WHEN THE BOSFURUS DRIES UP
Nothing can ever be as shocking as life. Except writing. —Ibni Zerhani
Did you know that the Bosphorus is drying up? I don’t think so. Naturally, we’re all preoccupied with this frenzied killing spree going on in our streets, and since we seem to enjoy it as much as fireworks, who has time to read or to find out what’s going on in the world? It’s hard even to keep abreast of our columnists—we read them as we struggle across our mangled ferry landings, as we huddle together at our overcrowded bus stops, as we sit yawning in those dolmuş seats that make every letter tremble. I found this story in a French geological journal.
The Black Sea, we are told, is getting warmer, the Mediterranean colder. As their waters continue to empty into the great caves whose gaping holes lie in wait under the seabed, the same tectonic movements have caused Gibraltar, the Dardanelles, and the Bosphorus to rise. After one of the last remaining Bosphorus fishermen told me how his boat had run aground in a place he had once had to throw in an anchor on a chain as long as a minaret, he asked, Isn’t our prime minister at all interested in knowing why?
I didn’t have an answer for him. All I know is that the water is drying up faster than ever, and soon no water will be left. What is beyond doubt is that the heavenly place we once knew as the Bosphorus will soon become a pitch-black bog, glistening with muddy shipwrecks baring their shiny teeth like ghosts. But at the end of a hot summer, it’s not hard to imagine this bog drying up in some parts while remaining muddy in others, like the bed of a humble river that waters a small town in the middle of nowhere. Nor is it difficult to foresee daisies and green grass growing on slopes irrigated by thousands of leaking sewage pipes. Leander’s Tower will.
I am speaking now of the new neighborhoods that will take root on this muddy wasteland that we once knew as the Bosphorus, even as city councilors rush here and there waving penalty notices: I speak of shantytowns and shacks, bars, nightclubs, and amusement arcades, of rusty horsedrawn Lunaparks, of brothels, mosques, and dervish lodges, of nests where Marxist splinter groups go to hatch their young and rogue plastics factories turn out nylon stockings for the black market. Amid the doomsday chaos, among toppled wrecks of old City Line ferries will stretch vast fields of bottle caps and seaweed. Adorning the mossy masts of American transatlantic lines that ran aground when the last of the water receded overnight, we shall find skeletons of Celts and Ligurians, their mouths gaping open in deference to the unknown gods of prehistory.
As this new civilization grows up amid mussel-encrusted Byzantine treasures, tin and silver knives and forks, thousand-year-old wine corks and soda bottles, and the sharp-nosed wrecks of galleons, I can also imagine its denizens drawing fuel for their lamps and stoves from a dilapidated Romanian oil tanker whose propeller has become lodged in the mud. But that is not the worst of it, for in this accursed cesspool watered by the dark green spray of every sewage pipe in Istanbul, we can be sure that new epidemics will break out among the armies of rats as they explore their new heaven, this drying seabed strewn with turbot and swordfish skeletons and polluted with the mysterious gases that have been bubbling beneath the surface since long before the birth of history. This I know; and this I must impress upon you: The authorities will seek to contain the epidemic behind barbed wire, but it will touch us all.
As we sit on the balconies from which we once watched the moon glitter silver on the silken waters of the Bosphorus, we’ll watch instead the blue smoke rising from the corpses we’ve had to burn in a hurry—leisurely burials having become a thing of the past. As we sit along what once was the shore, at tables where once we drank rakı amid the perfume of the Judas and honeysuckle blossoms, we will struggle to accustom ourselves to the acrid stink of rotting flesh. No longer will we soothe our souls with songs about the birds of spring, the fast-flowing waters of the Bosphorus, or the fishermen lining its shores; the air will ring instead with the anguished cries of men whose fear of death has driven them to smite their foes with the knives, daggers, bullets, and rusting scimitars that their forefathers, hoping to fend off the usual thousand-year inquiries, tossed into the sea.
