Istanbul: Memories and the City / by Caitlin Murray

From the fifteenth century onward, Constantinople - Konstainiyye to Muslims, as ISIS propaganda never fails to remind us - was a wondrous place, heavily wooded and full of "cherry, almond, pear, plum, quince, peach and apple trees," as well as bounteous animal and marine life. The Ottomans saw nature as a sign of wealth and power. "Gardens were fundamental in the culture of Muslim Constantinople," Hughes writes (author of Istanbul: A Tale of Three Cities). Western visitors identified on thousand gardens in the city, and one hundred imperial gardens around the palaces cared for by 20,000 gardeners. The city's Muslim inhabitants saw the garden design around the Sublime Porte as, in Hughes's words, "an outward sign of the harmony of justice, of the magnificence of the Ottoman dynasty." Sultan Ahmed III in the eighteenth century began enlisting tortoises adorned with candles to illuminate the thousands of tulips planted between the pathways. The Ottomans loved nature, trees, flowers, and beautiful women from the Caucasus; they also loved books, knowledge, art, and fireworks displays. No wonder the many Western travelers who game to gaze at Constantinople record it as a land of fantasy. (NYRB, Suzy Hansen, February 22, 2018)


Erdoğan's dream of a second Bosphorus is most commonly called, even by himself, "The Crazy Project." The idea is a canal that would extend from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, as much as the Bosphorus does. It would be around thirty miles long, twenty-seven yards deep, and anywhere between 120 to 160 yards wide, and would eliminate tanker traffic from the Bosphorus entirely. Many experts have warned of the environmental catastrophes the project would cause. A new canal would fundamentally transform the flow of the currents from the Black Sea to the sea of Marmara, changing the salinity of both and affecting the disposal of urban waste. The project might also destroy farmland and forests on the outskirts of tree-deprived Istanbul; set off a development boom along the canal, including houses, office parks, malls and roads; and affect the many lakes from which the city obtains its drinking water. 

"the great drive to westernize amounted mostly to the erasure of the past"


One of Pamuk's more controversial preoccupations in Istanbul is that the repression of Islamic culture also involved repressing, or blighting, the Turkish soul. The secularized people he knew, he writes, grappled "with the most basic questions of existence." But reading the memoir in its new edition, with Hughes's descriptions of Istanbul's beauty in mind, I was more keenly aware than I had been before of Pamuk's reports of the city's physical destruction - the tankers crashing into yalıs that modernizing Turks no longer loved or wanted, the popular Turkish pastime of watching the demolition, by fire, of historic buildings. His Istanbul was not necessarily a commentary on the wisdom of enforced secularization or on the benefits of religiosity. It could just be about the fact that human beings cannot understand so much loss. 


Köprülü Yalisi

Köprülü Yalisi

The Amcazade Hüseyin Pasa seaside mansion (yali) is the oldest existing private residence in Istanbul. It was built in 1699 for Amcazade Hüseyin Pasa (1644-1702), a member of the Köprülü dynasty of grand-viziers in the second half of the 17th century, who was grand-vizier under Mustafa II from 1697 until his death. The residential complex he built on the Anatolian coast of the Bosphorus at Anadoluhisari consisted of three seaside mansions surrounded by gardens and orchards that extended landward. Only the assembly room (divanhane) of the men's quarters (selamlik) has survived, and is in urgent need of repair today after partial restorations performed in 1956 and 1977. 

The wooden assembly room raised only two meters above the water's surface sits on and projects beyond a stone retaining wall abutting the water. Its plan consists of a domed square central hall (sofa), with three iwans projecting over the waters to the west and south, and into the garden to the north. Supported on consoles like bay windows, the iwans provide extensive views of the surroundings through strip ribbon windows placed low at the eye level of a person seated at the window-side sofas. Each window had windowpanes for shading and seasonal protection that, when raised, reflected rays of the sun from the water's surface onto the interior walls. 

The interior of the assembly room is spacious and ornate compared to the modest exterior, which is painted in ochre. The walls are covered with wooden panels above the window level that depict floral arrangements composed of roses, carnations, jasmines, tulips and pomegranate branches in vases. A small pool, with a kiosk-shaped marble fountain, is placed at the center of the hall below the dome, which is decorated with elaborate arabesques. The doors and shelving in the assembly room are adorned with ivory. 

This stately room was once connected to auxiliary rooms and service buildings to the east, where a two-story structure was built in the nineteenth century that still stands today. The women's quarters (haremlik) were housed in a large two-story mansion located at the water's edge seventy or eighty meters south of the men's quarters; it was destroyed at the end of the nineteenth century. The complex also had housing for servants, kitchens and a private hamam, none of which have survived.