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August 24, 2001
My City (Part V)


I'll understand if you have a hard time believing this one, but it actually happened.

We started our climb after drinking tea under a big tree by a mosque by the choppy (as usual) Bosphorus. We hadn't set out that day to scale heights, but talk of screwed-up land use patterns led to a discussion on the lure of valleys tucked between visible ridges of the landscape towering behind us, and we decided to discover some of those.

The hills overlooking the Bosphorus rise quite rapidly in some neighborhoods and some of the best views are not down where the oldest homes sit by the water, but a little higher up. It's very hard, when you don't live in such a house with a commanding view, to discover the road that leads to it; sometimes the road's a private driveway, other times it follows an illogical, convoluted path that only locals know about, and then there are gray zones where houses are not at all supposed to be but there they are, off the books.

In just a few minutes it had gotten very quiet on the slope, the bustle of the cove and the neighborhood was far below, and there were no more streets to walk on. We found ourselves on a narrow ridge marking the end of legal shoreline development.

Bosphorus hill

Then, out of nowhere, shacks, no larger than some American garages I've seen, appeared. The people who lived in them could see the water through the trees but you couldn't see them from the streets or boats below. Little children playing in front of these tiny homes came running toward us and started asking questions. The mothers were too busy washing clothes to pay any attention to these alien visitors. There were no men around--probably at work, 10 hours a day plus 2 hours commute each way in some cases.

We pushed into the thick undergrowth and once we'd cleared that, found ourselves in a fairly large mixed-tree grove, still climbing. It was, I thought as I struggled with errant branches, perhaps what remained of an ancient home, nibbled around the edges by illegal settlements. In the 1980s, a number of these remaining groves had been simply awarded to big-name developers, who had turned them into gated communities for those who could shell out a million dollars or more for a home. Within a development all homes looked exactly alike, of course, which made them look terribly ugly and unoriginal from a distance.

(Imagine today's American McMansions, and then arrange them in a five-by-five pattern, and then plop them in the middle of the Marin headlands north of San Francisco overlooking the Golden Gate; I think you get the picture.)

Besides, Istanbul had always been short of parkland, and this practice had ensured even further shrinkage. The city's sole remaining large green areas were either military zones, gardens of former Ottoman palaces (and even those were given away to developers in at least two cases in a frenzy), burial zones (which in some cases involving Christian cemeteries had resulted in the courting of minority leaders to transfer ownership, and in others concerning out-of-the-way cemeteries, had simply been appropriated illegally, leading to court battles going on even today), reservoir- and watershed-surrounding forests (which in many cases were being opened to illegal and legal settlement), or leftovers of old mansions like the one we found ourselves in on that day in the late spring of 1994. That last category was the easiest to exploit for a developer. Often the mansion that had anchored the grove was gone, and with ownership in dispute or heirs dead, the deed would revert to the city eventually, and there just hadn't been that many mayors in the metropolis' history who could say no to immense amounts of payola.

We suddenly came to a short wall. And climbed it, of course, ending up on the private driveway of just the kind of development I was thinking of. This one was not too big. Two rows of three identical homes, with pools, wide porches, red Porsches, you know the drill. We had entered the property far enough away from the gate that the guards hadn't seen us. And luckily, no one seemed to be out and about. (This was the other thing about homes like this; passing below in a rented fishing boat I'd often look up at them and I never saw anyone watching what is inarguably one of the best views in the world money can buy. Once they'd bought it, they probably moved on to the next conquest--perhaps a private island, or a week at the most expensive Paris hotel suite you could arrange, whatever.)

We crossed the width of the property and climbed the back wall, a much higher one, to the next level (think of the development as a step in a set of stairs; you have to terrace the Bosphorus hills like that to be able to build anything). Now we were in a forest with no houses in sight ahead of us, but it was a forest with maintained paths, and along the wall ran a road wide enough for a car. The wall went on in both directions and then turned inward at 90-degree angles: probably a square plot, with each side at least 100 yards. As far as I knew, this was not a public park and there were no university campuses in the area. The closest thing to a park, a large cemetery, was on the next ridge over, and in any case there were no tombstones to be seen.

Considering how much even a tiny house with a view would run you around here, the logical cost of what we were standing on was beyond calculation. There were probably fewer than 20 families in the country who could afford to or, more important, be in a powerful enough position buy something this size, at this location. Now I was getting scared. Tombstones indeed. It was a good thing not as many property owners carried guns in this country.