As for the Istanbullus who once lived on the edge of the water, when they return to their homes exhausted of an evening they will no longer open bus windows to drink in the sea air; instead, they’ll stuff newspaper and cloth in the cracks to keep the stink of rotting flesh and mud from seeping in; they’ll sit there staring through the glass at the flames that rise from the fearsome black chasm gaping below. Those seaside cafés where balloon and wafer halvah vendors once wandered among us? No longer shall we sit there of an evening to feast our eyes on naval fireworks, instead, we’ll watch the blood-red fireballs of exploding mines that carry with them the shattered remains of the curious children who set them off. Those man who once earned their keep by combing the sands for the Byzantine and empty tin cans washed in by stormy seas? They’ll take to collecting the coffee grinders, the moss-covered cuckoo clocks, the black mussel-encrusted pianos that a long-ago flood plucked from the wooden houses that once lined the shore.
A night will come in this new hell when I slip through the barbed wire in search of a certain Black Cadillac. This Cadillac was the prize possession of a Beyoğlu bandit (I cannot bring myself to dignify him with the word gangster) whose exploits I followed some thirty years ago, when I was an apprentice reporter; I recall that in the entrance to the den of iniquity from which he ran his operations there were two paintings of Istanbul I greatly admired. There were only two other Cadillacs like it in Istanbul at the time, one owned by Dağdelen, who had made his fortune in highways, and the other by Maruf, the tobacco king. It could be said that we journalists were the ones who turned our bandit into an urban legend, for we recounted his last hours in a serial that ran for an entire week. The climax was a police chase that tended with the Cadillac leaving the road at Akıntı Point and flying into the black waters of the Bosphorus According to some witnesses, the bandit was high on hashish; others claimed that he’d freely chosen death for himself and the mistress at his side, racing toward the point like a doomed highwayman driving his horse over a precipice. Divers spent days hunting for the Cadillac, to no avail. It wasn’t long before the newspaper-reading public had forgotten it ever existed, but I have already pinpointed what I am certain will turn out to be its exact location.
It is there, at the very bottom of the new valley we once knew as the Bosphorus, below a muddy cliff littered with camel bones, bottles bearing mysterious messages for nameless lovers, lone boots that lost their mates seven hundred years ago, shoes where crabs now lay their eggs. There, behind the slopes where mussel and sponge forests still sparkle with diamonds, earrings, bottle caps, and gold bracelets, past the heroin laboratory set up so hastily in the rotting shell of a barge, just beyond the sandbar where the oysters and whelks feed on the buckets of blood gushing from the donkeys and packhorses as they’re ground into black-market sausages.
As I plunge into this silent darkness and make my way through the stench of rotting corpses, I shall listen to the horns of the cars passing above me—on what we once knew as the Shore Road, though it now looks more like a lane snaking through a mountain pass. I’ll stumble across the palace intriguers of yesteryear, still doubled over in the sacks in which they drowned, and the long-lost skeletons of Orthodox priests. Still clutching their staffs and their crosses, their ankles still weighed down by balls and chains. I shall see bluish smoke rising from what it seems at first to be stovepipe but which turns out to be the old periscope from the submarine that tried to torpedo the S.S. Gülcemal as it was carrying troops from Tophane Wharf to Gallipoli, only to sink to the sea floor after its propeller got tangled up in fishermen’s nets and rammed into some mossy rocks; it will be immediately apparent that our own citizens are drinking tea out of Chinese porcelain cups in their new home (built so many years ago in Liverpool) as they sit in velvet officer’s chairs once occupied by English skeletons gasping for air. In the darkness just beyond, there will be the rusting anchor from a warship that once belonged to Kaiser Wilhelm; here a pearly white television screen will blink at me. I shall see the remains of a looted Genoese treasure; a short-barreled cannon caked with mud, the mussel-caked idols and images of lost forgotten peoples, and the shattered bulbs of an overturned brass chandelier.
