Glenfell Tower Inferno – A deliberate act?

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Death toll likely to rise

At this time the final death toll is unknown, but it will surely rise above the current figure of seventeen. The building, reportedly engulfed in flames within minutes, is now a burnt out shell.

Labour MP David Lammy says Grenfell Tower tragedy is “corporate manslaughter”

The UK’s Telegraph reports that this Labour MP has called the fire an “outrage”, labelling it “corporate manslaughter”, and demanding that arrests be made. David Lammy may be right – and already people who might be deemed responsible are ducking and weaving, looking to shift the blame elsewhere.

My desktop dictionary defines “manslaughter” as the crime of killing a human being without malice aforethought, or in circumstances not amounting to murder.” The Farlex Free Legal Dictionary elaborates: “The unjustifiable, inexcusable, and intentional killing of a human being without deliberation, premeditation, and malice. The unlawful killing of a human being without any deliberation, which may be involuntary, in the commission of a lawful act without due caution and circumspection.” At the very least, that must fit the bill in this tragic situation.

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Labour MP for Tottenham lost a friend in the inferno

But is it possible that the reality is actually much worse? My desktop dictionary defines “murder” as “the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.” Again, Farley is more useful, examining the concept of “malice aforethought”:

“The term malice aforethought did not necessarily mean that the killer planned or premeditated on the killing, or that he or she felt malice toward the victim. Generally, malice aforethought referred to a level of intent or recklessness that separated murder from other killings and warranted stiffer punishment. Express malice exists “when there is manifested a deliberate intention unlawfully to take away the life of a fellow creature.” Malice may be implied by a judge or jury “when no considerable provocation appears, or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”

I was curious when I read that Glenfell Towers is located in Kensington, West London. Anyone who has been to the UK capital knows that inner west London is the expensive part of town. Yet TV footage showed residents milling around outside the burning tower block who were conspicuously not Anglo-Saxon (or wealthy Arab).

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A nice place in “The Boltons”

I checked the figures – and sure enough, the Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington, overseen by the Conservative Party, is “the most unaffordable borough in London when it comes to renting”. It has “a higher proportion of high earners (over £60,000 p.a.) than any other local government district in the country”. İt is “one of the few areas in the UK where population has dipped during the last ten years”.

A quick glance at property prices turned up a 7-bedroom house in “The Boltons” listed at £57,500,000; a more modest 5-bedroom end-of-terrace house for £35,000,000 – and a host of others in the £20-30 million range. Clearly I’ll need a second mortgage to get into that market – though I could lower my sights and snap up a studio “apartment” for around £1 million.

So what’s the story with Glenfell Towers, whose residents gave the impression of being unlikely to fit comfortably into that housing demographic? Well, apparently North Kensington is something of an anomaly – a picturesque multi-ethnic enclave at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, with a high rate of unemployment and a high proportion of welfare beneficiaries. Possibly not the kind of neighbours who would be the first choice of your average £50 million house owner, despite the contribution they might make to local “colour”.

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Local residents near Glenfell Tower

Apparently a company called Rydon “completed a refurbishment of the building in the summer of 2016 for KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) on behalf of the council”. The refurbishment included affixing plastic and foam insulation panels to the exterior of the tower block at a cost of £9 million. According to that report, Cladding is considered a low cost way to modify the exterior of unattractive buildings and was used on Grenfell Tower so that the building would look better when viewed against the backdrop of conservation areas and luxury flats that surround north Kensington”.

The same report goes on to say, “Almost all witnesses said they saw the cladding basically firing up – bits of it were igniting before their very eyes.” Residents described how the foam-filled cladding “went up like matchsticks” as the blaze spread.

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120 flats – and ONE stairway?

Another report noted: “Renovations of the Grenfell building in North Kensington saw the building not only kitted out in controversial cladding that could have caused the deadly blaze to spread so quickly, but also stripped of two of its fire exits.”

Interesting! Even more interesting will be to follow what happens to the site after the tower block, which seems to be a complete write-off, is demolished. Will the Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington replace it with low-cost housing for the surviving residents of Glenfell Tower? I suspect not. There will be many residents of South Kensington who, while sympathising with the victims of the fire, will be happy enough to see them relocated to a borough more appropriate to their socio-economic status. The value of the cleared land will undoubtedly richly reward developers given the opportunity to construct high-end residences for an influx of more wealthy ratepayers.

