Kemal Sunal – Turkey’s best loved fool

Kemal Sunal - Turkey's favourite clown

Even if you don’t know the name of the actor with the elastic face who played the bumbling character of Şaban (Turkish for bumpkin or clot), the simple villager from a poor background, in numerous films in Turkey during the 1970s and 1980s, the face is instantly recognisable. It belongs to Kemal Sunal. Born in Istanbul on the 11th of November in 1944, Sunal started getting minor roles in the theatre soon after he graduated from Vefa Lisesi (Vefa High School). He worked at a number of council and state run theatres before his talent was noticed and he starred in his first film, directed by Ertem Eğilmez.

Kemal Sunal in Salako

Over the years he appeared on screen in many notable parts in movies such as Çöpçüler Kralı, where he played a garbage collector who falls in love with a municipality officer’s fiancee, and in Doktor Civanım, in which he was a former hospital janitor who pretends to be a doctor when he returns to his home village. However the most famous of all his roles would have to be that of Şaban in Hababam Sınıfı (The Outrageous Class). Although his name is simply Şaban, most of his class mates call him inek (cow) Şaban. In the film İnek Şaban was constantly bullied and humiliated by his friends, but this never kept him from thinking the unthinkable, like digging a tunnel to escape from the school grounds, which ultimately led to the vice-principal’s office) or smoking in the school attic.

Kemal Sunal in his most famous role as Saban

Most of his films were billed as comedies and they were and continue to be, enormously popular. However it is not just the hilarity they induce, but the fact they addressed many of the problems faced by the urban poor in Turkey during the 1970s and 1980s. In almost all of his films, Kemal Sunal plays a poor man, trying to make something of himself. Even today his character in films and the sayings he uses reflect the problems Turkish people and the country face.

People who knew Kemal Sunal commented on how serious he was in real life, in contrast to the comic roles he played in his films. When he was at the peak of his career, he decided to finish university, a dream that had been disrupted in 1980 by the military coup. Despite his fame, he attended the university like a regular student and stated “that was the way he liked it to be”. He was awarded a Bachelor Degree in Radio Television and Cinema Studies from Marmara University in 1995 and then decided to pursue a Masters degree at the same university. When he completed a thesis on himself as an actor in 1998, the media covered his graduation with headlines like “İnek Şaban Master Yaptı” (Şaban the Bumpkin Awarded a Masters Degree). They also included comments from his Hababam Sinifi classmates such as Profesorluk Bekliyoruz (We expect full professorship). At the ceremony, Sunal made a speech where he joked that his path of working first and attending university later in life was better as it allowed people to gain real life experience earlier.

Kemal Sunal’s last film, Propaganda, was a drama directed by Sinan Çetin. In it Sunal plays a customs officer on the Syrian border, who falls into despair as he tries to tread a fine line between his duties as an officer of the law and his duties as a friend. According to public opinion this film wasn’t one of his best and isn’t fitting as the last work of a great master. That is likely because it wasn’t meant to be his final film. Kemal Sunal died on July the 3rd in 2000, as a result of a sudden heart attack aboard a flight to Trabzon. He was reported to be afraid of flying and he died suddenly just before take- off. News of his death was greeted by shock and mourning that swept the entire nation and dominated news coverage for many days. He was interred at the Zincirlikuyu Cemetery in Istanbul.

 

For more on the history of Turkish cinema I highly recommend “Turkish Cinema: Identity, Distance and Belonging”, available here.

 

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Modern Turkish Weddings: At the Registry Office

A bride in my street in Istanbul.Visitors to Turkey often stumble across colourful wedding celebrations in small towns and villages. They are great fun to attend. But what about the legally required civil ceremony, do you know what goes on there? Find out in this extract from my memoir “Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul

“I have passed the two large round buildings where all civil wedding ceremonies are held many times but have never really paid them much attention. I’ve only ever seen the crowds from a distance, and often cursed the cars, minibuses and vans double parked along the road which cause traffic jams that delay my bus. Today, as we plunge through the groups of people milling in the forecourt dressed in formal evening wear, for the first time we notice weddings can be held in either of the two round buildings, marked Salon A and Salon B. Betül had said she would be by the door looking out for us, but we hadn’t known to ask her which salon door that would be. To make matters worse, each salon has two doorways. We walk through the first doorway of Salon A trying to find her, into a large waiting area packed with brides and their parties decked out in all their finery, standing around before they go into the main auditorium where the actual wedding ceremony takes place. We go back outside and then into Salon A again, but this time though the door on the other side of the building to where the newly married couples emerge from the auditorium and wait to receive congratulations and gifts of money. We walk through both buildings in the same way without seeing anyone we know. Back outside under the slanting rays of the strong afternoon sun we become caught up in the frisson of nervous brides, heavily made up with bouffant hairstyles circa 1960, decked out in metres and metres of tulle, ruffles and lace.