As I descend into the lower depths, watching my step, weaving my way through mud and rock, I shall see galley slaves still chained to their oars as they gaze up at the stars with a patience that seems infinite. I may not notice the necklaces, eyeglasses, and umbrellas hanging from the trees of moss, but I shall certainly pause in fearful respect before the armored Crusaders, mounted on horses whose magnificent skeletons are still stubbornly standing.
As I stand before these fearsome statues to study their mussel-studded weapons and the standards they brandish in their might hands, I shall note with horror that it is the Black Cadillac they are guarding.
So I shall approach it slowly and respectfully, almost seeking their permission, and as I move forward a blinking light of unknown origin will cast the Cadillac in a phosphorescent glow. I shall try to turn the door handles, but the car, cakes as it is with mussels and sea urchins will not permit me to enter; neither will I manage to pry open the green-tinted windows. This is when I shall take out my ballpoint pen from my pocket and use its tip to scrape the pistachio-colored moss off the glass.
Gripped though I am by the enchanted terror of midnight, I shall light a match; in the flickering gray glow I shall see the steering wheel, the nickel-plated dials, needles, and clocks still glistening as brightly as knights in shining armor—and there, still kissing in the front seat, the skeletons of the bandit and his mistress, her bony wrists still gleaming with bracelets, her ring-clad fingers still intertwined with his. Not only are their jaws conjoined, their very skulls are locked in an eternal embrace.
Then, without pausing first to strike a second match, I shall turn around to gaze upon the lights of the city and to dwell on what I have just seen: When catastrophe strikes, there can be no happier way of facing death. So let me cry out in anguish to a distant love: My darling, my beauty, my long-suffering sweet, the disaster is fast approaching, so come to me, come to me now; wherever you happen to be at this moment—a smoke-filled office, a messy blue bedroom, an onion-scented kitchen in a house steaming with laundry—know that the time has come, so come to me; let us draw the curtains against the disaster pressing upon us; as darkness encroaches, let us lock ourselves in a last embrace and silently await the hour of our death.
In 1945 you were a city that had spent the war walking a tightrope of neutrality, a playing field for foreign spies table-hopping at the bar of the Park Hotel. The Park is now gone, replaced first by a parking garage, and now by a luxury apartment building. Much else has changed: tram lines have been discontinued, bridges flung across the Bosphorus, streets given new names. 14 million more people crowd your steep hills and hinterland. The Istanbul of 1945 is now a city of the imagination and to make it real you have to perform a kind of literary archaeology, peeling back layers of history with old maps, photographs, casual references in memoirs. But recreating infrastructure, a street, is one thing—the real leap is to go back in time. Things that seem impossibly distant to us now were recent events then. The Sultanate had been abolished only 23 years earlier, the recent past, and the harem only 36 years. Istanbul, you would have been filled with Ottoman retainers, nostalgic for past glory, and the young Atatürk generation, determined to race into the modern world. And living among the remnants of the once vibrant minority communities, the trickle, then stream of war refugees, the Western ex-pats, self-absorbed and dabbling in espionage. A wonderful setting, I thought, and maybe not as remote as we first think.
Istanbul you are still a heady mix of peoples and agendas, with streets that look very much as they looked then, still alive with water traffic, still a city of historical layers, 1945 only one of them, enough for my book but only one piece of your mosaic. What would have delighted us then delights us still: Sinan’s ethereal buildings, birds swooping across the Eminönü piers, the patient fishermen lining Galata Bridge. You are always both then and now, a writer’s dream, its history around you, breathing.
Inside a dark arcade. Sounds of men who are in the coffeehouse next door. Men spend all day, every day playing backgammon, smoking cheap cigarettesdrinking tea, watching football games and horse races. When excited, they shout, stand up, throw their cigarettes before them and stand still looking at thescreen. The stray cats seem to have adopted the whole building as their home they never know how to look after. The caretaker walks slowly with bags in his hands, he either lies all the time or wants to or has too many things to say. ‘We try to stay alive’ he says when asked how he is. There is a constantly blinking sign of the electrician’s, hung outside the entrance. The tea boy has a new tattoo he needs to put cream on every other hour. The winding stairs stop just by the entrance where a man is sat every day at 4pm putting powder on his toes thoroughly.