We turned around to enjoy the scenery for a moment. It looked like you could strap yourself to a glider and fly clear across the Bosphorus. The obvious thing to do would be to go back, but it probably would be harder to hit the gaps in the wall, and it was possible we would end up in a bruised heap at the bottom. Besides, cutting through the modern development would involve the risk of running into notoriously aggressive private security guards, whereas what were in now was just tranquil forest. I wanted to believe there was at least some chance that the woods belonged to some abandoned turn-of-the-century mansion, perhaps in legal limbo, awaiting for some a capitalist's eager paws. Maybe there was a rickety old wood home deep in the woods, shutters knocking in the breeze and only little animals living in it.

We decided to follow the road; at least it would look like we weren't advancing surreptitiously if we happened to be confronted. We turned the corner that we'd spotted in the distance. As scary as it was, it was exhilarating to be away from the crowds, and so high up. Toy cars in the distance, crossing the bridge. We came to a fork and took it inland, away from the wall. The trees cleared up for a bit and I saw a building I recognized immediately. It was a white mansion with a honey tower sporting a distinct, Russian style "onion" dome, and I'd seen it many times driving on the Bosphorus Bridge, sticking out of its own forest on a hill on the Asian side. I'd heard that it was an old Russian hospital of some sort, perhaps built during the Crimean War, but I had no clue who owned it. It was one of those buildings that was just there, like the Maiden's Tower (seen in the banner photo of this series), telegraphing no clues. I didn't think the war had involved Russian soldiers coming all the way here, though; the caretaking of the wounded going on back then was farther south, at the Selimiye barracks where Florence Nightingale had made her name treating British soldiers. The building looked too small to serve as a hospital, in any case.

"Oh, so that's where we are," I muttered, and then cursed with terror because a black Renault 12 with black license plates, parked by the house, had just come into view. This was national government property and we were without a doubt screwed.

A boy came out of the prefab hut that sat awkwardly in the shadow of the main building. "Hello," I called out as nonchalantly as possible, but he turned around and fled back inside, crying out, "Dad!"

After a few seconds of tense silence a man who appeared to be in his late thirties appeared in the doorway. Regulation navy blue pants and tie, pale blue shirt--a cop or a guard. But he didn't appear to have a weapon, and he looked fairly pleasant.

People who grow up in countries like Turkey know there's only one way out of a situation like this: you have to exude a sense of authority, so that whatever you're doing or have done, no matter how blatantly wrong, cannot be called into question. If you're trespassing, you need to look like you own the place.

I took a deep breath. "Hello, how are you doing?" I said, approaching him and extending my hand at the same time.

He shook our hands, looking a little uncertain. "Fine...." he said, and struggled briefly trying to come up with a reasonably polite way of phrasing, "Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?"

I stepped in to fill the void. "The lady from America," I said, pointing to my wife, "is a researcher specializing in Ottoman-era homes. I'm showing her around Bosphorus mansions. Perhaps you can give us some information about this one." I bit my lip. The absurdity was unbearable. He hesitated, offered a few introductory tidbits which went in one ear and straight out the other as I was wondering what in the world I was going to say next. I turned to the "lady" and made up something in translation. It wasn't going too bad, really. "So what is the status right now?" I asked, importantly.

"Presidential summer residence," he said.

Oh. There was no going back. "It looks like you have some renovation activity going on," I plowed on, surveying the scene the way a president might.

"It's all in limbo, actually. Semra Hanim wasn't too happy about the Huber Mansion on the European side and she made plans to turn this into their summer residence for when they would be in Istanbul. And of course, President Özal died last year, and there have been no orders after that."

"The Demirels don't care for this place?"

"The President hasn't visited," he replied.

"So what do you do here?"

He smiled. It was becoming clear he wasn't a cop but a civil servant, forgotten by a sluggish system and left to fend for himself in paradise. "I keep an eye out for the place," he said. "Thieves would come and take everything if I wasn't here. I walk around the property. My boy comes home from school, he does his homework. We have tea. I should offer you..."

I wasn't about to push my luck. "We shouldn't put you in a difficult position," I said solemnly.

"True, someone could say something, you never know. It's not right, though; it's one thing with riff-raff, but people like you..."

Ah, damn it, Bartleby, country, humanity, etc. People like us, and what are we, whom you dare not quiz or displease? Yeah, we look like the people who make you wait at attention in front their desks and order you around with a squint and a curled lip, but you know, we're just two liars who scaled a couple walls and patted the dust off our clothes, that's all.

