As the natural, historical and human fabric of Istanbul changes rapidly, the number of true Istanbulites – those who know traditional Istanbul life, its culture and language - is decreasing day by day. Now, it is almost impossible to meet with people who speak the idiomatic Istanbul Turkish, narrating tales of Istanbul lore and keeping the customs of Istanbul alive. However, there are still some people who not only have witnessed, but who have also taken part in the changes which have occurred since the birth of the Republic. I believe that it is imperative we give importance to recording the oral histories of these true Istanbulites, making a record of whatever they can recall of the city’s past.

Unfortunately, since writing memoirs is not widespread in Turkish culture, a great amount of knowledge, experiences and memories have not been put on paper. In this regard, “biographical interviews”, and others of a similar nature contained in this chapter are of great importance. In my own way, I have been carrying out studies in this field for many years. However, this is not a task that can be conquered singlehandedly; in order to carry out an exhaustive study, universities should also allocate manpower and financial resources to this matter.

In this chapter, which includes a study of a “limited oral history”, the reader is able to follow the traces of the lost Istanbul which has remained in the memories of the residents of the city. Unfortunately, due to difficulties stemming from the advanced ages of the subjects, it was not possible to retrieve the desired results from the interviews. I believe these people know the old Istanbul very well, however, some of them had difficulty in relating what they knew while others had difficulty remembering what they had witnessed. The texts you will read include the memories, observations, impressions and commentaries of those elderly people who had the best memories and a penchant for storytelling.

One such Istanbulites is the deceased architect Turgut Cansever (1921-2009). I conducted five interviews with him before he passed away. In one of these interviews, he spoke of his childhood, the first years of his youth, his time at Lycée Galatasaray and later the Academy of Fine Arts in the Department of Architecture. In another interview, he spoke of the philosophy of art, the concept of a city, the constitution of Istanbul as a Turkish-Islamic city and the catastrophic reconstruction activities that occurred after the period of Tanzimat. From these two interviews, I give here the chapters in which he talks about his memories of Istanbul and the reconstruction activities.1 It would have been a huge oversight if such a great architect and urbanist, one who reflected upon Istanbul, wrote on it and more importantly, who participated in reconstruction activities, had not been included in this book. I think that the text you will read fills this gap.

Dr. Semavi Eyice (1922-2018), an Istanbulite who was the same age as the Republic, is certainly one of the names that should be remembered when it comes to the cultural, historical and architectural heritage of Istanbul and reconstruction issues. When you talk to him, you are astounded, thinking that he has inscribed in his memory all that he witnessed from the time when he started to wander in Istanbul with a camera; he was only in middle school when he began these excursions. His being an art historian, his special interest in Istanbul, which he loves very much, and also the fact that he writes constantly have enabled the preservation of his memories. I set out on a long journey, from Kadıköy to Yüksek Kaldırım, from the past to the present, with Semavi Eyice; this is a man who made great contributions to our culture, not only with his works, but also with his extraordinarily rich library and archive. Starting from his childhood, this great teacher told about his adventures in Istanbul and the exemplary events he witnessed with great enthusiasm.

I talked at length with Dr. Nevzat Atlığ, a man who was trained as a doctor, but went on to become the conductor of the university choir, trying to restore the honor of Turkish music. His greatest success was the establishment of the Istanbul State Classical Turkish Music Choir. We talked about his experiences, starting from the time when he came to Istanbul in order to join the Faculty of Medicine, the events he witnessed, the scenes from life and people who he could not forget, and of course the gathering places of Turkish music in Istanbul.

Dr. Sadettin Ökten, an Istanbulite who was born in the city, originally was a construction engineer. However, he also became a man who led Turkish culture, and he has always thought, written and worried about Istanbul. After wandering for a long time in the vicinities of the birthplace of our teacher – Beyazıt - the “heart of Dersaadet”- we headed towards the Bosphorus. Sadettin Ökten and his father Celal Hoca know the life and aesthetics of the Bosphorus well due to the fact that they spent almost every summer there, usually renting a yalı (waterside mansions), most of which have been abandoned today.

Dr. M. Orhan Okay (1931-2017), a professor of modern Turkish literature, is also an Istanbulite born in the city. He was born in Salmatomruk, in 1931, as a child of a family that had been in Istanbul for three generations. He spent his childhood and adolescence around Edirnekapısı, a colorful neighborhood with Albanian, Greek, Jewish, Armenian and Cretan residents; this was an area that reflected the multinational character of the Ottoman Empire. He spent his high school and university years around Vefa, Şehzadebaşı and Beyazıt. We traveled with Orhan Beg through the 1940’s and 1950’s and walked from Şehzadebaşı to Beyazıt. Along the way, I asked questions and he answered them.

The professor of medicine and poet Hüsrev Hatemi talked about Feriköy, where he spent his childhood and adolescence, as well as Cerrahpaşa, the most important place in his career; he also talked about some interesting people he knew and non-Muslim Istanbulites, some of whom were his neighbors in Feriköy. We shared a talk with the professor of modern Turkish literature, Dr. İnci Enginün, about the Istanbul of her childhood and we visited the libraries that hold an important place in her academic life.

The poet Hilmi Yavuz, whose family originally was from Siirt, spent his childhood and adolescence in Fatih. We took a trip around Istanbul with him -travelling from Fatih to Ayaspaşa, where he still lives. We stopped by Sümbülefendi and then headed towards Cağaloğlu. After visiting the bookstores on Ankara Street, we spent time in the cinemas of Şehzadebaşı and in the cafes and patisseries in İstiklal Street.

In the last interview, I had a conversation with Gülgün Mesara, the daughter of a man of knowledge and culture, a man whom we can call the memory of Istanbul, and who -both as an artist and teacher- is one of the most distinguished representatives of our traditional arts. We talked mostly about her father.

Another important text in this chapter bears the signature of Tahir Olgun (Tahirü’l Mevlevi) (1877-1951), a poet, writer and historian of literature. Being a Istanbulite gentleman in all aspects, this Mevlevi tells about the Fatih of the 1930s in his article, aptly entitled “Pencere Önünde Tarihi Bir Gezinti” (A Historical Journey in Front of the Window), as he wrote while observing the city from his window. This article was published in Şadırvan magazine (no. 17-22 July-Birinci Kanun 1936). I am sure this text, which includes sections from the colorful history of the Fatih district, will be of interest.

These texts provide an important source for those who would like to study the culture and history of Istanbul.


1 The interviews mentioned here were published in the following issues of Türk Edebiyatı journal: issue 248, dated June 1994, issue 249, dated July 1994 and issue 426, dated April 2009.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.