"Shows her love, her passion for the city … her broad journalistic experience makes for a pleasant, accessible read." De Volkskrant.
From the introduction:
A black-and-white city, a city of sorrows and melancholy. That’s how Orhan Pamuk sees Istanbul. True, this city is beautifully captured in black-and-white pictures. But it’s the glimpses of color that make me happy each morning when I wake up in Istanbul.
When it snows, the waters of the Bosporus ripple between grey and olive green, and the boats seem to be sailing on clouds. Right now, as I write these words, the sky is bright blue. The water dazzles white because of the reflection of the sun, still low on the horizon. In a while, when it climbs up, the sea turns dark blue, sprinkled with silver sparkling from the small waves. Towards the evening the color darkens deeply like ink. Then, the white ferries with their orange-yellow band seem to hover over the water. When an impudent ferry dashes all too recklessly in front of the dark bow of some great freighter, the ship’s heavy horn booms angrily out over the eternal hum of Istanbul. Just like the drivers in this traffic-bound city, ferry captains exorcise their frustrations with such dare-devil moments. Later, as the sun sets, the buildings on the shore of Asia light up like red fire in the earth-hugging light.
The roofs are clad with red tiles. A seagull swerves along the sand-colored old Hotel d’Angleterre down Bombardier Street next to my home --the hostelry rooms of olden days are offices now -- and on the rusty fence of my balcony two copper doves are cooing. I can see as far as the Bosporus from my bedroom window, gazing down the street of dilapidated 19th century buildings. The colors range from ochre to the lemon-yellow of the billowing façade of an apartment building half-way down. I can even see the tender flesh tones of honey melons, like those into which I love to sink my teeth at the start of dinner in one of the restaurants that crowd the neighborhood around my home. The taste is sharpened by fresh white cheese and a glass of milk-white raki, Turkey’s national aniseed liquor.
Soon enough the man who roasts chestnuts on a charcoal fire in a red trolley at the entrance to my building will disappear. The burnt smell that circles up through the stairwell will give way to that of the sweet blossom of the tall lime tree just down the road. The garden where that enormous tree stands is one of the rare flashes of green that I can see. Green is scarce in the city because so many people want to live here. They keep flooding in from the whole country. Istanbul’s earth is made of gold, they say.
The first man to understand this was Byzas from Dorian Megara, now a suburb of Athens, who founded this city nearly 3000 years ago at the place where the Bosporus and the Golden Horn flow into the Sea of Marmara. It was, and is, an ideal spot for commerce and levying a toll from the ships that sail to and fro the Black Sea.
This strategic position made Byzantium, as the city state was called after its founder, the object of Roman desire. The city became New Rome, then the Constantinople of the Byzantines, and was run over by Latin crusaders from Venice. The Ottoman sultans who ruled it later were continuously struggling against a Russian lust to conquer it. By the 19th century Europeans were calling the Ottoman Empire ‘the sick man of the Bosporus’. They seized Istanbul at the beginning of the 20th century, dealing the death blow to the old sultanate and the Ottoman Empire. Its shattered debris, shards and splinters rained down for decades afterwards. Then in 1946, Stalin trained his acquisitive eye on the city. The Turks still feel the wounds of the great collapse and the many threats in their hearts. Hence the national reflex to want to defend oneself against the bearers of so much sorrow. After two millennia, Istanbul is no longer the capital of a great multinational empire. That is what causes the melancholy of Pamuk. I taste it too.
In recent years, however, between the modest, quiet people who crowd the streets I see more and more raised heads and straight backs. The young Istanbul folk push out their chests while walking, and stand with their legs wider apart. Istanbul brims with life. And it no longer goes unnoticed. When I announced in 1989 that I was coming to live here, my friends warily shook their heads. I was going, they felt, to a frightening place, far, far away. By now I can’t step out of my door without hearing the chatter of Dutch, English, French, Italian, German or Greek tourists, not to mention the Russians, Japanese and Chinese, all with their noses in guidebooks and maps. The founder of modern Turkey, Atatürk, may have moved the capital to Ankara, but Istanbul remains the real, beating heart of the country.
And is nearly a country of its own. In the old town you can lose yourself in the grandeur of palaces and enormous mosques. In the vast Covered Bazar twinkle gold, silver and other treasures. At the foot of the hill people shuffle from medieval shops to streetsellers who loudly praise socks, T-shirts and bottles of fake expensive perfumes. Not far away, near the Fatih Mosque, lies Çarsamba, the neigborhood sneerlingly called ‘Small Tehran’ because so many stern religious folk live there. On the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn men stand shoulder to shoulder, fishing for their dinner. Below it just as many enjoy a grilled fish with a raki or beer, or a cup of tea or a nargile water pipe. Beyoglu, always the district with a more European feel to it, is now reborn as a paradise for bohemians with countless cosy bars and restaurants that spill out onto the pavement. Just next to it lies the atmospheric, run-down neighborhood of Tarlabasi where concerned taxi drivers refuse to drop a woman on her own. Nearby you find Nisantasi, full of fancy shops and art galleries. Levent with its sky scrapers passes for a Manhattan on the Bosporus. The criss-crossing network of ferries, or the two mighty suspension bridges, can take you to Asia where life slows down. Here you can take long peaceful walks along the water. Or sail on to the lovely Princes Islands where the inhabitants can only reach their beautiful wooden villas by foot or by horse and carrıage.
What keeps astonishing me is the flexibility of the city, its capacity to absorb so many changes. The first years when I lived here there was no such thing as a supermarket. Now we have state-of-the-art luxurious centres with shiny escalators where one gets just as lost as in the Grand Bazar. I arrived at a gloomy, Sovıet-like airport. Now it’s an ultramodern palace from where you can fly to destinations all over the world. At my arrival there were precisely four tall buildings in the city. Now it seems every day the foundations are laid for a new skyscraper. International festivals take place for film, theater, music and dance, where the world’s biggest peformance artists compete to be seen. Istanbul is more than the heart of Turkey, it’s an awakening giant that is taking up its role on the world stage once more, a great metropolis on the eastern edge of Europe to match London in the west, and a great hub of the Balkans and the Middle East.
This book is not a guide, but a companion to this great city, full of stories about places to visit. These stories are not just about buildings and districts, but above all about people. Some of them have, during the years that I have been living here, won a special place in my heart. I have laughed with them, but also cried. Altogether these tales make up, I hope, a portrait of the city to which I have lost my heart.
Istanbul, March 2008