Finding Betül among the hundreds of people around us is impossible, so I ring her. She instructs me to head for Salon B. When we reach the waiting area we are just in time to see Hanife being swept up by a huge group consisting of her mother, mother-in-law, sisters, aunties, cousins and other female relatives and friends. Her entourage is trailed by the less important male members of their party, including the groom. As we all enter the auditorium, wedding guests from the previous marriage ceremony are still dribbling out through the opposite door. By the time we enter the hall Hanife and her husband-to-be are already seated at a long table on a raised stage. Betül takes us to where Dilara is sitting, and then asks me to mind her handbag before she goes and joins the bridal couple up on stage. She is appearing as Hanife’s witness and she sits by her side looking very nervous, as do the groom and his witness. In contrast Hanife looks as if she can’t wait for the action to begin. Despite wearing make up that looks like it has been applied with a trowel her natural beauty and excitement shine through. The four of them are quickly joined by a wedding official who wears a red silk robe over her conservative knee length skirt, white blouse and string of pearls.

She begins by making a speech in Turkish which is too quick for me to follow. The audience applauds and then she continues by asking a series of questions. All present speak loudly and clearly into a microphone, and at each answer the audience applauds again. Both witnesses give a response to what sounds like the same question, and then it is the turn of the bride and groom. When it comes to Hanife though, I don’t need to understand the words to understand the meaning. She smiles broadly and shouts a deafening ‘Evet’, which is greeted by shouts of laughter. It is evident she is more than happy to accept Metin as her new husband.

The minute the documents are signed a corny but sentimental Italian song comes over the loudspeakers and everyone applauds the newlyweds. I applaud too, surprised to find I have tears in my eyes. Kim and I aren’t married and don’t feel the need to be. I don’t really understand why the most logical of women often seem to become completely irrational and almost demented over their weddings. Nonetheless, Hanife looks so beautiful and is clearly so wrapped up in her groom that it’s hard not to be overcome by the moment. Next to me Dilara cries openly and loudly as the newlywed couple innocently kiss each other on either check in the Turkish fashion and then begin to make their way out of the auditorium. I am still holding Betül’s handbag as I wait for her to help Hanife down the steps so her massive bridal train doesn’t trip her up. Almost before we are halfway out the door the next party arrives, the music changes, and another marriage is underway. This goes on from nine in the morning until five in the afternoon all weekend, from spring to autumn, with each ceremony taking no more than fifteen minutes.”

If you’ve enjoyed reading this I know you’ll enjoy my memoir. Click here to buy your copy today.

Posted in Living in Istanbul, Living in Turkey, Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom, Women | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Zeki Muren – Turkey’s songbird

Discover the world of Zeki Muren in his museum in Bodrum, Turkey.

Although he left the world stage for the last time more than twenty years ago, Zeki Muren will always have a special place in the hearts of Turkish music fans. Born in 1931, he auditioned for Turkish Radio when he was only twenty. Even then he knew a huge range of musical standards off by heart and is believed to have sung for hours. He claims he learned to sing by listening to his father and grandfather, as well as performers on the radio, on records and in travelling theatres. He got the job and became so well known that according to one joke, when people bought a radio they asked for the one that played Zeki Muren.

Zeki Muren film starDuring his life he made over 600 recordings and 18 films. They mostly told the same story, of a young musician called Zeki Muren, overcoming obstacles to find love and fame, all giving him numerous opportunities to burst into song. On screen he wore neat suits and did his hair in an understated pompadour. In person he flaunted flamboyant, multi-coloured outfits such as feathered capes, shiny miniskirts and platform heels. Many were of his own design and he liked to give them names such as, “Purple Nights”, “The Prince from Outer Space” and “The Lover of Dr. Zhivago”. He performed in popular Istanbul gazino, nightclubs and cabaret halls, earning thousands of fans with his emotionally wrenching performances. At the Maksim Gazinosu he made a dramatic entrance on a swing and had simulated snowflakes flutter down onto the stage in a style similar to Liberace. His death was as dramatic as his performances.