Is it possible that the whole business was a deliberate plan to get rid of that eyesore building and its misplaced inhabitants? It wouldn’t surprise me at all. Some might consider that £9 million for flammable cladding to be money well spent.

What are they doing to Istanbul?

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An edifice of some significance!

A month or so ago I had cause to visit a commercial office block on the southern slopes of Istanbul’s highest hill, Çamlıca. In fact there are two such hills: Büyük Çamlıca rising to 260 metres above sea level; and the smaller Küçük Çamlıca, some 30 metres less in height. As my taxi approached our destination my eyes were drawn to a narrow tower-like structure under construction near the summit of the smaller peak. Clearly it would be an edifice of some significance, and I was surprised I knew nothing about it.

After doing a little research, I can now share with you the following information:

The tower’s primary purpose will be to replace the dozens of unsightly radio and television masts that have disfigured the scenic hills of Çamlıca for decades. The first stage will be a reinforced concrete structure 220 metres high topped by a 165 metre antenna mast.

Adding in the height of the hill itself, the top of the mast will rise 565 metres above sea level. The tower will also fulfil a secondary role as a tourist attraction. It will be set in an extensive park offering recreational and picnic facilities, and will have two restaurants and viewing decks, at 176 and 180 metres, providing unsurpassed panoramic views of the city and hinterland.

Supporters of the project argue that the new tower will be a symbol of modern Istanbul, visible from beyond the city’s boundaries. They point out that creating a public park will guarantee the hill is preserved from speculative private development, and replacing the existing forest of radio and TV masts will actually beautify the hills of Çamlıca.

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The new Çamlıca Mosque – and the forest of TV/radio masts

There is, of course, some controversy boiling around recent developments in this iconic urban location. Attracting most criticism has been the construction of an enormous mosque, the largest in Turkey, on the northern slope of Büyük Çamlıca. Contrary to the claims of some opponents, it will not be dedicated to President Erdoğan, but will be known as the Çamlıca Republic Mosque. Its size is certainly impressive. The central dome has a diameter of 35 metres and a height of 72 metres. Four of its six minarets will rise to 107 metres, the other two to 90 metres, and it is expected to provide praying space for 37,500 worshippers. The project will also house a conference hall, art gallery, museum and a library.

Interestingly the mosque was designed by two female architects. Breaking with tradition, its layout is said to be female-friendly and features special provision for the disabled. Despite its size, however, the Çamlica Mosque is still a long way short of being the world’s largest. That title is held by the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Housing the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine and the place which Muslims worldwide turn towards while offering daily prayers, that structure covers an area of over four million m2, and is said to accommodate four million worshippers during the Hajj period.

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The new tower after completion

Personally I have no problem with the size or location of the Çamlıca Mosque. Like the TV Tower nearby, it will be set in a large park that will ensure public access to this important recreational area, and will guarantee that no future private development restricts entry to those with the money to pay. Moreover, the population of Turkey is largely Muslim, so building an emblematic mosque in its largest city does not strike me as something to be shocked or surprised about. What did surprise me was learning that the country’s largest mosque was previously the Sabancı Merkez Camii in the southern city of Adana – named for one of Turkey’s wealthiest families, thus nicely uniting the conflicting forces of God and Mammon.

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Proposed landscaping around the tower

If I really wanted to get excited and protest about something, I might turn my attention to another vast construction not far away: the Emaar Square “Community”. This huge project, financed by the same Dubai company that built the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, will include a 180-room five-star hotel, 1,000 luxury residences, 40,000 m2 of office space, and a mega-shopping mall featuring an “underwater zoo”.

Does Istanbul need another mosque? Who am I to say? I am certainly pleased that those ugly TV antennae will disappear from Çamlıca Hill. However, when it comes to another soulless shopping centre purveying the same luxury brand clothes and watches to mega-rich globe-trotters in another generic multi-storey five-star hotel – Nup. Don’t need that.

