Friday, 28 July 2017

İstanbul: The Ever-Changing City that Still Remembers

Text by Melih Uslu | Photographs by Şemsi Güner   
This is no time to sigh with regret about old Istanbul. Because it is still there, if you remember to pay attention to the places you’ve looked at but have not seen over the years. It is time to revisit the old, familiar sights as well. Pay no attention to the crowds that have penetrated everywhere. For it is a solitary city at heart. A city that lives and breathes around the clock. At the same time, a city that is trying to remember and remind us of its authentic values, more of which are being lost by the day. A city that craves the interest of those who stroll through it, a city dying to talk about its disappearing treasures. And now is the time to lend an ear.

Melih Uslu takes us on a tour through old Istanbul, guiding us through the city’s disappearing sounds, sights, colours, cafés and market places through the words of several authors who have not forgotten them and remind us to see and hear them.

Nostalgic sounds

Do you remember the bells of the itinerant vendors of sweet-smelling yoghurt in copper buckets borne on a giant yoke? Have you forgotten the cries of the men who clutched whole bunches of balloons in their hand like a cluster of multi-coloured grapes? Or the street fiddlers, and the accordion and tambourine players?

Those sounds, which perhaps can still be heard here and there in contemporary Istanbul’s oldest districts, are some of the city’s treasures that take us back to our childhood but are slowly vanishing today.

Orhan Pamuk, who described the thousand and one colours of Istanbul for the world in his books, put it this way:

“Our house stood next to an old water mill on one of the Istanbul Islands, where communities of different religions have lived together in harmony for centuries. For me, Istanbul and the Islands meant the sounds that filled my room when I awoke in the morning and opened my window. The voice of our Greek neighbour rising from the window, the clickety-clack of the phaetons, the bells of the itinerant vendors and many more sounds... Later all those sounds began to give way to other sounds. And it was this, its street sounds, that made me realize Istanbul was rapidly changing...”

More modest times

If you are not content with finding traces of Istanbul’s disappearing virtues on the Prince’s Islands, then heed the call of Selim İleri, a true Istanbul lover. This writer, who recommends the Yedikule-Samatya-Kocamustafapaşa triangle as the best place for encountering the trades, structures, sounds and attitudes unique to old Istanbul.

He expresses his views as follows: “There is nothing to match the appeal of taking the suburban train to the districts along the ancient sea walls permeated with the spirit of old Istanbul. The parks, the shops, the itinerant vendors and the old stone houses weighed down by the weariness of the years whisper memories of the past to passersby as they stroll through Samatya and Yedikule. The district has a multi-layered texture handed down from the Byzantines to the Ottomans, and from the Ottomans to the Republic. This texture is actually an opportunity for you to get a nostalgic taste of the past. Small businesses such as fish vendors, restaurants, barbershops, groceries, hardware merchants and greengrocers constitute Samatya’s shopping world. When you emerge from the Yedikule land gate you will see one of Istanbul’s last public vegetable gardens. I still remember as if it was yesterday the garden-fresh vegetables picked from these neighbourhood truck gardens and sold at stands along the land walls until ten years ago. Albeit rare, the tradition is still preserved by itinerant vendors today.”

Market of many colours

There is something left from the old days, something perhaps about to be forgotten, hidden in every corner of Istanbul, a city of noisy, crowded streets. But to be able to remember what was lived, the memories and the moments, one has to remember to look.

For Istanbul does not forget; only people forget. In order to see not what has been lost but what is being forgotten, branch out to the city’s historic market places. Stop off, for example, at Çarşamba Pazarı, literally Wednesday Market, in Fatih, one of Istanbul’s oldest and most colourful market places and recommended by Müjdat Gezen. The famous comedian describes how he found remnants of the city’s vanishing colours in Çarşamba Pazarı and its environs, where he spent his childhood: “Whenever I see the pigeon vendors at the place called the Malta Çarşısı on the side of Çarşamba Pazarı overlooking the Fatih Mosque, I go back to the days of my childhood. As a boy, I couldn’t afford a pigeon since we had no money. How I longed for one! I had to save up my spending money for a long time to buy a pigeon. Sometimes I would get mad at my pigeon and take it to the market and exchange it for a different one. The local merchants - the cobbler, the lace seller, the chestnut vendor, the knife sharpener, the street photographers - were part and parcel of our life. We had a grocer, for example, by the name of Uncle Mehmet. His shop was tiny but inside it seemed like a whole other world to us.”

The big entertainment on winter evenings used to be going down to Vefa and drinking boza, a traditional hot drink made from fermented millet. And to some extent that tradition still survives at Vefa today.

From coffeehouse to café...

Coffeehouses, one of the city’s most important social venues for centuries initially emerged in the East and spread to the West. Later, they made a comeback to Istanbul from Europe, morphing from the ‘coffeehouse’ into the ‘café’.

According to Mario Levi, some of the most pleasant ones can be found in the old coastal settlements along the Anatolian shore of the Bosporus. After emphasizing that he is an unadulterated Istanbul lover, this author of ‘Istanbul Was A Fairy Tale’, one of the best works ever written about the city’s disappearing treasures, has this to say: “With its streets, its coast, its markets, its houses and its historic legacy, this city is full of surprises that can open the door on a new world at any moment. The places I love best are those where the city’s authentic character is still standing up to time. Walking on the shore at Emirgân, Bebek, Arnavutköy and Çengelköy; wandering aimlessly through the Moda and Kadıköy markets; enjoying leisurely breakfasts in the coastal coffeehouses that stretch from Beylerbeyi to Kanlıca; being carried away by the strains of the ‘ney’ (traditional flute) in a madrasa at Sultanahmet... These things alone are like a taste of holiday for me. Nor can I ever forego İstiklal Caddesi, or the Fish Market at Galatasaray, or Beyoğlu; for the city lives and breathes here with all its might. Istanbul lives and nurtures life, but it doesn’t forget. It is actually we who forget. It’s time you gave a listen to Istanbul.

This text - published here with some alterations, is courtesy of SkyLife, a monthly magazine published by Turkish Airlines.

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