I’m a little confused about Turkey these days. It seems I am assailed on two fronts by people telling me, on the one hand, that the country is headed for Islamic fundamentalist disaster, possibly orchestrated by the United States of America with Tayyip Erdoğan as their puppet – while on the other, a large proportion of the population seems to believe that Tayyip Bey is a national saviour, leading the country into a new era of prosperity, tolerance and self-confidence. Who to believe?
Sometimes you just have to get out and see for yourself, I reckon. Yesterday I went a-wandering in the old city. My first destination was that corner of the ancient metropolis where the sea wall on the Golden Horn joins the land walls stretching across to the Sea of Marmara. The area is called Ayvansaray, but in former times it was known as Blachernae, after the palace where the last Byzantine/Roman emperors lived. There must have been quite a complex of buildings here in those days – and what little that survives above ground to the present day is said to be ‘one of the few relatively intact examples of late Byzantine secular architecture in the world’.
When I first came to Istanbul in the 1990s, this area was a forgotten part of the city – most of its residents living in poor quality housing with little architectural merit. The nooks and crannies in the city walls and remains of the palaces were inhabited by an even poorer population with no other fixed abode. No doubt archeologists and ancient historians knew of the palaces, but there was no sign that anyone was taking any serious interest. Since 2010 there has been major renovation and reconstruction going on, and I pay a visit from time to time to see how work is progressing. It’s a huge job, of course, requiring major financial investment. One project is restoration of the Anemas Dungeon, located under the long-gone Blachernae Palace. My old guidebook said you would need a torch/flashlight to explore the labyrinth of tunnels – but it would have taken a visitor much braver than I to venture in. Tourists wandering off the beaten track in less isolated parts of the old city have met unpleasant ends. I’m looking forward to the day when the complex opens as a museum so that I can check it out in safety under more reliable lighting.
Nearby, another Byzantine Palace, Porphyrogenitus, is also undergoing renovation – and apparently the plan is to turn it into an exhibition hall and conference centre. While I understand those purists who see this as commercially driven sacrilege, I’m not sure what the alternatives are. Leave it as it was, a slowly mouldering heap of rubble inhabited by the city’s poorest? Wall it off behind glass panels so that a few rare visitors could attempt to recreate, largely in their minds, the glory of a bygone age? In reality, the preservation of such buildings is an enormously expensive business, beyond the means of the Turkish government to fund. Some of the finance inevitably has to come from the private sector, or by re-utilising them in some way that will provide an income. Where would the grand cathedrals of Europe be without their entrance fees and charges for photography? Even in countries where the culture and religion are theoretically unchanged?
As I often have cause to remark, Turkey’s biggest problem in being understood – even in understanding itself – is that so much has happened here during its long millennia of recorded and previous unrecorded history. Archeologists and even historians don’t have the facts, and the English language lacks the words to describe, never mind explain, the origins of the people who live in this region today.
The city of Byzantion is said to have been founded by ‘Greek’ colonists in 657 BCE. But who were these ‘Greeks’? Still, if that date is correct, it makes the city pretty near as old as Rome – and one might argue that Rome’s claimed establishment date of 753 BCE owes more to myth and legend than incontestable historical fact. Nevertheless, there we have a city, located on the historical peninsula inhabited by people speaking a language that is a forerunner of modern Greek. Then along came Constantine, Emperor of the pagan Roman Empire, establishing his New Rome (later to be called Constantinopolis in his honour) in 324 CE on the site of Byzantion, and the language of government became Latin.
During the course of his reign, Constantine reportedly became a ‘Christian’, and also established the principle of dynastic succession – two serious blows to democracy, sad to say. It wasn’t till 50-odd years later that the Emperor Justinian established ‘Nicene Christianity’ as the imperial state religion – some might say a political rather than a spiritual decision, marking the beginning of that religion’s descent into intolerance, persecution and political manipulation; but that’s another story.
At some point, the locally predominant Greek tongue re-emerged as the language of administration; the western Roman Empire fell, and Constantinople stood alone as capital of . . . what? The Roman Empire, as they themselves believed? Or some other mysterious entity, subsequently, and retrospectively, named ‘Byzantium’ by Western historians. Then the Ottomans appeared, finally conquering the (Eastern) Christian city in 1453 CE, turning it into the capital of their 600-year empire. Certainly the state religion was Islam, but ‘Orthodox’ and ‘Armenian’ Christians, and Jews, were tolerated and given rights of worship, language, education, even administration over their own people. To Western Europe, the Ottomans were ‘Turks’, just as their conquered predecessors had been ‘Greeks’ – but it was a long time, and many generations of inter-marriage with locals, since their ancestors had migrated from Central Asia. However, the power of words is strong to influence minds for good or ill.
