The Philosophical Journey of a City: Speak Up Istanbul

I have been conquered, many an armada anchored in my seas, many a flag planted in my soils, I have no flag, no religion, don’t ask me for loyalty, one goes, another comes, I stay.

Historians describe the end of the 16th century-beginning of the 17th century as a period of great inventions, when discoveries were being made overseas as the veil of “shadows” around the world was slowly lifting. World, as it was then, was no longer “magical”. As a result, voyages to faraway lands increased in frequency. Modern world started to learn about new cultures that haven’t been encountered before.

With the increase in the modes of transportation, this period was named the era of travellers. These travellers moved freely from country to country and between faraway continents by themselves without any official duty, just taking notes as their voyages took shape. Especially European travellers journeyed to lands that still kept their authenticity and mystery instead to Europe which was quickly adapting to the modern world, transforming the stories of these lands far, far away into narratives. These travellers did not only travel to overseas. They took trips in their own cities or countries, collecting untold stories and embroider their pages with interesting details that they have seen. Walter Benjamin, utilizing Charles Baudelaire’s ideas, describes this as the concept of ‘flâneur’, which means “thinker-wanderer”.

Çelebi Period

Concepts of working and free time emerged in the modern world because time itself was being economically and politically manipulated. The flaneur, who didn’t work shifts and wandered around the city without any time constraint, jolted down the new city life and people typologies in lines. However, before this idea of the flaneur wasn’t a concept yet, travellers like Evliya Çelebi took trips within the city and to other cities, writing books about what they have experienced and seen. They connect the past with their present, compile stories that are tinged with myths, bringing the tales of the buildings, places and religious monuments into life on their pages as they wander around the city. Therefore, they reminisce on a past forgotten, overlooked within the happenings of the daily life in a sense. Historian Cemal Kafadar calls this era “Çelebi Period”. Kafadar mentions that these travellers called ‘Çelebi’ have jobs for the most part, some even came from wealthy families but that they dedicated their entire lives to reading and writing. Being a traveller also is a part of this lifestyle. Just like how being curious is the first rule of being literate, the same applies to being a traveller. This is why they also are idle “thinker wanderers”.

Eremya Çelebi Kömürciyan İstanbul Tarihi (History of Istanbul)

Important travellers of Çelebi Period include Katip Çelebi, Eremya Çelebi Kömürciyan and Evliya Çelebi. These three wanderers tried to describe cities and faraway lands with great intellectual appetite as they grasped the new world in the palms of their hands. These authors can possibly be described not only as travellers but also as the first “modernists”. Especially Eremya Çelebi Kömürciyan’s perspective in his book İstanbul Tarihi (History of Istanbul) with his leaning of myths as he tells the story of the city and his emphasis on how they no longer dominate daily lives of people seems to signal to a more modern and secular world of the future. Eremya Çelebi seems to have felt that worldliness will gain dominance in the new world order. This is because myths are no longer narratives used to explain the world. The first modernists being men of letters and the fact that they actually used the word ‘modern’ in their books seem to deem them relatives of sorts.

Istanbul undoubtedly has a special place among the most-visited cities of the travellers era. It has been a vital stop for orientalist travellers especially towards mid-18th century. One of the oldest settlements of the world, Istanbul is a city with “fertile soils” that different religions, cultures and societies left footprints on. Istanbul, with its complex history and mosaic-like culture, is among the most magnificent cities on Earth. Therefore, each of its streets and buildings have a story of their own. Travellers pursued these stories in the end of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th century and tried to narrate the untold and unnoticed details of Istanbul.

Eremya Çelebi Kömürciyan’s book 17. Asırda İstanbul Tarihi (History of Istanbul in the 17th Century) is shown among the best travel books about Istanbul. As opposed to travellers who wrote about Istanbul from an orientalist perspective, Eremya Çelebi writes about the city’s historical and cultural dimensions. Eremya Çelebi wandered around Istanbul street by street, telling its story as he also mapped the city to some extent. The book consists of 8 Chapters. Each of these chapters tells about a different part and its historical events. Eremya travels mainly by the boat among the historical castle walls of Istanbul and walks on foot for the rest. The author visits Galata, Beyoğlu, Boğaziçi, Kadıköy, Fenerbahçe and the Islands, finishing his book by explaining about the city life in Istanbul to his readers. Çelebi dedicated his book to Father Vardapet Vardan. He converses with him during his travels and tells him about the events.