Then I stop. Things change here. Good I record all this. Tomorrow the caretaker’s home might be replaced with a Starbucks franchise or/and the arcade might hide in ruins after an earthquake or/and the stray cats may not be around anymore for the new EU H&S regulations. Many possible possibilities.
Coffeehouse men of Istanbul, cats of Istanbul, tea cups of Istanbul… I like you. Please don’t change.
How are you? The last time we met was in the fall of 2007. You looked busy then, and a bit chaotic. I had the impression you were pretty confident about yourself. And you had big ambitions. Someone told me you’re now smaller than Shenzhen, but bigger than Paris. I heard that you plan to keep growing, with 2.5 million inhabitants before the year 2030. That is 800 extra people per day…
I understand you follow a neoliberal path of growth. What does that mean? Do you only measure your achievements through GDP percentages? Do you tend to focus on infrastructure to develop yourself? Please be careful with that GDP thing a bit. My Chinese friends told me it might become an obsession.
What are your plans for the coming years? Do farmers find you as attractive as they find cities the world over? Do you have any idea where these people are going to live? What kind of housing do you like anyway? Is the compound your only remaining residential type?
And do you also break down and rebuild your historic buildings in an attempt to preserve your past? Do you like to think of yourself as ‘green’, while the number of cars on your roads grows by the hundreds every day?
I hope you don’t lean to heavy on the Central Business District concept; it makes you look so pale. A good friend told me you aim to become a financial centre, and that you’re also planning to get the 2020 Olympics. Of course I like you better than Tokyo and Madrid. But can you also think of a plan for 2021? Dear Istanbul, we had a lot of fun during that great weekend five years ago. I hope you look even more beautiful as when I left you for Shanghai.
I often wonder if you knew what you were doing when you built the Dome, and what led you to do what you did. I often think that it must have been Constantinople—that astonishing enclave at the edge between Europe and Asia where the sun turns the waters gold in the afternoon— that inspired you to do it. I wonder how your patron—Justinian—ever found you, and, without being an architect, entrusted you with the task of building a space that would surpass Solomon’s Temple. I am wondering what was in his mind when he decided that the building which would crystallize his ambitions was better to be designed by a scientist.
At times I can hardly distinguish you from your patron. Who had the power to move such extraordinary amount of materials from the most remote corners of the Justinian Empire, as if Hagia Sophia was a sort of miniature material assemblage of his kingdom? Were you in charge of bringing Hellenistic columns from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and Corinthian columns from Baalbek? Did you search for porphyry stones in Egypt, green marble in Thessaly, black stones from the Bosphorus and yellow stone from Syria? Or was Justinian himself who decided the materials that were to be part of the Basilica? Were you there to organise the logistics of bringing those material treasures and to direct the ten thousand people working on the site, or did you simply use them to encrust your designs? It is unthinkable that someone would be given such enormous powers to organize matters on the scale of an empire.
I have often wondered if it was you or your friend Anthemius who envisioned the structural system of the Dome, that unprecedented system of pendentives and exedras that restrain lateral forces, bringing the weight smoothly to the ground. Did you imagine the system or was it Anthemius of Tralles the master geometer, the follower of Heron of Alexandria’s wisdom, who passed you his secrets before his death? Did you envision the piercing of the dome with 40 arched windows which would filter Constantinople’s sun to the centre of the Basilica?
I have always wondered if you did care about the scenographies of the Holy Christian Liturgy or on the contrary were you only concentrating in the achievement of the largest span known to mankind inside of a building: 32m diameter hovering 55m above grade. Were you ever concerned about how the system of domes would be seen from the outside. Would it express the greatness of Justinian Kingdom and the sanctity of the Christian rites? Little you knew that, almost ten centuries after your death, Sultan Mehmed would turn your Basilica into a mosque, where very different rites were to be played for five centuries until it got transformed into a religion-free museum? Or did you? Or perhaps you did not care about such minutiae as you focused on the span.
