Djihangir Neighbourhood in Istanbul

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Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk: A love letter to Istanbul

Orhan Pamuk is a novelist and the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature. His new book The Innocence of Memories (Faber & Faber; £14.99) is out now.

The Telegraph
February 4, 2019

It is time to go back to Istanbul. The city streets, which emptied after the military coup in 2016, are thronged with tourists again. In spite of the political situation, the city has managed to rediscover its colours and crowds. And the Cihangir-Cukurcuma neighbourhoods where I have lived for the past 20 years are gradually coming to life. I’m pleased with these developments; it is gratifying to find that even in these dark days people from all over the world are still interested in you.

Cihangir and Cukurcuma weren’t as colourful in the Fifties as they are today. Back then no tourist would ever think of coming here. Cihangir was a predominantly Greek neighbourhood. In 1964, when Istanbul’s Greek population were driven out of the city in droves following the latest surge of tension between Greeks and Turks in Cyprus, the wide expanse of Cihangir Street was left to us kids to play football on. In the early Sixties, we lived in my mother’s fifth-floor apartment in a building in Cihangir that had no lift, and we used to light a stove to keep warm.

In the Sixties, if you were looking for a place to eat meze or to buy a book, you would have to walk for 12 minutes from Cihangir towards Taksim or Istiklal Street. Today, these same streets are full of meze bars, bookshops, antiques stores, art galleries, coffee shops, design stores, junk dealers, and a proliferation of restaurants and tourists.

As I described in my book Istanbul, I spent my childhood in Nisantasi, a wealthy enclave north of Taksim I hardly ever go to any more. In 1994, I moved my office to Cihangir. Back then it was a cheap, quiet, but still central neighbourhood. After the military coup in 1980, the area’s red-light district had to relocate to more remote neighbourhoods, but when I moved there in the Nineties, you could still see transvestites and sex workers out in the afternoons, doing their grocery shopping.

Then, at the start of the 2000s, the character of Cihangir was suddenly transformed. First, the book and magazine publishers that used to be based on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn moved from the old city over to the European side. That was when the advertising studios, wine shops, second-hand bookstores and the first cafés started appearing. Managers of Western companies, diplomats, and foreign correspondents had already begun to move to the neighbourhood in the mid-Nineties, renting top-floor flats with city views. These extraordinary views of Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the silhouette of the old city, and the mouth of the Bosporus were the images of Turkey that had most frequently been painted by Western travellers.

Many of the estate agents I still see today set up shop around that time. Tenancy agreements began to be drawn up in dollars, and prices started to rise. At the same time a section of Istanbul’s wealthy classes realised that nowhere else would they find a more magnificent vista of the old city and of the mouth of the Bosporus, so they too moved to Cihangir.

All this fostered the development of a relatively tolerant culture in Cihangir, diverging from the more conservative norm, in which you could have a drink outside, and buy newspapers from all over the world. For the first time in the city’s history, in keeping with this changing culture, “green” restaurants appeared, fish restaurants weren’t just confined to the waterfront, cafés began serving brunch on Sundays, bars came in different types, and restaurants served modernised versions of traditional dishes, accompanying them with alcohol.

The 2000s saw the spread of tiny fish restaurants in narrow alleys, serving four or five tables at the most; I could give them a call in the evening and they would send over their catch of the day, grilled and with a salad on the side. If I wanted to have dinner after working late on a manuscript with my editor, or needed somewhere to go for lunch with the artists and architects with whom I was working on the Museum of Innocence (, it always gave me immense joy to choose one of Cihangir’s little diners selling Turkish meatballs, flatbreads, or home-cooked meals, its dessert shops, and its small but ambitious restaurants serving innovative dishes.

Eating in these places made me feel like I was part of the noisy crowds around me, and I felt I belonged to the city. But what makes Cihangir so fascinating to me, and such a paradise for endless walks and window shopping, is the rapid transformation and expansion that Cukurcuma’s small, shabby, dirty flea market experienced in the early 2000s. Within 15 years, the same shops that used to sell old mattresses, broken chairs, and used jeans to poor students and shop clerks living in tiny rented rooms, have turned into vintage clothing stores and humble antiques shops offering an enormous selection of old photographs and ephemera.

During this period of growth, the junk shops and antiques dealers in Istanbul’s Kadikoy and Horhor neighbourhoods opened branches in Cihangir, where they displayed their best stock.

I could wander around browsing those stores for hours. After 2000, during a period of economic growth for the country, Istanbul’s expanding middle classes spawned a new set of collectors who were interested in old lottery tickets, back issues of sports magazines, film posters and props, children’s toys, and those pictures of film stars that came in chocolate and chewing gum wrappers.
Every day it seemed that a new café, or a new borek (a type of savoury pastry), pickle, or dumpling shop opened while another went bust and shut down. The visual texture of this world was like an open-air museum of the city – particularly for those like me, who take pleasure in seeing again the objects that made up their childhoods. There was a time when every morning, on my way back to my office after dropping my daughter off to school, I would go on walks down these winding, crooked lanes.

Cihangir is situated halfway down an avenue that was meant to link Taksim to Karakoy pier, but that avenue was never built, and so Cihangir became a neighbourhood that sat far from any main road, and could only be accessed through a web of alleyways. This made it a quiet place, insulated from traffic and from the familiar din of the city.

While writing The Museum of Innocence, which is set in this neighbourhood, and while trawling the local junk shops for objects to display in my museum, I spent a lot of time walking around, and I heard that silence. The best part was that if I happened to feel restless, I could just get up from my desk and go out for a walk among the toys and the sports and film magazines of my childhood, views of old Istanbul, coffee shops, people eating on the pavements, book stalls, and old film posters. There was one spot, at the top of a stairway on a slope going from Cihangir to the sea and lined with dozing stray cats, where I would go for an exceptional view over the Bosporus, the Maiden’s Tower, and the Uskudar neighbourhood.

Then I would sit at a table under one of the tall trees near the Firuzaga Mosque, outside a café or a flatbread shop, and quietly read my newspaper and write in my notebook. It cheered me to see so many familiar faces around me from literary, artistic, and political circles, and to know that most of them were freedom-loving people critical of the government and sympathetic to Europe. It made me feel proud of being from Cihangir.

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