Two years before, I arrived in Venice in the dead of winter as part of a study abroad program. Quite suddenly, the first wave of touristi crashed into Piazza San Marco just before Carnival. The streets would grow only more flooded as spring drew near. Most of the Venetians had long since departed I was told, with those remaining left to deal with the high tide, hoping the hand of god would turn it back before their city washed away. Venice had her pride – her Murano, her San Marco, her Salute – but not her relevance: she was beautiful, but benign.
Istanbul, I was sure, would be different: 11 million Istanbullus and the legacy of the great Ataturk, with his brilliant vision and unrelenting commitment to a modern Turkish state, would see to that. I would go to Istanbul to see its sights, but more than that, I would go to learn its secret.
In preparation for the journey, I picked up Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, and John Freely’s Istanbul: The Imperial City. The former I knew of as a portrait of a novelist and his city, and the latter as a cut-and-dry run through 2000 years of history – from Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul.
I plowed through the facts and fratricides of The Imperial City, absorbing relatively little, beyond a story of a Turkish army blinding 10,000 prisoners of war and leaving one of every hundred with a single good eye to lead their comrades home — that was pretty great.
The memoir was more tricky. I read elsewhere that Pamuk was something of an oddball, a member of the secular bourgeoisie (celebrated in Ataturk’s new republic) who found this new Turkey discomforting. Pamuk was troubled by developments other Turks were quick to call progress, and looked back longingly upon the few remaining vestiges of the city’s Ottoman past.
Yet while the novelist was an outsider in his own city, his own family, he wouldn’t think to leave. Pamuk’s rejection of modern Istanbul was undeniable, but his fealty to the city itself was unflinching.
I read the first couple hundred pages and stopped. The pictures interspersed every few pages had sharpened my hunger to bask in the Bosphorus and explore oddities like the forelorn yalis (wooden, strait-side Ottoman houses), but Pamuk’s tone was off-putting. I struggled to incorporate his critical view of the city into my expectations of a vital and timeless cosmopolis. I set the book down. I would wait until I had seen Istanbul myself. I was confident I would then feel comfortable dismissing the author’s biting critique as nothing more than misplaced nostalgia.
Tourists in Istanbul
We arrived in Istanbul late on November 25, 2008. A quick commute on the immaculate metro delivered us to the feet of the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, where we arranged to spend our first night in the tourist district of Sultanahmet. A quick change of clothes and 30 minutes of Always Sunny In Philadelphia impressions later, we left the tourist trap behind — laughing at the backpackers who journeyed all the way to Istanbul only to hang out with… backpackers.
We headed for Taksim — by all accounts the epicenter of Istanbul nightlife. It was near midnight as we strolled down the large thoroughfare, Istiklal Caddesi, breathing in the Byzantine.
– I love how wide the streets are!
– We need more streets without cars!
– Look at all these people out in the street on a Tuesday night!
We eventually navigated our way to the Nevizade area, and followed our ears until we found live music playing outside a tavern. We grabbed a few beers and tracked down a table near the music. Shortly after, five young Turks grabbed the table next to us.
I can’t recall how the conversation began, but it quickly evolved into a night-long discussion of Istanbullus nightlife, proper Turkish soccer loyalties, and Turkish NBA players. Before the college students had departed, they had given us a soccer team fan club rubber wristband, Turkish beads, and a laundry list of night spots and tourist sites to check out.
– Can you believe how nice and helpful they were? Americans would never act like that to foreigners in a US bar!
– In the US people are too group-oriented; here people just go out to meet people and have fun
– Istanbul is like New York City but better; way more friendly and welcoming
We were smitten. On a random November Tuesday, Istanbul had rolled out the red carpet for three young Americans.
Our first day of sightseeing was slowed by a late start (due to a late night) and then consumed by the Hagia Sophia, one of the few creations in the world that may be best described as awesome. Afterwards, we planned a relaxing, slow evening for our last night in Sultanahmet, so that we’d have the energy for a long day sight-seeing in Sultanahmet before moving our camp to Taksim. These plans changed, however, as a large group of fun-loving Dutch students turned our early night-in into a late night out. The next day we could only shake our heads — we couldn’t have a slow night in Istanbul if we tried.
We continued to work down our tourist check list, scratching off the Blue Mosque the next day. Little children milled about, asking where we were from and giggling a few foreign words before heading off to find their next new friend. One of the boys wore a Boston College Abercrombie & Fitch (knockoff) sweatshirt — we shook our heads in disbelief. What a world we had stumbled in to.