I wonder how different Constantinople was from your birthplace Miletus. What did you learn from this enclave populated by Romans, Greeks, Arabs, Persians, Goths, Ottomans, Slavs, Avars, Bulgars, Balkans… a place where Christians, Orthodox, Muslims and Jews, lived side by side… No image, no language could act as a link between all those different tribes, and you wisely avoided focusing in the representation of the empire or the rituals of the Church. Instead you concentrated on geometry, so that the massive dome could trickle down through the pendentives and the exedras to the ground. Only the strongest geometry would be able to resist the sequential attempts to colonise the surfaces through ornamentation. With hindsight, Justinian was right to choose you—a man of physics—and Anthemius—a mathematician—to rebuilt the Basilica after the Nika Riots which threatened his empire. An architect would probably have had a brain full of perishable images. You were the guarantors of acheiropoiesis of the Basilica, as your minds were not contaminated by icons and idols, but structured purely on geometry and matter. It is said that the human mind can neither tell nor make a description of Hagia Sophia… 15 centuries later in New York, a new global metropolis far away from Constantinople, the reconstruction of Ground Zero was driven by an architecture consumed by the Iconic, the representation of Western Culture, Christian values, the martyrs… What a mistake, not to look at Istanbul and the Hagia Sophia as a crucial precedent!
Your hands, Isidore of Miletus, were the medium for God to produce a material core able to withstand the Byzantine quarrels on iconography: the plastering over the mosaics and their retrieval, the fundamental questions about the natural and the artificial, between the iconic and the constructed… all that was to happen precisely around Hagia Sophia. Justinian was a visionary in choosing you to design the Basilica, perhaps in an attempt to avoid the schism between the East and the West, between the iconophile Latins and the iconoclasts Byzantines. Fifteen centuries later we remain captive in the same crux that you faced there in Constantinople, the largest metropolis in the Middle Ages and the first global metropolis.
—Letter to Isidore of Miletus, architect of Hagia Sophia
Whenever I return to Istanbul, the city of my birth, I ask myself when I will feel the tug. It is a tug in my heart, almost as if someone were pulling a tendon, and it aches physically.
The tug comes at unexpected moments: the sight of fishermen along the Karaköy bridge; the horn of the ferries shuttling back and forth to the Princess Islands; the strangely human cry of the sea gulls accompanying the ferryboats or the fishermen; the smell of grilled corn on the cob; but above all, the sight of the water, of the Bosphorus—that blue miracle that runs like a vein through the heart of Istanbul’s dwellers. Ahh, I say, and I sense myself enveloped by the water, smelling the salt of the sea and tasting the seaweeds—just as I did innumerable times as a child on Burgaz, on the Princess Islands.
Istanbul is a city that assaults the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell—all are in play all the time on its streets. But Istanbul also soothes the senses: I sit quietly by the water, let my eyes drink in the blue water as well as a cup of Turkish tea and I dream!
A strange calm comes over me and the tug still hurts, but I am also grateful that Istanbul can do this to me—more than forty years after I left its shores.
Yesterday, I was in The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk’s grand corollary to his novel of the same name. A friend pointed at a fez hat, and asked me, ‘Do you know what that is?’ I said, ‘Yes. Kemal Atatürk banned them as part of the founding of the Republic.’ She said, ‘Because they were Ottoman.’ Just this week, public debate is raging around the moral and legal status of abortion in Turkey. This was not a battle that liberals ever thought they’d have to re-win; but the assumption that progress—social, economic, biologic—is a one way street is being tested here, in Turkey, which, having been ceremoniously kept out of Fortress Economic Europe during the 9/11 decade, has turned its compassion of optimism in the other direction, east. East may be Al Jazeera Turkey, it may be altering the nation’s time to ally with the Arab world (+3, not +2), it may be Baku or Biskek, Mecca or indigenous MTV. Do you remember in 330AD, some say that you became ‘The New Rome’—shifting the centre of Christendom’s gravity eastwards, back closer to where it began? Super-cession, adaptation, new names, the vanquish of the past. And now? As Louis Althusser said, ‘The future lasts for a very long time.’