I suddenly remember: On the bus, the old peasant woman who couldn't bear to occupy a seat while the younger woman in a suit stood. "No I can stand, you sit, please. You should sit." I'm not worthy of this seat, you're nice and scrubbed and beautiful; you must sit and I must stand because I am who I am and you are who you are. What kind of god would make these people?

"All the same, we should really get going. Perhaps the main gate is closer?"

"It's right behind the building." He led us to it, and after saying our goodbyes we left through the entrance that we never would've dared to use had we approached it first.

The road curved around the wall, found a valley and started descending toward the Bosphorus.

break

I guess one never knows what's going to pop up when poking around the Bosphorus on foot. A lot of people take the easy way out and opt for a boat ride. From Eminönü a city boat will take you all the way up to the north end, where the stop is long enough to enjoy a leisurely dinner. Ordinarily the stops are for only a minute or two, and many docks serve just a couple boats a day. Perhaps the best job in the world is to be dockmeister at one of these.

Beylerbeyi dock, Bosphorus

On the map, 1 and 2 show the villages that are the endpoints if you're driving, but the boat will only go to the two Kavaks (the two dots north of 3 and 4, which are in turn the final major hubs, Sariyer and Beykoz), because human activity peters out beyond those (and appropriately, military zones begin).

The spot marked by 13 falls under the Second Bosphorus Bridge (the Fatih Bridge, named after the emperor who "conquered" the city). This is where two hisars (forts) face each other, the considerably larger one on the European side built right before the siege. Rumelihisari, the big brother, has great views from its towers, but I prefer the smaller one on the Asian side. You can take a cab there and right next to the fort you'll find fishermen's cafes.

Fishing boats, Anadoluhisari

If you follow the road toward the sea you'll find another that is so hip it's usually deserted. It's especially lovely to sit here at dusk, sip your coffee and watch the city calm down just a bit.

Bosphorus view from cafe, Anadoluhisari

For a "village" truly taken over by young people who're into books and one another, though, you should head over to the still charming, cafe- and craftstand-choked Ortaköy, which is almost directly underneath the European leg of the first (southern) Bosphorus Bridge (12 on the map). The ornate, European-inspired mosque that dominates the square, like many prominent 19th century buildings on the water, was built by Armenian architect Nikoghos Balyan. (Some tourist guides have taken to rechristening him as an Italian named Baliani; hence the setting straight.) And if you poke around the neighborhood a bit, you can stumble upon a Greek church and a synagogue as well.

If you ever want to get together with a few friends and take a private Bosphorus tour, most of the cafes at Anadoluhisari and Ortaköy have deals with the boats tied up front. For a reasonable price (from Anadoluhisari in particular) they'll take you up and down the strait, and even grill fish and produce a mean shepherd's salad. Watch out for the oldest house on the Bosphorus, perhaps the oldest frame-built house in the city, dating back from 1699. This is where the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Karlowitz, the beginning of the end.

Oldest house on the Bosphorus, 1699

Of course, the far side of the hills tell a different story:

Schoolgirl, Armutlu slum

break

OK, before diving into a detour, I'd left you around Taksim Square. The walk from there to the aforementioned art-gallery-infested neighborhood of Maçka follows a ridge that'll reward you with fine views. If you don't mind walking down all the way to Besiktas, you might want to pass by a forgotten little palace called the Pavilion of the Linden Tree. Its compact garden is as nice as it sounds. Of course, people interested in grandeur will head to another Balyan building, the Dolmabahçe Palace hogging the waterfront south of Besiktas. Not many people know about its secluded Aviary, and rush to see the world's heaviest chandelier hanging in the main hall.

Not everything around Besiktas and Dolmabahçe is so blatantly ostentatious. You're more likely to come across the first, shy examples of the Westernizing wave that attempted to establish a tenuous hold on the city's psyche before crashing and burning rather spectacularly. Simple, quiet, dignified buildings.

University building

From Besiktas the vapur, or if you don't have the patience to wait, a freelance shuttle motor, will take you inside 10 minutes across to the Asian side, which is where we'll wrap this all up. Before you get on the boat, you must buy a simit (a sesame bread that's been baked and twisted into the shape of a wheel) and share it piece by piece with the always eager seagulls that form a screaming cluster in the wake of the boat.

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