Eremya Çelebi’s book on the history of Istanbul has another interesting aspect which sets it apart from the other narratives about the city we are used to; the author presents the city through a perspective that is almost like the Kino-Eye movement. It can be said that the changes in the city silhouette as he travels by boat is almost like a camera effect. Cemal Kafadar also mentions that his gaze on the city has a camera perspective. This sentence in the very beginning of the book almost seems to have the movement of a camera: “You can see Yedikule in the West end of the city. Let’s stay in the boat and instead follow the coast towards the East slowly and carefully”.

Speak Up Istanbul!

Zeynep Dadak adapted Eremya Çelebi’s Istanbul narrative with its cinematographic atmosphere into a movie called “Ah Gözel İstanbul” (Ah, Beautiful Istanbul). The director put the documentary and fiction together as she contemplated on the city just like Eremya did in the 17th century while she adapted his travels to contemporary times to take the viewers upon a journey. We, as the viewer, follow the actor Sezgi Mengi as he wanders around in Istanbul. Historians Cemal Kafadar, Suna Kafadar, Çiğdem Kafesçioğlu and author Pakrat Estukyan accompany us with their anecdotes as we walk between Eremya’s lines.

The narrator reads parts of Eremya’s book throughout the movie as Zeynep Dadak’s camera-eye travels in today’s Istanbul streets. The places and buildings Eremya noted down meet today’s silhouette. Of course, the buildings that resisted the passage of time are show side-by-side with those that are lost in “history”. This brings forth two different views; on one hand Kömürciyan’s ethnographical observations and the myths he collected from within the history of the city, and a melancholic perspective through single narrative and story on the other hand, about a civilization that is long lost for us, about various cultures and religions. We cannot avoid but have different emotions as we wander around the city. Different types of people we encounter, a demolished building we had memories of, a tree that is cut down and recently completed bizarre buildings provoke many feelings, especially nostalgia and melancholy. Istanbul, torn down for many different reasons and then rebuilt, is on the top of the list of cities that can bring such feelings to life.

Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar

In his book “Mazi Kabrinin Hortlakları” (Ghosts of The Mausoleum of Past) Umut Tümay Arslan observes such a melancholic gaze in authors such as Abdülhak Şinasi and Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar. The majestic past of Istanbul was slowly being forgotten shortly after Ankara became the capital city with the foundation of the republic. The past of two empires in the city find their places in the dusty pages of history books due to being forgotten. Umut Tümay Arslan explains how Abdülhak Şinasi and Ahmet Hamdi also find themselves feeling the same melancholia over this loss (2010, p. 170). The burnt-down wooden houses and abandoned buildings made these authors feel that the Istanbul they knew was now long in the past. And this situation trapped them between the feelings of nostalgia and melancholy. Istanbul’s archaic history is now dust in the wind with its derelict wooden buildings, dried-up fountains and run-down historic buildings. Therefore, these buildings we encounter on many streets awaken a feeling of melancholy over the remains of a civilization rather that remind us of a magnificent past. Zeynep Dadak’s and the directors of cinematography Merve Kavan and Florent Henry’s cameras construct the image of a city long lost years after Eremya’s contemplation of Istanbul. Eremya’s memory of Istanbul in his lines is like a ghost, expressed with an impressive visual narrative reminiscent of Walter Benjamin’s take on Angelus Novus. It feels like the construction-site aesthetics of the city are emphasized in which the tall buildings ruin the silhouette of nature where life is dominated by chaos as the city searches for an identity. The carnivalesque image of Istanbul illustrated in Eremya’s book transformed into the cornucopia of car horns and construction sounds. The disappearance of places that made up a collective memory one by one and the dropping number of minorities living in Istanbul, due to the events of the recent past, also contribute to this loss of memory and cultural stability in Istanbul. The lack of memory due to the constant change in the city, its derelict nature and a lost civilization dominate Zeynep Dadak’s camera. It could also be said that the historic past of the city has a continuity even though Eremya’s Istanbul was greatly different than today’s Istanbul. For example, Kumkapı, which used to house immigrant in the times of Mehmet the Conqueror, still continues to provide living quarters for these people.