“Love will save this world”

In my current employment I work weekends, so Thursday and Friday are my days off. In fact I like it this way. Population and vehicle density are so bad in Istanbul these days, you may as well stay home on Saturday and Sunday, unless you want to spend hours snarled up in traffic jams.

dscf0510So I’m happy having my weekend when almost everyone else is working or at school. Today it was really starting to feel like spring. I turned off the heating, opened a couple of windows, then went out for a longish walk.

There’s a pretty park not far from our place, laid out in 1973 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey. Council workers have been busy planting pansies and tulip bulbs. The tulips won’t bloom for a couple of weeks or so, but, with the sun shining, the rows of yellow,  purple and whie pansies looked great. There were also leaf and blossom buds appearing on some trees, so probably the worst of winter is behind us.

I made a circuit down towards the railway line where progress is continuing on track and stations for the new High Speed Train. Much of the city is under reconstruction these days, it seems – adding to the traffic chaos as truck and trailer units carry away demolition rubble, and concrete mixers and hydraulic pumps shuttle around the building sites.

As I approached the pedestrian overpass crossing the horrendous racetrack linking the coast road with the two main motorways, my eye was caught by a sentence of graffiti crudely painted on one of the steel pillars:

dscf0513“Bu dünyayı sevgi kurtaracak,” it read. And once again I felt happy to be in Turkey. Western graffiti of the artistic or obscene variety has been increasingly in evidence around Istanbul in recent years. Especially during the few months when the so-called “Gezi Park” protests were going on, there was some pretty unpleasant stuff being daubed on walls around town.

This one, however, gave me hope that all is not lost. The anonymous scribe was assuring us that: “Love will save this world.”

Nice to think there are people around who still believe that.

The world’s largest neo-Ottoman suspension bridge

Yesterday I took a trip to look at a bridge. Sometimes you need to get away from all the politics and violence in the world and just chill out. So I took a ferryboat ride on the Bosporus. The Bosporus is a narrow twisting stretch of water flowing though the middle of Istanbul, joining the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It’s 33 kilometres long, and the ferry ride, popular with tourists and day-tripping locals, takes ninety minutes from Eminönü in the old city to the fishing village of Anadolu Kavağı.

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Rumeli Castle in April

It’s a delightful trip, taking you past centuries-old seaside mansions, royal palaces and two early Ottoman castles. The best season is spring, when the coastal slopes are clothed in purple erguvan blossom, known in English as the Judas tree. Cooler weather is also better, because you have a trek ahead – but some times you can’t be picky.

There’s a twenty-minute walk from the ferry wharf up a steepish road to the ruined castle that once guarded the northern entrance to the Bosporus strait. If you want a glimpse of the Back Sea, this is the place to come. The view and the fresh air make the climb worthwhile, and as everywhere in Turkey, there are cafes and restaurants catering for your refreshment needs, be it a cold beer or a gourmet meal. And now you can see the full stretch of the third Bosporus bridge, the main motive for my visit.

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The third Bosporus bridge

It’s an impressive structure. Weather conditions out here are pretty extreme. Black Sea storms are legendary. Snow sweeps down from Russia in winter, and summers are pitilessly hot. Earthquakes too are an ever-present threat. The bridge was budgeted to cost $2.5 billion. Its towers rise to a height of 322 metres, and the span between them is 1,408 metres. Huge oil tankers and container vessels constantly ply up and down the Bosporus so the road crosses about 70 metres above the sea.

Like cafes and restaurants, however, political controversy is everywhere in Turkey. There was a time when pretty much every new construction was honoured with the name of the republic’s revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: bridges, airports, parks, culture centres, city squares, state forests, botanical gardens . . . Fair enough, I guess. There’s a strong case to support the belief that, had it not been for his vision, courage and determination, Turkey would not exist, at least in anything resembling its present form. Foreign visitors, however, rarely grasp this. To most of them it just looks like blind adulation coupled with a sad lack of imagination.

The present government has departed from this almost sacred tradition, adding fuel to the fire of critics convinced that the AK Party, in power since 2003, is steadily undoing the work of the republic’s secular founders and dragging the country inexorably back to a state of Islamic fundamentalism.

