’Stamboul, with all its sea-suburbs and sea-lanes

Selçuk was a bum. I first met him at the Galata Bridge, in a tea house on the lower level of the bridge. He spent the summer there, tapping tourists for cash. In the winter he was caretaker of a villa on Büyükada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara, eight nautical miles off İstanbul.

Strung out by the fierce heat, the traffic and my too noisy friend Sezer, I had retreated to this tea house, into its darkest corner, and ordered a şekersiz çay—a tea with no sugar. He was sat on a box by the way in and attracted my attention immediately. How could someone look so tattered and elegant at the same time? Selçuk managed it. He was tall, lean, around fifty years old, I thought to myself, as he approached me and asked—there was nothing awkward about it, as there usually is in such situations—whether he could be of service to me. He belonged to the caste of educated bums. He spoke reasonably good English and he was the first to make me aware of the poets Orhan Veli Kanık and Oktay Rıfat, for which I am grateful to this day. I ordered him a tea and, at his request, lokum, those gelatinous cubes coated in sieved icing sugar, which taste of tired tonic. We chatted. I don’t really like the lower level of the Galata Bridge. The view is constricted. I miss the seemingly infinite sky over Topkapı, the water, the confluence of the Bosphorus, the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, all the glittering waterways, which invariably fill my head with heat and open space.

I quizzed Selçuk about Büyükada. Ada is the Turkish word for ‘island’, büyük means ‘big’. The Turks mostly say simply adalar, the islands, to refer to the whole archipelago. You can get there in barely an hour from Kabataş, the ferry terminal next to the Dolmabahçe palace. Büyükada, which the Greeks still call Prinkipo, is the largest of the islands.

The ferry from İstanbul stops first at Kınalı Ada (Greek: Proti), then at Burgazada (Antigoni) and Heybeliada (Halki) before it reaches the main island, where it turns around and makes its way back to the metropolis. The rest of the islands are too small, too insignificant, with sparse or no population, or they are private, so that no large public vessel ever calls there.

I knew only the chief island, from a few fleeting visits in my distant past. My first excursion must have been almost twenty years ago. I had taken the antiquated sleeper train from Ankara to İstanbul, which had once been part of the planned line to Baghdad. The sleeping compartments still had brass containers with polished water jugs from the 1920s. They shook horribly, as did the beds and as did I, lying on one. The rails supplied by the Krupp factory way back in the days of the Kaiser were still in service. At Haydarpaşa Station, at seven in the morning, Sezer took delivery of me. She was wearing a light-blue beret and looked like a strangely curvaceous paratrooper.

‘Have they shaken you to pieces?’ she said. ‘Forget İstanbul. Too hot, too noisy. We’re taking the first ferry and we’re going to Büyükada.’

On the boat she told me that when she was a child she believed that trains transformed their passengers. She had kept her superstition to this day. What if I had not leapt out of the train door, but a tapir, not her friend, but a cargo of cold water? We laughed.

Upon our arrival we took a horse-drawn carriage, because there are no cars on the island, and were driven once right around it. After we had left the town and the villas and a few stately homes behind us, we climbed up into green pinewoods, suffused with the smell of resin. That smell is the first thing I remember now, and later in the valley, I remember the cypresses, pines and plane trees, and another smell, the warm body odour of the sun-baked gardens, streaming into our carriage. That’s what I told Selçuk. He said, the islands are sort of a suburb of İstanbul, and yet really are quite, quite different. The landscape, which I had just been describing, is different. The people are different. The life is different. Although not in summer, when hordes of İstanbullular arrive and turn the order of the islands on its head.

We left the tea house and climbed up the steps onto the bridge. How suddenly the world shone! Everywhere on the sparkling water were ferries and pilot boats and cutters and mighty red-painted container ships, nosing their way out of the Bosphorus and onto the gleaming Sea of Marmara. Angler after angler sat on the parapet of the bridge, so tightly packed that their lines glinted in the sunlight like the strings of some vast instrument. Selçuk said that he’d like to show me the villa he looked after in the winter, the konak of John Paşa, and everything else he knew on the island. It was the end of September. His job as winter caretaker began in the middle of October. He drew me a little map in my notebook. From the ferry building, just keep going right, past the cafés and hotels, then turn into Çankaya Caddesi, ‘the most beautiful street in the world’. Continue up it to number 78, which is the villa he guards. We made a plan. One day in late October all I had to do was knock hard enough on the great iron gate of the garden.

