Are you familiar with the name Matrakçı Nasuh, the genius miniature artist, calligrapher, historian and mathematician of the 16th century? Let’s forget about this question for a while and go back to 1985. That year, poet İlhan Berk did something for Istanbul where he spent many years and endowed him with countless memories: he published his book Galata and wrote about the civil history and the precious structures of this district, through the personal relationships he built with the people who spent their lives here. While doing so, he also enriched Galata with new meanings.
İlhan Berk opens the door to Galata with a miniature by Matrakçı Nasuh from 1537. A lot has changed in Istanbul since then. Berk includes a quote by Evliya Çelebi -“One climbs the sloping street from the seaside to Galata in an hour.”- in the beginning of his book. Today, however, thanks to the nostalgic tram of Tünel, this route is completed in mere minutes. I take the tram and arrive at the beginning of Galip Dede Street. I am all ears because I’m about to enter a dizzying world for music fans. The district has so many stores that sell musical instruments from white pianos to Zildjian cymbals used by many rock bands such as the Beatles, Pink Floyd, and U2; from variations of saz which is the essence of Anatolian folk songs, to accordions. The stores are filled with people from all walks of life from the folk poets of Kars to high schoolers who play guitar in their rock bands and young girls with bright eyes playing “Für Elise” on a piano stool. The universal language of music brings everyone together in Galata. The Galata Dervish Lodge is another place pacified by this language. Opened in 1491, it’s the oldest and biggest dervish lodge in Istanbul. Inside, you can hear the sound of reed flutes, kudüms, and rebabs. Here, you can watch the Sema ceremony held on Sundays. İlhan Berk says this about Sheikh Ghalib, who is buried in the mausoleum in the lodge's courtyard: “He spent his youth by looking ahead. He compiled his diwan at the age of 24. / At 26, he found himself wrapped in love and wrote Beauty and Love. / He was known as the best poet of his age. / His poems were admired by Selim III, Adile Sultan, Mihrişah Sultan, Hatice Sultan, and Beyhan Sultan.”
I stop by Habib Gerez Art House on Galip Dede Street and enter a world of colors open to everyone. I am greeted by Habib Gerez, the 93-year-old painter and poet. Berk writes that Gerez has embraced Galata and never intends to leave. How right he is! The bloodline of Gerez, who paints a sea of colors, dates back to the Sephardic Jews who emigrated from Spain to Istanbul in the late 15th century. He lives in an old Rum house a few meters from the Neve Shalom Synagogue together with hundreds of paintings, thousands of memories, pictures, and his sense of hospitality. He’s standing before me like a living monument. We read each other poems like two people who have been friends for decades. As I leave him, I think about the magnificent historical heritage of Galata. Although the district has transformed over time, what I have seen and plan to see during my trip are the traces of a multicultural past. Whirling dervishes, Mawlawis, Sephardic Jews, Rum houses, innumerable instruments of world music, the Galata Tower built by the Genoese, the British Naval Hospital, the Saint Pierre and Saint Paul Churches, St. George's Austrian High School; a bit closer to the sea, Saint Pierre Han (inn), Galata Covered Bazaar, Kurşunlu Han (inn); and Bankalar Street, SALT Galata, and the Camondo Stairs up ahead. Galata feels like a world district in its entirety. As İlhan Berk lists the people walking along Yüksek Kaldırım Street, he mentions that they are Chinese, Muslim, Christian, Arab, Bukharan, Circassian, Kurdish, Albanian, Jewish, Armenian, Georgian, Rum, and Genoese. He also adds that Lüleci Hendek Street almost smells like the Genoese, Venetians, and Byzantines. Today, groups of Chinese and Korean tourists, Italians, French, Arabs, and Northern Europeans speak their own language as they tread Galip Dede and Yüksek Kaldırım Streets, adding new sounds to Galata’s modern symphony. Besides, didn’t İlhan Berk write, “Yüksekkaldırım is not a street; it feels like a cul-de-sac! It’s a place, a festival ground to see and explore. An amusement park! A world where the sky and the earth shake hands and where sounds and smells are intertwined!”
The poet says that the Galata Tower Square “oversees all of the seven hills [of Istanbul].” When you climb to the top of the tower, you come to realize the validity of this statement as you can gaze at the city from the Bosphorus to the Golden Horn, Haydarpaşa Train Station to the Historical Peninsula. Upon leaving the tower, I sip my coffee at one of the tables of Viyana Kahvesi and watch people taking selfies with the tower in the background by standing at the head of Büyük Hendek Street, occasionally turning the pages of my copy of Galata.
Berk says you cannot love Istanbul without loving its small and old streets and adds, “The old and small streets of all big cities, as if they are aware of this, embrace us with all their humility.” That’s when the people in big cities suddenly find themselves in poetry. And, similarly, I find myself infused with poetry as I stroll around Şahkulu, Lüleci Hendek, and Serdar-ı Ekrem Streets. İlhan Berk says, for the last of these streets, loveliness is hereditary, adding that the beautiful and gentle people of the street are what makes it friendly.
Today, Serdar-ı Ekrem is more like an avenue than a street, but it still preserves its loveliness. I pass by small boutiques on both sides and visit Collective Art Gallery. Its black, high walls are decorated with unconventional artworks and decorative objects. Sofa Art&Antiques at the end of the street sells exclusively selected antiques, perfectly displayed. Kaşif Gündoğdu, the owner, talks about the inhabitants of Doğan Apartmanı, the famous building, and highlights the value of the centuries-old diversity in Galata. In his book Galata, Berk regards Doğan Apartmanı and Camondo Han (inn) as masterpieces. I give credit to the Levantines, the white-gloved doormen, and the many authors and poets such as Abidin Dino who once lived in these structures and continue my tour by taking a break at the workshop of woodcarver Mustafa Yasak near Crimea Memorial Church. As I sip my tea, my attention is caught by the wall lamps in the shape of the Galata Tower. It’s about to get dark. I leave Karaköy Pier, Tophane, Tersane Street, Perşembe Pazarı (Thursday Market), and Bankalar Street, included in the third chapter of Berk’s book, to another day. Even one district for Istanbul has endless things to offer!
As I leave the workshop filled with the scent of wood, I remember a line from one of Berk’s poems: “A woman dries roses on Kuleçıkmazı Street.” I head back to the square around the tower and visit Firuzende Restaurant on the terrace of Anemon Galata Hotel, dreaming of eating dinner gazing at the lights of the Galata Tower and Bridge, which are sparkling as if they were the candles on my table. I may stop by Nardis Jazz Club and once again witness how Galata cherishes the universality of music. Then, I will reread a sentence in Berk’s book warning me “not to forget the streets filled with the scent of history.” “Yes,” I murmur to myself as I leave Galata, “Yes, Istanbul, don’t forget your old streets or the people who make them even more beautiful!”