The Sweet Waters of Europe – A cautionary tale

The Golden Horn has a special association in Western minds with the magic of a city some still insist on calling Constantinople. As a geographical feature, it is one of the main reasons that city has been settled for more than 6,000 years, and that it was the centre of three major world empires for more than a millennium and a half.

The Golden Horn at sunset

The Golden Horn at sunset

In physical terms, the Golden Horn is an estuary of two small rivers some 7.5 km in length, 750 metres across its widest point, and 35 metres deep where it flows into the Bosporus as it joins the Sea of Marmara. With that sea it forms two sides of a roughly triangular peninsula on which the Emperor Constantine established his New Rome in the third decade of the 4th century CE. Twenty-two km of massive defensive walls, mostly still in existence, surrounded the city, and the Golden Horn was the main harbour, port and centre of shipbuilding until well into the 20th century.

Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans in 1453, and became the capital of their 600-year empire. The Republic of Turkey established its capital in Ankara, but Istanbul remains the financial, commercial and emotional heart.

Surprising then that the Turkish name for the historical waterway is simply Haliç – derived from the Arabic word for estuary. There is some debate about how the Golden Horn acquired its name in Greek and English. One theory says it symbolises the wealth that entered the legendary city through its waters. That may be so, but it was equally true for the Ottomans. The second explanation, which I prefer, refers to the colours that bathe the harbour as the sun sets in the west – a sight only visible from the north-eastern shore where was located the satellite city housing merchants and ambassadors from Europe. For a thousand years or more, attracted by the city’s fabled wealth, they built their towers, warehouses, churches and palaces, and watched the setting sun enflame the waters separating them from the imperial capital.

The Kağıthane stream today

The Kağıthane stream today

Last week the adventurous new driver of our staff shuttle bus took a lengthy detour to avoid the deadlocked traffic through Istanbul’s new financial centre coming to be known informally as ‘Mashattan’. Istanbul is a huge city, and there are undoubtedly many areas with which I am not familiar. Our circuitous route brought us to the bank of a medium-sized stream flowing down a surprisingly verdant valley interspersed with sports facilities and amusement parks. The slopes of the valley were lined with modern high-rise apartment blocks, office buildings, and the ostentatious campuses of several new universities. The area is Kağıthane, and for the first time I felt motivated to visit it.

It’s not a very accessible area for those of us residing on the Asian side of Istanbul – but there is a ferry, departing hourly from Üsküdar that crosses the Bosporus and follows a zigzag course up the Golden Horn ending at Eyüp, a district popular with the Muslim faithful. Its second-to-last stop is Sütlüce, my point of disembarkation.

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Former Istanbul slaughterhouse

Whatever doomsayers may tell you, Istanbul is a more salubrious metropolis in the 21st century than it was in the final years of the old millennium. Fish thrive again in the Golden Horn in sufficient numbers to encourage a forest of fishing rods on the Galata Bridge. The water at least looks relatively clean, and certainly doesn’t stink as it formerly did. The industries that lined its banks and the Kağıthane valley have been relocated, their buildings demolished, derelict or converted to new uses.

A prominent landmark near the jetty at Sütlüce is the Haliç Congress Centre, a sprawling complex whose central feature is the old city slaughterhouse, built in 1923 and finally closed in 1984. I am too squeamish to begin imagining what flowed from its bloody operations during the 61 years it served its original purpose.

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

The old power station on Bilgi University campus

Further along the shore is the campus of Bilgi University, located on what had been the coal-burning Silahtarağa thermal power station, established in 1911, and the sole supplier of Istanbul’s electricity needs until 1952. Electricity generation continued until 1983, and I can only guess at the contribution it made to the city’s air and water as it leached its poisons and belched forth its toxic clouds of smoke. I am assured that there is now a Museum of Energy on the site – but yesterday being a holiday, it wasn’t open to the public. It’s not the first time in Turkey I have been offered this reason for a museum’s being closed. Does it strike you as peculiar?

So I had lunch as I revised my plans, which had involved spending an hour or two learning about energy in Turkey, past and present, with maybe some light being shed on the proposed construction of three nuclear-fuelled power plants. Probably because of the universities, there are now a number of tasteful cafes and restaurants raising the tone of a neighbourhood struggling to shake off a heritage of auto mechanics and tyre repairers.

I was now at the point where the two streams, Kağıthane (or Cendere) and Alibeyköy flow into the Golden Horn, and faced with a choice, I decided to follow the former to see where it would lead. Clearly the valley has been beautified since the days when it was Istanbul’s first industrial area, and home to squatter villages erected by displaced Anatolian peasants flocking to the city in search of work. The stream now flows through an extensive park stretching along both banks for several kilometres, further than I chose to explore. The water still looks uninviting, and the metre or so of grey mud at the water’s edge would likely discourage children trying to retrieve a football. At least it doesn’t stink, however, which places it a little higher on the water purity scale than the Asian stream flowing past the stadium of Fenerbahçe, one of the city’s premier football clubs.

