Writer and Boğaziçi University faculty member Prof. Dr. John Freely says of Istanbul, “This city grabs you by the heart and never lets you go.”
Born into an Irish family in New York City, John Freely has lived in Istanbul since 1960. Freely, who teaches astronomy and the history of science in the Physics Department of Boğaziçi University, has also written dozens of books about the city. Indeed he has a much broader knowledge of its history and everyday life than most natives, as I recently discovered once again during a delightful conversation with this incorrigible Istanbul devotee.
How did you happen to come to Istanbul? Who, or what, brought you here?
My great-grandfather served in the British army and fought in the Crimean War when he was seventeen years old. He was wounded in the last battle of the war and treated at the Florence Nightingale Hospital here in Istanbul in 1856. The stories he told about the war were passed on to me by my mother and grandmother, so I first heard about the city when I was five years old. That’s how I got the idea of coming here. So when I accepted a job at Robert College and came here in 1960, I was already familiar with the city.
Your every departure from the city seems to have heralded a fresh return. Istanbul has never let you go away for good.
That’s right. For one reason or another we had to leave the city twice. Both times we missed it terribly. This is true not only of me but of other people I’ve met here. We are very different from each other in world view and outlook on life, but one thing we have in common is the effect Istanbul has had on us. It grabbed us all. In my case there were my great-grandfather’s stories, but my other friends with no prior connection at all still have the same feeling. This city grabs you by the heart and never lets you go. For one thing, there’s the companionship you have here that you don’t find in any other city in the world. If you’re in trouble in Istanbul, even on the street, someone will come to your aid. You never feel alone here.
Istanbul is a city full of mysteries. Did you manage to uncover them all?
To my mind the city famous for its mysteries is Venice. Istanbul has fewer mysteries than Venice. Here, the past is always with you, but there is also a lot happening in the present. There is change going on in this city all the time. If you want to see it, just head down to Beyoğlu, or Eminönü. You have to go at least twice a week. Every time you go to Kocamustafapaşa you find something new. Just consider Sulukule where the gypsy community lives. They’ve been here longer than any other community, about 700 years now. And don’t forget Kulaksız. You have to go there too. But the most important thing is to keep your eyes open. You need to feel a fire in your heart to start exploring the city. Without feeling, there is nothing. The other thing you should know about Istanbul is that when we first came here in 1960 it was a wonderful and very poetic city but it was very sleepy. The people coming from Anatolia have brought new blood to the city. It’s as full of life now as New York or London. People from all over the world come here come to live, to write, to teach, to paint. It’s not just the touristic attractions and the art galleries either but what people are doing in the streets. The fishermen on the Galata Bridge, for example.
You studied physics and then taught it. But most of your books are about history and cultural subjects. How do the two relate, or is there any connection at all?
There is a connection.
I chose to study physics. I never graduated from high school. I dropped out in my sophomore year and joined the navy when I was seventeen. When I came back to the U.S. after World War II, I had no intention of going to university. My father was a gravedigger and my mother a cleaning lady, and I needed to help support the family. But this was Franklin Roosevelt’s America, and anyone who had fought in the war could take an examination and, if they passed, could go to university even without a high school diploma. The scholarship paid all their expenses for the whole four years. Some 10 million Americans got an opportunity to go to college that way. It was a great social leveler. But we physicists don’t always talk physics when we get together. We’re also interested in other subjects like literature, history, music, sports. In my case, besides physics it’s been history and culture that have attracted me all my life.
How did your books Strolling Through Istanbul, Jem Sultan, and Byzantine Monuments of Istanbul come about?
Strolling Through Istanbul is an old-fashioned guidebook, sort of like Evliya Çelebi’s 17th century Seyahatname, in which the writer and the reader are friends walking through the city together. It was a joint effort by Sumner-Boyd and myself. In the book, they start out from the Galata Bridge and walk to the Haghia Sophia. They stop at Hacı Bekir and pass the Egyptian Bazaar on the way. It’s not just the monuments but also what’s happening in the city that interests them, and not only the past but the present as well. As for Jem Sultan, he always appealed to me because he was the outsider and also one of those people about whom legendary stories are told. I followed him all the way to Cairo, Rhodes, France, Rome and back again to his tomb in Bursa. Evliya Çelebi also has wonderful stories about him. Byzantine Monuments of Istanbul, which I wrote together with Ahmet S. Çakmak, tells the story of the monuments in the city along with the political, religious, social, economic, intellectual and artistic developments that took place during the classical period of Byzantion and the later medieval city of Konstantinopolis.
Do you have other projects up your sleeve about Istanbul?
I have dozens of other projects on Istanbul. One of them is my book, ‘Stamboul Sketches’, which was published in English 35 years ago in just 800 copies. I’d like to have it translated into Turkish and republished. Sedat Pakay took the beautiful photographs in it when he was only 17 years old. I’ve also started writing my autobiography. I’ve already written the first 20 years and am waiting now for the book to settle down a little bit before going on.