four Prime Ministers and their governments since 1960 have been ousted by military intervention. Adnan Menderes, who took the original decision back in 1957 to build the first Bosporus Bridge, was actually hanged along with two of his ministers three years later. The crossing was completed in 1973 in the aftermath of a second coup d’état. Alevi citizens of Turkey, who make up somewhere between 10 and 20% of the population, are reportedly unhappy with the choice of Sultan Selim as namesake of the new bridge. Back in 1514, in a power struggle with the other great Muslim empire of the day, the Persian Safavids, Selim apparently put a large number of their ancestors to the sword, and they haven’t forgotten. Governing a country like Turkey isn’t easy.
Nevertheless, those bridges have been built, and most would probably agree they are a good thing – while they may disagree about how many are actually necessary. The symbolism of a positive link between East and West didn’t escape George Dubya Bush back in 2004 when he was in town for a NATO Summit conference. Whether he thought it up for himself, or was manoeuvred into it by less literal-minded aides is open to question; but for sure he made the most of the setting for a photo op shoot. The annual Eurasian Marathon has become an important event on the calendar for those who go in for that kind of masochistic pleasure – and the final stage of the cycling Tour de Turkey crosses the Bosporus in the footsteps of the Persian Darius. Linking Europe and Asia has turned Istanbul into a truly transcontinental city, allowing and encouraging expansion into areas once largely the preserve of the wealthy for holiday homes and hunting lodges.
The population of Turkey’s largest city passed two million in the late 60s, and was still only around 2.5 million when that first bridge was opened. By 1980 there were 1.6 million on the Asian side alone, and the current estimate is five million, more than any other city in the country, including the capital. Ankara. The first wave of new settlers razed the old wooden Ottoman houses in ancient districts like Üsküdar, replacing them with soulless concrete 5-storey apartment blocks, and urban sprawl began to ooze inexorably down the Marmara coast.
In the second decade of the third CE millennium, the new phenomenon is urban renewal. Some concepts of town planning are belatedly entering the thinking of municipal authorities; new residential and commercial developments are moving inland where land is more affordable; and low-rise apartment blocks nearer the coast are giving way to multi-level luxury towers with underground car-parking. Inevitably the exponential growth that has taken place over the last 40 years has exacted a toll on the architectural legacies of previous ages – but there are signs that a new, if also belated, awareness is emerging of the desirability of preserving the remaining stock of historic buildings.
Dilek’s family home of 30 years is currently being demolished, and we have moved to temporary rental accommodation. The Suadiye mosque nearby, after which our district is named, is undergoing much needed renovation. A row of long-neglected workshops, formerly providing income for the mosque foundation, is being restored for some new undisclosed purpose; and the activity prompted me to take an interest in the building’s origins.
A plaque on the gate informs passers-by that the mosque was built in 1905 to the memory of Suad, beloved daughter of a certain Reşat Paşa (Reshat Pasha), Finance Minister in the government of Sultan Abdülhamit II. The Pasha is better known for his summer getaway, a two-storey twin-towered mansion a kilometre or so away, until recently functioning as an up-market restaurant before it became the location for a popular TV soap, ‘Çalıkuşu’, set in late-Ottoman times.
During the term of the present government there has been a growing interest in those days which had previously, perhaps of necessity, been an object of denial by Kemalist republicans. Much of the interest, understandably, has focused on the glory days of empire, the 15th to the 17th century, with the later years of declining fortunes still possibly something of an embarrassment. Abdülhamit’s reputation especially, at home and abroad, is not so good. Although he ruled for 33 years, he is known mainly for suspending constitutional parliamentary rule after a brief two-year trial, and for presiding over a period when minorities within the empire, in particular Armenians, were harshly dealt with. He was finally deposed by the ‘Young Turk’ revolution of 1909.
Perhaps history has been unkind to Abdülhamit, and it is time for a reappraisal. Apparently he was a good family man, having thirteen wives and siring seventeen children. Although reverting to the autocratic methods of his predecessors, he also carried out much-needed bureaucratic reforms and construction of public works including schools, telegraph networks and railways. He was unfortunate in ruling at a time when Russia was aggressively expanding into the Caucasus and the Balkans – and Great Britain was no longer interested in helping to oppose Tsarist imperialism in those regions. Abülhamit’s modernising zeal was tempered with religious/cultural conservatism – his pan-Islamic sympathies, and curtailing of foreigners’ privileges won him few friends in the governments of Western Europe.
Perhaps I will return to that interesting sultan in a later post. For our purposes here, it is enough to note that Ahmet Reshat Pasha was a Western-educated economist and one of Abdülhamit’s most trusted ministers, being appointed Grand Vizier in 1900; and his summer retreat in the Kazasker district reflects his status as Number Two Man in the empire.
Few of those palatial holiday homes have survived to the present day, fewer still in good repair. One that attracted my attention recently is located in Bağdat Ave near Bostancı. The avenue is so-called because, if you carry on in that direction long enough without taking a wrong turning, you will probably end up in that ancient city astride the Tigris River. This particular stretch of it, however, is the Champs Elysées of Asian Istanbul, lined with trendy cafés and restaurants, high-end department stores and purveyors of local and imported brand-name clothing and accessories.
Cavit Paşa (Djavit Pasha) was a senior army officer, war hero and Member of Parliament in the early republican era. He was one who successfully bridged the transition from empire to republic, having previously served the Ottoman sultans as politician, diplomat and military commander. His summer mansion had fallen into disrepair and was under threat of demolition as the surrounding area modernised and re-gentrified. In the past year restoration work has begun, perhaps inspired by the fact that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk himself had stayed in the house on several occasions.
In spite of its popularity with the rich and powerful, the Asian side of the Bosporus was pretty inaccessible to the majority of Istanbul’s population. My wife Dilek and her family had a house in Kartal, now terminal station of the new underground Metro line, and thoroughly urbanised. In those days, however, it was pleasantly rural, with market gardens, cattle grazing in fields and clean beaches yet to be cut off by the waterfront highway. In the 19th century, an enterprising fellow established a small general store much nearer to the Bosporus – yet he was known as the ‘crazy grocer’ for setting up shop in the middle of nowhere, and the district bears that name (Şaşkınbakkal) today.
One of the present government’s many controversial projects is the construction of a monumental mosque near the summit of Çamlica Hill. On completion, the mosque will be the largest in Turkey, and will be clearly visible from European Istanbul. The project is attracting criticism for a number of reasons: the huge mosque is another sign of the government’s plan to re-Islamicise the country; Çamlıca Hill is a beautiful spot that shouldn’t be sullied by major construction; the mosque’s architecture is unimaginative, being merely a poor copy of the great edifices of Ottoman times etc. etc.
Well, I have no strong feelings on the matter – but since the 17th century the city’s political and commercial elite have been building their mansions on the hill for its spectacular views of the city. Since the 1980s and 90s the summit has been disfigured by a forest of radio and television masts – whose location and function may be considered by some to be more offensive than a mosque. There has been a suggestion that the physical well-being of worshippers may be affected by electro-magnetic radiation.
In the end, one thing is certain – the population of Istanbul will increase and development will continue apace. The positive signs I see at the present time are that healthy debate is taking place and urban planning is playing a more important role in construction and growth. Istanbul is a national flagship showing the face of Turkey to the world – and the world is starting to pay attention.