Dear Academy of Fine Arts,
I wonder if we fall only hardest for those who fill the gaps in ourselves. These are Sean Case’s words in his letter addressed to the imprisoned poet Nazım Hikmet. Following this thought let us go back in time, to the shore of the Bosporus, your location in Istanbul, where my parents studied and first met during the 1960s. I haven’t experienced this period of time but I have been fascinated with you, by images and conversations with colleagues and friends of my parents early on in my life.
Responding a call of a German Professor they left Istanbul for a longer period of time. Their migration inscribes into a tradition of transnational academic exchanges between Turkey, Austria, Germany and France amongst others. Ever since your founding as School of Fine Arts in 1883 during the Ottoman Empire osmotic processes of scholarly exchanges have continued and design ideas have crossed borders to then materialize eventually. You as an institution provided the platform for international exchange alike this year’s first Design Biennale in Istanbul. And these historical connections are embodied within my family.
Design, especially Architecture and Planning were crucial political tools in the early years of the Turkish Republic as the search for a modern identity dominated the societal and cultural debate. The quantum leap, which the nation wanted to fulfill, was contrasted by years of war and a lack of resources regarding knowledge after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Striving to modernize their young country the Turkish Ministries invited architects from Germany and Austria, as many officials themselves had studied in Western Europe and held good contacts especially in Germany, which appears to be forgotten in current German public debates on migration, but that is another letter.
You saw Bruno Taut, Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky and Martin Wagner coming and going as teachers, and you were the first art and architecture school in the country and therefore became incorporated into the Republican reform processes. You constituted the backdrop for discussions on the understanding of art and its function for the young nation-state. At the same time, in 1929, the architect Hermann Jansen won the commission for the urban development plan of Ankara and a German newspaper titled “The development of the capital will be an allegory of the reconstruction of Turkey through Mustafa Kemal…” In that sense the architect became the translator of kemalistic reform processes and planning a political tool for modernization.
You witnessed World War I, the fall of an Empire, the foundation of a new nation-state and the migration of students and teachers. During World War II you stayed neutral and hosted academic figures who fled the political transformations and the Holocaust. Following Hannah Arendt’s idea that politics needs freedom, I wonder if design needs freedom, and if the Design Biennale offers a space of freedom as you did back then? Will the Biennale be neutral or influenced by politics? Will it form a hinge joint across borders as you used to do?
Unfortunately, dear stone, dear concrete, you cannot answer my queries. But, I wonder what these walls would tell me about the past and the crises you have witnessed? Crisis has created dependencies and migration, which in turn created exchange of ideas to an international benefit. In Butler’s language our interdependencies become transparent through crisis. But crisis also created loss. Speaking of loss and returning to the starting point of my letter we have to realize that the gaps in ourselves might never be filled. Maybe it isn’t a tragedy as there is a beautiful word for it called: hüzün.
What is the contemporary sound of Istanbul?
It is already two-and-a-half years since we met. I fondly remember you guiding us down misty streets in Beyoglu and Galata, and along the north shore of the Bosphorus. But of all the places we visited, it is Sulukule that I cannot forget. Much of the district had already been destroyed, but a few jagged houses remained like teeth in an aged maw. We picked our way through the rubble to be ushered into small courtyards. Our Roma hosts spoke numbly of a world almost entirely eradicated, of streets, celebrations and music.
Now, thoughts of my imminent return to Istanbul are soaked with dread. What will remain of those few courtyards? Will the city have drawn a blanket of new development across the remains? I fear walking streets populated by ghosts risen from Sulukule’s stories. I hope you will be able to guide me to find the city I once delighted in.
Istanbul—The Time City
Istanbul and Rome are the quintessential time cities of the world, with layers of history going back thousands of years, marked in stone structures and excavations. But in one way the Turkish city, and the country as a whole, has an even bigger claim to be the historical, layered site of the globe going back further than Rome.
