x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Three faces of Istanbul

Last word From battlements to housing projects to a mall, Iason Athanasiadis tracks an ancient city's transformation.

From battlements to housing projects to a mall, Iason Athanasiadis tracks an ancient city's transformation.

When not burning their own historical city centres, Greeks like nothing more than indulging in bouts of Constantinople nostalgia. This Christmas season, thousands of Hellenes are flocking to the old capital of Byzantium to gorge on melancholy. They stick to old favourites such as the Aya Sofya, the Patriarchate and stores on the old Rue de Pera that sell Greek music, studiously ignoring Muslim sites. It's all part of the Aegean perestroika that has descended in recent years upon the former enemies facing each other across the East Mediterranean's historical Christian-Muslim divide. Commentators have rushed to bless the development as a "thaw in relations".

The typical tourist treading his ancestors' polished flagstones comes armed with a loud voice, wads of Euros and strong opinions rarely related to historical evidence. A new generation of bijoux sellers in Istanbul's once-fabled Kapalicarsi Market address him with a smattering of the Greek that their Muslim forefathers wielded fluently in chatting with their Hellenic neighbours prior to the population flights of 1923, 1955 and 1974. It is that peculiar dialect called "hawker's Greek" that allows shop owners to claim their victim's attention but not actually understand his replies. Once contact has been established, both parties switch to pidgin English, conjuring up a sobering demonstration of globalisation: Greeks and Turks standing under plasma screen TVs dressed in gilt frames (perhaps with the intention of preserving the Bazaar's "authenticity"), haggling in English over Chinese-made "original icons from Byzantium".

Thankfully there are also those quieter, more introspective souls who stray far from the madding crowd to explore ancient ruins yet to be Disneyfied by the Turkish government in its quest for tourist Euros. One such pastime is exploring historical Constantinople by following its largely intact lines of defence. Guide books warn against this, pointing out that the still-towering walls run through "less-than-salubrious neighbourhoods, [with] packs of dogs and vagrants living in the wall's cavities along its length who have been known to rob and assault passers-by."

One such "vagrant" is Necip Batur, a homeless man who has dragged an incongruous-looking living-room couch into a ground-level arch packed with dark earth, turning it into a temporary abode. His former address, he says, was more prestigious: Taksim Square in European Istanbul's glitzy centre. He moved to the walls because "people around here are more concerned, they look out for you". The neighbours he refers to are - or were, until recently - the Gypsies of Solukule. A historical community of musicians, bellydancers, crooks and entertainers, the gypsies have nearly all been forcibly evicted from the area to make way for wealthier residents. With demolitions of the surrounding neighbourhood continuing apace, Batur's only remaining neighbours are the earthly remains of the dervish Abdurrahman Pasha ve refiki (Abdurrahman Pasha and a friend), housed in a humble Sufi tekke tucked away near the walls.

Bearded and begrimed, Batur gesticulates with a lit cigarette at the mounds of rubble and mechanised demolition equipment knocking down swathes of the shantytown around him. Local businessmen salivate at the prospect of Turkish celebrities and footballers moving into the new development. 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 into Turkey's 21st century vision of itself.

I needed to know where the gypsies were being sent. Locals said it was a neighbourhood called Tashuluk, a long way off on the outskirts of Istanbul. It turns out to be a freshly built low-income development, an awkward one-hour bumpy bus journey from southwestern Istanbul's crumbling walls. Four-storey cement apartment blocks spring out of grassy rolling hills. Goats, hens and four-lane highways dot a landscape mixing pastoral ambience with out-of-town urban sprawl. A glass-fronted, pistachio-coloured mosque looms from the top of another grassy hill beleaguered with cement foundations. The folksy green minaret pointing skywards is the only clue that the mosque's department-store bay windows and prefabricated supermarket-style roof enclose not a mall but a Muslim place of prayer. 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 estate agent tells me. "These are newly-settled areas, they'll develop. Twenty years ago here, there was no water or electricity." But for many of the gypsy inhabitants who moved here after Istanbul's municipality decided to cash in on Byzantium's walls, the new life is dour. They complain that there is no drainage, heating or hospital infrastructure to take care of emergencies.

Neighbourhoods like Tasholuk are the populist AKP government's best hope of coping with the influx of poor migrants to Turkey's largest city. The party's Toplu Konut Idaresi housing administration has presided over a construction boom in recent years, stemming the growth of slums within Greater Istanbul by constructing affordable and hygienic modern housing on the outskirts. Developments such as Tasholuk also decongest Istanbul's crowded downtown and open the way to redevelop historical areas transformed by internal migration over the decades.

Throughout the 20th century, thriving neighbourhoods in central Istanbul emptied themselves of Armenian, Greek and Jewish wealthy entrepreneurial minorities. The Muslim wealthy classes, meanwhile, preferred living in exclusive settlements and gated communities alongside the Bosphorus. In their place, migrants from Anatolia, the Kurdish south-east and the Black Sea flooded into the city, redrawing its demographic identity. High-ceilinged, neoclassical apartments became squats. Formerly exclusive or solidly middle-class neighbourhoods such as Pera, Tarlabashi and Kurtulush 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 banking on safety in numbers. Taxi-drivers crossing one such neighbourhood habitually lock their doors.

This state of affairs prompted talk of a Second Fall of Constantinople - this time occasioned by the 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 bourgeois bastions like Nisantasi or Ortakoy, to the city's periphery and to new neighbourhoods such as Levent, a sparkling business district of malls and office blocks.

The day after my visit to Tashuluk, I ride the metro to the end of the line, hop onto a bus and arrive at the $250 million (Dh918 million) Istinye Park, Istanbul's largest luxury mall. I've come to interview the editor of a luxury lifestyle magazine on how the other half lives. She has an impeccable White Turk pedigree: born in the Mediterranean town of Izmir, she is a graduate of universities in Ankara and Istanbul - Ataturkist bastions of secularism - and has become a well-travelled cosmopolitan.

Istinye Park does not mince its allegiance to western-style consumerism. It opens onto an airy, light-filled vestibule populated by an enormous contemporary chandelier, a several-storey high artificial Christmas tree, clothes boutiques and a Starbucks. Customers drink $5 cups of coffee or tuck into main courses in the outdoor seating of international and Turkish restaurants in the Food Hall. Over lattes, the editor talks 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 attributes 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 and steel of Istinye Park is as far removed from Constantinople's ancient stone walls as is the rolling countryside out of which Tasholuk, Istanbul's newest suburb, is emerging. But the same force motivated 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 Istanbullis.

Iason Athanasiadis is an Istanbul-based writer and photographer.