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August 21, 2001
My City (Part IV)


By now, you may have had it up to here with all the tourists mobbing Hagia Sophia and the neighborhoods around it, and feel ready to see how regular people go about their business. Well, truth is, it's impossible to pin the "regular" label on anyone and hold that up as a standard, even though guidebooks and orientalist movies will try to get you to believe that. Perhaps, to get reasonably close to it, you can choose to wander into the maze of streets pulling away from the imposing walls of Topkapi Palace or Hagia Sophia and in the process encounter some old houses trying to get by alongside the roaring tourist buses and progress. Things will be shabby in places, but it's the best one can do without tax-supported communitarian practices to prop things up. What jumps out in the eyes of most visitors is flowers precariously balanced on ledges of crumbling buildings, sometimes sprouting out of olive oil or yogurt cans. It's a cliched image, but an indicator of resilience and simple traditional aesthetics nonetheless. To wit, here's a photo that I snagged from my mother's collection:

Old wooden homes

As you make your way down the hills of the Old City toward the mouth of the Golden Horn, chaos will greet you where rail, bus and ferry lines converge in the neighborhood of Sirkeci/Eminönü. The crowds here will be overpowering, as will the little kids trying to sell you stuff, but you need to know this part of the city well (see Part I and the general map to get your bearings. As I mentioned earlier, you'll need a detailed city map to navigate your way through this area.) This is where boats will take you up the Bosphorus (map points 12-13, and 1 through 4), for example, and to the Asian side (9-10) or even the islands (14). I'll touch on all of these later; for now I'll point out that the last time I was there you needed to buy separate tokens for each of these boat lines (there are separate docks right next to one another), but according to an article that appeared in the Washington Post last week, things are now easier with a standardized payment system for citywide public transportation.

Across the water is the equally busy port of Karaköy, shown in the picture below with the ferries benched because of the morning fog.

Boats and seagulls, Karaköy

At center left of the photo you can see the faint outline of Yeni Cami (called the New Mosque because it was built in 1597, making it a younger sibling to a number of famous mosques in the city--though not the Sultanahmet/Blue Mosque, which was completed in 1617). This and the Spice Bazaar right next to it are a short walk from where you're standing in the middle of Sirkeci's chaos. Just follow the water's edge and you'll get there. The mosque is hangout central to hundreds of pigeons, making its steps our version of Venice's famed square (but without the same admirable fashion sense on passersby, sadly). If you look closely at this building (as well as other old mosques), you'll see that the Ottomans had ornate birdhouses carved into the stone building blocks. Some of these are more accurately described as bird palaces. (It's too bad, really, that the rulers didn't care as much about their human subjects.)

I know you want to cross the bridge now and hit Pera, but I have a couple more things to point out here. If you keep walking inland along the south shore of the Golden Horn you'll eventually come to uncharacteristically open, park-like spaces right by the water. This was accomplished by clearing entire blocks in the 1980s of dilapidated but historically significant old homes. What's left standing is worthy of note. There's a Bulgarian church constructed entirely of cast iron, for example, standing all alone on the shore. (The sultan of the day was making it harder and harder to build new churches in the city, and someone ingeniously imported this pre-fab thing and assembled it right there, taking advantage of a loophole in the draconian law.) There's also an old Byzantine building now serving as a Women's Studies library, and if you squint you can see the odd-looking yellow twin towers of an old fez-making factory a few miles west--today it's a performance art space.

