Mar 12, 2012

Once a harbour always a harbour: Karaköy, Istanbul

As the Taksim-Beyoğlu stretch of Istanbul fills by the day and Galata becomes home to fashionistas, in need of new cool spaces, developers move further down. They arrive no other place than Karaköy which for years was a bustling commercial centre and harbor. Anyone familiar with the significance of the neighborhood since Ottoman times is probably not surprised given its prime location but this may also have to do with harbors' amazing capacity to reinvent themselves in general. 

The Arab Mosque under renovation in Istanbul.

A close up of the Arab Mosque's tower, Istanbul.
Picture: Innes Welbourne.

Although some of the old buildings in Karaköy decayed when the skyscrapers have become the norm for banks, and businesses moved outside the city, the current revival makes sure that the buildings have their best days ahead as evident with the opening of Salt Galata while some will be converted to boutique hotels. Located on Bankalar Caddesi (literally "Banks Street"-yes this was the capital of commercial banking in Ottoman times), the building hosts the museum of the Ottoman Bank, the formerly central bank in Turkey and has amazing collection of old stocks, bonds and safes from 19th century. Designed by French architect Vallaury, the building is a tribute to its location on the fringes of the Old and New City, the Golden Horn side that faces the Muslim part of the city has an Oriental architecture while the Banks Street facing Jewish and Christian bankers' neighborhood Galata is Neoclassical. Even when you enter the building, there is a Latin script on the right hand side and Ottoman script on the left. Its restaurant has great views to the Golden Horn.

Karaköy shore with tea drinkers in the park overseeing
the Galata Bridge in Istanbul.

Chains, ropes and others... Karaköy still caters to the needs
 of seafarers that anchor in the harbor such as cruiseships.

Leaving Salt Galata and walking towards the Golden Horn, on your right you can see the Arab Mosque, currently under renovation. As evident in its Genovese style, it is the only Gothic church in the city that remains from the era before the Conquest of Istanbul. Then outside the walls of Constantinople, and home to various Christian colonies, the Karaköy region was exchanged between Arabs and Latins many times, hence the name and its later conversion to a mosque. Now cross the main street and pass by stores that still cater to all the needs of sailors. When I say "all", I mean this literally: even Istanbul's official bordello is located in Karaköy. This is also where you can get yellow fever shots for sailors as well as international travellers such as myself.

Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque in Azapkapı, Istanbul.

Looking over to Süleymaniye Mosque from the windows
of Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque.
Photo: Innes Welbourne.

The interiors of the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha
mosque in Istanbul are tastefully thought
over by Architecht Sinan.
Photos: Innes Welbourne.

Once you are by the Golden Horn, witness the joy of fishermen and people in the park sipping tea and walk towards another interesting building to visit. This is the Great Architect Sinan in 1578 built Azapkapı Sokollu Mehmet Pasha mosque. Located right on the leg of the second bridge crossing the Golden Horn, it is named after the important statesman of the 16th century in the Ottoman Empire. However, its importance stems from the fact that it was built in the master stage of the great architect and overlooks its other master piece the Süleymaniye mosque. This mosque lacks an alley. One enters it through a door which requires one to climb up the stairs. And if you are lucky to visit in a sunny afternoon, enjoy the sun that fills the mosque's interiors with amazing light games.

Anyone who lived the 70s in Turkey can remember
the sign of phone booths all over the city,
now sold at Bej's store in Istanbul.

View from Cafe Bej in Karaköy, Istanbul.
You must now be fed up with the traffic and chaos of the shops around you. Head now towards Kemankeş Street via the underpass. It can easily be said that the revival of the neighborhood started with the Karaköy Lokantası located here which to this date remains my favorite restaurant in the city. If you are hungry, indulge in its mezes but if you just want a drink and a snack, Cafe Bej a hundred meters down, should be enough for you. In the worst case, engulfed by the nostalgia of a commercial harbour turning into a passenger harbour, you can turn into objects from 1970s Turkey sold in its store. For sure, Karaköy will continue to surprise and reinvent itself.