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The Anatolian Castle

The new bridge across the Bosporus has been named for Yavuz Selim, the ninth Sultan to rule the Ottoman Empire, and the first to claim the title of Caliph, leader and protector of the world’s Muslims. There is a precedent. Admittedly the first bridge, opened in 1973, followed tradition and was officially called the Atatürk Bridge – though I have never heard anyone use that name. The second crossing, completed in 1988 during the term of Westernising prime minister Turgut Özal, is known to everyone as Fatih Sultan Mehmet, FSM for brevity’s sake, after the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople.

Commemorating Selim I, however, has aroused some anger, particularly among the country’s large Alevi community. Back then, in the early 16th century, there was growing rivalry between two expanding powers in the region, the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi’ite Safavid Persians. Depending on who’s telling the story, Qizilbash Alevis were either innocent victims, massacred en masse for their religious beliefs by an evil, vengeful sultan – or traitors to their legitimate ruler who were lending military support to a dangerous foreign power. I’m not getting into that argument. Whatever the truth of the matter, 500 years is a long time to hold a grudge. But that’s the way things often are in this part of the world. Finding peaceful solutions isn’t easy. Maybe the government could have chosen another sultan to immortalise – but Selim I is definitely one of the Ottoman greats.

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Çamlıca Mosque

Still, if you’re looking for evidence that Turkey’s current leaders are harking back to their Ottoman past, you can find it. Another new suspension bridge was opened a month or so ago – this one to carry vehicles across the Gulf of Izmit, a major obstacle for holiday-makers heading to the Aegean or Mediterranean resorts. It’s been named “Osman Gazi”, after the founder of the 600-year Ottoman dynasty. Then there’s the park recently completed on the coast of the Marmara Sea on the Asian side of Istanbul. The 130 hectare reserve, developed on land reclaimed from the sea, provides much-needed sports and recreation facilities in a city not rich in such amenities. I haven’t heard anyone actually use the name, but officially it’s “Orhan Gazi City Park”, Orhan being son of that Osman, and the Empire’s second sultan. As if that wasn’t enough, in the wake of the recent failed military coup attempt, the government has renamed the 1973 Atatürk Bridge, “15 July Martyrs’ Bridge”, to commemorate the civilians who lost their lives facing down the tanks and guns of the insurgent soldiers.

Well, it seems to me if you are determined to criticize someone, you can always find cause. The construction industry is booming in Istanbul, with major public and private projects springing up everywhere you look. One huge recent achievement was the building of a tunnel beneath the Bosporus carrying an underground Metro line. Its name? Marmaray, a combination of Marmara (the Sea) and the Turkish word for “rail”. The country’s largest mosque is currently rising on the upper slopes of Çamlıca Hill on the Asian shore, assuredly a symbol of creeping Islamification, though it seems to go by the unpretentious name of “The Çamlıca Mosque”. Another bridge carries a Metro line across the Golden Horn. Official title? The “Golden Horn Metro Bridge “(Haliç Metro Köprüsü). Work is progressing on a third airport for the city, to be known, to the best of my knowledge as the “New Istanbul Airport”. Not very creative, but “Atatürk” was already taken. Undoubtedly the most ambitious of all these mega-projects is “Kanal Istanbul” – a 50-kilometre artificial waterway linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, allowing those tankers and other huge commercial and military vessels to bypass Istanbul’s metropolitan area.

Of course there are voices raised in protest at all these projects, mostly on environmental grounds, since their names are fairly unobjectionable. No doubt there are environmental costs – but, to give merely one example, nothing compared to the cost of a major oil spill if one of those tankers came to grief in the Bosporus. As for names, the power of the people generally prevails. I suspect most Istanbulites will go on referring to the first Bosporus bridge as “The First Bridge”, whatever their President says.

In spite of all this, Western news media, and a vocal minority of Turks, insist that the AK Party government is steadily dismantling the democratic, secular republic, and establishing in its place a neo-Ottoman dictatorship based on Islamic shariah law. Part of the problem, as I have argued before, is that the Western version of history has never fully come to grips with realities in this part of the world. A good deal of the language English-speakers use when talking about modern Turkey has its roots in the ancient civilisations of classical Greece and Rome, and studiously ignores the fact that Turkish, in one form or another, has been the dominant language here for more than seven centuries.