Zeki Muren performing liveHis death was as dramatic as his performances. He took the stage on the 24th of September 1996 for the first time in years, at the Izmir Turkish Radio and Television Studios. Resplendent in a rhinestone-spangled shirt and shiny purple eye-gloss, the show’s host handed him a microphone. It was the same one he’d used for his first radio performance, 45 years earlier. Sadly, Zeki Muren died abruptly of a heart attack. His death caused the greatest public grief seen in years and his state-sponsored funeral drew tens of thousands of mourners. According to one of his fans, there were long queues in front of every liquor store as people tried to come to terms with his loss.

He still makes his presence felt today. The Zeki Müren Art Museum, established in Bodrum where he used to live, has been visited by more than 250,000 people since it opened in June 2000. All his worldly possessions were donated to the Türk Eğitim Vakfı (Foundation for Turkish Education) and the Mehmetçik Vakfı (Foundation for Disabled Veterans and Families of the Martyrs). His money was used to help young boys complete their military service.

Frustrated by the public persona of Muren as presented by the state, in 2016 film maker Beyza Boyacioglu decided to document what he had meant to his fans. In order to gather stories from them, she set up the Zeki Muren Hotline. The first thing callers hear when they ring is the man himself saying, “Hello, Zeki Muren speaking”, taken from a sound clip from one of his films. They can then record their responses to the role he played in their lives. Some sing his best-loved songs, others talk about the excitement and joy of being at one of his performances, while younger people talk about his status for them as a queer icon. However they remember him, he will always be the man known as “Pasha” and “the sun of Turkish music.”

The ever original Zeki MurenLike köçek dancers, Zeki Muren garners a huge and diverse fan base. Devout grandmothers’ treasure his original vinyl albums while LGBT Pride marchers hold up posters showing pictures of his perfectly manicured eyebrows, glittery eyeshadow, mascara and beautifully varnished nails. This well-spoken man with an extensive vocabulary, gained popular acceptance on his own terms and is symbolic of the complex and often contradictory nature of gender and identity in Turkey.

 

 

 

 

 

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Salacak, more than the Maiden’s Tower

Enjoy a glass of tea at the Maiden's Tower, Istanbul.Located on the Asian side of Istanbul, the neighbourhood of Salacak runs along the edge of the Bosphorus from Üsküdar all the way to Harem. Frequented by courting couples and curious tourists drawn by the myth of Kız Kulesi, Leander or the Maiden’s tower built fifty metres from the shore, the area’s name has a much darker origin. In Turkish the word salacak means “the bench on which the corpse is washed”. According to rumour, Fatih Sultan Mehmet was concerned about where the ritual washing of soldiers killed in battle would take place before they were buried. When he saw this gentle slope leading to an open expanse of water, he determined Salacak was the place for it to be done.

Before you let this put you off visiting, it’s also said the name comes from a more innocuous combination of words. Sala meaning “village” in a language that hasn’t been determined, with the Turkish suffix -cık, meaning small, added to it. Like many waterside suburbs in the area, Salacak is very much like a little village, so this explanation is quite plausible.

Which story do you believe?

The Maiden’s Tower – photograph by Dorota Yamadag.

Reportedly dating back to 24 BC, as with many historical sites in Turkey, there’s more than one legend associated with Kız Kulesi. According to one tale, Hero, a virgin priestess of Aphrodite lived in the tower. Leander, a young man who lived opposite the tower, was captivated by her beauty and fell in love with her. Every evening he swam across to see her, guided by a lantern she lit for him. Using sweet words and entreaties he convinced her that Aphrodite would scorn the worship of a virgin and Hero allowed him to make love to her. Throughout that balmy summer he continued to visit her until one night a fierce storm blew up. The wind blew out the candle and Leander drowned. On seeing his lifeless body washed up against the tower Hero flung herself into the sea to remain forever with the man she loved.

