When I first visited Istanbul back in 2008, I spent almost all of my time in historical Sultanahmet Square.
It was a terrific introduction to the city. I was floored by the beauty of the Blue Mosque, overwhelmed by the splendor and historical breadth of the Hagia Sophia, infatuated with the dimlit mysteries and cool subterranean air of the Basilica Cistern. I spent those long summer days drinking tea in cay bahces, smoking apple-flavored nargile, and learning how play backgammon from Turks who graciously let me win. I’d never been farther east than Prague, and the Middle Eastern influences in Turkey seemed unbearably exotic to me. The call to prayer was bewitching, the smell of smoky Urfa biber and grilled gozleme intoxicated me, and the friendliness of the people I met captured me. I knew, even during that first visit, that I would return.
And I did. My second trip was similar to the first, except this time I dragged along a friend who had never visited; I got to see all that wonder at Istanbul’s special magic through her fresh eyes. Again, we spent most of our time around Sultanahmet Square, exploring mosques and taking pictures and relaxing in Gulhane Park. This time, however, I had traveled in the Middle East, and Istanbul seemed so much more European than the rest of the region. My perception of Istanbul was shifting bit by bit.
The third time I visited, everything changed. I stayed with a friend in Cihangir, a hip artsy neighborhood near rowdy Taksim Square. I was traveling with my sister this time, and though we went to Sultanahmet—it was her first time in Turkey, after all, and she wanted to see the famous sites—we spent just as much time in bluelit rock bars, quiet corner side cafes, and reappropriated art galleries. We also visited Kadikoy, on Istanbul’s Asian shore, for the first time; I found the neighborhood to be a revelation. I’d never seriously considered living in Istanbul before, but after an evening spent in a funky indie bar furnished with vintage armchairs, and a truly quiet night’s sleep, and a morning drinking tea on the Moda seaside, I started considering it. Hmm, Istanbul. Could I live here?
I could, and I did. A year and a half after that eye-opening visit to Kadikoy, I
moved there from my Boston home, ready to start a new adventure in my life.
After visiting three times, I thought I knew what I was getting into. But even after all that time, I didn’t realize that I was only beginning to discover Istanbul. Sultanahmet Square, I learned, is only a small piece of the vast multicultural tapestry that is Istanbul. My new home in Kadikoy has mosques—though none with the Ottoman splendor of Sultanahmet— but also is dotted with churches and synagogues. I often do work at a hip Kadikoy coffee shop that sits next to an Armenian church, whose bells ringing relentlessly on Epiphany. In Rasimpasa, I found myself taking a shortcut between streets, without realizing that the passageway was actually part of a tucked-away Istanbul synagogue. The history of my neighborhood is visible everywhere, if you know where to look.
I spend a lot of time wandering around with my camera in Fener and Balat, where the Greek Patriarchate still sits, and where the Greek Fener Red School looms like a beacon above the winding cobblestoned hills. Buildings that seem nondescript carry Hebrew inscriptions or stone-carved crosses. And even while new trendy cafes spring up in Balat, women wearing black abayas shop for groceries up the hill. The neighborhoods give off an intense feeling of old Istanbul nostalgia, and yet they are shaped by both old history and new; most residents here are from Turkey’s east, drawn to the metropolis by economic opportunities. I find it endlessly interesting to explore.
I pass often through Sirkeci Train Station, where the glamour of the Orient Express still lingers in its ornate terminals, and its waiting rooms have been repurposed for late night Dervish shows, uniting the mystical Sufism of Konya with the cosmopolitanism of early 20th century Istanbul. Trains don’t run here at the moment—the tracks to the border are being repaired—but you can catch the newly built underwater metro to the Asian side. Old transportation fades and new options arise. On the other side, I explore Haydarpasa Train Station, the mostly unused Anatolian terminal, where baroque details curl around a Greek meyhane, pop-up art exhibits, and impromptu tango protests. Here the trains rot on the tracks, with travel across Anatolia departing from Pendik now, but the terminal stands as a reminder of everything that was glorious at the end of the Ottoman Empire, and everything that can be in the future.
I gallery hop and drink lattes in Karakoy, a neighborhood formerly full of shipping warehouse and now completely occupied by the fashionable bohemians and artistic minded trendsetters of Istanbul. Pop-up artisan markets and lemonade stands spring up under graffiti street art; people smoke cigarettes and nosh on chocolate cake and talk about contemporary art. Up the hill, Taksim Square is a center of modern day capitalism, with worldwide clothing chains and Turkish restaurants clamoring for a piece of the boulevard’s real estate. The crowds, both local and visiting, surge at all hours of the day, and rooftop bars stay tucked under the sky, unmarked.
Living in Istanbul has carried me through all of these worlds, all of these facets of the city.
Istanbul is a city of layers, with the many empires of past centuries leaving their mark, the many religions past and present coexisting and intertwining, and the modern culture of the secular Turkish Republic constantly growing and changing on top of it all. I have lived here for three years now, and I still feel like I have barely scratched the surface of Istanbul. There are still so many things to discover.
by KATIE NADWORNY