Dilek and I journeyed across the water to Yenikapı last Friday. I’ve been quite enjoying the reactions of mild shock and confusion when I’ve mentioned this to friends and some of my students.
Yenikapı means “Newgate” in Turkish – and was in fact a gate in the vast fortified walls that surrounded Constantinople, protecting the city against would-be conquerors for a thousand years. Excavations for the underground Metro station turned up a medieval Byzantine harbour and, according to the Institute of Nautical Archaeology, “witnessed one of the world’s largest archaeological digs between 2004 and 2013”.
Experiencing a revival of its historical importance, Yenikapı has become an important transport hub in the burgeoning metropolis that is modern Istanbul. The new station is a junction of three Metro lines: one passing under the Bosporus and linking (if you still hold with that ancient line of thought) the continents of Europe and Asia; another connecting to Atatürk International Airport; and the third carrying commuters to and from the financial/commercial centre of Maslak/Ayazağa. Vehicular and passenger ferries come and go, to and from destinations on the Anatolian shore of the city, and further afield across the Sea of Marmara.
More recently a major project has reclaimed a large area from the sea, creating a 58-hectare recreational area including carparks, sports facilities, picnic areas and space for large public gatherings. And it is this last feature that provokes the raised eyebrows and looks of consternation when I mention our visit.
Residents in our neck of the Istanbul woods, on the Anatolian side of the city, are mostly proud of the fact that their local councils are aligned with the CHP – the Republican People’s Party that forms the largest opposition grouping in Turkey’s National Assembly. Many of them refuse to set foot in the Marmaray trains that take tens of thousands daily to and from the European side. The very word Yenikapı conjures up in their minds huge gatherings of bearded men and head-scarved women mindlessly adoring the nation’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and hell-bent on returning the country to a mythical alcohol-free stone age of compulsory mosque attendance, and women enslaved by the twin evils of motherhood and home-cooking.
In fact our trip to Yenikapı had no connection to matters political. I had been seeing posters in Metro carriages advertising an Etnospor Festival, and I wanted to check it out. These days I work weekends and have my days off on Thursday and Friday. The advantage of this is that most people are at work, parks are mostly empty, and getting around the city is easy. The downside, on this occasion was that most of the best activities were scheduled for the weekend.
Nevertheless, we saw some pretty interesting stuff. The focus of the festival was competitions in sports popular among the Turkic peoples of Central Asia, many of which have strong followings in Turkey today. Oil wrestling is pretty well-known. Forty large men wearing leather trousers cover themselves all over in olive oil and engage in no-holds-barred (seriously!) hand-to-hand combat until only one is left standing.
Archery is a big one. Two crucial technological developments allowed Turkic nomads to fight their way into Europe, overcoming pretty much everyone who stood in their way: the reflex, or recurved bow, and the stirrup. Whereas in the West, archers on foot used a long bow cut from a single length of wood, their Eastern foes had developed a composite weapon which, despite being much shorter, was also more powerful. That and the stirrups allowed skilled horsemen to adopt a whole new range of tactics that proved highly effective, even up to the early days of firearms.
We had a chat with a couple of craftsmen who were making bows in the traditional way. I was amazed to learn that, in the old days, it could take up to two years to produce one bow! Modern techniques have apparently reduced the time to 18 months – but still! Wow!
What I’d really come to see, however, was cirit (djirit). Some words just don’t translate easily from one language to another. I delight in telling my students that there is one word in modern Turkish that comes from our New Zealand Maori language – Kiwi, of course (but the fruit, not the bird). It’s actually surprising how many words have passed from Turkish into English, and not just yoghurt and shish kebab. But cirit is something else. It was a form of combat where guys on horseback riding at full gallop hurled javelins at each other. These days inanimate targets are generally preferred, but the sight is still impressive.
Apart from the sports, there were various displays of handcrafts. The manufacture and trading of silk was an important business in this part of the world. We were treated to a demonstration of how the incredibly fine filaments of silk from cocoons are twisted to make threads that are then woven into scarves and other items of clothing. A craftsman from the eastern city of Gaziantep sold us a pair of hand-made leather slippers just in time for Mothers’ Day. The leather was soft and supple, hand-stitched, and dyed in a wide range of colours.
So we’re glad we went to Yenikapı. It’s a 15-minute ride on the Marmaray Metro from Kadıköy on the Anatolian side, versus a nightmare of snarled traffic on one of the Bosporus bridges. The engineers who built the tunnel claim it’ll withstand a Force 9 earthquake. I hope I never have to put that claim to the test – but that’s not going to stop me using it.