Turks might argue that the real story of the tower relates to Battal Gazi. Battal Gazi is a mythical Muslim figure reported to have taken part in the 2nd Arab siege of Constantinople in the 8th century. The then ruling Byzantine Emperor placed his daughter and family in the tower to keep them out of harm’s way. Unfortunately for him, Battal Gazi raided the tower, set fire to the Emperor’s ships and made off on horseback with the emperor’s daughter. He married her in the end but this event gave rise to the Turkish phrase “Atı alan Üsküdar’ı geçti”. Literally meaning ‘He who rides the horse has already passed Üsküdar”, the more familiar English version is “Closing the barn door after the horse has bolted”.

In another story, the tower gets its English name from the Byzantine myth about a beautiful young princess. According to palace soothsayers she was doomed to die from the bite of a serpent on her 18th birthday. Her father, the Emperor, had her removed to the tower for safe-keeping. Sadly the prophecy was fulfilled when she was killed by a snake that made its way into the tower in a basket of fruit. Her father sent it as a gift to celebrate being able to prevent the prophecy.

Fruit, along with stylised forms of plants, was used to inspire the design of çatma, a delicate fabric produced in Salacak in the 17th century. Known as the “Çatma of Üsküdar”, the main fabric was made from woven silk or linen thread produced in various colours. Ornamentation based on nature, such as leaves and flowers, would be embroidered onto this cloth in gold and silver fibre, resulting in a raised relief pattern. Generally these patterns would be recurring in line with Islamic beliefs about the purpose of decorating items with patterns without beginning or end. According to some experts, by focussing on the reality underlying the art, the pattern becomes a window into the infinite. Çatma fabric from Üsküdar attracted international attention in the 18th and 19th centuries, particularly for a design called Turkish Rococo. The fabric was popular for use in clothing and furniture.

Kubağlidere painting by Hasan Vecih BereketoğluIt’s well known that Turks in Istanbul love to walk and picnic by the water and enjoy beautiful waterfront views. Less well known is that this passion was also shared by Turkish artist Hasan Vecih Bereketoğlu. Born in 1895 he studied law and as soon as he graduated he took his first painting lesson from Halil Paşa,a famous Turkish painter and teacher. In 1923 young Hasan went to Paris where he studied at the Julian Art Academy. On his return he worked on painting the effect of the light on the landscapes of Istanbul. In particular he liked to capture impressions of Salacack, Kubağlidere, Moda and Fenerbahçe. Although he eventually moved to Ankara where he died in 1971, you can see his work “Salacack in the Morning” in the Istanbul Resim ve Heykel Müzesi.

I hope you’ve enjoyed discovering Salacak and the Maiden’s tower. You can read more about my favourite places and thoughts about Istanbul, in my book “Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City”.

 

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Recommended blogs & websites on Turkey

Come and explore Turkey with me!

I’m a member of a Facebook group for travel writers and I recently asked for suggestions of blogs and websites about Turkey and neighbouring countries. Surprisingly, at least to me, there were few suggestions. Naturally, I decided to compile my own. Listed below, in no particular order, are some but by no means all, my favourites.

Janey in Mersin
The fact that Jane is from Sydney, Australia, like me, doesn’t affect my judgement of her blog at all. Not a bit. It’s simply brilliant, because unlike most starry-eyed “I came to Turkey as a village bride/novice English teacher, everything’s always wonderful” blogs, she writes as she sees it, warts and all. Jane moved to Mersin in 2012, and she writes about the everyday battles of the typical (not) Turkish housewife – getting on with the neighbours while plotting to kill their cockerel, learning to make salça even a Turkish mother-in-law will approve of and my favourite, how to drink too much wine and walk through fields safely, a skill Jane sadly and hilariously lacks. If you’re sitting at home after yet another argument with the family and thinking life must be better elsewhere, this is the blog for you.

Adventures of the the lost and found!

Katrinka Abroad
Katrinka lives in Istanbul and uses it as a base to travel deep into Turkey and the Middle East, as well as making regular incursions into Eastern Europe. Her main focus in photography but as with most people who want to capture the spirit of a place, she always shares the story behind the image. Useful for those who want to hone their photography skills and explore interesting corners of the city.

The Turkish Life
Expat and journalist Jennifer Hattam hails from San Francisco and moved to Istanbul in early 2008. Her blog is a mix of random observations of everyday life, cultural differences and politics, and her articles cover arts, culture, politics and much more. She offers readers a much more realistic picture of contemporary life in Istanbul as she ventures out to the far flung suburbs to investigate the boom in housing construction, or writes about the effect of terrorism on everyday life in the city. Recommended for those living in Istanbul wanting to learn about more than the usual tourist spots.

