Silent ships

You can stroll through Turkey’s 164-year maritime past at the Turkish Maritime Enterprises Center for Art and History, located in Istanbul’s Karaköy district.

Constantly enriched by a neverending series of newly opening private museums and other institutions, Istanbul is rapidly becoming a cultural capital. While some of museums feature objects from the 600-year Ottoman cultural heritage, others focus on their own past. One of them is the Maritime Museum in Karaköy, or ‘Center for Art and History of the Turkish Maritime Enterprises, Inc.’ as it is now known, which we perhaps never notice even though we often pass by it. This museum, housed on the ground floor on the street side of the Merkez Han, an elegant old ‘khan’ built in 1912-13, which stands as pretty as a figurine on the quay at Karaköy, opened on the 6th of November 1995 following around two years of collecting and culling. Despite the passage of a decade since the opening, it remains undeservedly little known today owing to a lack of publicity.

Are you curious about the old paddle steamer ferryboats that your grandparents used to ride in Istanbul years ago? Would you like to see the ship ‘Ankara’ that your father once took on a Mediterranean cruise with his parents? Or Turkey’s first transatlantic vessel, the ‘Gülcemal’, which even inspired verses with four masts and twin smokestacks? Or the ‘Bandırma’, which made history carrying Mustafa Kemal to Samsun on 19 May 1919? They all await you here. Not the real thing of course, but exact 1/75 or 1/100 scale models, built in a labor of love that took their maker several months.

If it’s painting that interests you, then you’ll enjoy the inimitable canvases of certain eminent Turkish painters such as Tahsin Bey of Diyarbakır, Nazlı Ecevit, mother of the former Prime Minister Bülent Ecevit, Ibrahim Çallı, and Ayetullah Sümer. The precisely 400 objects displayed in this museum illustrate the near 164-year history of the Turkish maritime enterprises, which got their start in 1843 with the founding of the ‘Fevaid-i Osmaniye’. And foremost among them of course is the ‘Gülcemal’.

The first Turkish passenger ship to sail to America in 1920, the Gülcemal was to visit those seas three more times. The museum has not only a model of the ship, expertly built by Rahmi Topçu in a project that took two years, but also its decorative wooden moldings, its piano, and a table and chair where Atatürk once played backgammon during a voyage.
The paddle steamer ‘Basra’, a ferry built to carry passengers on the Anatolia-Baghdad Railroad from the Galata Bridge quay across to the station at Haydarpaşa on the Asian side, is also represented by a model, along with its two brothers, the ‘Baghdad’ and the ‘Aleppo’. Together they were known as ‘The Three Roses of Haydarpaşa’. Traveling on these ships, which had separate men’s and women’s sections, was particularly pleasant on a summer day. We proceed now to the next model, of the ferryboat ‘Ankara’, immortalized in the legendary punctuality of its Captain, Şefik Göğen. The old folks like to recount how people used to set their watches by the whistle of this ship, which sounded at the stroke of 12 as it was departing from the Galata Quay. The Ankara mainly took tourists on cruises of the Mediterranean coast. People still tell the story of how, on one of those cruises, Captain Şefik left his own wife behind on the quay when she failed to show up on time. But the story may be apocryphal. Cruises on the Ankara, which numbered prominent writers, journalists and statesmen among its passengers, were always enjoyable, and sometimes well-known singers even added color to the voyage. But the ship’s models at the museum are not limited to these of course. Besides the Bandırma, passenger ships such as the Tarsus, the Tırhan and the Iskenderun and many others from the distant past await us here, sadly silent today.

Ships are also like people. They are born, grow up and die - on the sea. And the parts of defunct ships that have been relegated to the junkyard when their natural lifespan is over are now finding their way into museums, together with the citations of excellence issued to the Ottoman Maritime Administration, founded in 1910, years after the dissolution of the Fevaid-i Osmaniye.

Displayed here are the compass of the ferryboat ‘Istanbul’, which went up in flames in the Sea of Marmara, the paddle wheel of the ferry ‘Dolmabahçe’, the gas lamps of the passenger ship ‘Izmir’, the brass plate stating the name and date of construction of the car ferry ‘Kasımpaşa’, the barometer from the ‘Samsun’, the telegraph machine from the ferry ‘Heybeliada’ that once plied the waters between the Galata Bridge and Kadıköy, and dozens of other maritime memorabilia. The curious can even examine here examples of the famously strong sailors’ knots. Among the fascinating objects on display are also the crystal tumblers and goblets of the famed dockside restaurant known as the ‘Liman Lokantası’, as well as the silver plated cutlery and the crockery stamped with the Ottoman coat of arms that were used on the ships. Not to mention three pianos, two of them grands! One can’t help but wonder who played these instruments, and what they played - and what intimate conversations they happened to overhear - as the ships were gliding into harbor.

A number of valuable paintings, mostly of ships but including two large portraits of Atatürk as well, are among the objects of greatest interest in the museum. Those painted by Diyarbakırlı Tahsin Bey bring these long lost ships back to life most vividly. With a passion for ships, Tahsin Bey is known to have sat for hours in the cafes along the Galata quay watching the ships come and go, and to have sketched their pictures in the sketchpad he always carried with him. He immortalized not only ships but sailboats, fountains and quays in his paintings. Besides his works, those of Ibrahim Çallı, Nazlı Ecevit, Fikret Otyam, Ayetullah Sümer and Cahit Derman also hang in the museum.

Entrance is free of charge at this museum, which is open three days a week on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. On a day when you have nothing to do, go there with the wife and kids and let the helpful museum guard Ali Bozoğlu show you around. You won’t regret the time you spend.