Istanbul: Timelessness and change through the lens of Henrietta Liston

An essay by Paul Benjamin Osterlund

Paul Benjamin Osterlund

Paul Benjamin Osterlund is a freelance journalist, writer and translator based in Istanbul. His work has appeared in 'The Atlantic', 'The Guardian', 'Foreign Policy', 'BBC Travel' and 'Vice News', among other publications.

As a journalist who has written extensively about how Istanbul has changed profoundly in recent years, thoughts of what the city and its atmosphere was like in distinct periods throughout history constantly flash across my mind.

Though occasionally marked by off-base or dismissive observations and laden with the Orientalist fluff to be expected from any British writer in the Ottoman Empire at the time, Henrietta Liston's vivid, detailed and lively descriptions of her experiences in Istanbul during the early 19th century revive imaginations of a city with a history arguably unmatched by no other.

It's tempting to conjure scenes of the unparalleled cosmopolitan nature of Istanbul in the years leading up to and following the establishment of the Turkish republic in 1923, a wild and disorderly period that saw occupation by foreign powers, the influx of thousands of White Russian refugees, and the development of a rowdy nightlife. These years are elegantly captured in Charles King's excellent book 'Midnight at the Pera Palace: The Birth of Modern Istanbul' (2014).

In those days, the Pera Palace Hotel bar was the haunt of spies, diplomats and other intriguing characters crossing through the city. It is almost impossible to imagine such a setting today: while the Pera Palace has managed to retain its historical charm and position as one of the city's most iconic hotels, its bar is nothing more than an elegantly-decorated room used mainly for weddings and other planned events. One can only imagine the Pera that Liston called home during the bulk of her stint in Turkey in the early 19th century.

A more recent era I would have wanted to witness was the Beyoğlu of the late 1980s and early 1990s, before and after Istiklal Avenue, Istanbul's busiest and most famous street, was pedestrianized. Beyoğlu, the heart of European Istanbul, was formerly called Pera, an old Greek word meaning 'apart', referring to the separation of the district from the traditional old walled Istanbul. The Pera Palace is in Beyoğlu, which was the center of the burgeoning Istanbul night life and the ensuing vice and raucousness depicted in King's book.

Though by the mid-2000s central Beyoğlu had established its firm position as the centre of the city's nightlife, with its hundreds of bars, clubs and 'meyhane' (tavernas) frequented by students, intellectuals, clubbers, tourists and others from all sorts of walks of life, the Beyoğlu of the 1980s, when Istiklal still had traffic, was a much seedier locale, best captured in the 1987 film 'Beyoğlu'nun Arka Yakası' ('The Other Side of Beyoğlu'). The movie stars the late Tarık Akan, one of Turkey's most iconic actors, known for his prolificness and striking good looks. Akan plays a civil servant who has just received his monthly salary, and has also been kicked out of the house after an argument with his wife.

Our protagonist sets out in the evening to Beyoğlu, where he encounters a louche stretch of neon-lit bars and clubs, crowds of men standing around drinking beer, eating sandwiches and ogling belly dancers. The only women to be found in the area are dancers and prostitutes, apart from an actress starring in a film being shot in the area, the crew of which Akan aimlessly follows amid his unfortunate escapades.

The Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn and unites the Beyoğlu district with the old city. Today it conjures images of the elderly fisherman that spend their days launching their lines into the waters below, hoping for a catch. In 1986, the iconic rock bar Kemancı opened under the bridge, which looks out over one of the most beautiful views of the city.

Imagining rockers and metalheads swilling cheap draft beer and smoking cigarettes in the background is unbelievably enticing, given that today the establishments under the bridge are overpriced, mediocre tourist traps that are no different from one another and offer nothing but the serene view. Kemancı left its original location in 1992 and moved to central Beyoğlu after a fire broke out on the bridge, and has since closed down.

The unfathomable urban growth and concomitant loss of green space that has occurred in Istanbul over the decades, especially the past two, in part make it difficult to conceive of the Istanbul that Henrietta Liston encountered in 1812, approaching the city by boat from the Marmara Sea and observing the Fortress of Seven Towers (Yedikule). What should be one of the most prized tourist destinations in the city, Yedikule has languished and been closed to visitors for several years for complicated reasons, blocked off by police barricades and awaiting a costly restoration project. 'The approach to Constantinople by water is very fine,' Liston writes, surely an understatement:

'The first striking object was the Seven Towers. Their form differs from that of other public buildings and would render them very remarkable did they all exist, but so little use seems to be have been lately made of them (as the prison for foreign ministers) that only four are now standing, and the whole place, which is pretty large, appears to be in a state of decay, though still enlivened by the intermixture of gardens and fine trees, as all the Turkish situations are.'

To picture the old Constantinople, bound by the 5th-century Justinian land and sea walls into which Yedikule was integrated, from the view of a boat in the Marmara Sea in the early 19th century is to evoke an awe-inspiring image. The areas outside the walls would have been largely green space rather than the sprawl of concrete and glass that continues for many kilometres to the west, constituting today's Istanbul.

