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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.