Three faces of Istanbul

Tasholuk. Image by Iason Athanasiadis. Turkey, 2008.

Istinye Park. Image by Iason Athanasiadis. Turkey, 2008.

Istanbul is an overpopulated metropolis whose estimated 14 million inhabitants are straining it at its seams. Centuries of events in arguably the world's most historical city have shaped an urban environment so varied that it regularly throws up baffling scene changes for the traveler caring to venture a little beyond the Sultanahmet-Taksim-Bebek triangle that delineates most foreign visitors' trips. The common denominator is a rush to build and modernize, often at the expense of the layers of history lying underneath or – often – right on the surface.

Over a 24-hour reporting period I experienced an extraordinary mixture of the Third and
First World. First cameConstantinople's ancient walls, still largely intact over the periphery of the ancient city. Guide books warn against taking too literally the possibility of tracing historical Constantinople by following its defences.

There are "less-than-salubrious neighbourhoods, packs of dogs and vagrants living in the wall's cavities along its length who have been known to rob and assault passers-by," warns the Lonely Planet guide.

One such 'vagrant' and a resident of the wall is Necip Batur. The homeless man dragged an incongruous-looking living-room couch into a ground-level arch packed with dark earth and turned it into a temporary home. His former address, he says, was more prestigious:

Taksim Square in European Istanbul's glitzy center. He moved to the walls because "people around here are more concerned, they look out for you". The Gypsies of Solukule are a historical community of musicians, belly-dancers, crooks and entertainers who are finally abandoning the area to make way for wealthier residents. With demolitions of the surrounding neighbourhood continuing apace, Batur's only remaining neighbours are Abdurrahman Pasha ve refiki (Abdurrahman Pasha and a friend), buried away in a humble Sufi tekke tucked away by the walls.

Pierre Loti, the 19th century French writer who immortalized Istanbul in several novels and is buried here today, described the walls as "the most solitary spot in the world, where nothing seems to have stirred since the days of the last Byzantine Emperors.

"The great city's means of communications are all by the sea. The ancient ramparts are steeped in a silence, such as broods over the approach to a necropolis. Here and there a gate has been built in the thickness of these walls, but to no purpose, for never a soul goes in or out. Between the inhabited quarters of the town and the fortifications lie great tracts of waste land dotted with suspicious looking hovels and with crumbling ruins dating from every epoch of history. There is nothing from without to break the eternal monotony of these walls save here and there the white shaft of a minaret rising in the distance. Always the same battlements, the same turrets, the same dark hues, laid on by the hand of time, the same regular lines, running straight and dreary, till they are lost on the far horizon."

Bearded and begrimed, Batur holds a lit cigarette as he gesticulates at the mounds of rubble and mechanized demolition equipment whose work conjures up a scene not too different from Loti's "suspicious looking hovels with crumbling ruins". Across the street, a private security guard peers curiously from the gleaming and freshly constructed corporate headquarters of Igdas, the Turkish natural gas provider. The ancient neighbourhood's latest reinvention is already shaping up


Tasholuk, a freshly built low-income development, is an awkward one-hour bumpy bus journey away from southwestern Istanbul's crumbling Byzantine walls. Four-storey cement apartment blocks spring out of grassy rolling hills. Goats, hens and four-lane highways dot a landscape mixing out-of-town urban sprawl with a pastoral ambience. A glass-fronted, pistachio-coloured mosque looms from the top of another grassy hill disappearing under cement bases. The folksy green minaret pointing skywards is the only clue that the department store bay windows and prefabricated supermarket roof enclose a Muslim place of prayer rather than a mall. Freshly-painted saplings struggle out of the ground, clothes hang out to dry on narrow apartment balconies and young families negotiate freshly-laid pavements.

"I moved here because in Istanbul the rocks are made of gold," a local real estate agent told me. "These are newly-settled areas, they'll develop. Twenty years ago here, there was no water or electricity, it was a rural area."

But for many of the district's gypsy inhabitants who moved here after Istanbul municipality tore down their district to make way for a luxury development, their new life is dour. They complain that there is no drainage, heating or hospital infrastructure to take care of emergencies.

Tasholuk is part of the way in which the populist AKP government is coping with the influx of economic migrants to Turkey's largest city. Its Toplu Konut Idaresi (TOKI) housing administration has presided over a construction boom in recent years. The government wants to stop the growth of slums within Greater Istanbul by constructing affordable and hygienic modern housing. Out-of-town developments such as Tasholuk also decongest Istanbul's crowded downtown and open the way for redeveloping historical areas turned by internal migration into slums. Throughout the 20th century, thriving neighbourhoods in central Istanbul emptied of Armenian, Greek and Jewish wealthy entrepreneurial minorities. The Muslim wealthy classes preferred leisurely living in exclusive settlements and gated communities alongside the Bosphorus. Migrants from Anatolia, the Kurdish southeast and the Black Sea flooded in their place and the city's demographic identity changed. High-ceilinged neoclassical turn-of-the-century apartments in formerly exclusive or solidly middle-class neighbourhoods such as Pera, Tarlabashi and Kurtulush became squats. The streets outside turned into outlandish half-village, half ghetto landscapes. Housewives chatted on their porches and shepherds guided their flocks through the lanes. Around nightfall, prostitutes and heroin gangs would take over but the streets would not empty of their daytime inhabitants. An organic coexistence ensued, only disturbed by dozens of patrolling policemen hoping in safety in numbers. Taxi-drivers crossing one such neighbourhood habitually lock their doors.


This state of affairs led disgruntled Istanbullus to begin talking of a Second Fall of Constantinople – this time occasioned by immigrating rural hordes. The city's population shot up from 2 million registered residents in 1970 to 12 million in 2007. The well-off retreated to bourgois bastions like Nisantasi or Ortakoy, the city's periphery and new neighbourhoods such as Levent, a sparkling business district of malls and office blocks.

Yesterday, I rode the metro to the end of the line, then hopped on a bus to arrive at the $250 million Istinye Park, Istanbul's largest and most recent luxury mall. I was interviewing the editor of a luxury lifestyle magazine with an impeccable White Turk pedigree: born in the Mediterranean town of Izmir, she was a graduate of Ataturkist bastions of secularism universities in Ankara and Istanbul and had become a well-travelled cosmopolitan.

Like many international malls, Istinye Park opened to an airy, light-filled vestibule populated by an enormous contemporary chandelier, a several-storey high artificial Christmas tree, boutiques and a Starbucks. Customers drank $5 cups of coffee or tucked into main courses in the outdoor seating of international and Turkish restaurants in the Food Hall. Over lattes, the editor talked about how little the economic crisis has affected the luxury sector, evidenced by strong advertising budgets and a boom in wine-class subscriptions in her neighbourhood. She attributed an almost imperceptible easing in sales to the "Turkish psychology that because of crisis it is not polite to be seen consuming extravagantly."

The glass-thin panes and imported steel tones of Istinye Park
were as far removed from Constantinople's ancient stone walls or the rolling countryside out of which Istanbul's newest suburb is emerging. But little has changed in the motivation for the creation of all three: practicality. The walls defended the city; the low-cost public housing feeds its new arrivals; and the mall remains an out-of-reach outing for all but the wealthiest of Istanbullus.