Turkey has some of the first Neolithic sites in the world, such as Çatalhöyük, where the town came into being, and Göbekli Tepe, the 12,000 year old site which is revolutionizing our view of what caused the first urban society. The Neolithic Period came about not just because of the revolution that started agriculture—the mutation in wheat that allowed people to collect into towns and live off farming, but for another surprising reason. They came together to worship, or at least build haunting architectural monuments laid out in concentric circles. Göbekli Tepe, excavated over the last seventeen years, was made from T-shaped monoliths carved with sculptures and bas-reliefs of animals. Most are ferocious predators baring their teeth, and they look as uncanny as the long arms, and thin fingers that turn each T-shape into a giant human figure. Generations at Göbekli Tepe built one circle of T’s inside or around another at great human effort. Some of the monoliths are comparable to those at Stonehenge. The ritual underpinning this collective belief is now mysterious to us, but archaeologists and anthropologists are calling the creations “the birth of religion” because they entailed a strong social cohesion. No evidence of houses survive, the farming communities must have lived nearby. Twelve thousand years ago the Neolithic Revolution apparently started partly because of this “oldest known temple site,” and Istanbul has evidence of habitation at least as long.
What are the implications for new building in such areas? A Time City is a layered amalgam of different ages and, like a geological section through a mountain, reveals its levels as different materials,colours and chemistries. In effect, these levels show a naturalistic picture of history, an indexical sign of time, and a palimpsest of cultures. To build in the Time City of Istanbul is to protect and dramatise this layering. Where construction is over new landscape or infill, it is to simulate the layering as an artificial construct. The Time City is constructed by the ages; the architect brings to consciousness evolution, destruction and the re-minting of coins—the palimpsest.
—Layered Walls of Theodosius… and The New Artificial Walls
When are you going to start working with the gecekondu, rather than against them, clearing them, uprooting families and disrupting lives?
How could you? It keeps amazing me how careless you sometimes can be. Look at your photo. This is the only place in Beyoğlu where one can access the Bosphorus, yet your parking company has claimed it as a giant parking lot. How is it that you cannot come up with better ideas for parking cars?
Gregers Tang Thomsen
Of all the deeds you are said to have performed during your rule as the East Roman Emperor, I am most curious about the massacre that took place in the hippodrome following the Nika riots. Did this really happen? Could it be that the rioteers needed to tell you something? Did it occur to you that the burdensome taxes you inflicted on them were perhaps too much to endure? The history books record that Contanstinople enjoyed order and unity under your rule. If that is true and if there was indeed order in place, why was the city plundered and set on fire?
As well as wondering about your answers to these questions, I also would like to tell you about what your city—Istanbul as is known today—offers to its inhabitants 1,400 years from your time, especially in the area of development and construction of public facilities.
As one of the oldest cities in the world, Istanbul rose up layer after layer in each passing century. There have been times when it was destroyed and reconstructed, and then there have been other times when new structures were overlaid directly on top of existing ones. Development, as it had been in your era, became the focus of current governments.
The taxes required by all the churches, hospitals and citadels you had built in the name of development were serving towards the melioration of one aspect whilst destroying another. The scales were not balanced. Also today, the steps taken for the sake of development embody this imbalance. But that is not the only problem. The public who are deemed worthy of this transformation are forced to leave their homes and relocate to other places.
Instead of improving the existing structures in place, the focus is on gaining maximum profit from the region. In the meantime, the life styles, needs and habits of the locals are completely disregarded. The process in Sulukule is a good example at this point. This area inhabited by Romanis is the centre of a transformation project initiated to cleanse (!) the urban texture here. This act of cleansing serves as a reference for us to better evaluate the authorities’ perception of the cultural formation and the urban heritage. The local governing bodies reject the cultural heritage of the city by nonchalantly ignoring its rich strata of identity information. The rejection of the existence of strata lead to an adandonment of the significance of past lives and experience.
