South of the Golden Horn, west of the Bosphorus and north of the Sea of Marmara, Eminönü has long been the meeting point of traders, sailors and people looking for a bargain. Back in Ottoman times, it was home to the Empire’s official Customs Office and numerous private customs houses. It’s believed that the name in part stems from the word emin, meaning the officials tasked with controlling the taxation, storage and record keeping for all goods being traded. “Önü” means “in front of” in Turkish, suggesting that the name Eminönü refers to the area where the custom houses once stood. These custom houses formed the entry point for newly arrived goods, people and ideas. Located on yarımada, the peninsula housing Topkapı Palace, the country’s seat of power, and Sirkeci Station, which connected Turkey to its lands in the east, Eminönü was once an important place.
This warren of narrow streets, housing mosques, working han, sacred tombs and people hiding from justice, was fed by a constant stream of new arrivals coming on the sailing boats, and later steamboats that docked nearby. Daily the air rang with the cries of tea vendors, water sellers, hamal (porters) and the myriad of vendors selling wares from all corners of the vast Empire. But at night, then the city gates were locked tight, Eminönü remained outside on the outskirts of civilisation.
Over the years the strategic importance of Eminönü waned. First Dolmabahçe Palace was built in 1853 and the royal court moved away from the peninsula to the other side of the Bosphorus. Then Ankara was established as the capital in place of Istanbul in the 20th century. Nonetheless, Eminönü continued to evolve as the growing nation needed more goods to supply its voracious demand.
Today this waterside area is a vibrant, noisy, dirty, messy sprawl of streets. On any given day they’re packed with people out shopping and you’ll be deafened by conversations held in Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish and English. Women hunting down the best deals on ceyiz items (things for a bride’s glory box) and pardesu (long coats worn by modest Muslim Turkish women). Mothers after the finest sunnet (circumcision) outfits. Arab tourists on honeymoon or hair implant trips (link to moustaches) looking to buy shoes, handbags and jewellery. Porters bursting through the crowds carrying impossibly heavy loads. Itinerant vendors selling novelty kitchen items like dolma rollers (small machines used to automatically make dolma) and narmatik that take the hard work out of deseeding pomegranates. Syrian refugees making a living working in small shops.
The word emin also means certain, and when you enter the streets of Eminönü you can be sure you’ll find a bargain, have an adventure and see something new.