The hills rising up from this part of the Golden Horn are no longer the domain of tourists and knick-knack peddlers. The Greek Patriarchate of Phanar is here (amazingly, this institution holds the spiritual leadership of the entire Greek Orthodox world; it's something that bugs knee-jerk Turkish nationalists, who frequently accuse the Greek government and diaspora of trying to turn it into a "second Vatican," to no end), as are remnants of a gene pool carrying a little bit of everyone who trekked through during the last three millennia: the armies of Xenophon and Alexander, the yörüks of Central Asia, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Slavs, you name it. I have a set of photos from these streets, but I've been too lazy to scan the ones besides two I've shown before:

Old woman

kid

When in a forthcoming section I post photos from the Asian side you'll be intrigued by how the people look similar yet subtly different, primarily owing to the widening socioeconomic class-based gulf.

break

OK, so now you've crossed the bridge north and made the move into the modernizing section of the city (the beginning of section 8 on the map). This is where the boys tried to pull the old distraction fight trick on me, so beware pickpockets and such (see Part III about this as well as general safety info).

If you look directly down the sightline of the bridge you'll see, across the busy Karaköy Square, a very steep street going north. It is called Yüksekkaldirim, literally meaning sidewalk or pavement that's a bear to climb, because in the old days the street was actually an endless series of nonergonomic steps going up to Beyoglu/Pera. You can drive on it today, though it's not recommended. For one thing, there are too many sidewalk sellers and buyers. For another, halfway up this street there's a right turn for the city's legal prostitution complex (if you keep an eye out for the throng of mustaches single-mindedly marching on, you can't miss the turn-off), and negotiating that intersection would be like driving through New York's Times Square on New Year's Eve. By the way, I'm not going to tell you to go see this "attraction" or avoid it other than pointing out that it bears no resemblance to the Red Light District in Amsterdam; in fact it's pretty squalid. There's heavy police presence so safety is arguably not a concern, though it must be said the police are there to ward off men bent on revenge--so you need to consider the possibility of finding yourself in the middle of an incident. Or maybe you do, who knows? Having said that, the area is absolutely NOT recommended for women, and when you think about it, for men and women alike, it makes a lot more sense to take world's shortest (and second-oldest) subway line that runs like a shuttle between the bottom and top ends of Yüksekkaldirim. Called Tünel (the tunnel), the southern entrance of this subway is about 100 yards to the west of the street's southern end. People will direct you if you ask about the "tunel metro" (so that they don't think you're looking for any old tunnel). The ride up (or down) takes less than one minute, whereas the walk is about 10 (plus timeouts for incidents, of course).

The thing is, when you take the Tünel you miss the famous Galata Tower (pictured below), built by Genoese traders around 1348, which sits on Yüksekkaldirim slightly north of the whorehouse turnoff.

Galata tower

It's thus recommended that when you exit the northern end of the "subway" you turn right, walk about 10 yards, and turn right again to go down Yüksekkaldirim until you see the tower. The beginning block of this short walk also has a lot of stores selling musical instruments, books and stamps, not to mention a monastery called the Galata Mevlevihanesi, which has regular performances by Whirling Dervishes (this was actually the location used for the dancing sequence in the film Baraka, and the garden plus the fact that women are allowed in this particular branch of the dervishes' order makes the visit worthwhile). The Tünel's northern end also is the beginning of the neighborhood of Pera, as I mentioned earlier, which is one of the most interesting places for a leisurely stroll in the city.

Dating back to 11th-century trading concessions allowed by the Byzantine Empire, Pera grew as the West European counterpart to the predominantly Muslim peninsula across the Horn during the Ottoman centuries (you'll see many churches, a synagogue or two, expecially if you explore the side streets, but only one mosque), with Jews, Armenians, Greeks and other Levantines settling in its quarters. You can't miss the European influence in the stone buildings, which, unlike their frame-built, fire-prone cousins around the city, have survived to the present day in much greater numbers. These are the buildings that through the empire's minorities introduced the first commercial acting troupes, photo-portrait studios, operettas, movies to a shy population. This is where the Byelorussians settled and opened their bars and cabarets and burlesque houses, where Western powers built their embassies, where Agatha Christie sat down at the Pera Palace Hotel to think up Murder on the Orient Express, and where Graham Greene set Stamboul Train. It's no coincidence that Pera/Beyoglu is the place where in 1955 a mob incited by the ruling right-wing party went on a rampage and destroyed every pane of glass it could hurl a rock at.

