Çengelköy

Old houses, a wooden mosque, an 800-year-old plane tree, seaside mansions, a Byzantine Church, a Sacred Spring, and Kuleli... The debate between the boats was beginning to get more heated. As if in defiance of the city's hustle and bustle, Çengelköy always preserves its unique sense of tranquility.

Nestled in the hills surrounding the cove between Beylerbeyi and Vaniköy, Çengelköy may be known for its cucumbers but has far more interesting things to offer Istanbul dwellers. For this is a virtual 'getaway' almost in the heart of the great metropolis. The taste of the tea that you sip against a backdrop of sunset between the towers of the Bosporus Bridge defies description. And watching the dance of the gaily colored bridge illumination and the lights in the Bosporus hills will make you forget the urban rat race and become hopelessly bound to this city forever.

Under the famous plane tree
I begin by heading for the district center along the coast road that links the quarters of Kuleli, Bahçelievler and Havuzbaşı. Amidst the shops, cafes, and restaurants that line the road, I first encounter the giant plane trees that distinguish this quarter from all others and make it special. These stately trees suddenly render the city traffic, the bustle of the shops and the crowds of people all  meaningless. While seeking along the shore for the trunk of a plane tree whose branches are visible between the buildings, I come across the famous 'Çınaraltı' or 'Under the Plane Tree' tea garden, which is crowded with people of Istanbul in every season. While enjoying the unique view as I sip my tea under the giant plane tree, my attention is suddenly caught by the curve of the cove, which really does resemble a hook (çengel is the Turkish for 'hook'). But an elderly resident I meet at the tea garden is quick to inform me of what the name means and where it comes from. “Rumor has it that the name derives from some Bzyantine ship's anchors that were found along these shores after the conquest of Istanbul. Another version has it that Çengeloğlu (son of Çengel) Tahir Pasha, an Ottoman admiral who rose to the rank of Grand Vizier, lived here and had a mosque built for the village, which in time came to be known by his  name. The quarter's Byzantine name, Sophia Harbor, apparently derived from the name of Sophia, the beloved wife of the Emperor Justinian.” I also learn that the plane tree beneath which we are sitting is about 800 years old.


Heading towards the bridge from Çınaraltı, I arrive at the square on the coast next to the ferry landing, which is like a park in all its greenery. The boats that taxi people in the evening to the luxury  restaurants and clubs on the opposite shore of the Bosporus leave from here.  As the quarter's residents savor the Bosporus view, chic, well-groomed ladies and gentlemen sip tea as they wait for the boat. Who knows? Maybe it was the same in the Tulip Era, but with imperial caiques instead of speedboats in this favorite quarter of the sultans. For centuries the Ottoman sultans and grand viziers were enamored of the natural beauty of this spot, which they used as a picnic and hunting ground. Residents of the imperial palace organized outings here to eat fruit, and the eventual construction of a small palace and privy garden was inevitable. In the 17th century Çengelköy was the largest settlement along Istanbul's shores after Üsküdar. According to Evliya Çelebi, besides a magnificent palace and privy garden, there were also at Çengelköy a small mosque, imperial guards' quarters, and a kennel where the dogs used by the sultans in war and on the hunt were kept. Greeks made up the great majority of Çengelköy's population in that period, when wealthy Greeks in particular settled into luxurious mansions along the shore. Later on, Ottoman Turks also began to settle here, and some of their residences, such as the Sadullah Paşa Yalı, the Abdullah Paşa Yalı, the Fenerli Yalı and the Server Bey Yalı, still stand today. Evliya Çelebi also mentions a large market-caique that  landed here. Produce from the nearby truck gardens was sent daily to the city by market-caiques, which brought back provisions from the large urban markets in return. People who didn't have their own caiques and boatmen traveled on these boats as well, in this period when the area was known as a large marketplace.  


Directly opposite the ferry landing stands the Aya Yorgi Orthodox Church. Originally known as the Metaina, this church took the name Aya Yorgi following a repair in 1830. Seemingly quite large judging by its facade, the church also has an extensive garden. The Aya Pandeleimon Ayazma or Sacred Spring also dates from the Byzantine period and was restored in 1909. Its waters are believed to offer cures on 27 July, a day still celebrated at Aya Yorgi every year in a simple ceremony.


Turning my back on the ferry landing, I climb the hill to Havuzbaşı. Here, just opposite the green area, stands the Şeyh Nevruz Mosque, built entirely of wood and an excellent example of late Ottoman architecture. On the same street the wooden houses that blend in with the mosque in perfect harmony have managed to survive  unscathed to the present. Exuding the naive charm of the past, this street is one of the places that best exemplifies the spirit of Çengelköy.

The lights of Kuleli
As I proceed along the shore towards Vaniköy, this quarter's most imposing structure looms before me: Kuleli Military High School.  This building is perhaps even more meaningful to residents on Istanbul's other shore who never tire of gazing on it, especially at night when it is illuminated. A monastery and tower stood here in a grove when Mehmed the Conqueror took Istanbul. The monastery was allocated to the Janissaries as a barracks during the reign of Sultan Selim I. Known as the 'Bostancıbaşı Odaları' or Chambers of the Imperial Guards, the barracks were in time transformed into a beautiful formal garden known as the 'Kuleli Bahçesi' or Garden with Tower. When Suleiman the Magnificent became sultan, he had a large, nine-story pavilion built here, boasting pools with jets of water on every story and a tall tower. Another barracks built three centuries later for cavalry units during the reign of Mahmud II became the first Kuleli Military High School. In the reign of Abdulmejid the barracks were rebuilt half in stone and became known as the Kuleli Barracks in 1843 when towers were added at both ends.


I ended my day at Çengelköy at the Çınaraltı. Sitting there basking in the sunset, I couldn't help but overhear a conversation among some fishermen mending their nets in the boats moored at the shore. “We're going to all this trouble for nothing,” groused one, “the best way of catching fish is in a weir.” “There's nothing like catching a fish in a net,” shot back another. For a moment I thought to myself what a quintessentially Çengelköy conversation this was. Old houses, a wooden mosque, an 800-year-old plane tree, seaside mansions, a Byzantine church, a sacred spring, and Kuleli...  Fishermen chatting back and forth between their boats. The sun went down, the bridge lights came on.  Earlier in the day I had bought some cucumbers, as a souvenir. It made no sense to keep them, so I washed them at the historic fountain and ate a few, savoring their refreshing juicy taste. And the rest? I left them next to the fountain. Maybe somebody else would come along with a hankering for a Çengelköy cucumber...