Day-trippers in former days

Day-trippers in former days

The name Kağıthane comes, as one might guess, from a paper factory that was one of the first industries to be established on the banks of the stream. In Ottoman times, the district was known as Sadabad, actually a forest frequented by Sultan Süleiman and his court in the 16th century for riding and hunting. In the 17th and 18th centuries the wealthy built mansions and summer palaces along the banks of the stream. It began to attract a wider public in the early years of the 18th century, the so-called Tulip Age, as the empire increasingly opened its doors to Western influence, becoming a popular location for picnic daytrips, weddings and other festivities. Postcards and engravings, often inscribed with French titles, made their way to Europe, depicting Les Eaux-douce d’Europe – the Sweet Waters of Europe.

What remains from the leisured life of those far-off days? A picturesque 18th century mosque known variously as Aziziye, Çağlayan or Sadabad, extensively rebuilt by two brothers of the Armenian Balyan family that contributed much to the architecture of Ottoman Istanbul. Not much else is to be seen from those days; a stable in the process of restoration, and some stone work half-buried in front of the Kağıthane Council building.

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interior of the Aziziye Mosque

Interestingly, a good deal of that palatial grandeur disappeared in the first half of the 18th century. Ahmed III seems to have been one of the Ottomans’ more controversial sultans. He ascended to the throne in 1703 at a time when the empire was past its glorious best. Nevertheless, he had some notable achievements: he turned the eyes of his country outwards towards Europe, perhaps encouraged by his two French wives, and built good relations with France; his armies achieved unprecedented success against Russia; he fostered literature and the arts; during his reign the first printing press in Ottoman Turkish was set up, and an official fire brigade inaugurated; factories producing china, clothing and paper were founded.

Nevertheless, at the same time, Ahmed made enemies. His reign is particularly remembered as the Tulip Age, and the pomp, splendour and luxury associated with the wealthy upper classes led to a major revolt in 1730.

Patrona Halil was a Janissary of Albanian extraction who somehow managed to incite a revolt that toppled Sultan Ahmed. The insurgents placed Ahmed’s nephew Mahmud on the throne, but treated him as a kind of puppet until, with the aid of the Khan of Crimea, the ringleader was executed and peace restored. In the mean time, however, most of the palaces and summerhouses of Sadabad had been destroyed in a riot of vengeful leveling.

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

Romantic French portrayal of Patrona Halil

The 1730 revolt was followed by another ten years later – and these events are considered by some historians to have been a major factor contributing to the rapid decline of the empire in the 19th century. While the luxurious lifestyle of the Ottoman elite was the ostensible cause, the Janissaries, for centuries the source of Ottoman military power until their final abolition by Mahmud II in 1826, were a force of reaction in Ottoman society, and one of their major grievances was the Westernising policies of Sultan Ahmed, which placed their very existence under threat.

The Sadabad Palace, one of the chief features of the Kağıthane pleasure grounds, was rebuilt twice more after the riots, by Mahmud II in 1809 and Abdülaziz in 1863. After the First World War it was used as military headquarters by the occupying British forces, then served as an orphanage in the early days of the Republic. During the Second World War the area was handed over to the Turkish military and the remaining palaces were demolished. In the 1950s the process of rapid industrialisation began, factories mushroomed, squatter shantytowns sprang up and the Kağıthane stream turned to a turgid black river of foul-smelling ooze.

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Graves of Mavi Marmara martyrs

Istanbul is a vast and ancient city with a complex past. A trap for Western visitors is the temptation to interpret events in terms of the context we know from our own education and experience. They can lead us to jump to conclusions that may be quite wrong. Just as in our own countries, a knowledge of past events is crucial to an understanding of the present. History, as we know, has a habit of repeating itself.

As I wended my way home to Asia, on a route I probably wouldn’t have chosen had I been more familiar with the area, I chanced on two totally unrelated, but nevertheless interesting sights. The first was in a cemetery just outside the Edirnekapı gate in the old city walls. Normally Turks bury their dead with other family members, but these two adjacent graves, in pristine white marble had something in common other than blood

Restoring Aya Yorgios

Restoring Aya Yorgios

relationship. A stone linking the two bore the inscription: ‘We ask God’s mercy for our friends who were martyred when the Mavi Marmara ship, attempting to end the embargo on Gaza, was attacked on 31 May 2010.’ There is no criticism, or even mention of the Israeli Government – just a verse from the Koran on each headstone.

Inside the walls stands the monumental mosque dedicated to Mihrimah Sultan, beloved daughter of 16th century Sultan Süleiman. Near the recently renovated mosque is a construction site with a notice informing passers-by that another restoration is in progress – an old Greek Orthodox Church and its associated buildings. The government of Turkey and the Istanbul City Council come in for a good deal of criticism these days, from a number of directions, but let’s give credit where credit is due.

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3 thoughts on “The Sweet Waters of Europe – A cautionary tale

  1. Pingback: Tales of Ottoman women – and a little revisionist history | Turkey File

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