That same evening, back in the flat I had rented for myself in Beyoğlu near the Galata Tower, I decided to move to Büyükada. I imagined the Sea of Marmara as a map with all the pale blue lines for the shipping routes, with long and short arrows, with dolphins and compass roses. Who had not passed through here: Greeks, barbarians, the new Romans, Seljuks, Turks, Armenians, the English, Germans, Russians and White Russians? The time of Byzantium was still ticking away, the endless twilight of the Ottoman Empire, then the upheaval of the First World War, such a quantity of emigrants and exiles, a swarm of arrows and references that I could not decipher. I resolved that I would bring order to this swarm. I drank some rakı and my resolve strengthened. One glass later and I thought it was good to know nothing. More exactly: I thought it was a good thing to know so little of the history of the islands. Just a few fragments. That monks had lived on them for well over a millennium and covered them in monasteries. That they were a place of banishment, especially in Byzantine times. Troublesome princes and princesses, disgraced members of the imperial family, advisers and ministers were expelled from Byzantium and stuck in a monk’s cell, often for the rest of their lives, if nothing worse happened to them. The putting out of eyes was the most popular punishment. After the Turks captured Constantinople in 1453, a period of calm followed. The Greeks and—later—Armenian families who lived on the islands went largely unmolested under Ottoman rule. In the latter years of the Ottoman Empire wealthy state officials, viziers and ambassadors to the Sublime Porte discovered the Islands to be an ideal place for a summer retreat. Well-to-do families built their summer residences along the coastal roads. Hotels, casinos and parks appeared. The fanciest restaurants and cafés in Pera established branches on Prinkipo, spreading their Levantine atmosphere, up until the middle of the twentieth century, when cosmopolitanism vanished and both İstanbul and the Islands were ‘turkified.’

So much else I didn’t know. I had the landscape of the Islands in my mind’s eye, with its two thousand years of habitation and cultivation. But longevity, long life, is not the same thing as continuity. That evening in my rented room in İstanbul, before I drank my fourth glass of rakı, I said to myself that the Islands would surely suffer from lapses of memory as well, those problems of identity that are so typical of an imperial city. The metropolis, with its changing names—Byzantium, Constantinople, İstanbul—had left its mark on the Islands. The great crises of the Emperor’s City, or the Sultan’s City, were also little crises of the Islands. But whoever is so full of memories, I said to myself, must also become forgetful. Tomorrow I would go to a bookshop on İstiklal Caddesi, the main artery through the old European quarter, to hunt out a map of the Princes’ Islands; there might perhaps be a book or two as well. Little by little I would piece all this information together, these shards and fragments, and my friends would help me. Tomorrow I would first of all call Ferit, my oldest Turkish friend. He had bought a house on Büyükada a couple of years ago; he could give me some advice. The rakı was doing me good. I fell asleep.

At noon the following day, before the ferry went, I met with Ferit.

Ferit is Turkish. To be precise, he’s Ottoman. To be absolutely precise, he’s Chinese. He radiates calm and he is in the know. As a young man, when his slightly slanted eyes were not yet hooded by swollen lids, he had studied painting in Paris. There he knew the painters Fikret Moualla, Abidin Dino and Arslan. He revered Henri Michaux. In Turkey he had hoarded up the best collection of karalamalar. No one else knew what they were, when he was ferreting out and purchasing these sheets of paper, exercises of the master calligraphers, who would write a single letter on a sheet a hundred times, closely packed together, in order to keep their fingers loose. A good karalama looks like an early Pollock or a Mark Tobey at his best. Ferit had made his money dealing art: selling paintings, old tiles from İznik and Seljuk pottery of the deepest, most unbelievable blue. But he had never sold a karalama. He had written novels, successful ones, and he had set up an advertising agency. From all this he had earned good money, enough to buy an impressive house on Büyükada, built by an Armenian architect in around 1882. Almost every köşk and konak on the Islands is built of wood. This villa, the Meziki Köşkü, was a curiosity, made of solid sandstone. Which proved useful later, especially when there were earthquakes. We met in Refık, his favourite local, in an alley that ran from İstiklal Caddesi to the Pera Palas, an old hotel designed for the passengers of the Orient Express and whose splendour was beloved of Agatha Christie and Kemal Atatürk alike.

Ferit greeted me warmly. He had for me always something of the authentic old-fashioned Turkish style, an Ottoman perfection of manners, a kind of contemplative and epicurean languor.

‘It’s the time of the lüfer,’ he said. ‘The bluefish that swim down in great shoals from the Black Sea through the Bosphorus and into our nets.’

He ordered a lavish meal. I quizzed him about the Islands. How the house purchase was.

Why he, given that he already had a house on the Bosphorus, on the Asian side, had to buy another house on the Island.

