Symbol of the meeting of east and west, and of Istanbul’s harmonious mix of Italianate structures rising side by side with old Ottoman hans, Karaköy virtually mirrors the soul of Istanbul.

‘Just get into university; the rest is easy.’ So our high school math teacher told us. As far as the courses went, he was absolutely right. That was the easy part. Was there anybody who got in and didn’t graduate? What he didn’t mention was getting used to Istanbul after the familiar city where you’d grown up. Back in the days when I was trying to get to know Istanbul, I once walked the length of İstiklal Caddesi from top to bottom and came across the ‘tünel’, which fascinated me. It was the first time I saw a metro in my llfe.

That first metro of İstanbul was built in 1875, it was the world’s first underground cable system. French engineer Eugene H. Gavand must have taken pity on the 40,000 people who had to trudge daily from the business district in Karaköy up to the entertainment district in Beyoğlu, and that’s why he carried out this project. All you had to do was board the wagon, and it transported you from Beyoğlu down to Karaköy, where the light at the end of that ‘tünel’ was my first acquaintance with this old Istanbul district.

The Istanbul I saw when I looked out from Karaköy made me feel I was in a place where I had always belonged. Stretching from the Blue Mosque to Seraglio Point, Topkapı Palace was visible behind the city ferries approaching and leaving the landing. You could just picture how the Ottoman sultans once sat in the ‘Evening Meal of Ramadan Pavilion’ and watched the sun set over Karaköy. The outlines of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, together with the Galata Bridge and the New Mosque and Süleymaniye directly opposite, paint a matchless picture of Istanbul. The bridge here not only links the two sides of the Golden Horn but also forms a fishing boat for the hundreds of fishermen trying their luck in the waters of the estuary. They come in the middle of the night because fish have to be caught near their nests. Squatting until dawn around a bonfire, they pass the time chatting amiably, waiting near the fish nests while Istanbul sleeps.

Karaköy is actually the modern name for the ancient district of Galata, a port and commercial center throughout its history. It was the Byzantines who granted Genoese merchants the right to settle and trade here. In the 15th century during the Ottomans’ first period in the district, Galata was no different from an Italian town. Then, in the last quarter of the 19th century, Karaköy became the Ottoman financial district. Voyvoda Avenue, or Bankalar Caddesi as it is known today, played a key role in the financial life of the Turkish Republic up to the 1930’s, witnessing such important events of the period as the founding of the City Ferry Lines and the Tram Company, the fall of Sultan Abdülaziz, the heady days of the Galata Borsa, one of the world’s leading markets until the 1920’s, and the founding of the Ottoman Bank.

Built by Alexandre Vallauri between 1890 and 1892, the magnificent Ottoman Bank building serves today as a museum. Like a tunnel backwards in time where you can observe the history of banking, it exhibits office furniture and banking equipment of all kinds from the first typewriters and calculating machines the size of a piano right up to the latest in modern technology. When you enter the bank’s vault through the giant steel doors so familiar to us from detective films, you can take a brief tour.  The exterior of the building is a virtual synthesis of east and west in that the Neo-classical and Neo-renaissance styles used on the facade facing Voyvoda Avenue, or Galata, reflect the sedate splendor expected of a bank head office in Europe, while the rear facade facing Perşembe Pazarı on the Golden Horn or Old Istanbul side exhibits far more ornate, even oriental, features. This naive architectural language is evident as well in the inscriptions on either side of the courtyard at the entrance. A Latin citation in one of them praises friendship while the other, in Arabic, extols the virtues of earning money.

The Camondo Stairs, which join Bankalar Caddesi to Beyoğlu, are a gift of the Camondo family, which made it their principle to endow the city with enduring modern structures. These stairs, which were photographed by the legendary photographer Cartier Bresson, are also remembered today as the ‘Bresson Stairs’ in his name.

The buildings that were vacated when Istanbul’s financial district moved from Karaköy to Levent and Maslak have recently begun hosting artistic activities. Istanbul Modern, a private art museum opened in one of the large warehouses along the quay, has also played a major role in turning Karaköy into a scene of lively social activity. The district’s history-steeped streets have slowly become one of the city’s major drawing points with museums, culture centers and art galleries large and small. And the Galataport project to revamp the quay envisages the construction of luxury hotels and touristic facilities and the docking of large passenger ships.

In contrast with those who grouse about the many junk dealers along the coastal strip opposite Süleymaniye at Karaköy, their presence there has never bothered me since they blend in so well with the texture of the district. Products of every imaginable kind can be found in the old shops in the historic hans, where Karaköy’s last junk dealers keep the Perşembe Pazarı spirit alive.

I made a habit of taking the Tünel metro to Karaköy back in my first years in Istanbul. Now one of my greatest pleasures is to take a seat in one of the cafes or on one of the benches along the shore and observe the city. With the ferry landing that was recently sunk in a gale, the new bridge over the Golden Horn built after the old one burned, the old shops and buildings covered with a jumble of advertising panels, the never ending maritime traffic, the tram line, the mosques, the churches and the old Ottoman hans rising next to buildings in Italianate style, the harmonious mix here is a symbol of the meeting of east and west and perhaps the place where I feel the spirit of Istanbul most keenly. Tearing myself away from here is never easy, nor is it for the junk dealers of Karaköy.