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City of Heaven and Hell

By Alev ScottFebruary 17, 2016

An Istanbul Anthology by Kaya Genç

FOR ANYONE who has lived in, or even visited, Istanbul, this anthology provokes a strange cocktail of emotions: a powerful shot of nostalgia for a city long gone, envy of those who walked its streets hundreds of years ago, and a kind of affectionate surprise at recognising aspects of urban life still present today. It is an especially moving read in the wake of the suicide bombing which struck Sultan Ahmet Square on January 12, 2016, killing 12 tourists who came to marvel at the famous sights described by equally marvelling tourists centuries ago. “Within the [square],” wrote Théophile Gautier in 1852, “as with an open-air mosque, are contained all the spoils of antiquity.” Today, those antiquities have been temporarily overshadowed by terror, but if this book shows us anything, it is that Istanbul’s legions of fans will endure.

A collection of travel writing dating from 1599 to 1922, An Istanbul Anthology encompasses more than 300 years of writers, diplomats, and tourists’ impressions of a metropolis in transformation throughout the late Ottoman period. The book itself is like a letter from the past, beautifully bound, with cream-coloured pages and sepia sketches of old Constantinople scattered throughout like intermittent memories. The eclectic author list includes unexpected megastars of the 19th and 20th century like Gustave Flaubert, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernest Hemingway, and Mark Twain. These are mixed with lesser-known writers with a more intimate knowledge of Istanbul, including several British women who lived and wrote there in the 18th to 20th centuries. These give us sneak glimpses into the feminine realms of the hamam and harem, as well as some of the most beautiful descriptions of mosques, city life, and the linguistic mosaic of a wealthy household’s staff.

I read the book while in London, and the experience was like reading an unusually candid obituary of a close friend. More than a few weeks away from Istanbul feels to me like a small bereavement, and to make matters worse, like many romantically-minded modern-day residents, I also suffer from a hazy longing for “old Istanbul” — the pomp, beauty, and eccentricity of a true cosmopolitan capital, in which palaces were actually inhabited, gardens were abundant, and Ottoman gondolas carried Levantine merchants across the Golden Horn — a city unsullied by gaudy hotels, constant construction work, and the globally recognisable wafts of Burger King.

Of course, old Istanbul was no bed of roses — even the Ottoman gondolas, or caiqs, were not as glamorous as they sound. “A [Venetian] gondola is infinitely more roomy and comfortable, and it has the great advantage of not forcing you to sit nose to nose with a perspiring boatman,” wrote the American diplomat Harrison Griswold Dwight in 1915. Editor Kaya Genç, born and brought up in the city, has made a point of including vivid descriptions of the filth, danger, and corruption of its ancient streets and waterways; today’s fashionable Galata neighborhood, for example, beloved by tourists and moneyed artists, is referred to by Will Seymour Monroe in 1907 as “the fermenting vat of the scum of the earth.” Genç is shrewd enough to know that any engaging portrayal of a city contains the good, the bad, and the ugly. Istanbul is as repellent and perplexing now as it was in the 17th century, and that is part of the bond that connects those who love it.

Genç has chosen to arrange the entries by theme, rather than chronology, and these range from landscape and architecture to social life, covering the humblest of coffee houses and the grandest of imperial haunts. The result is a collage of memory jumbled across the centuries, rather than a strict historical narrative, which is entirely in keeping with Istanbul’s chameleonic character. In his introduction, Genç points out that Istanbul has never been a single entity, but rather a mix of its roles as the capital of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and the primary metropolis of the modern republic: “So is it an Islamic city? A Byzantine one? Or a modern metropolis? ‘All of the above’ is a good answer to give to most questions about Istanbul.”

The first section, “Sea and Views,” contains impressions of the approach to the city via the Marmara Sea and the Bosporus straits, a beautifully appropriate opening. The chapter includes this anthropomorphic description of early morning fog by Herman Melville, author of Moby-Dick, writing in 1856:

The fog only lifted from about the skirts of the city […] It was a coy disclosure, a kind of coquetting, leaving room for the imagination & heightening the scene. Constantinople, like her Sultanas, was thus veiled in her “ashmack” [yaşmak, veil].

This Anglicised yaşmak is one of many examples of writers taking brave stabs in the dark at transliterating Turkish (or Arabic) words into English. (The French and Italian entries have been translated into English.) The approximations are comfortingly similar to the linguistic struggles of modern visitors — for example, Harrison Griswold Dwight refers to the “Missir Charshi” (Mısır Çarşı, Egyptian Bazaar); if written in an email to a friend today, this might perhaps have been followed by a tentative “(sp.?).” Though Dwight was born in Constantinople, and probably spoke Turkish fluently, from this evidence of his pronunciation I cannot help but imagine a version of Brad Pitt’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, confidently booming out “Arrivederci!” in a Southern drawl.

As descriptions of spectacular vistas make way for the phenomena of urban life, the chapters get progressively more interesting for readers drawn to the social quirks of Istanbul, past and present. It goes without saying that much has changed over the centuries, in the aesthetics and politics of the city, the demographics of its inhabitants, and the attitudes of foreigners who have observed them. Some of the most fascinating entries provide unique vantage points into history — the awkward clash between the European aspirations of the last, fading Sultans, their Ottoman traditions, and their vainglorious overspending. The children’s storyteller Hans Christian Andersen, who attended a march of the Sultan’s bejewelled private guard in 1841, wrote:

In general, pieces from Rossini’s “William Tell” were played, but suddenly they were broken off, and the strains of the young Sultan’s favourite march were heard. […] It seemed as though we were looking on the work of a spirit of Aladdin’s lamp.

