On The Literary Trail: Istanbul’s Islands

FIRST, A VOYAGE ON A SMOKE-PUFFING STEAMER WITH A SEAGULL ESCORT. THEN, A TASTE OF EARLY SPRING IN THE STREETS OF ISTANBUL’S ISLANDS, REDOLENT OF MIMOSA AND STEEPED IN LITERATURE.

Before one even approaches the islands, one must give writer Akşit Göktürk’s words, in his book, Ada (Island), their due: “In a world where life is a big rat race, time’s fast flow is slowed on the island, transformed into time arrested. And this affords one a breath of fresh air.” Right around now the ferry pulls up to the first landing, on Kınalıada. 

The Sirakyan Mansions opposite the landing on this island, once a watering hole for Istanbul’s prominent intellectuals, give a foretaste of the elegance of the island architecture. Çınaraltı Meydan on Jarden Yolu is popular with writers and poets even today. Reaching Ayazma Koyu (the Holy Spring Cove of the Orthodox Greeks), famous for its beauty that inspires artists, means traversing the wooded hills.

Who hasn’t strolled up and down the island’s mimosa-scented streets? Poet Can Yücel, Fazıl Ahmet Aykaç, one of the leading writers of the late Ottoman literary movement known as the Dawn of the Future, even Zahrad (Zareh Yaldızcıyan), one of the 21st century’s most prominent Armenian poets.

The island ferry’s second stop is Burgazada. Quiet and peaceful, the coastal cafes lined up opposite the landing draw writers and poets. The most famous literary figure among Burgaz aficionados is Sait Faik Abasıyanık, whose house on the island is a museum today, and a pilgrimage to Kalpazankaya remains an island tradition.

Reached in a half-hour’s walk, or a 15-minute phaeton ride, Kalpazankaya is a tiny cove secluded among the pines. Sait Faik spent a lot of time at this spot with its rustic coffeehouses looking out on the two smaller islands of Sivriada and Yassıada. And Gönüllü Caddesi, lined with hundred-year-old wooden mansions, is an avenue befitting the island’s literary beauty. Only a stone’s throw from Burgazada, Heybeliada is known for its lovely moonlit nights.

This island, of which Turkey’s Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk has said that it occupies an important place in his life, is so-called for its saddleback appearance. Following Değirmen Street, a little further on one comes to the four-story museum house of Hüseyin Rahmi Gürpınar. This avenue, where the famous writer loved to ride his bicycle, ends at one of the island’s most beautiful coasts. Çamlık Koyu or Pine Bay is one of the treasures of this island, where writers Aziz Nesin was born, Nezihe Meriç taught school and Ahmet Rasim died.

Our last stop, Büyükada, greets visitors with its elegant ferry landing. According to Çelik Gülersoy, known for his books about Istanbul’s islands, this is also Istanbul’s most beautiful ferry landing. Phaetons, cyclists, ice cream vendors and small shops surround the market square where a clock tower rises. To the right of the square, Nizam Caddesi is said to take its name from Ali Nizami Bey, the protagonist of Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar’s novel, Alafrangalığı ve Şeyhliği (Ali Nizami Bey’s Occidentalism and Sheikdom).

Who can say that Recaizade Mahmut Ekrem, whose house stands on the same avenue, was not inspired by those phaetons when he wrote his novel, Araba Sevdası (Love of the Automobile)? A little further on, Aya Nikola Church, a two-story building with a garden directly opposite Sedef Adası, is the house where the famous Turkish writer Reşat Nuri Güntekin lived for years. Lying opposite the pine grove known as Dilburnu, so-called because it extends into the water like a tongue, Heybeliada completes this magnificent landscape.

Known as the best spot on the island for viewing the sunset, Dilburnu’s beauty has been the subject of poems and songs, as summed up in the lyrics that begin, “Again this year the island was nothing without you; I wandered alone on Dil, my tears never stopped,” penned by writer-historian Ahmet Refik Altınay. The hill that brought Nihal and Behlul together in Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil’s novel, Aşk-i Memnu (Forbidden Love), awaits those who long to weave daisy chains and pine needle necklaces.

“My grandmother was an islander. I started breathing the island air when I was only 15 days old. I grew up in the island streets. What a person experiences between the ages of 2 and 9 is etched in his memory forever. There was a mill near our house on the island. Mornings when I opened my window I could hear its sound. In later years they silenced it. I still miss that sound. All the sounds of that period have a place in my memory. The voices rising from the window of our Greek neighbor, the bells of the phaetons, the horseshoes…”
From Fragments of the Landscape by ORHAN PAMUK