From Sirkeci To Yedikule Istanbul Through A Train Window


The minute you set foot inside the Sirkeci Gare or Railroad Station, a throwback to Ottoman elegance in our day, even the daylight looks different to you as the rays filtering through the stained glass windows diffuse before you in all the shades of the rainbow. For this station, opened in 1890, was the last stop on the Orient Express, a source of inspiration to English writer Agatha Christie.

Don’t fret if this historic venue with its railroad museum, restaurants and nostalgic halls causes you to miss your train. The trains on the suburban line that runs from Sirkeci to Halkalı make exactly 116 trips back and forth a day at 14 to 30-minute intervals between 5:30 a.m. and 0:45 a.m. And the 27-kilometer journey reveals yet another aspect of the city at every stop.

In Praise of a Train Line
But perhaps the best part of riding the suburban line is that it allows you to view the historic Istanbul peninsula from a completely different angle. There is more than enough for whoever wants it. Starting from here you can travel to Edirne, and then on to Bulgaria or Greece, and from there to anywhere in Europe.

So you feel as if you are headed for the great unknown when you pass through the turnstile and settle into your seat. When the train departs, the beauty of Istanbul begins to flow past your eyes on the windows. On the left side the ferries drifting on the Marmara’s deep blue mingle with the outline of the city. Seeing Topkapı Palace and the Hagia Sophia rising on your right is a special treat.

On the shore at Yenikapı stands the 29-meter Ahırkapı Lighthouse, one of Turkey’s oldest, and just beyond it the marble-framed windows of the Palace of Boucoleon, built by the Byzantines. First stop on our journey, which includes a total of 18 stations, is Cankurtaran. Here is the coffeehouse that was run by Erol Taş, a key figure in Turkish cinema, till his death in 1998.

After seeing the Old French Hospital and the Little Hagia Sophia Mosque, we now approach Kumkapı Station, a quarter famous for its fishermen and open-air restaurants and boasting a large number of historic churches. Now on our left, now on our right, now following their original line, the old sea walls begin to come into view along the coastal strip as we near Samatya (Psamatia). Even the few isolated truck gardens where quality vegetables are grown for the city have not disappeared entirely.

Distracted by the view we pass the Yenikapı and Kocamustafapaşa Stations in a flash. All day long a different crowd of people gets on and off the train at every station. And now Yedikule Station is in sight. It will be good idea to get off here and take a 2-hour stroll back to Samatya. As we are leaving the train, we quicken our steps to the old Istanbul districts hidden behind the walls.

Evliya Çelebi described Yedikule as “a popular picnic area surrounded by beautiful houses, flower beds, vegetable gardens and green areas.” Although the quarter has largely lost its former texture today, the golden light of old Istanbul still shines at Yedikule. Heading now for the notorious Yedikule dungeons, we come across station barber Cavit’s shop, like a museum embodying the spirit of the quarter.

Cavit Bey, who has decorated the walls of his shop with photos of his customers, shows us an autographed photo of film star Türkan Şoray and explains that Yedikule was the setting for many a Turkish cinema production. Turning now to the sea walls we arrive at the towers of Yedikule itself. This small castle for which the district is named was built by Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror as an addition to the Byzantine defense walls.

The building, which was used variously as a state treasury, powder magazine and dungeon in the Ottoman period, is a museum today. After touring the walls, we start walking alongside them and soon arrive at the Yedikule Gate. A brief stroll here will take you to İmrahor İlyas Bey Mosque, which was built over the ruins of Istanbul’s oldest Byzantine monastery. Samatya is not far now.

Making our way through its intricate streets where what remains of the old city give the quarter a special air, we come to Samatya Square.  Surrounded by fishmongers, restaurants and coffeehouses, it is connected to the train station by a narrow passage. The streets of this quarter, where people of different faiths lived together over the centuries, gives one a sense of having turned the calendar back to the innocence of childhood.

Cardboard tickets were used on the Sirkeci-Halkalı trains for years. Conductors moved through the carriages, validating them with special punches that left round or star-shaped holes. Or sometimes the tickets were torn in half down the middle to show that they were used. Starting in the 2000’s however the ‘akbil’, an electronic ticket valid on all public transportation in Istanbul, was introduced along with turnstiles. But you can still ride this trains using one of the old ‘jeton’s (tokens) for just TL 1.75.

The film Banliyö (Suburb), shown at this year’s 30th Istanbul Film Festival, describes a day in the life of this train that runs between Sirkeci and Halkalı. Directed by Bülent Çubukçu, it tells the story of the residents and their living cultures along the rail line in parallel with an actual train journey.