It was Thursday night in Taksim. We had spent the early part of the night walking the streets, keeping an ear open for good times, before deciding to make a pitstop at an internet cafe on Istiklal Caddesi to give ourselves a bit more direction. I recalled hearing of a night spot – Babylon – as the best place for live music in Istanbul. and checked its schedule. We weren’t quit sure what a “NUBLU SOUND RELEASE PARTY with Wax Poetic, Brasil Love Trio and DJ’s from NYC,” would entail, but Cheese was familiar with the artists (what exactly it meant that Norah Jones used to be in Wax Poetic I did not know), and we headed out.
It was near 12 a.m. when we arrived at Babylon. We only caught the last minute 15 minutes of the show, but the music impressed nonethless. The crowd, electric; the drinks, quite expensive. The fact the show was actually over at 12:15 a.m. threw us for a loop — though I appreciated the idea of a show actually starting on time — and we followed the crowd out the door and through the streets to find the next destination.
It took a few blocks before we noticed that the excited throngs had dissipated into a few stragglers clearly on their way home. We asked a few of our fellow Babylonians where the scene was after a live show on a Thursday night. They rattled off a few names, but intimated that Thursdays weren’t necessarily the night-out we were used to in the US, and continued on their way home.
We checked out all the recommendations, giving the most promising places the college try before deciding to quickly down our beers and move on to the next destination. Finally we ended up back near Taksim Square, where we heard the clubs were the best bet for a Thursday.
The street was near empty, making the presence of one Turk steadily grilling us as we walked down the street all the more striking. One bouncer read a book as he worked a door. We asked if we could check it out.
– Where’s your girlfriend?
– In the US
– That’s not good. You can’t get in here without girls.
Cold-blooded. It appeared we had found the right places, but we weren’t the right people. But wait.
A minute later two American guys emerged from the club stairwell exasperated.
– You are not missing much: the place is dead empty
Our disappointment gave way to confusion. We tried a few more places out, but no signs of life.
This was Istanbul. A large number of Istanbullus had just been let out an electric live show in the middle of Taksim, the heart of Istanbul nightlife. It was Thursday night. What in the name of Ataturk was going on here?
Friday morning we admired the Bosphorus from the Galata Tower, allowing us for the first time to place the city and its sights in a proper context. We looked upon the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque in front of us, to Asia on our left side, and then back behind us toward Taksim. We would spend the day bouncing from corner to corner of this panorama on public ferries. Afterwards, we left behind the Bosphorus to aggravate the sellers at the Grand Bazaar with our disinterest in buying shitty knockoffs before heading to the Cağaloğlu Hamam for some much needed respite.
We were assigned to large, mustachioed attendants and headed to our respective rooms to disrobe. There’s something quiet surreal about walking down the stairs into a sweatroom antechamber in a towel and plastic shower shoes while being ogled by what could only be described as ‘regulars.’ Costanzo and Cheese waited for me in the hall as I got ready. A hairy ball-shaped man grabbed Cheese by the shoulder, staring him in the eye as he squeezed the flesh between his neck and shoulder. Cheese tensed up; the sweaty man nodded, clapped him on the shoulder, and walked away.
In the main room, the bald, fat attendants were already busy at work kneading the ill-defined lard of other visitors. We headed to a sideroom, and waited for the attendants to call us out, one-by-one, for the sweaty rubdown and exfoliation.
That night, we went through the list of recommendations we had accumulated from our Turkish encounters, and decided on a strip with two bars with outdoor seating and a good number of people drinking in the streets. Costanzo headed into the shit to bring us back a few Efes, the local (read: only) brew. En route, he stopped to talk to a Turkish girl about the nightlife and where else people might go on a Friday night. The girl had actually studied in the US before returning back to Istanbul — not just any college mind you, but Brown University, after turning down a full scholarship to Boston College and Duke, facts she made sure to restate despite our quite evident disinterest.
So where did this attractive, educated (and very obviously) wealthy Istanbulli think we should head for a great time on a Friday night?
Right where we were.
– This is where all the young intellectuals hang out!
– The writers, the painters, the cool young people…
We looked around.
Cheese and I had already made another beer run into one of the bars and returned brutally unimpressed with a scene that might pass for a good time in high school.
But she insisted. And told us to check out the second bar. Thankfully, we had nothing better to do, so we continued our sociological exploration of the Istanbul social scene. There’s no need to belabor the point, but needless to say, the downward spiral continued.
We continued our study for the rest of the trip, growing almost dogmatic in our insistence in following every lead, checking out every story — will the area by the soccer stadium really be crazy after a Fenerbace win — really?
