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Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Anxious modernity.

Octobre 2019


Istanbul. Constantinople. A city across two continents. One foot in Europe, one foot in Asia, separated by the Bosporus. Successively “Rome of the East”, the capital of the Byzantine empire until 1453 and the seat Ottoman rule until the first world war and the collapse of the empire, Istanbul is today a booming metropolis. It is also the beating heart of modern Turkey, a country whose national identity is as precarious as the city’s tiptoe around the two continents. Neither here nor there, neither from here nor from there. As a Moroccan-born Canadian who has lived a large part of his life in North America but grasps the complexity of Moroccan Muslim history and its relationship to French colonial past, I find myself identifying strongly to the Turkish and Istanbulite conundrum.

The quest for identity, the anxiety for urban modernity within a rich and multi-ethnic historical context is what appealed to me during my first visit to Istanbul, and that led me back to it on several occasions. Orhan Pamuk in his collection of early memories entitled Istanbul, describes the feeling of hüzün in Turkish, as melancholy coupled with longing which pervades everyday life in the city. Historical places around Constantinople as well as the circulation of images of the city’s distant past such as Ara Güler’s highly publicized photographs, make city dwellers and visitors alike look with fondness at an era that was more authentic, and more prosperous. Pamuk further gives the example of old Ottoman wooden mansions, called yali by the Bosporus, burning to the ground due to stove heating hazards. These morbid spectacles watched all around the city as they unfolded, served as tragic reminders of a bygone era. Simultaneously, Ipek Türeli, in Istanbul Open City aptly describes the mutations undergone by Istanbul in the early Republican era (1930’s and 1940’s) as non-Muslim minorities were pushed out of the city and waves of migrants from Anatolia poured into it, abandoning their villages to settle in informal pockets of the new urban sprawl:

“Such was their situation that the things which mattered, their friends, perhaps a tree, a courtyard, or a scrubby hillside, views from a window that they and their grandparents had known as long as they could remember, had become sentimental luxuries that they could no longer afford.” (1995, 121)

Such were the words of British writer Jeremy Seal, in his travel journal called A Fez of the Heart. The urban poor divided and worried the public opinion as demonstrated by Türeli in her careful analysis of printed media and films of the time, but the housing crisis was real, and the city had to find hasty solutions to resolve the issue. It is in this context Türeli argues, that the “Turkish dream” was born:

“In contrast to the “American Dream” attached to the suburban house of the Levittown type, with its associated ideals of a horizontal society, the “Turkish Dream” presented here is about verticality associated with social upward mobility and achieved through concrete-frame walk-ups”. (2018, 65)

Modern Istanbul therefore, has two facets: the one looking east, towards an Ottoman past governed by an Islamic way of life and the other looking west, emulating European modernity and culture. It is in this context that I propose a research project that aims to understand both the traditional and modern housing typologies of Istanbul, as well as the planned or unplanned forces that transformed the Urban fabric of the city in the second half of the 20th century focusing on neighborhoods such as Balat or Pera which were historically inhabited by Armenian, Jewish and Greek minorities.


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