The area went through some bleak decades in the 20th century--"the gentlemen and the ladies," as it's said, moved out, and subpar eateries and porno theaters moved in. But some of core regulars dug their heels in, and in the past decade the entire neighborhood is officially on the rebound list, thanks to earnest restoration activity and an annual international film festival, among other things. The municipality recently put up helpful street signs pointing out historically significant buildings that you might overlook.

The red trolleys, long out of circulation, were brought back in the 1990s, and today the main street remains closed to auto traffic (though there's always some car or other abusing a dubious permission to use the artery). Starting with the building directly across from the Tünel's northern exit, this 1.1 km-long street is home to countless manuscript and gravure peddling bookstores as well as modern ones, hip bars, and cafes. It's also where a thriving fleecing industry lives, however. So when you're looking around for a place to have some fun, if the dude at the door is wearing a badly cut jacket and dark shades and promising you a night like no other, you can probably expect a $200 bill for a bottle of whisky for you and your charming companion sent over by the friendly establishment, and possibly a sound beating when you protest upon seeing the bill. If, by contrast, you find yourself among West Village (New York) types who drag their paper filled briefcases around and play with their wire-rimmed glasses while debating politics and prose, there's little risk involved besides excessive smoke inhalation and a night spent with an overanalyzing fling partner.

Pubs, bookstores, cafes, jazz clubs come and go over the years, and you may or may not run into Robinson, Papyrus, Babylon, and other establishments with similar names around here, but some things seem permanent, such as Rejans, the great Russian restaurant; Haci Abdullah, its Muslim counterpart; the Italian Catholic Church of St. Antoine; and the Çiçek Pasaji, where some of the neighborhood's oddballs mingle with outsiders enjoying cheap but good food in tavernas lining the L-shaped enclave.

Roughly at the halfway mark as you walk down the street you'll come to a little square dominated by a French high school. This is where Mothers of the Disappeared have staged a quiet vigil every Saturday for years, in the face of threats and abuse from police and others. It's a reminder of a more recent past. The street, by the way, is called Istiklal Caddesi--or independence street, so it's not a surprise that it's become a location of protest trying to rattle chains standing in the way of true democracy.

The end of the road is Taksim Square, a large and often congested roundabout surrounded by parks, hotels, a large Greek church and a boxy opera house. It looks quite peaceful today (other than a busload of cops frequently stationed somewhere around to respond to any spontaneous mass protest), but on May 1, 1977, it was anything but, when Labor Day demonstrators were fired on by mysterious gunmen, provoking a panic that killed scores of people. It may be smart to avoid the place on the anniversary of that day, but outside of that, it's as safe as it can get, and it's not unusual to see a couple pushing their insomniac baby's stroller at 11 pm or two very old men shooting the breeze at 3 am on a bench. Bus and shared cab rides originate from here to all corners of the city and the newspaper stands seem to be open at all hours.

I should tell you that one of the streets (Siraselviler Caddesi) leading from the square will take you to the mother of all leftie/intellectual hubs in the city (haven't been there in years but I'm hoping it hasn't lost its lead to newcomers or gone bankrupt and closed down)--a bar/restaurant/theater workshop/cultural center called Bilsak that's squeezed into a tiny five-story rowhouse. Bilsak is on a side street called Soganci Sokak (the Onion-seller street--Istanbul has pretty strange and evocative street names; I may have written earlier of Don't Ask Just Enter Street and In a Great Hurry Street), at Number 7. The neighborhood here is called Cihangir, and it's worth taking the time to search and find its mosque, for it's rather pretty and there's bench in its courtyard with a great view of the Bosphorus (yeah, all those dingy-looking apartment buildings all around, you wouldn't believe the views from their top floors; it's no coincidence that's where Bilsak put its restaurant). It's a view that'd make a Bektashi out of an devout imam, sitting there day after day. Above all, it's a good place to rest your feet after a long day of walking, and there's usually no one around besides the neighborhood cats.

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