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Exploring the Bosphorus

How does the Bosphorus River offer unique insight into Istanbul's past?

October 12, 2005

How does the Bosphorus River offer unique insight into Istanbul's past?

If the city speaks of defeat, destruction, deprivation, melancholy and poverty, the Bosphorus sings of life, pleasure and happiness. Istanbul draws its strength from the Bosphorus.

But in earlier times, no one gave it much importance. They saw the Bosphorus as a waterway, a beauty spot and, for the last two hundred years, a fine location for summer palaces.

For centuries, it was just a string of Greek fishing villages. But from the 18th century, when Ottoman worthies began building their summer homes, there arose an Ottoman culture that looked towards Istanbul to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

The yalis — the splendid waterside mansions built by the great Ottoman families during the 18th and 19th centuries — came to be seen, in the 20th century, with the advent of the Republic and Turkish nationalism, as models of an obsolete identity and architecture.

But these yalis — these grand houses with their high, narrow windows, spacious eaves, bay windows and narrow chimneys — are mere shadows of this ruined and destroyed culture.

To be traveling through the middle of a city as great, historic and forlorn as Istanbul, and yet to feel the freedom of the open sea — that is the thrill of a trip along the Bosphorus.

Pushed along by its strong currents, invigorated by the sea air that bears no trace of the dirt, smoke and noise of the crowded city that surrounds it, the traveler begins to feel that — in spite of everything — this is still a place in which he can enjoy solitude and find freedom.

This waterway that passes through the center of the city is not to be confused with the canals of Amsterdam or Venice — or the rivers that divide Paris and Rome in two.

Strong currents run through the Bosphorus, its surface is always ruffled by wind and waves, and its waters are deep and dark.

With the current behind you, you will see apartment buildings and yalis, old ladies sipping their tea on balconies, the pergolas of coffee houses, children sunning themselves, people fishing from the shore, others lazing on their yachts, travelers gazing through bus windows, cats sitting on the wharves, hidden villas and walled gardens and narrow alleyways.

Slowly, in the distance, Istanbul in all its confusion — the mosques, poor quarters, bridges, minarets, towers, gardens and ever-multiplying high-rises.

To travel along the Bosphorus — be it in a ferry, a motor launch or a rowing boat — is to see the city house by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, and also from afar, as a silhouette, an ever-mutating mirage.

What I enjoyed most about our family excursions to the Bosphorus was to see the traces everywhere of a sumptuous culture that had been influenced by the West without having lost its originality or vitality.

To stand before the magnificent iron gates of a grand yali bereft of its paint, to notice the sturdiness of another yali's robust moss-covered walls, to admire the shutters and fine woodwork of a third, and to contemplate the judas trees on the hills rising high above it, to pass gardens heavily shaded by evergreens and centuries-old plane trees — even for a child, it was to know a great, now vanished, civilization had stood here.

From what they told me, once upon a time, people very much like us had led a life extravagantly different from our own — leaving us who followed them feeling poorer, weaker and more provincial.

From the middle of the 19th century, a string of military feats was eroding the empire. The Old City was swamped by immigrants — and even the grandest imperial buildings began to show marks of poverty and ruin.

It became fashionable for the pashas and dignitaries who ran the modern, Western-influenced Ottoman bureaucracy to take refuge in the mansions they had built along the Bosphorus, where they set about creating a new culture that shut out the world.

Western travelers could not penetrate this closed society. There were no paved roads and, even after the ferries arrived in the mid-19th century, the Bosphorus did not become part of the city proper.

In my childhood, these Bosphorus villas held no allure for the nouveau riche and the slowly growing bourgeoisie.

The old mansions provided little protection against the north wind and the cold of winter — perched as they were on the edge of the water, they were difficult and expensive to heat.

Because the rich of Turkey's Republican era were not as powerful as the Ottoman pashas and because they felt more Western sitting in their apartments in the neighborhoods surrounding Taksim, the old Ottoman families could find no takers for their old Bosphorus yalis.

And so throughout my childhood and right up the seventies, as the city expanded, most of the yalis and mansions were tied up in inheritance disputes between the pasha's grandchildren and the crazy women from the sultan's harem who lived in them.

Or they were divided up and rented out as apartments or even single rooms. The paint would flake off, the cold and humidity would blacken the wood. Or parties unknown would — perhaps in the hope of building a modern apartment — burn them to the ground.

Slowly, they all disappeared. The yalis that were burned down one by one, the old fish traps, the fruit sellers who used to go from yali to yali in their caiques.

The beaches where my mother would take us to swim, the ferry stations that turned into fancy restaurants, the fishermen — also gone now.

It is no longer possible to hire their boats for little tours of the Bosphorus. But for me, one thing remains the same — the place the Bosphorus holds in our collective heart.

As in my childhood, we still see it as the font of our good health, the cure of our ills, the infinite source of goodness and goodwill that sustains the city and all those who dwell in it.

“Life can't be all that bad,” I’d think from time to time. “Whatever happens, I can always take a walk along the Bosphorus.”