What is remarkable about Liston's description is that the gardens and trees she describes, to a certain extent, still surround Yedikule to this day. Though they have been under threat of development and several of the gardens inside the walls have been destroyed by the local government, rows of 'bostan' (urban market gardens) with centuries of history lie beneath the old city walls. The beginning of this stretch of invaluable urban agricultural spaces lies just a stone's throw away from Yedikule.

Had Liston seen Istanbul from the same vantage point today, she may have been alarmed at the sight of the notorious 16:9 residential towers, which lies just over a kilometre west of Yedikule. The luxury skyscrapers have been said to have ruined the integrity of the historic peninsula, and even earned the wrath of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, otherwise a champion of the city's intense development and the construction sector that for years acted as the country's economic backbone.

Liston's subsequent description of the Beyoğlu / Pera area and the panoramic view that surrounds it is also notable for how it throws into relief the massive structural and administrative changes that have occurred since the city outgrew its location within the walls. But at the same time, the images Liston offers are still valid today, painting a picture of an unmatched geographic location that can only be altered to a certain extent by land development. Noting that like other 'suburbs' of Constantinople, such as Scutari, Pera 'is of itself a large town,' Liston describes how it sits …

'on the summit of a hill […] divided from Galata by a range of wall, now going into decay. On one part of this ancient hill is the Tower of Galata, still making a good feature in the picture, and affording, from the top, an extensive prospect. These towns [the suburbs of Constantinople] are all of singular beauty, and as we entered the harbour we had a view of the entrance into the Bosphorus, a channel which unites the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea, the whole presenting to the eye of a stranger a very singular and beautiful combination of land and water and foliage.'

It has been many years since Pera ceased to be a town or suburb of an Istanbul that was a mere fraction of its size today in terms of both area and population, and Liston might be dismayed to see that the decaying walls she mentioned are now almost entirely gone, save for a few segments here and there. But in spite of the unprecedented development that has swallowed up nearly all of the green space that Liston encountered 200 years ago, the lush area surrounding the Topkapı Palace, where the openings of the Golden Horn, the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara meet, means Liston's description of 'a very singular and beautiful combination of land and water and foliage' still applies.

It is this image, enjoyed by millions of Istanbullites every day, many of whom traverse this very point as they make their daily commute by ferry to and from the European and Anatolian sides of Istanbul, that seems to be resistant and even immune to even the most crass and harmful development that has plagued the city over the years.

Other descriptions of Liston's interactions with Ottoman royalty and their cohorts, as well as the Greeks, Armenians and Jews who featured prominently in the cultural and economic life of the empire despite being legally second-class citizens, are rich in detail and generally framed in a positive, attentive manner. Her attention to detail alone provides enough content for anyone with keen interest in the history and culture of the late Ottoman empire, particularly the Istanbul of the period:

'Amongst the numerous ornaments of the banks of the Bosphorus may be reckoned their burial grounds, both public and private. The former are rendered picturesque by fine cypresses thickly planted, the coloured turbans and inscriptions on the tombstones rendering them rather gay than melancholy in appearance. Private burial-grounds are generally placed in the garden or courtyard, encircled by a fine painted and gilded railing and always as much in sight of the family as in strangers.'

A few notable missteps include Liston's characterization of soup, a dish 'to which the Turks are not accustomed, making it always of rice and always bad.' This would horrify scholars of Turkish cuisine, such as the acclaimed chef Musa Dağdeviren, who has served hundreds of different regional soups at his wildly popular Istanbul restaurant Çiya over the years. These include the breakfast favorite 'beyran', which originates from Dağdeviren's home province of Gaziantep, and consists of bits of rice and strips of lamb bathed in a fiery broth spiked with a dollop of red pepper flakes. On the other side of the spectrum, there is 'ayran aşı', a cold, refreshing yogurt-based soup. Indeed, Turkey has a very deep and rich soup culture that dates back centuries.

Another unfortunate dismissal on the part of Liston is one characterization of the empire's non-Muslim communities. 'The Catholics are bad enough,' Liston writes, 'but there is no end either to the fasts or the feasts of the Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, at which times all live on caviar and oil in summer and on melon gourds and cucumbers, together with grapes, olives, etc.' The passage appears to be an outburst of Anglican chauvinism on the part of Liston, something which does not otherwise seem to inform the way she approaches and describes her subjects. Its sentiment resembles that later used to justify the disenfranchisement and dispossession of non-Muslims following the establishment of the republic, resulting in today's dismally reduced populations of the once thriving Greek, Armenian and Jewish communities, communities that played roles in building and shaping Istanbul that cannot be overestimated.

Unfortunate excerpts like this distract from the inspiring depictions of Istanbul and the lucid, precise attention to detail that runs throughout Liston's writing, but they do not derail it. While Istanbul's rapid changes have been documented photographically for at least a century, Liston takes us back to a period decades before the advent of the camera, depicting an Istanbul with a population of around half a million, and now-central areas of a megalopolis that were once separate suburbs. What is perhaps most resonant about Liston's writing and the images she conveys of Istanbul 200 years ago is how some of these scenes hold true to this day, a testament to the beauty and resilience of the city and its sublime location.

Long reads