‘An old dream,’ he said. ‘Perhaps I wanted to copy the writer Sait Faik, who commuted back and forth between Beyoğlu and Burgazada, a neighbouring island to Büyükada, and in the end chose the simpler life, drank tea with small shopkeepers and fishermen and built his stories from a thousand observations of Island life. And perhaps the Asian shore of the Bosphorus has become too hectic for me. I want to work less and stare at the sea more, cook more, drink more, write more.’

His wife had roamed across Büyükada and fallen into a conversation with an old woman sitting in front of a beautiful four-storey stone house. More by chance than design. The woman was proud of the house and showed it to this stranger, except for the third floor. They continued to meet. One day the woman said that she wanted to sell the house. And her daughters, who lived in France, were in agreement.

‘As soon as I looked at the house, I was thrilled. The ceilings and walls were painted with fine frescoes in still vivid colours; there were bathrooms of grey marble and a boldly sweeping staircase. All of it original from 1882.’

Negotiating the sale dragged on and on; the Turkish bureaucracy was at its worst, with endless visits to officials.

‘The Ottomans were capable of only two things,’ said Ferit. ‘Waging war and meticulous administration. Anyway, in the end, we had the house.’

‘And what was going on with the third floor?’ I asked.

‘It was a museum. Time had been brought to a standstill forty years ago. In every room the furniture, the fabric, the curtains were covered with dust. Filth from seagulls too, which had got in through a broken window. There was the most exquisite silk underwear from the 1930s in the wardrobes and a ball gown, which my daughter still wears for special occasions. We didn’t find out the story behind it until later. The father of the owner, of the woman who sold us the konak, had married a very young woman, seventeen years old. She became pregnant. During the birth the Island’s doctor had concluded that due to complications only one of the two, the woman or the child, could survive. The father had chosen the child and the woman died. It had been her floor of the house. He had sealed it. A mausoleum, which we now had to open up and clean out. There are unhappy houses,’ said Ferit. ‘The life of this house was an unhappy one. I can never feel truly at ease there, in spite of all my happy anticipation, in spite of the splendour of the house. We’ve lived there four years. Amelie, my wife, sorted out the garden and laid out three terraces. She ended up feeding almost thirty cats, all of which she’d had sterilised by the vet.’

Ferit made a gesture as if to say this was women’s nonsense. The house was now back on the market. But he longed for the Island, for the view from the balcony of jacaranda trees, seagulls and the sea.

I said goodbye to Ferit, found a book about Büyükada by Jak Deleon and a map of the archipelago in a bookshop, fetched my suitcase and took a taxi to Kabataş, the terminal for the ferries to the Islands. Grey pigeons and white seagulls sat on the black railings. Grey and white on rows of black, like flourishes, calligraphic signals. So much in İstanbul turns into ornament. Pigeons are really mosque birds here. They patter about the courtyards of the mosques, cooing in droves. People say that feeding them is an act of piety. But I had nothing on me, no sesame rings, no biscuits. The pigeons were restless. They flew off and let a gust of wind carry them aloft, to spin around themselves in the emptiness. Their maelstrom is a symbol for the maelstrom of the city. The calm of the decoration, the soothing contrast between the broad arch and the narrow minaret fights in vain against this maelstrom, against the clamour and clatter, against the honking of Murat cars, the horns of pilot ships, the jolting of yellow melons, against the calls of the muezzin and the bleating of radios, the voices of singers swallowed up in the loudspeakers, which are always turned up too high. I am now exchanging this racket, this maelstrom, I said to myself, for the green calm of the Island.

In the end I sit myself down on a bench on the upper deck, the ferry casts off and glides past the hills of Topkapı. Hagia Sophia is the most stunning sight. She has been everything, hasn’t she? Byzantine church, Ottoman mosque, great caravanserai of God (in the words of Lamartine) and now a Turkish state-run museum. I have at home a book of letters by Ernst Curtius, written from Stamboul in August 1871. I like one passage in particular:

‘… we rode up into the hills, to a magnificent vantage point, from which one looks out over Stamboul with all its sea-suburbs and sea-lanes.’

It felt like that from the upper deck of the ferry too: in the golden haze of midday, the mouth of the Bosphorus, Topkapı on the right, on the left Leander’s tower, Üsküdar and the Asian coast, to my right again, dozens and dozens of ships on the sparkling expanse of water, unloading their cargo or waiting at the entrance to the Bosphorus, and finally, directly ahead, the gentle silhouette of the Princes’ Islands. Here is Ernst Curtius again, in another letter:

‘We travelled to the Sea of Marmara in order to acquaint ourselves with the Princes’ Islands, a small archipelago off the Asian coast. These islands are, as it were, suburbs of Constantinople and appear to be filled with graceful villas, whose terraces rise up out of the sea. The inhabitants are all Greek. We spent the night in a residential house whose garden ran right down to the sea.’

