Sunday 14 July 2013

A long weekend in Kadakoy = Chalcedon

I spent a wonderful long weekend in Istanbul, which I do not quite have the courage to call Constantinople, even though an  other worldly parson friend encourages me to do so. Actually I was not in Istanbul but in Kadakoy, on the Asian side, which is very easy to get to from the Gokcem airport, where the budget airline Pegasus flies to. Pegasus is a delight among budget airlines, flying at normal times from Bucharest and using spacious planes. 

And Kadakoy is Chalcedon, where the Council of Chalcedon met! I could google to remind myself what that famous and great ecumenical council decided, but the truth is I do not any longer know and I leave you to  find out. Kadakoy, unlike the tourist museum Sultanhamit, where no Istanbulians venture, is the real Istanbul. More so also than the charming Beyoglu, where the restaurants are, which is the much more charming, Turkish-elegant equivalent of Covent Garden. Kadikoy is not plant for the tourist industry. Relaxingly, it has no sights. It just is and is a busy little port on the Bosporus, full of cheap hotels. The Kadikoy bazaar, which twenty years ago was just shops and stalls, is now home to some restaurants too and they specialise, of course, in freshly caught fish.


So my friend Tufan told me after inviting me to meet him in an excellent one, called Nimet, where we sat drinking much raki (I have a childish delight in watching it turn white when water is added), eating delicious fish and discussing God and the events in Taksim Square. 

My friend is an old Communist (Turkey much more even than Greece abounds in them and they are sound anti-Islamists) who feels that thanks to the events in Taksim bliss is it in this morn to be alive, even if he is not young enough for it to be very heaven. He spends every evening there and gives advice to the kids on what to do. He it was who said having gathered a huge crowd they had to do something and persuaded them to march across the Bosporus bridge and confront the police. I felt sorry for my friend that his gammy leg stopped him leading the procession to its denouement. He is the stuff of which charismatic revolutionary leaders are made but is far too decent and good to last long in a real Bolshevik regime.

Kadakoy market has a buzz at night. There seemed no foreigners but probably there were some - foreigners are everywhere these days. People played good street music. A girl, her eyes shining with idealism, came round singing an unmelodious song about the demonstrations in Taksim. Tufan gave her money but I think on political not musical grounds. It was late and dusk was gathering at the close of a long hot summer day. Turkey feels modern but it has a lot of texture. Romania is much less modern but is slightly thinner.

Kadikoy is where the ferries leave for the Spice Market on the European side, one of the areas of maximum interest to visitors, so it is a great place to stay to see Istanbul. The drawback of Kadikoy is the length of time it takes by road to cross the bridge. Getting to Edirne for the oil wrestling festival took me five hours each way as opposed to three hours when i went from Taksim. Istanbul my friend said had a population of two million when he was a boy. Now it is twelve of thirteen, perhaps fifteen million. This is what would happen to all the big cities of Europe were there no planning restrictions and this is why property prices rose so high around the world and then became so disastrous a bubble. The huge drift of Anatolian peasants to Istanbul is a small part of a great exodus of people from the poor world towards richer places, especially Western Europe, which will transform bourgeois Europe.

Dinner with two old friends in Nimet again and breakfasting with some more Turkish friends, still in Kadakoy. At breakfast I met a Turkish political scientist with whom I discussed Erogan and Enver Pasha. Like so many Turks I have known she had just made her first visit to Greece and loved it. Greeks I know have made the same discovery in reverse and when I was in Athens recently I was told a Turkish production - mirabile dictu - was the most popular soap opera. I said that Greeks and Turks had so much in common and the political scientist said it's a shame that Greece and Turkey did not remain one loosely federated country. I warmly agreed and was pleased to hear a Turk say so. And had they held onto the Arab lands they would have had all the oil and there would be no Middle Eastern problem.

Had Turkey and Greece remained one country perhaps Constantinople would have continued to have a Christian majority, as it did in 1914, Adrianople continued to have roughly equal numbers of Turks, Greeks and Bulgarians and Salonica remained a leading centre for Sephardic Jews. I feel that at least Constantinople, Salonica, Smyrna and Jerusalem should have been made international cities or independent city states, but the spirit of the times was strongly in favour of nation states. I wonder if Mr. Woodrow Wilson is in hell.

Now these cities, with the partial exception of Jerusalem, have been ethnically cleansed and are dull reminders of their vibrant pasts. Formerly homogeneous cities in Western Europe, by contrast, have become full of many races, even as their respective host cultures have become semi-American.

By a piece of luck, as I walked back to my hotel to pack and leave, I stumbled on Mass in an Armenian church. I counted about forty people in the congregation. There are, I doscoverd, somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 Armenians in Turkey, mostly in Istanbul, though no-one seems very sure. There are others who have converted to Islam and become Turks or Kurds or have pretended to have done so (the so-called crypto-Armenians).In 1914 there were up to two million. What happened to them is not well documented at all but it seems that most were killed and the rest fled or shed their national identity. As Adolf Hitler is said to have said (though this has been questioned) 'Who now remembers the Armenians?'

I have decided after some hesitation in the past that, like many of my friends, I do love Istanbul, even though it is a pale shadow of the real Constantinople, built of wood, full of ghosts, where Muslims were a minority. The real Constantinople lasted until property developers ruined the place in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Until the inter-ethnic riots in 1955 there were still plenty of Greeks too.

Istanbul is wonderful, a bright, happy place, very modern despite its monuments, but, coming back, I definitely prefer Bucharest. Prefer it for being much smaller and much more old fashioned, more shadowed, more provincial, much less globalised too. For being a gossipy 19th century village. Odd to think that fifty years ago both cities had populations of two million. Now Istanbul is a mega-city like Delhi or Bombay and has at least six times more people, housed in 
seemingly well constructed tower blocks built by housing cooperatives. These cut a very favourable contrast with Bucharest's jerry-built blocks of flats. If I lived in one I should much prefer to live in Istanbul. For a weekend or a holiday it is delectable.


  1. dear P.V.E., Will you please write something about the other villains of the Great War? I wonder if they're in Hell.

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