With the right advice, you'll always know the way!

Turkish Travel Blog
Founded by the inexhaustible Natalie Sayin, the Turkish travel blog is the perfect go to guide for planning your travels in Turkey. From practical advice on how to get around to brutally honest reviews of must-see or better left off the itinerary places, Natalie has left no stone unturned in her quest to entice visitors to Turkey. Unlike many similar websites Natalie always goes to the places she writes about and tells you exactly what she thinks, making it easy to make up your own mind on whether to visit a particular place. Highly recommended.

Ozlem’s Turkish Table
Although I’m not a bad cook, the kitchen isn’t my favourite room in the house. I rarely cook from a recipe because I usually get bored before I’ve even finished reading it. However, I do like food and Turkish food in particular. For this reason I love Ozlem’s page, because she writes so carefully about the history of the food she makes, and her recipes are so delicious even I can use them. Her site is great for people who want to expand their Turkish cooking repertoire, no matter where they live in the world.

For a complete list of the blogs I follow, look at the list called “Blogs I love” on the right hand side of this page. If you know a good blog about Turkey or a country to the east I’ve missed, put the link in the comments section at the end of this post. I’d love to see more!

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The Grand Bazaar Istanbul – a gateway to enchantment

Enter the Aladdin's Cave of the Grand Bazaar Istanbul!

As a long-time resident of Istanbul, readers often ask me to recommend ‘must sees’ when they’re planning their first trip to this wonderful city. While I love to seek out lesser known sights I always tell people to see the main sights first. Sultanahmet, home to the old city, offers a huge range of fascinating things to see and do, all within easy walking distances from one another. One of the best places to encounter history and also to shop for souvenirs is the Grand Bazaar, a short way up the tram line of Divan Yolu in Beyazit. Back in 1990, on my very first day in Istanbul it was the first place I went to, and this is what I wrote in my diary.

Divan Yolu on the way to the Grand Bazaar Istanbul

“Known in Turkish as Kapalı Çarşı or ‘covered market’, the Grand Bazaar started out life as a small wool market. Originally built in the 1400s around the time of Mehmet the Conqueror, it evolved into a jewellery warehouse, before becoming the huge sprawling bazaar it is today. As the bazaar expanded, roofs, porches, locks and gates were installed, so business could be conducted in all weather and merchandise safely locked away at the end of the day. Rich men built han which were small inns or caravanserai, around the edges of the bazaar. They were used as a place to unload goods and as a base from which to sell items brought from all parts of the empire. These caravanserai are now used as shops in an area called Çadırcılar Caddesi, the ‘Tent Maker Street’. The main street of the bazaar is called Kalpakçilar Caddesi, or ‘Furrier Street’, and like many streets both inside and outside the Grand Bazaar, the names refer to the trade or craft once practiced there. We spent hours wandering these streets and alleys and laneways, gawping in amazement at the blaze of colour coming from endless rows of shops selling gold, silver and jewellery made from precious stones. We stopped briefly to longingly caress elaborate backgammon sets inlaid with mother-of-pearl, before being distracted by the assortment of treasures hanging above our heads. There were richly patterned carpets, beaten copper trays, water jugs and coffee pots, puppets, bags and silken scarves. Everywhere we looked there was colour, noise and life.

After exiting the Grand Bazaar through one of its thirteen gateways, our excitement abruptly gave way to bewilderment. We seemed to be in the middle of a maze of little streets heading in all directions. There weren’t any street signs and nothing corresponded to any of the landmarks on our tourist map. We had absolutely no idea where we were and there was no one we felt we could ask. Still dressed in our Greek island uniforms of shorts, loose T-shirts and dirty sneakers, we were obviously foreign, and it was clear from the glances we attracted that we were definitely out of place. I could see that despite the dust covering everything around us, including the rubbish on the streets, the men hurrying by had remarkably clean shiny shoes matching their impeccably pressed suits, in stark contrast to mine. I couldn’t summon up the courage to stop any of them, so we took a chance and plunged into the mass of people swarming along the nearest street, hoping to be lucky enough to find the book bazaar.

Caught up in the crush of people, I was thrust hither and thither by hardier and more determined shoppers than I, until one shop window suddenly caught my interest.”

You can find out what happened next in my memoir “Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul“.