Yet, for readers who are familiar with Istanbul, it is almost more fascinating to discover what still endures today, like someone who discovers a long-lost relative and searches for themselves in her face and mannerisms. Some things really haven’t changed at all. Arthur Symons, a British poet writing in 1903, observed that:

To walk, in Constantinople, is like a fierce and active struggle. One should look at once before, behind, and underneath one’s feet; before, behind, and underneath one’s feet some danger or disgust is always threatening. I never walked up the steep road which leads to Pera without the feeling that I was fighting my way through a hostile city.

I have not yet met a resident of Istanbul who does not complain about the difficulties of walking through its ill-paved streets, yet somehow this flaw becomes loveable when shared by grumbling pedestrians across the centuries.

Ernest Hemingway wrote in 1922 that: “The nightclubs open at two — the more respectable nightclubs, that is. The disreputable nightclubs open at four in the morning.” Still true. Mark Twain, visiting the city in 1867, was struck by the abundance of street dogs: “The dogs sleep in the streets, all over the city. […] They are my compass — my guide.” I have often given directions to friends in the city by referring to fixed canine points. “You know the corner where the really fat brown dog sleeps? Well, turn left there …”

On the subject of directions, if I have a criticism of the anthology, it is that it could have done with a map. Given the many different epochs discussed, it might have been difficult to give a definitive “historical” map, but even an up-to-date one would have been helpful for readers only slightly acquainted with the city, to be given a sense of its geography, and to marvel at how much the city has expanded since the time when it barely covered the few square miles containing the major tourist sites of today.

It would also have been useful for current residents to keep their bearings — I was totally unaware that “the Sultana Valide bridge” ever existed, for example. This apparently refers to what is now Galata Bridge, connecting the area of Galata to the New Sultana Valide Mosque (Yeni Camii). These defunct names are a reminder that neither the city’s architecture nor the labels ascribed to it are permanent. Istanbul is now so stamped by the legacy of Atatürk — his image gracing walls and schools, his name attached to major industrial projects and institutions — that it is almost strange to think of pre-Atatürk Istanbul, but of course the republic has been but the blink of an eye in Istanbul’s grand history.

At the back of the anthology there is a list of the authors, with short biographies, but only a select few are introduced along with their entries. For instance, one of the most interesting writers enters unannounced: Lady Mary Montagu, whose husband served as the British ambassador in Constantinople between 1716 and 1718. Her published letters from this posting remain one of my all-time favourite reads, and I suspect she was a more talented diplomat — with her fluent Turkish, political acumen, and close friendships with women in the Sultan’s harem — than her husband, who was recalled to London after an unsuccessful two-year mission, much to his wife’s distress.

Other intrepid British adventurers include Grace Mary Ellison, who published accounts of her experiences in a Turkish harem in The Daily Telegraph in the early 20th century, and Lady Hester Stanhope, who settled and eventually died in Lebanon as a senile recluse, but not before she had explored Constantinople. Writing in 1811, her observations on the psychological fetters of women confined to the harem (“the feeling, impressed upon them from their infancy, of the positive criminality of showing their faces to strangers”) and the elaborate rituals of the hamam (“the women make a parade of bathing”) are valuable, but it is her observations of the drunkards of Pera that give us a clue that this aristocrat of the Georgian era was not afraid to explore the wilder side of the city: “The effects of spirituous liquors on the Turks are remarkable. Naturally sedate, composed, and amicable, they become, when intoxicated, downright madmen.”

Genç has curated a compellingly real picture of the city, taking care to match the poetic with the crass, the enthusiastic with the disapproving, and everything in between. Mark Twain, for example, is at his best when describing the spectacularly deformed beggars of Constantinople: “The cripples of Europe are a delusion and a fraud. The truly gifted flourish only in the by-ways of Pera and Stamboul.”

The anthology ends with a section entitled “The City as Hell” — a wonderfully wry counterpoint to the romanticism of some of the earlier entries. Gustave Flaubert has the final say, predicting the demise of Eastern customs, and of Islam, in 1850:

The East will soon be nothing but a question of sun. […] Soon the veil, already slighter and slighter, will pass from the faces of the women, and with it Moslemism will fly away altogether. The number of pilgrims to Mecca diminishes day by day; the ulemas fuddle themselves like vergers. Voltaire is talked of!

By ending with this spectacularly misguided proclamation, Genç reminds us at the book’s closure of the crystallised nature of travel writing. Its job is to capture the moment, the details of the here and now. Some of these details have completely disappeared, others can still be seen — but to prophesize a city’s future is tantamount to hubris. Many observers of today’s Turkey would argue that we are going not forwards but backwards; just not, sadly, to the glory days of Istanbul.


Alev Scott was educated at North London Collegiate School and New College, Oxford, where she studied Classics. After graduating in 2009, she worked in London as an assistant director in theater and opera before moving to Istanbul, Turkey, in January 2011, where she now works as a freelance journalist for the British press.

LARB Contributor

Alev Scott was born in London in 1987 to a Turkish mother and a British father, and educated at North London Collegiate School and New College, Oxford, where she studied Classics. After graduating in 2009, she worked in London as an assistant director in theater and opera before moving to Istanbul, Turkey, in January 2011, where she now works as a freelance journalist for the British press.


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