Istanbul’s Uncharted Streets

LIST, MAP AND ITINERARY IN HAND, WE CHECK OFF THE CITY’S STREETS IN A FLURRY OF EXCITEMENT AND ENTHUSIASM. SO ARE THERE ANY WE HAVEN’T CHECKED OFF, ANY STILL UNTOUCHED?

Millions of people come to Istanbul on holiday or business every year, Checking off yet another world city on the bucket list, they return having completed the usual itineraries that are thrust into their hands. Been there done that, you say?

Started from the Grand Bazaar and ended up below the Blue Mosque, had your fill of the Beyoğlu crowds, tasted the solitude of the Islands. But if you live here, or have the time, you can explore at your leisure.

With this proviso: exploring every inch of Istanbul is not easy. Time and money aside, the minute your turn your back a new park may be laid in the street you just walked down. Or a giant new building may suddenly rise. And that time and that place suddenly cease to be that time and place and put on a brand new face and you have to start all over again.

But there is one rare thing in Istanbul: the still untouched streets… The city’s last bastions of nostalgia. What’s more, most of them aren’t touristic at all but innocent, unassuming, uneventful.

They are usually the steep slopes that lie off the beaten track of Istanbul’s beautiful yet familiar walking tours. And awaiting you in those quiet backwaters are tea gardens, the cries of children, old women in doorways, unexpected Byzantine monuments, simple Ottoman fountains and, if you hurry, fresh mulberries.

“IT’S GOING TO BE VERY BEAUTIFUL”

Our first stop is the ever popular district of Zeyrek. The location is easy. Just cross the Unkapanı Bridge and it’s on your right as you head towards Aksaray. A road winds up from the millennia-old stone walls of the Zeyrek Cistern. In any case, there’s a sign for the Zeyrekhane right there. That sign will lead you directly to Zeyrek Mosque - formerly the Church of the Pantocrator and the second largest Byzantine church still standing (the Hagia Sophia is the largest). For that reason the area is a favorite.

So it was following the conquest of Istanbul as well. But now the quarter is an elite Muslim neighborhood which takes its name from the great Ottoman scholar Molla Zeyrek. There is a feverish activity all around these days.  According to one Zeyrekhane garden and park keeper, “They are going to unearth the original Byzantine Way, with the mosaics and everything…. It’s going to be very beautiful.” Once a madrasa and later a horse stables, the Zeyrekhane is a panoramic viewing terrace now.

And what a view it is! On the far right the Şehzadebaşı Mosque Complex and Süleymaniye in all its glory, to the left of it Sultanahmet (the Blue Mosque) and Hagia Sophia side by side, and directly opposite, the domes of Topkapı Palace, the Golden Horn and the port at Karaköy, and behind that, Üsküdar (old Scutari) and the Virgin’s Tower. Meanwhile, on the far left, Galata and Beyoğlu.
 
THE ELEPHANT SLOPE

Now for some time travel in Zeyrek Open Air Museum. Judging by what has been said in the past, this journey is going to be a little daunting. The Elephant Slope is the steepest of them all. The name is short, the story long. But its fame derives less from the steepness of the slope than from the Ottoman army’s love affair with the elephant.

At the foot of the slope is the tomb of an Islamic holy man, Mehmet Emin Tokadi, surrounded by the tombs of other Muslim luminaries. In any case, there are women, children and child-women with their hands outstretched to the sky all over the place here. And perhaps these prayers are the secret to the dilapidated old wooden houses that still stand, leaning against each other, on these steep winding slopes lined with ancient walnut and mulberry trees.

EVLİYA ÇELEBİ’S HOUSE ON THE ELEPHANT SLOPE

Several well-known historical figures spent their childhood in houses on Elephant Slope. Foremost among them is the son of chief palace jeweler Derviş Mehmet Zilli Efendi, Evliya Çelebi, who, although said to have been born in Kasımpaşa, was probably born at Unkapanı. Completing his primary education at the local school, the famed 17th century Ottoman traveler studied for seven years at the Hamit Efendi Madrasa on Elephant Slope.