As the shine on Istanbul began to fade, I increasingly reached for Pamuk’s Istanbul — “distance endows the scenery with magnificence and allows its dull, narrow, steep, filthy streets and its disordered heaps of houses and trees to be “colored by the palette of the sun.”” My distance from Istanbul had shrunk considerably in these few days.
The Ottoman and Byzantine relics still sparkled, but the Turkish state that now occupied the majestic Bosphorus was a far different beast: “when the empire fell, the new Republic, while certain of its purpose, was unsure of its identity; the only way forward, its founders thought, was to foster a new concept of Turkishness, and this meant a certain cordon sanitaire to shut it off form the rest of the world. It was the end of the polygot multicultural Istanbul of the imperial age; the city stagnated, emptied itself out, and became a monotonous monolingual town in black and white.”
Istanbul was not so dissimilar from Venice after all. There were 11 million Istanbullus, but these were not the Istanbullus of yesteryear. In the 1800s, Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Italian, French, English and hosts of other languages and dialects could be heard in the streets. Pamuk notes that the “cosmopolitan Istanbul I knew as a child had disappeared by the time I reached adulthood. After the founding of the Republic and the violent rise of Turkification, after the state imposed sanctions on minorities – measures that some might describe as the final stage of the city’s “conquest” and others as ethnic cleansing- most of these languages disappeared.”
Turkish nationalism eviscerated Istanbul of the cosmopolitan spirit that had allowed her to be a world capital for more than a thousand years: more minorities would leave Istanbul after the founding of the Turkish Republic than after the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II in 1453.
Pamuk saw the decline of Turkish society in the decay of the yalis, the extravagant wooden villas built by Ottoman aristocrats that gazed across the Bosphorus. He recalls: “for those of us who watched the city’s last yalis, mansions, and ramshackle wooden houses burn during the 1950s and 1960s, the pleasure we derived had its roots in a spiritual ache different from that of the Ottoman pashas, who thrilled to them as spectacles; ours was the guilt, loss, and jealousy felt at the sudden destruction of the last traces of a great culture and a great civilization that we were unfit or unprepared to inherit, in our frenzy to turn Istanbul into a pale, poor, second-class imitation of a western city.”
It is fitting then that the great Ataturk passed away in Istanbul’s Dolmabahçe Palace, constructed in the 1800s to impress upon visiting European dignitaries the wealth and prestige of the Ottoman Empire. The palace also happened to be our last tourist stop before heading to Ataturk airport to fly home.
Expectations were high. A friend of Costanzo’s living in Istanbul called the palace her favorite sight in all of Istanbul. Our Lonely Planet guide spoke of the world’s largest chandelier and crystal staircases. A few years earlier, we had visited Neuschwanstein Castle (the actual Disney Castle), and headed for Dolmabahçe with the experience of all the eccentricities that a lunatic Bavarian could pack into a mountainside dreamscape: we were ready. We donned plastic bags over our shoes and entered the castle on our mandatory group tour.
The palace was dark. The tour guide elicited snickers from the tour for her mundane, disinterested commentary.
– This is the sultan’s hallway. The sultan would have walked down it. Sometimes, other personnel may have walked down it as well.
We shook our heads and kept our eyes out for crystal, which wasn’t too hard to find. Crystal chandeliers were all over, and then there were the staircases.
I’m not sure who thought that crystal staircases would look prestigious, but they certainly didn’t take into account the aesthetic of dark wood and crystal.
We weren’t wowed by Topkaki Palace, the forerunner of Dolmabahçe, but the upgrade didn’t seem worth 35 tons of gold, 14 tons of which were used to guild the ceilings alone.
The shabby knockoff of a European palace bankrupted the Ottoman Empire, setting the stage for its collapse and the consequent rise of the Turkish Republic, thereby guaranteeing Pamuk would not live in the ages of the Haghia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, but in the wake of the Dolmabahçe: he would not know Istanbul as ” a great world capital but rather … [as] a poor provincial city.”
Turkey built its tacky palace, secularized its state, and stripped its culture of the oddities that bemused Western tourists all in the name of establishing Turkey as modern and relevant. Yet at the end of the day, when we tried to lookup a comedy clip on youtube.com, we were greeted with a message from the government stating that the online video website had been banned.
It turns out Turkey is the only country in the world that currently bans Youtube. Apparently, some Greeks and Turks were trading online video swipes when a Greek video claimed that Ataturk was gay and said he looked like a monkey. As Costanzo put it, “Game over.”