For example, the city of Istanbul is divided by the “Bosporus” strait – that name coming down to us from an ancient Greek myth about one of Zeus’s lovers who was apparently turned into a cow. Similarly, the “Golden Horn”, the estuary that was a major harbour in Byzantine and Ottoman times, is a direct translation of the Greek word. Neither bears any resemblance in form or meaning to the names used by Turks. The much cherished belief that the Bosporus forms the boundary between Asia and Europe owes its origin to the Roman name for its easternmost province, which certainly did not include China, India, or even Iran. The word “Asia” probably derives from the Hittite word “Assuwa”, their name for what the Greeks called “Anatolia”, and the Turks, “Anadolu”. English-speakers insist on referring to the “European” and “Asian” sides of Istanbul – which serves to perpetuate our stereotype of Turks as Eastern, and “other”. Visitors to the city are often surprised to find that parts of the “Asian” shore seem more Western than the “European” side.

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The NOT-Genoese Yoros Castle at Anadolu Kavağı

As my ferry wound its way towards the Black Sea, it passed two castles on opposite shores. These were built by Ottoman sultans as they tightened their noose around the neck of the dying Byzantine Empire. The first, on the Anatolian (Asian) side, was the work of Sultan Bayezid I in preparation for his unsuccessful siege of Constantinople in 1395. The other, Rumeli Castle on the European side, severed the city’s lifeline to the north, and contributed to its final conquest by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453.

My objective, however, was that third fortress, known in Turkish as Yoros Castle, with its view of the bridge. In English it is generally referred to as the “Genoese Castle”, another example of our Western determination to ignore reality and reconstruct history as we would like it to have been. The Genoese, active traders in the eastern Mediterranean in those days, did indeed occupy the castle for some years in the early 15th century. It had been built, and controlled for centuries before that, however, by the “Byzantines” – a rather confusing Christian empire who spoke Greek, but considered themselves Roman and certainly not Byzantine. The castle was seized by the Ottomans in the 14th century, and apart from that brief Genoese spell, it has been in Turkish hands ever since.

It’s a beautiful spot, though badly in need of some tender loving care. It struck me yesterday that the Turkish military, who control most of the surrounding area, would be performing a useful public service if they despatched a platoon of soldiers for a couple of hours each week to do a little tidying and landscaping of the castle and its grounds. And the company that runs the ferry service might consider assigning one of their newer vessels to the route, in the interests of international goodwill. I’ll probably never drive over the Yavuz Selim Bridge, but I’m happy to have seen what all the fuss was about.

It’s a Hoax, Folks!

I must thank a friend in New Zealand for drawing my attention to a news item circulating in Western media to the effect that the government of Turkey is planning to build 80 new coal-fired power stations – one in each of the country’s provinces.

I can find no evidence that any such plan exists. There are, of course, plans to build some coal power stations. We all know they are bad for the environment, and miners die underground – but Turkey depends on imports for its natural gas; environmentalists and archeologists complain about hydro-electric dams; nuclear power is scary; Turkey’s economy and energy needs are growing rapidly, and the newly rich middle classes are hell-bent on emulating the profligate American ‘lifestyle’. Wind and solar sources are sadly not enough to meet demands.

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Get a laugh out of it maybe, but don’t take it seriously

The Youtube video circulating online was made by a prominent Turkish actress and is obviously a spoof. The website term-x.com is equally clearly not genuine. ‘Term-X’, the company that allegedly will build the power plants, does have a presence on Linked In and their profile tells me they have 11-50 employees. I suspect they may need to start hiring if they are aiming to build 80 new power stations. Promises to be good for the country’s employment situation, if not for the environment.

However, if you take a look at their website, you’ll pretty soon realize it is not genuine, with punning and ironic slogans like:

‘Projects that will take your breath away!’

‘Our business partners are building a wonderful future for our children!’

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‘Children are our future. We’re looking to the future with hope’. If you believe that’s a genuine website, you’ll believe anything.

It seems all the usual pseudo-leftist, pseudo-intellectual anti-government elitists in Turkey are up in arms; and media in the West are picking up on this nonsense and giving credence to it – whether out of ignorance or bad intentions I leave it to you to decide.

The biggest threat to democracy in Turkey, in fact, is the lack of an effective, credible opposition party. Most of the elitist opponents of the government are still living in the days when the army would step in and overturn a democratically elected government if they seemed to be following the ‘wrong path’ – as happened in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1997. They just can’t get the hang of the democratic process.