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Writing about Turkey

Come discover Istanbul & Turkey with my books!

A comment on a recent post of mine made me aware that some of you don’t know much about me. I’m a sociologist, writer and blogger, but more importantly I’m someone who has a real passion for Turkey. I got tired of reading travel articles, academic papers and blogs by people who’d clearly never spent that much time in the country and so my blog Inside Out In Istanbul was born. It reflects my deep love of Turkey, extensive knowledge of the culture, and determination to scratch away the seemingly mundane surface of ordinary Turkish life to reveal the complexities below. My keen desire to dispel popular myths and misconceptions about Turkey includes wanting to know why sheep heads are displayed the wrong way up. Despite that embarrassment, I continue to want to share just what it is about Turkey that makes it so special, and I think I’ve managed to do that pretty well. However, as they say, the proof is in the pudding, so please click on the links below to have a look at some excerpts from my books.

For an excerpt from Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City 2nd edition, click here
For an excerpt from Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries, click here
For a review of Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul, click here

If you like what you read, you can buy a copy on Amazon by clicking on the title of the one you want (or by clicking on the photos on the right-hand side of my website). All three titles are available in paperback or as e-books to read on your Kindle or computer.

And for those of you who love Istanbul but aren’t so big on reading, I’ve also researched, written and recorded an audio walking tour of Kadikoy, my local area. It’s called Stepping Back Through Chalcedon: Kadikoy Walk. You can listen to an excerpt from it here.

Thanks for taking the time to read my post toady. I’d love to hear your feedback so feel free to write a comment below or share this post by clicking on one of the handy icons.

Happy reading!

Lisa Morrow

Posted in Culture & Tradition, Exploring Turkish Landscapes, Inside out in Istanbul, Living in Istanbul, Living in Turkey, Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Kuzguncuk – a jewel in the Istanbul metropolis

Come visit the Bosphorus village of Kuzguncuk

Living in Istanbul which has a population of around 14 million people, it sometimes feels like everybody is out and about at the same time, making it impossible to get anywhere quickly. The streets throng with too many bodies cramming the small broken pavements, making me long for greener pastures. Any of my friends can tell you my love of nature doesn’t extend to actually living in the country, so when I crave a respite I stay close to home and head for Kuzguncuk, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus.

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Until the late 19th century, this small neighbourhood was largely isolated from the rest of the city due to limited public transport. By the early 20th century, the introduction of regular steamboat services made the area much more accessible, but it still feels like a small village, even today. Kuzguncuk has always been a neighbourhood where multiculturalism and ethnic differences thrived, and gives us a glimpse into everyday life during the Ottoman Empire,.

Over the years its population has been made up of Armenians, Greeks, Jews and Turkish families from the Black Sea, just to name a few. So close were these different peoples that the Armenian community gave up a piece of their land for the Kuzguncuk Mosque. Today the mosque and the Armenian Surp Krikor Lusarovich Church sit side-by-side on the Bosphorus.

The rear of the Surp Krikor Church in Kuzguncuk

At one stage up to 10,000 Jews were believed to live in Kuzguncuk, many of them original descendants of the Jews exiled from Spain in the 15th century. Up until the first decade of the 20th century they mainly lived in Fener and Balat. However a major fire caused many of the better off families to move over the leafier shores of the Bosphorus, leaving the old neighbourhoods to descend into poverty. Just up from the start of the main road, Icadiye Sokak, on the left hand side you’ll see a small cubicle with blackened glass windows. This is the security booth for the Beth Yaakov Synagogue built in 1878. It still operates as a synagogue but you need to apply to the Chief Rabbinate if you want to enter and inspect the dome paintings. Due to the presence of a policeman on duty I didn’t take a photo, but the building is recognisable by the Star of David etched in stone over the main door.

Typical Kuguncuk streetscapeTypical Kuguncuk streetscape

Further up the main street on the right is the Greek Orthodox Church of St Panteleimon. The original structure dates back to the 6th century and the reign of Emperor Justinian. The current building was erected in 1821 while the bell tower under which you enter the grounds was added in 1911 by Andon Hüdaverdioğlu. The church is one of the oldest still in use in Istanbul, and opens on Sundays for services. When it’s open you can also visit the ayazma, or sacred spring, located to the left of the bell tower.

