An Istanbul Walking Tour in and around İstiklâl Caddesi, the main artery of cosmopolitan Beyoğlu, goes some way in satisfying our curiosity about this multicultural neighbourhood that is the lively downtown area of Istanbul.

Our apartment in Istanbul is just a block from İstiklâl Caddesi, the main pedestrian street of Beyoğlu that we have found ourselves hiking up and down every day.

When they say that Turkey straddles Europe and Asia and Istanbul melds East and West, well, İstiklâl Caddesi, not the Bosphorus River, is where it happens. That’s where they’re talking about.

As we have dipped into the atmospheric alleyways that meandered like veins off downtown Istanbul’s main artery of İstiklâl Caddesi, we felt that we couldn’t be anywhere but the Middle East. Yet strolling its elegant Parisian-style passages and ornate shopping arcades took us back to Europe.

We were intrigued about the history of this cosmopolitan neighbourhood, where churches sat beside mosques, and wanted to learn more, so we signed up for Context’s Cosmopolis – İstiklâl Street walking tour.

Istanbul Walking Tour, Strolling Cosmopolitan İstiklâl Caddesi

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. Turkey’s first President, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

You’ll see Ataturk’s image everywhere, in framed portraits and on postcards, nearly always wearing a tasselled fez or heavier tarboosh, the traditional male headdresses associated with the Ottoman Empire, which he would end up banning in 1925 as part of his modernising reforms.

A Turkish army officer turned revolutionary, is 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,” Can elaborates. “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 are still operating, hidden away behind high walls, in courtyards, and within markets.

The aim of his Istanbul walking tour, Can tells us, will be to illustrate the long presence of foreigners and the cosmopolitan history and nature of the city.

While Sultanahmet, across the Golden Horn, is now the Muslim heartland, with its magnificent mosques, it was once the social and entertainment centre of Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire.

And beneath Sultan Ahmet Square are the ruins of the ancient Hippodrome, a horse and chariot racing track built in AD 203 by the Emperor Septimius Severus, 121 years before Emperor Constantine the Great moved his seat government from Rome to Byzantium, which he renamed New Rome or Nova Roma.

Back on this side of the Golden Horn, Can reveals that foreigners, from Genoese merchants to European bankers, have lived since the 16th century in Cihangir. Now the heart of Istanbul’s bohemian café society, as we wander downhill, passing the German Hospital to Firuz Aga mosque, built in 1491, we see crowded tables of coffee drinks spilling onto the footpaths.

Can explains that these now peaceful and very charming streets were once 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 down into Cihangir to see one of the last remaining wooden Ottoman buildings in this part of Istanbul, a dilapidated treasure, plastered with posters advertising music gigs, film festivals, and art shows, that looks as if it might tumble down at any moment.

Then we climb 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 with freshly pastel-painted houses and perfect flower boxes cascading over every balcony.

Back on İstiklâl, we cross the street, to 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, shaded courtyard.

Refreshed, we hit the Venetian-style Roman Catholic St. Anthony of Padua Church on İstiklâl, dating to 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 hotel, its recently renovation has removed all traces of the antique atmosphere that we loved. Now it looks like it could be a brand new hotel in Dubai. Can tells us they completely gutted the interior, shaking his head.

Crossing İstiklâl Caddesi once more we dip back 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 the city and Istanbul’s official brothel, where Can tells us police stand by the door checking ID cards upon entry. It’s a strange way to end an Istanbul walking tour. Or is it…

Our Istanbul walking tour around Beyoğlu has  been a fascinating meander through the multicultural history of this compelling city, but if anything, our trek has raised more questions than answers. While this part of Istanbul certainly seems less elusive now, it’s all the more intriguing.

We were hosted by Context on Can’s Istanbul walking tour. Observations and thoughts are our own obviously.

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