Urban Renewal in Istanbul – Tilting at windmills

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Former St Euphemia School and Eglise N.D. du Rosaire

Dilek and I went to a concert of classical music last night. The setting was a small but beautifully restored Roman Catholic church in the Istanbul district of Rasimpaşa. There was a chamber orchestra and a talented young pianist, Nilüfer Kıyıcılardan, playing a programme of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart.

We arrived twenty minutes early and were fortunate to find two of the last unclaimed seats – somewhat surprising, given that the venue is not on any well-beaten social track, and the event had received little publicity. I had stumbled upon it accidentally during the week while researching for this post.

These days Istanbul resembles what I imagine New York City to have been during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – a vast construction site. Tunnels are driving under, and bridges over the Bosporus and the Gulf of Izmit; subterranean Metro lines burrow in all directions beneath the city; vast commercial and residential projects rise to the winter sky; hectares of run-down inner city blocks are giving way to new up-market apartments; and domed monumental mosques springing up to occupy landmark sites; all presided over by multitudes of arachnoid construction cranes.

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‘1453’ – a new conquest of Istanbul by megalomaniac developers

Not everyone is happy, of course. I wrote a piece some years ago on a conflict between local residents and guests at an art gallery opening that made international news at the time. Many of us prefer shopping in local traditional small businesses to the homogeneity of climate-controlled malls; and have questions about the wisdom of allowing the national economy to be dominated by a bloated and parasitic financial sector. Local residents whose families may have lived in a neighbourhood for generations are resentful of being pushed out by the new urban yuppie class – some of the latter even mourn the loss of traditional colour that inevitably accompanies such development. Lovers of the atmospheric decay that characterised old Istanbul in recent memory have issues with way restoration is carried out on world heritage buildings. And then there are the megalomaniac property developers who seem to ride roughshod with impunity over zoning and town-planning regulations.

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Abdülhamit I’s windmills

Me? I’m ambivalent, I guess. I’m appalled when I look out a window on our university campus and see the abomination of the Ağaoğlu ‘1453’ development blighting what was once a forested landscape. On the other hand, I love the Marmaray Metro, and feel sorry for those who refuse to ride it for fear that the waters of the Bosporus will pour in upon them while their train is half way through. I’m a fatalist when it comes to such matters. But I want to tell you about my recent discovery – the Yeldeğirmeni neighbourhood of Kadıköy.

One thing I learned is that the neighbourhood goes by two names. Until recently it was known by its official one, Rasimpaşa, after a small mosque dedicated to a relatively minor Ottoman official who served as mayor of Istanbul for a couple of months in 1878. Tradition says that Rasim’s loving wife, Ikbal Hanim, had the mosque built on the site of an earlier ruin. Be that as it may, more picturesque, and arguably more significant is the district’s earlier history.

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Italian Valpreda Apartment Building

Tourist brochures about Istanbul often mention that Khalkedon (Kadıköy) was originally a larger city than Byzantium/Constantinople across the water. The name is translated as ‘City of the Blind’ in tribute, apparently, to the failure of its inhabitants to recognise the obvious superiority of the other site. Dating from 675 BCE, its defensive walls are believed to have extended as far as Rasimpaşa.

The Asian city’s importance waned after the foundation of Constantinople as capital of the eastern Roman Empire. Following its conquest by the Ottomans, its environs became a popular location for the city’s elite to build summer mansions on the banks of the Haydarpaşa Stream that once flowed there. There were also barracks and a training ground for imperial cavalry and infantry. The Marmaray Metro line currently terminates at a station in front of the modern Tepe Nautilus shopping mall. The station is called Ayrılık Çeşmesi, and the eponymous fountain was the gathering point for Ottoman armies departing on campaigns to the east, and caravans of pilgrims setting out for Mecca. As an interesting aside, the fountain is said to have been commissioned by Kızlarağası Gazanfer Ağa – whose title refers to his responsibility for the ladies of the imperial harem. Nice work if you can get it! In the late 18th century, Sultan Abdülhamit I had several windmills erected to supply the needs of the military and local residents – and from the Turkish word for windmill (yel değirmeni) comes the name that is supplanting the memory of that short-lived city mayor.

