As our apartment in Istanbul is just one block from İstiklâl Caddesi, the main street of Beyoğlu, we found ourselves hiking up and down the pedestrian street every day, sometimes several times a day, dipping into its narrow Oriental alleyways that couldn’t be anywhere else but the Middle East, and strolling its elegant Parisian-style passages, reminiscent of shopping arcades in many European capitals.
When they say that Turkey straddles Europe and Asia and Istanbul melds East and West, well, İstiklâl Caddesi is where they’re talking about, where it all happens…
We were intrigued about the history of our neighbourhood and wanted to know more about its history, so we signed up for Context’s ‘Cosmopolis – İstiklâl Street’ walking tour.
We meet our guide, Can Erimtan, a towering guy with a wild head of hair and a doctorate in modern history from Oxford, at Taksim Square, and stroll across to the statue of Ataturk, widely acknowledged as the founder of Modern Turkey and credited with uniting the ‘Turks’ after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. Can is quick to tell us that this is all a myth.
“Turkey was made up of many ethnic groups,” Can explains. “Ottomans, Anatolians, Arabs, Persians, and so on. ‘Turks’ were just one of many, but they put them all under one group, ‘Turks’. Many different people lived under the Ottoman Empire and they were protected regardless of their religion or ethnic identity. When they introduced democracy and Turkey became a republic, the Ottomans became Turks, the Sultan was now the President, they changed the language, but everything else remained the same.”
Turkey and Istanbul were always multicultural it seems, and over the next four hours, Can will take us on a stroll through the steep backstreets of Cihangir, zigzagging back and forth across İstiklâl Caddesi, to visit dozens of embassies, schools, hospitals, and churches – Armenian, Protestant and Greek Orthodox, many still operating, hidden away behind high walls, in courtyards, and within markets – to illustrate the long presence of foreigners and the cosmopolitan history and nature of Istanbul.
While Sultanahmet was the Muslim heartland, Can reveals, foreigners, from Genoese merchants to European bankers, lived since the 16th century in Cihangir, now the heart of Istanbul’s bohemian café society. We wander downhill, passing the German Hospital and pavement tables crowded with creative types, to Firuz Aga mosque, built in 1491. Can explains that these charming streets were chaotic and dangerous throughout the 1970s and 1980s when there was fighting between partisans of the left and right in a war to “supposedly” safeguard the secular state.
We head deep in Cihangir to stop at one of the last remaining wooden Ottoman buildings in this part of Istanbul – a dilapidated treasure that looks as if it might tumble down at any moment – before climbing up the hill to the controversially named and re-named Cezayir Sokağı or ‘Algerian Street’, also known as ‘French Street’. Once a hang-out for intellectuals, it’s now a Disneyfied tourist spot.
Crossing İstiklâl, we pass through the bustling Balık Pazarı (fish market) to visit a 19th century Gregorian Armenian Church hidden within the market. From there we duck into a dark alleyway not far away, near the British embassy, to visit a 19th century Greek Orthodox church, dwarfed by surrounding apartment buildings, before stopping for tea in an adjoining pretty courtyard.
Refreshed, we hit the Venetian-style Roman Catholic, St. Anthony of Padua Church on İstiklâl, built from 1906, when there were 40,000 Italians in Istanbul, and admire the Arabesque-inspired façade of the Elhamra Pasajı opposite. We trek down to the Pera Palas Hotel, built in 1892 for passengers from the Orient Express. There, we shed a tear for the dreadful, recently finished renovation (we’ve visited the hotel before), saddened to see the antique atmosphere has all gone. Now it looks like it could be a brand new hotel in Dubai; Can tells us they completely gutted the interior, which probably explains why.
We cross İstiklâl once more and dip down into Cihangir again to visit a little piece of Britain, the Church of England Crimean Church, built for the British serving in the Crimean War, before climbing back up to İstiklâl. Finally, we totter downhill toward Galata, home to the largest synagogue in Istanbul, and Istanbul’s official brothel, where police check ID cards upon entry, which is where we finish our walk…
It’s been a fascinating meander through the multicultural history of Istanbul, but if anything, our trek has raised more questions than answers. While this part of the city certainly seems less elusive now, it’s all the more intriguing.