Kuzguncuk

Time in Kuzguncuk seems frozen in a happy period of history. With its narrow streets lined with wooden houses, its stately mansions, and its mosques, churches and synagogues, it goes on sleeping its peaceful sleep of the centuries.

The cold rays of the pale winter sun are reflected copper-red on the bare branches of the centuries-old fig, walnut and plane trees. The oleander that in summer paints this quarter sunrise pink and bridal white trembles in the chill air. The magnolia trees and pistachio pines stand waiting sadly. Smoky grey foam stirs the cold blue waters of the Marmara.

KITCHEN GARDENS AND FORESTED HILLS
The abandoned wooden houses make a last-ditch effort to stand, leaning against new  buildings of concrete-construction with aluminum facades. Houses that defy any known architectural label. Wood frame of on the bottom, stone on top,  with plastic window frames on the entrance level and, on an upper story, who-knows-how-many-year-old Ottoman bay windows and latter-day terraces edged with wrought iron railings.

Mosques with tall, elegant, pencil-slim minarets. Churches reminiscent of faraway Jerusalem, synagogues that lie on an east-west axis. Long narrow streets that pass in front of them and wind their way up into the forested hills. Streets that end unexpectedly in long-deserted kitchen gardens, and neglected vegetable patches where dried up wells have been covered with planks.

LIKE A WISE MAN
Kuzguncuk continues to sleep its centuries-old sleep. Quiet, old and peaceful. Yet right next to it rises the gargantuan Bosphorus Bridge where vehicle traffic passes at  a dizzying clip. And not far away, only a kilometer or so, at Ortaköy and nearby Bebek on the opposite shore, a seething human crowd is visible even from here. But time at Kuzguncuk seems to stand still. No more than a few steps wide at the shore and not even extending far up into the hills, Kuzguncuk just stands there, as it has for hundreds of years, far from the madding crowd like a wise man who knows everything but is too modest to admit it.

A PHOTOGRAPH OF KUZGUNCUK
And like the quarter where they live so are the people of Kuzguncuk, acknowledging each other with a nod as they wait at bus stops, catch fish, or enter and leave the   bakeries that give off a yeasty aroma of fresh bread, the greengrocers’ shops hung with ponderous clusters of bananas, the government banks that pay pensioners’ stipends and the tiny groceries proffering homemade jams and pickles. Quiet, placid and peaceful. So, in its broad lines, appears a slightly blurred and hazy photograph of Kuzguncuk in the early days of 2008, unwarmed despite all the efforts of a cold winter sun.

WINDING STREETS
We are in Kuzguncuk, wending our way up into the hills along a winding road we took entirely by chance and later learn is called Bican Efendi Street. Not far away the sizable hill known as Nakkaştepe stretches as far as the eye can see. Down below we can make out the Maiden’s Tower, veiled ghostly white in the sun’s amber rays. Later our eyes fall on the Pink ‘Yalı', a traditional seafront home. This lovely house, called by some the Mocan Yalı, by others the Yalı of Fethi Ahmet Pasha, stands just a stone’s throw away, solemn and solitary, long accustomed to the whispering waters of the Bosphorus that have flowed by it to the same melody for millennia. The overhanging rooms on its north, south and west facades distinguish it immediately, built out over the water in traditional Turkish style and supported by wooden cantilevers in what is known in Ottoman Turkish architecture as the ‘arms akimbo’ construction. A virtual Kuzguncuk icon, this yalı has twenty rooms, each boasting its own individual design and style, as well as a harem annex with a garden in front, a pool with a marble water jet and statuary, an elaborately carved fountain, a vaulted boathouse, and polychrome marble and  pebbles said to have been imported from Italy.

A NEIGHBORHOOD OF FRIENDLY RELATIONS
The Kuzguncuk shore is a world-renowned model of people’s capacity to live together in love and peace whatever their religion or nationality. The Armenian Gregorian Church of  Surp Krikor Lusavoriç and the delicately tasteful Kuzguncuk Mosque rise side by side in the same garden. Not only that, then-sultan Abdülaziz contributed financially to  the building of the church as did the local Armenian population to the construction of the mosque. But there is another example of religious tolerance here in Kuzguncuk. A little further ahead on İcadiye Avenue, the Great Jewish Synagogue and the Greek Orthodox Church of Hagios Georghios again stand side by side. Kuzguncuk is a place where Greeks, Jews, Armenians and Turks lived together for years in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance and friendly relations.

AN ISTANBUL FAVORITE
Situated on Istanbul’s Anatolian side in the township of Üsküdar, Kuzguncuk lies between Paşalimanı and Beylerbeyi in a valley ending at the Bosphorus. Difficult to reach by land, for a long time it remained a quiet village, its people making a living from fishing, truck gardening and small handicrafts. The embroidered fabrics produced by one of these craftsmen, Sarkis Kalfa, was much in demand for years in the imperial palace. When the ferryboats of the newly formed Şirket-i Hayriye began stopping at Kuzguncuk in the second half of the nineteenth century, accessibility improved and the quarter became a favorite with Istanbul residents.

THE CAPITAL OF QUIET
Kuzguncuk is said to have been known originally as ‘Hrisokeramos', meaning ‘Golden Tile', the name given to a church with a roof of gilded tiles built by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the quarter’s founding years. There are also those who say that the quarter was called ‘Kosinitza', a name that eventually morphed into Kuzguncuk ('Little Raven’ in Turkish). Meanwhile the famous 17th century Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi says,    “They call the town ‘Kuzguncuk’ because a man named ‘Kuzgun Baba’ (Father Raven) lived here in the time of Mehmed the Conqueror.”

Whatever the origin of its name, Kuzguncuk goes on sleeping its peaceful sleep of the centuries. Time stands still at Kuzguncuk, in the sea and the sky and the magnolia trees, and in the pigeons and doves that huddle on its wooden rooftops cooing love songs. Everyone who sets eyes on its streets where Turkish, Greek, Armenian and Jewish houses have stood side by side for hundreds of years, its Pink Yalı, the Kuzguncuk Ferry Landing and Fountain, the Kuzguncuk Grove, the Cemil Mola Mansion, the Serasker Avni Pasha Yalı, and the mosques, churches and synagogues that stand shoulder to shoulder as if in support of each other, calls Kuzguncuk ‘the capital of quiet'. And they are right.