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5659 in the Jewish calendar = 1898 C.E.

From the mid-19th century Rasimpaşa began to take on a more residential character. The present pattern of streets was laid out, and Istanbul’s first post office opened there. The city had always been prone to disastrous fires, and after a particularly bad one that devastated the Kuzguncuk district, Jewish families moved in and established Istanbul’s first apartment buildings. The Hemdat Israel Synagogue, one of the oldest surviving in Istanbul, entered service in 1899 after Sultan Abdülhamit II stepped in personally to moderate in a violent quarrel between the Jews and the Orthodox and Armenian communities. It seems Christians objected to the construction of a synagogue in the district. It is said that the Jewish community named the synagogue in a way that recognised their gratitude to the sultan for his assistance – the Hebrew consonants for ‘Hemdat’ can also be read as ‘Hamid’. Anyway, in the interests of natural justice, the Orthodox lot were allowed to erect their own place of worship, the church of Ayia Yeorgios, a few years later in 1906. Both buildings are still standing, though their congregations have been sadly depleted over the years.

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Simits with a touch of history

Development became more rapid in the early 20th century with the building of the Haydarpaşa train station as a key link on the Berlin-Baghdad railway line. Italian stonemasons came to work on the project, as well as German architects, engineers and builders. The edifice that currently serves as Orhangazi Primary School was also built around this time to provide education for the children of the German professionals. Among the more noteworthy apartment blocks from this time are the five-storey Italian (Valpreda), Demirciyan and Kehribarcı buildings.

Underlining the multicultural character of the district, and the tolerant attitude of the Muslim Ottoman government, Roman Catholics even managed to get a big foot in the door. A gaggle of nuns calling themselves the Oblates[1] of the Assumption established a school in the name of St Euphemia in 1895. RC education continued here until some kind of dispute took place with the Republican government in 1934. As a result, the nuns departed and the school was taken over by the Turkish Ministry of Education, eventually assuming its present role as Kemal Ataturk Anatolian High School. Next door to the school is the small (now deconsecrated) church dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Sacred Rosary, where Dilek and I were privileged to hear last night’s delightful concert.

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Mural-İst street art

A recent article in the Kadikoy Life magazine contains an interesting quote by a former resident of the district:

“The bakers, sweets and helva-sellers were Turkish; the grocers and restaurateurs, Greek; the greengrocers and chemists, Jewish; the butchers, Armenian, and the dairymen, Bulgarian. People from every religion and ethnic background lived happily together. Our neighbours to the right were Greek, the ones on the left were Turks; directly opposite were Armenians, next to them another Greek family, and on the far side, they were Jewish. Neighbourly relations were excellent; we all respected each other’s special days.”

Sadly, the tide of history brought cataclysmic events on to the world stage that destroyed the harmony of those halcyon days – waves of violent nationalism, the slaughter of the First World War, the Greek invasion of Anatolia, and the Turkish War of Liberation. The world would never be the same, and Istanbul suffered as much as anywhere.

Kamarad cafe

Cem and İnci brewing coffee for connoisseurs

I was motivated to explore the neighbourhood after visiting a café recently, run by the daughter of a friend. Trendy cafés are sprouting there like truffles in a Piedmont autumn, and Kamarad is one of the latest. İnci and Cem are catering to the true coffee connoisseur, importing beans from various sources in Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia) and South America (Honduras, Costa Rica, Columbia), roasting and grinding them on site, and offering delicious brews produced by the method of your choice: the familiar espresso machine and French press, or more esoteric techniques, chemex and V60. They are also supplying beans to other businesses nearby.

One of the more striking features of the new Kadıköy is the proliferation of enormous surrealistic outdoor murals that confront you unexpectedly as you stroll around the narrow back streets. Kadıköy Municipal Council has sponsored an annual street art festival, Mural-İst, for the last four years. Seven local and nine foreign artists have turned their talents to the enlivening of the neighbourhood, with impressive results.

The old days will never return, of course, but the new/old district of Yeldeğirmeni may be showing the way to a better future.

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[1] Oblates, it seems, are one step down in the holy orders, following less stringent rules than is usual for monastic orders.

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.