To sum up, the lands of Istanbul are being transformed into “touristic” sites that bring more unearned profit. Every day, prices of groundplots and buildings are increased manyfold, sometimes in foreign currency. Life demands costs that cannot be met by a major segment of the public.
In today’s Istanbul, two bridges are no longer enough, a third is already coming along. Solutions offered in the way of public of transport are nowhere near meeting the needs, and traffic is congested every hour of the day. Accommodation, living, heating and sometimes merely surviving in Istanbul gets increasingly more difficult. At the moment, every single district of Istanbul is pulled to shreds in the name of renovation, urban transformation, improvement, beautification or cleansing. The actions taken can range from the pointless replacement of interlocking pavement stones to the cleansing of an entire district under the heading of urban transformation.
I just wanted to lend you a glimpse of Istanbul as it is today. Many things have changed during the centuries past, but in my opinion, the most significant change is the perpetual diminishing of the number of people who speak up, ask questions and express their concerns. In this age of timidity, apathy and obeisance prevailing over a majority of the public masses, we chose to become mere followers who do not question but only conform. We closed our eyes so that we’d be safe from harm. We just did what we were asked to do, or we did whatever we felt like doing…
And how about you Justinian, the Eastern Roman Emperor? Instead of ruling over the 6th century Constantinople, would you have preferred to govern the Republic of Turkey’s city of Istanbul in the 21st century? What would be your suggestions to this new body of people who are so different from the rioteers of 532?
How will Istanbul become the 21st century cradle of western civilisation?
Hans Ulrich Obrist
Les racines sont profondes et ne meurent jamais —Edouard Glissant
Tout soudain, dans le tourbillon du Tout Monde —Edouard Glissant
Istanbul is the answer…
what is the question?
The future is… Istanbul
The very first house of my childhood memories was in Samatya. We could go for a swim or go fishing right outside the house, as it was level with the sea. In the winter months, I would sit by the window and watch the worn-out single-masted sand boats. My father would commute to his work in Sirkeci by train. That’s when I came to love the sea and the trains… The fishmongers in Samatya Square would dry clusters of bloaters, live shrimps would be bouncing up and down on their stalls. That’s when my love of fish blossomed…
A highway was built on the coastline running in front of the houses. Later, our two-storey house was also demolished.
The year I enrolled in primary school, we moved to Aksaray. I would climb up the Horhor Hill every morning. We would go to school on foot. That’s when I came to love walking. A while later, they demolished the wooden structure of that school… When the Vatan and Millet streets were opened, we watched the destruction of the old houses and hamams into rubble and dust. The new street was so wide and empty that it became an incomparable football field for the children of the neighbourhood. We would move to the side of the road when a car passed occasionally. That’s when I grew to love playing ball.
When I was a boarding student at junior high-school, I knew all the innercity boats running on the Kadıköy-Karaköy line by their names. That’s when I got to love boats and trams. For me, Istanbul consisted of the historical peninsula for many years. Our primary sources of entertainment were competitive neighbourhood matches and cinemas. The cinemas in Şehzadebaşı would show five films consecutively. In the weekends we would go to the Bulvar Cinema in Aksaray. Those cinemas no longer exist. I got to know Beyoğlu when I enrolled at Technical University. We got used to riding on buses and ‘dolmuş’es. My love of the cinema grew with Emek Cinema. I am afraid it will also be demolished very soon…
In my twenties, I became a local of Kadıköy. Most of the innercity boats of my childhood had retired. Then they built bridges across the Bosphorus. Now the roads can hardly hold all the automobiles and trucks that fill them. As the number of vehicles grows at a terrifying rate, more new and useless roads, junctures and tunnels are built.
Forests, watersides, seaviews, and the slopes of meandering valleys and faraway hills are sold to whomever can pay the price. You are being consumed and uglified in the hands of a greedy and vulgar crowd. Some people call this improvement and change.
You are here for a only a little bit longer. I know, you are crying your tears inside. Farewell, beautiful Istanbul.
I will miss you.