But let’s get back to my ramble around that old city, delineated by the majestic walls built by Constantine, and extended by Theodosius II in the 5th century. The walls enclose a roughly triangular area with a perimeter of approximately twenty-one kilometres, so you can’t hope to see much in your three-day visit. My guide for exploring this huge area has been a handy little publication, ‘Step by Step Istanbul’, which has allowed me to concentrate on sections of the old city and to discover gems of historical interest in their labyrinthine streets. Yesterday my route took me along the shore of the Golden Horn back towards the Galata Bridge at Eminönü.
Certainly Istanbul is changing. Urban renewal is taking place everywhere. Huge state-sponsored projects are under construction alongside those of private sector commercial interests, great and small. Inevitably there will be gains and losses. We will regret the disappearance of some of the city’s old ‘character’ while at the same time, happily availing ourselves of its modern amenities.
My route took me past two old houses, formerly home to two important Ottoman figures, neither of them Turkish or Muslim – Panayotaki Nikosi and Dimitri Kantemir. Despite the sole online reference I found referring to the former as a ‘magnificent villa’ it has been a neglected shell as long as I have known it. The other, however, is in the process of renovation and being turned into a museum. Dimitri Kantemir was a Prince of Moldavia who lived in Istanbul from 1687 to 1710. According to Wikipedia he ‘became a member of the Royal Academy of Berlin in 1714. [He] was known as one of the greatest linguists of his time, speaking and writing eleven languages, and being well versed in Oriental scholarship.’ His writings include works on history, geography, philosophy, linguistics and music. Restoration of his house is a joint project between the Istanbul Metropolitan Council and the Government of Romania.
So, whatever people say about the religiosity of the Istanbul City Council, they seem happy to put money into preserving non-Muslim buildings. A little further along the road, work is progressing on the small Orthodox church of St Nicholas. It’s not a particularly ancient building, having been erected in the 19th century – but it stands on the site of a much older Byzantine edifice, its location chosen because of the sacred spring which bubbled beneath it. Another waterside restoration is being carried out on the 19th century Bulgarian church of St Stefan – architecturally interesting because it was made from cast iron sections prefabricated in Austria and shipped down the Danube River.
A chance discovery while I was looking for the Kantemir house was a small mosque with an unusual wooden minaret. This mosque, plaques in Turkish and English informed me, was built by the Grand Vizier Şehit Ali Pasha in 1716 after a certain Ebu Zer Gifari appeared to him in a dream. That gentleman had been a companion of the Prophet Muhammed, and one of the very first to accept the new religion, subsequently bringing many converts.
I have been reliably informed that UNESCO has been considering naming and shaming Turkey for allegedly failing to adequately protect and care for the historic peninsula, officially recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage site. One project that has attracted considerable attention is a bridge recently built across the Golden Horn to carry one line of the city’s new Metro system. The bridge, say critics, is a blight on the historic landscape, disrupting lines of sight on the famous skyline and totally out of keeping with its unique architecture.
Well, I have to tell you, I love that new Metro system. There are some who say it should have been done years ago – but it wasn’t, and now it is. The bridge in question seems to be a reasonable compromise between a living city in dire need of a modern public transportation system, and an archeological paradise containing irreplaceable treasures of several major empires. Without the excavations associated with Metro construction, some recently discovered treasures would never have seen the light of day. Designers of the system have located a station in the middle of the new bridge, meaning that pedestrians can access it from both shores, enjoying, as they do, unparalleled views of the ancient city. I haven’t seen it at night, but I imagine it must be spectacular! And if my calculation of angles is correct, the only part of the city from which views may be obstructed would be the Prime Minister’s very own constituency of Kasımpaşa.
Meanwhile, the private sector too is coming to the redevelopment party. All along the waterside road and adjacent streets, trendy new cafes are sprouting, side by side with refurbished traditional meyhanes and purveyors of that necessary follow-up, tripe soup. Again, despite the local council’s reputation for wowserism, there seems to be no prohibition on alcohol consumption. As well as this small-scale commercial development, larger enterprises are also involved. A foundation set up by the late industrialist Kadir Has has turned buildings of the former tobacco factory into a university campus. Again, purists may object – but the factory was originally built by foreign banking interests who had obtained one of the infamous ‘capitulations’ back in 1884, and had stood empty for twenty years before its current transformation. The old factory also houses the Rezan Has Museum, where you can currently see an exhibition of Urartian jewellery and ornaments dating from the 8th-7th centuries BCE, and a fascinating display chronicling the development of written language, much of which took place in this part of the world.
Next time you are in Istanbul, with a few hours to spare, I really recommend you to follow that route. I can’t say that I am in total agreement with everything the present government of Turkey does – but the evidence of my eyes suggests to me that citizens of and visitors to Istanbul have much to be grateful for. As I wandered slowly around the other day, I passed and was passed by a family of young German tourists, mum and dad with three small kids on foot and another in a stroller. Clearly they were travellers on a budget, as you would be, and not with a tour group. I can’t imagine young parents venturing with children into those parts of the old city ten years or so ago.
 Latest edition published by the Istanbul Metropolitan Council, in association with Culture Co. Earlier editions by Intermedia.