The solemn bell tower of the Church of St Panteleimon

What makes Kuzguncuk so different from many other Bosphorus neighbourhoods is Bostan Sokak. This small lane, with a tea garden and art gallery, is also home to market gardens, from which the street takes its name. The wooden gate opens easily to reveal a large field containing small plots that are rented out to locals. When I visited there were tomatoes, chilli, beans, sunflowers and pumpkins being grown and I felt like I’d stepped straight into a country garden.

Welcome to the Kuguncuk community gardens.

Check out the charming topiary in Kuzguncuk gardens.

The gardens are bordered by another small street which houses some beautifully kept 19th century wooden houses. They’ve featured in numerous popular Turkish miniseries and are in high demand as backdrops for wedding photos. Most of the windows display notices instructing people they aren’t to be used for commercial purposes, but when I visited there were several heavily laden photographers setting up regardless.

Kuzguncuk's premier street for brides.

Although these wooden houses are clearly worth noting, they aren’t the only interesting architectural examples in the neighbourhood. Turkey has a well-known reputation for developing its own versions of Baroque, Art Deco and other international styles.

 

 

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Heading back down the main street lined with plane trees, I enjoy the way the original buildings are slowly being revamped to house funky cafes, a stylish bookshop and various small boutiques offering modern takes on traditional products.

Visit thehome made oils and soap shops in KuzguncukKuzguncuk's local bookstore

 

Go back in time with Kuzguncuk art works

 

Another beautiful street in Kuzguncuk.

The day I visited Kuzguncuk the air was hot and still with a high level of humidity. Nonetheless my darling husband accompanied me on the rigorous hike to the top of the hill to try to visit the Jewish Cemetery. It dates back to the 14th century and is said to have tombstones with inscriptions written in Ladino, a romance language derived from Spanish, and widely spoken in former Ottoman territories. When we finally found it our way was blocked by a newly built concrete fence. I asked a couple of local women the way to the main gates and was told the closest route housed a ferocious dog. Realising we faced what seemed like a further impossibly long walk under an increasingly hot sun, I decided to make do with what I could see over the fence and plan to visit the cemetery another time, by car. We walked back at a more leisurely pace and enjoyed some interesting finds on the way back down.

I thought I was in the countryside ... ... and I wasn't expecting to see a giant Kangal!

 

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Hidrellez: May Your Wishes Come True

Hayirli Hidrellez

I’ll begin my story on Hidrellez in the manner of a traditional Turkish folk tale. Once there was and once there wasn’t a Turkish Australian friendship between a woman from Istanbul, Turkey and a woman from Sydney, Australia. They met about five years ago at a language exchange night in Kadikoy, and became BFF, going out to dinner, shopping, meeting for coffee and walks along the water, going to the movies, on holidays together, to belly dance classes (much to the horror of the Turkish woman’s grandmother), and brunch every other Sunday.

One of the Sundays they met was in early May, and it was Hidrellez. Hidrellez is a very old tradition in Turkey, celebrating the arrival of spring and the awakening of nature. Turks believe it’s the day the prophets Hizir and Ilyas met with each other on earth to awaken the earth. With a bit of research I’ve learnt that Hizir is a Muslim saint whose name derives from the Arabic, al-Khidr, meaning the Green One. Although his name doesn’t appear in the Koran or the Bible, the association of green with this prophet is linked to the fact that the prophet Muhammad wore a green cloak. Hizir was believed to have many powers, but the most important was the ability to grant wishes. He’s long been associated with spring planting and rebirth, which is another reason he is called as the Green One.

Hizir forms the first past of the word Hidrellez, while Ilyas (Elijah in the Old Testament, forms the middle section. Ilyas (from the Arabic) is credited with bringing rain to arid croplands and his prophesies are documented both in the Koran and the Bible. Ruz, the Persian word for day, gives the ending, so in total Hidrellez is the day of Hizir and Ilyas.

Me with my Turkish kanka before making our wishes.Hidrellez starts on the eve of May the 5th and what happens to you on the 6th of May, the actual day of Hidrellez, sets the tone for the next year. In villages and small towns all over Turkey people prepare for May the 6th by cleaning their houses from top to bottom because Hizir is said not to visit a house that isn’t clean. When he does visit he brings blessings and abundance with him, so food bowls, pantries and wallets are left open.

