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Centuries of history on one hand, modern cafes on the other. A seething mass of humanity all rushing to get somewhere, in a race against time despite the slow, unhurried historic texture of the place... And smack dab in the middle of it all, the towers of the Bosporus Bridge bear down on us in all their splendor. Like a breathtaking picture in contrasting colors, Ortaköy gracefully embraces the contradiction.
Following a hiatus of several years I was on my way to meet up with some of my old high school classmates. Not having seen each other in ages, and barely remembering each other's names, we had found each other almost by default through the new generation of friendship sites on the internet. After many years, we were making the transition from the virtual to the real world. In stubborn defiance of the rapidly developing technology that is said to turn people into asocial loners, we were actually going to get together in the flesh. My old high school friend Erol had the idea we should meet in Ortaköy on Sunday morning. Later I would learn that he himself lived in Ortaköy. While the rest of us would have to fight our way through the Istanbul traffic, this guy would meet us practically at his front door.
BREAKFAST IN A TEA GARDEN
Waking up to rain on Sunday morning, I arrive at the square. From under my umbrella I peer out at the other arrivals, paying special attention to those about my age. In the end, only Erol shows up. So much for meeting on the internet.
We choose one of the tea gardens that are fixtures on the square and duck inside. The main reason for choosing this venue is that you can savor the luxury of a stunning Bosporus view as you eat. After breakfast Erol and I plan what we will do: ignore the rain and take a stroll around Ortaköy.
The first thing that strikes my eye on the square is the Great Mecidiye Mosque, built in the baroque style and a virtual icon of the district, where it is known to the locals simply as the Ortaköy Mosque. Commissioned by Abdülmecid to the architect Nigoğos Balyan in 1853, this prominently placed mosque on the Bosporus consists of two separate men's and women's sections like all imperial mosques. Its high, wide windows designed to let in the Bosporus's changing lights, it also boasts two single-balconied minarets with staircases inside.
Its walls of cut, white stone and the walls of its dome covered in pink mosaics, it is a product of highly refined workmanship. Abdülmecid and Abdülhamid both came to this mosque for the Friday prayers before crossing the Bosporus in their imperial caiques to the Beylerbeyi Palace or Küçüksu Pavilion. A delicate structure in terms of statics, the mosque has had to be restored three times for this reason.
The popularity of Ortaköy and its weekend crowds of Istanbul residents have been a bit unsettling for the regular inhabitants as we understand from a conversation with an elderly Istanbul gentleman taking in the view in front of the mosque. He talks about Turkey's first private TV channel and the vendors of beads, baubles and handmade jewelry that set up stands here in the 90's, and speaks of Ortaköy's 'entel' bazaar that seems to draw all Istanbul to it on some magical mystery tour. (The slang term 'entel', an abbreviated form of 'intellectual' pronounced in Turkish as it is in French, refers to the city's new and cool class of highbrows, regarded by some as pseudo.) Other merchants naturally hanker for a share of this market as well. In time they take over the old shops one by one, and restaurants, bars and nightclubs open in their places. It isn't long before the quarter becomes one of Istanbul's main drawing points and leading entertainment centers. There is a huge migration both of businesses and residents into the area.
But the disappearance of Ortaköy's former peace and quiet naturally upsets the old-time dwellers. We too begin our tour of the famous 'entel' bazaar. The stands abound with hats, scarves, jewelry, toys, and glassware. Set up alongside the walls of the cafes, the stalls blend in visually with the rest of the street. As we watch people catching fish alongside the mosque, we turn in the direction of a voice, indifferent to the rain, calling out from one of the famous tour boats, “Hourly Bosporus tour leaving immediately”. We board and the boat soon moves off in the direction of the majestic Bosporus Bridge.
BATHS AND MANSIONS
On the shore first the Esma Sultan Yalı rises before us. Since a fire in 1975, only the external facade remains of this lovely waterside mansion, commissioned to Sarkis Balyan in 1875 by Abdülhamid for his daughter, Esma. Following a restoration, however, the structure was encased in glass and given an unusual and modern appearance. It is used today to host a variety of meetings, concerts, wedding receptions and other social gatherings. Another mansion, the Hatice Sultan Yalı, built this time by an imperial daughter who preferred to live outside the palace, is the only one of its kind that has managed to survive intact in Ortaköy, a phenomenon in which the building's use until 2006 by the Istanbul Swimming Club had a big hand. Today it has been opened up for tourism by the Istanbul Provincial Government. After the boat tour, we make a stop at the 'kumpir' or baked potato vendors. As we approach this area with its rows of shops selling kumpir and flat, filled 'gözleme' pastries, the vendors begin to cry out to us from behind their counters, and we quickly realize that it will be impossible to leave Ortaköy without sampling their wares. For they are as zealous in attracting our attention as they are in baking their potatoes. Directly opposite them stands the Ortaköy Bath, a work by the famous 16th century architect Sinan. Built in 1556 by Hüsrev Kethüda, the Grand Vizier Kara Ahmed Pasha's chamberlain, it is at the same time Ortaköy's oldest building.
A PICTURE OF ETHNIC TOLERANCE
Turks, Greeks, Armenians and Jews have lived together amicably at Ortaköy for centuries. As in many other of Istanbul's districts, mosque, church and synagogue stand side by side here. Between the square and Dereboy Avenue alone stand an Armenian Catholic Church, an Armenian Gregorian Church, two Greek churches, two synagogues and two mosques. Meanwhile the Çırağan Palace, commissioned by Abdülaziz to the architect Sarkis Balyan in 1871, is one of Ortaköy's most prominent buildings. This palace, which stood empty and in ruins for years after being gutted by fire in 1910, following restoration functions today as a five-star waterside hotel.
Immediately adjacent to the square, the Feriye Palaces were built for the Ottoman princes and the servants employed at the Çırağan. Today's Galatasaray University and Kabataş Boys' Lycée buildings once formed part of the palace complex.
Towards the end of the day the rain gives way to the last rays of the winter sun. Taking a seat on one of the benches on the square, with the bridge, the magnificent Bosporus view and the red-tinted reflections of the setting sun opposite us, we remember our school days. Rediscovering this quarter, I muse, embraced by East and West, while sitting in the shadow of the Baroque-style mosque could be a viable alternative to reconnecting with old classmates after all these years. Ortaköy more than filled the place of the friends the internet did not succeed in bringing together. Or maybe the internet had inadvertently brought me to Ortaköy. Who knows?