Mythological Istanbul

Myths constitute the common cultural memory and the memory on society’s way of living. A society’s cultural codes can be deciphered through looking at these myths. Therefore, we cannot view them as ordinary tale-like narratives. On the contrary, myths correspond to something in the daily lives of people. They have always had their representations in daily life even though they no longer have ruling power in the modern world.

The important role myths play in the history of the city is once again emphasized as the movie wanders among the pages of Istanbul’s history. It could be said that the director breathes life into these mysterious myths of Istanbul with an effective visual language. The narratives about Istanbul tell about how the city housed various civilizations and cultures, while showing how this worldly search continues on even today. As can be seen in the movie, the fact that Eyüp Sultan and Cafer Baba Shrines have correlations within society also points to this fact. This means that there is an interesting cultural continuity is at play here; the director reminds us about this continuity with irony at times. Those who fall into the sea as they fish at the Bosphorus fell into the narratives of both Eremya and Zeynep Dadak’s expression.

Istanbul has been a city whose beauty and facade have been the subject of many a praise for centuries; it has been the subject of many poems, novels and films. This greatly romanticized perspective seems to disregard the multi-cultured past and buildings to some degree. Zeynep Dadak steered away from such an approach in her movie. Her camera catches the nostalgia of the lost city and the melancholia of a civilization in ruins, while also portraying the rich history of Istanbul on the other hand. Housing two great empires and countless civilizations during its history, Istanbul’s history is now lost in time. It becomes impossible to reach out for the past when time just flows on. In this sense, Ah Gözel İstanbul, diverges from the usual Istanbul narratives. In addition, the director also emphasizes the great women of the city by emphasizing details like the dreams of Asiye Sultan, mosques constructed by the wives of powerful Sultans and their fountains. Ah Gözel İstanbul, with its powerful visual and auditory worlds, its loyalty to Eremya’s text and the parallels it masterfully portrays between the past and the future, is one of the most successful documentaries of the recent past.

As we finish, globalization and the economic transformation of the cities caused settlements with archaic histories to lost their identities. Big skyscrapers, shopping centres, car parks and neon-lit streets make every place look the same. Istanbul is one of these cities that this situation took a big toll on. Istanbul is now unrecognizable due to the historic places carelessly being demolished, orchards and everything green torn out and huge buildings ruining the silhouette. This careless attitude also caused immense and irreversible pollution on the nature and seas of Istanbul, as we are seeing more and more of lately. Gündüz Vassaf explains how the Byzantine Empire chose to portray bonito fish on their golden coins to show the fruitfulness of the Marmara Sea. Today, the creatures of the sea are fighting for their lives. Those who claim to love Istanbul the most are bringing about its doom. It is evident that Istanbul needs a new infrastructure with an emergent action plan and in accordance with its ecological and historical past… Having its roots go back nearly 8 thousand years, Istanbul has hosted different civilizations through the centuries. This city also resisted to the careless attitude of humans for many centuries as well. It needs to be reminded that politicians and merchants come and pass while only Istanbul stays still.


Gündüz Vassaf, Boğaziçi’nde Balık, Yapı Kredi Publishing(2015)

Murat Belge, İstanbul Gezi Rehberi İletişim Publishing (2016)

Umut Tümay Arslan, Mazi Kabrinin Hortlakları, Metis Publishing (2010)

Interview with Cemal Kafadar: Culture and History Talks with Cemal Kafadar, 17th Century Çelebi Period, Medyascope:

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