My BFF always helps her mother and grandmother clean their home on the eve of Hidrellez and then they go out to dinner together to celebrate. After our brunch on the day of Hidrellez, we wrote down our wishes on tiny pieces of paper, before walking to the edge of the water and throwing them out on the waves. Like many Turks my BFF believes Hizir will pick them up out of the running water and carry out the wishes we’ve written down.

Elsewhere in the city people will have spent the eve of Hidrellez out on the streets, singing and dancing to gypsy music. As midnight nears, some jump over fires while saying prayers in order to ensure good health for the coming year. Others hang small models of things they hope to obtain or their wishes written on pieces of paper on a Nahil or wishing Tree. However Turks aren’t the only people to celebrate on this special day. Orthodox Christians celebrate the day as Hagia Georgi, and for the Catholics it’s known as Saint George’s Day. This revered saint is still worshipped as the Green Man by pagans.

Hidrellez as celebrated in Avanos, central Turkey, 2007.It’s believed that all wishes made and prayers said on the eve and the day of Hidrellez will come true. Nowadays my BFF and I can’t always celebrate Hidrellez together, but I know the wish I make for her every May 6, for a long life, health, and happiness, will always reach each her.

 

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Flowers and the Judas tree in Ottoman culture

Visit Istanbul in Spring and view the Judas treesWhen Mehmet the Conqueror swept into Constantinople in 1453, trees and flowers were already much adored by the city’s residents. To celebrate his victory, Mehmet posed for a miniature painting, not brandishing a sword as you might expect, but smelling a flower. By the time Süleyman the Magnificent came to power, the city was awash with private gardens planted with colourful blooms, women wore flowers in their hair and members of the Ottoman court always carried one in their hand. Such was the demand that by the 16th century there were more than 200 flower shops in the city.

Come see the magnolia bloom at Ilhamur KasriIn Ottoman times, flowers as well as fruit were used as a means of communication. Flowers frequently denoted love, but were used to signal other meanings. One example was when someone in a household was ill. A yellow flower would be placed in the window to tell those passing to keep quiet. A red flower in the window meant there was a young girl of marriageable age in the house. It was a request that no one make negative comments or put curses on the girl in question so that her heart would stay pure.

The giving of fruit was another way of communicating. It was based on mnemonics, the idea that a particular object brings up an association with another. For example, the Turkish word for pear is armut. Giving someone a pear was a way of telling them not to despair, to have hope (umut in Turkish). Armut and umut were close enough in sound that handing over a pear was like saying “Armut, ver bize bir umut”, that is, “A pear gives us hope”. In the same way, a gift of pepper, biber, was a request for news, haber.

Trees as well as flowers have long been associated with Istanbul and the most famous of these is the Erguvan or Judas Tree. From the Latin, cercis siliquastrum, the name is derived from the Greek and is a combination of two words, cercis meaning tree and siliquastrum meaning fruit. Istanbullu have long called it the Erguvan tree, a Persian word describing the colour of the flowers which grow straight from the tree limbs. In Christian myth this tree is said to be named after Judas, the betrayer of Christ. Realising what he had done, Judas is believed to have hung himself from one such tree. Originally tall and strong, bearing beautiful white flowers, the Judas tree felt guilty at its part in his death. The once elegant boughs drooped low and the flowers blushed and changed colour in shame.

Jenny Downing's beautiful image of a Judas tree in flower.There are many stories associated with the Judas tree. Seafarers who arrived in Constantinople long before the Byzantines, are said to have boiled its petals and drunk the infusion to ward off disease. It’s been suggested that when the city of Istanbul came into being in 1453, the Judas trees were in bloom. Whatever the truth of this claim, the Judas tree had a special place in Ottoman culture. Festivals to celebrate the flowering began in the 15th century Ottoman Empire, called ‘erguvan’ days or gatherings. The purple, lavender and pink petals of the Judas tree are also known to have added colour and flavour to salads in the traditional Istanbul cuisine of the past. Their strong boughs were carved into elaborate walking sticks for use by the Ottomans.

The Erguvan blooms around the latter half of April and signifies the arrival of spring. At this time the shores of the Bosphorus are aflame with the brilliant pinkish-purple blossom. Locals and visitors alike go to viewing spots around the city or out on small boats to admire the trees in all their glory.

Of course, the best known of all flowers associated with Turkey are tulips. So much has been written and is known about them, that it’s a topic best left for another post. You can find out more about life in Istanbul in my book Inside Out In Istanbul: Making Sense of the City.

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