That was in 1871. And today, nearly one hundred and fifty years later? I look at the passengers around me. Are there any Greeks among them? Now in autumn the benches are only half full. Scarcely any foreigners, any tourists. They seem to be almost all natives. A few laughing young men, chewing on sunflower seeds and chickpeas. Older women wearing headscarves, as well as a couple of young Turkish women in jeans and tight-fitting pullovers. Next to me a girl with bad skin and unnaturally long black eyelashes, which lay themselves out on her skin each time she shoves a sweet into her mouth and closes her eyes with pleasure. On the water, fishing boats with small birds bobbing in their wake. A man selling tea buzzes around between the rows of seating with a tray full of those tulip-shaped glasses on ugly plastic coasters. The boat stops at Kınalıada.

I browse through my freshly purchased book by Jak Deleon, which I bought primarily for its plentiful reproductions of old postcards and photographs. These reproductions, though of poor quality, shed light on Island life in the 1920s and 1930s. Every steamboat serving the Islands in that period is pictured. You can feel the pride of the photographers. The ferries, named Neveser, İstimbot, Aydin and İhsan, were smart vessels each with a slightly tilted, thick, black funnel and a huge paddle wheel. The steamboat service between İstanbul and the Islands, I read, was established in 1846, with momentous consequences. Until that time one reached the Islands in caiques, large rowing boats with twelve or fourteen oarsmen. The crossing took almost half a day. Suddenly the archipelago had been made local. In addition, at around the same time the Sultan passed a law allowing foreigners to own property on the Islands for the first time. A rapid influx of wealthy Greeks and Jews followed. In a few years the Islands had been developed.

The ferry terminal at Büyükada is oddly busy. Evidently many people who have spent a day here want to get back to İstanbul. I thread my way through the crowd, past the ticket windows and kiosks. The Splendid Hotel, where I have quartered myself, is not far. The hotel’s homepage presents an imposing, attractive white box built in 1906 with two large flat-topped domes, vaguely reminiscent of a pretty Levantine version of Art Deco architecture. Only later do I learn that these domes hide two huge water cisterns, a vital necessity in the days before water pipes were laid from the mainland to the Island. The carriage from the pier to the hotel takes only a few minutes. At the top of the steps, inside the entranceway, under a broad fan of glass, a young man is drowsily keeping himself upright. Not exactly a porter. A couple of minutes pass before the man at reception emerges.

‘I’d like a large, old room with a sea view.’

‘All the rooms are old,’ he answers.

It’s the end of the season, scarcely any guests left, scarcely any staff. The large lobbies are empty. Everywhere there are ample armchairs, ghastly oil paintings, huge mirrors in overly ornate gold frames and furniture from the 1930s, spotted with age. I like it all very much.

‘I’ll show you a few rooms,’ says the receptionist. ‘You can have a free choice, because there are only a few guests left, and we’re not expecting any more.’

I choose a corner room on the second floor with small balconies and a beautiful view of the sea and the landing stage. I press my ear against the white wall. An old habit. I have the sense that I can hear the Island’s breathing, the mass of rock deep in the roiling Marmara, the machinery of water and electricity in this mighty rectangular timber building. The hotel is four storeys high, gathered around a tall, white, austere inner courtyard with a fountain in the middle. This inner courtyard reminds me of the riads of North Africa. Absolutely everything here is white: the buildings, the boats, the ferry terminal, the tables and chairs, the seagulls.

When I was first on the Island, that one day with Sezer, I’d already noticed this hotel and said to myself, sometime I’d like to stay there. Now, twenty years later, I am here in the Splendid Hotel. The fulfilment of a longing has a comfortably exhausting quality. Time passes with a different, slower gait, and it doesn’t mean so much any more either, just the future passing into the past. I don’t unpack yet and sit myself down on the hotel terrace in front of the entrance with the autumn sun on my back. Noiseless carriages glide past, two cats, seagulls, the sea, the Asian coast opposite, which must once have been untouched and is now completely built up. Bostancı looks like a Korean or Chinese city, dying down to a yellowish glow in the last rays of sun. Then the night comes.

I am still sitting out on the terrace of the Splendid. I know nothing, nothing belongs to me, yet already I am the owner of a heap of stars, of this breeze coming off the sea, of two, three flies, who landed on the plastic table and then trundled off again, of two, three tired waves, which I see down, over there, on the far side of the road, by the quay, in the yellow glow of the street lights.

It’s more beautiful than in the movies.