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Article and Photos: UFUK SARIŞEN
A bohemian pocket in Istanbul
A focus of interest for artists and antique dealers from around the world, Çukurcuma continues to resist vulgar popularity by maintaining its distance from 'the affairs of the world'. Life here is serene and business more of a hobby.
If you are one of those who avoid Istanbul's congested thoroughfares and try to pick your way through the back streets, then you have certainly come across Çukurcuma. And if you have strolled parallel with İstiklal Caddesi from Galatasaray up to Sıraselviler, perhaps you have even passed through this surprising quarter which exudes the iodine scent of the Mediterranean against a backdrop of French, Italian and Greek architecture. Flanked by Cihangir, Tophane and Pera's İstiklal Caddesi, Çukurcuma actually consists of four steep streets that intersect an avenue running parallel to İstiklal starting from Sıraselviler. With its narrow streets, historic buildings, antique dealers, fashion designers, design artists and art galleries, this Istanbul neighborhood has the atmosphere of an authentic bohemian quarter.
The name Çukurcuma (Çukur meaning 'declivity', Cuma 'Friday') comes from Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror's having performed his first Friday prayer after the conquest here in this low-lying area. The Çukurcuma Fountain, built by Mimar Sinan in the 16th century, the 17th century Ağa Hamam, the Ömer Ağa Fountain built in the 18th century, the religious buildings, and the Greek, English and Italian embassies, all constructed here when the foreign missions settled into the Pera area starting, again, from the 18th century, create a perfect setting for the curios displayed by the local antique dealers.
FAİK PASHA AVENUE
But the quarter's most famous and perhaps best-preserved stone buildings are on Faik Paşa Avenue. Formerly inhabited primarily by Levantines, this street took its name from an Italian pharmacist by the name of Francesco della Suda who lived in Istanbul in the 1800's. Della Suda, who had a pharmacy by the name Grand Pharmacie della Suda on İstiklal Caddesi in those days, was awarded the title 'Pasha' for his services to the Ottoman state, and his name too was changed to Faik Paşa from della Suda. To the end of the 1800's the wealthy people of the day lived in the ornate stone buildings in Italian architectural style that lined one side of the slope, while their servants lived in the plainer, more modest buildings on the opposite side.
THE PLACE OF ART AND ANTIQUES
The shopkeepers here are 'out of the ordinary' and when you visit them in the area starting from the corner of the Galatasaray Hamam down to Çukurcuma Mosque, the outline of the Galata Tower, glimpsed between the streets, will never leave you alone. Architect Aslıhan Kenderoğlu opened her shop here a year ago. She had been coming here once a week for years to explore the area. “It was like going on a journey through time,” says Aslıhan Hanım, who got into the antique business with the idea of selling some of the old items she had accumulated at home. Her sentimental attachment to them made it difficult at first, but the economic squeeze soon put paid to any compunctions on that score. Her shop has everything from a Thirties-style wedding gown, glass vases and mirrors to coffee tables, armchairs, desks and all sorts of old knickknacks and accessories for the home and office. After being written up recently in a number of foreign magazines and guidebooks, the quarter now attracts customers from all over the world. Its comparison with New York's Soho in particular has spread its fame abroad, and the completion of the Galata Port project is expected to enhance its vitality even further.
Christopher Malcolm Hall is a young interior decorator from New Zealand who has settled here and owns a restored shop located at the top of the Faik Paşa slope. Having left his native land at the age of 17, he studied in Rome and, after spending some time in Paris, London and Athens, fell in love with Istanbul at first glance and decided he wanted to live here one day. His dream came true in the year 2000, and two years ago he opened an architectural bureau and a decoration and design shop dealing in antiques. “Cukurcuma is a perfect combination of the classic and the contemporary,” says Chris. “This is a tiny pocket of old Istanbul with an eccentric texture all its own that impresses me. Çukurcuma is not a fad and never should be. Those looking to benefit from this place need to understand its spirit.” Chris's shop brings together tourists from all over the world through antiques.
Another antique dealer on Faik Paşa Caddesi is Mehmet Akyıldız, who was born and raised here. “Ninety-eight percent of those who lived here in the seventies were of foreign extraction, “ he explains. “You hardly heard any Turkish on the street. They never passed each other without saying hello. It's nice here today, too, but I preferred the innocence of the old days.”
A MODEL TURKISH AIRLINES PLANE
In Mehmet Akyıldız's childhood there were no antique dealers here at all but rather the traditional 'rag-and-bone men'. Indeed Çukurcuma Caddesi was a district lined with butcher shops, rather like today's Balık Pazarı or fish market. Akyıldız grew up looking at and playing with secondhand goods, and in the end found himself in the business, too. Model airplanes from the 40's and 50's are his passion and he has done trade in the models of several different companies up to now. The minute you set foot inside his shop you'll be greeted by a model of a Turkish Airlines plane dangling from the ceiling.
A PASSAGE TO THE IMAGINATION
Textile designer Mine Kerse has been designing hats, dresses and handbags for five years in her own shop. She emphasizes in particular that she caters to those who are not enamored of brand names and trademark prestige. “I've been hanging out here ever since I was in junior high school,” she explains. “To digest everything I saw, I would go to the Gezi Park and sit down on one of the benches and dream. Later I became a fixture here. Çukurcuma is actually a living space. When the weather is nice the shop owners and clerks gather in front of their doors to chat over a cup of tea or coffee.”
Enumerating each separate venue would be extremely difficult, but the antique dealers whose doors we knocked on at random, the galleries whose exhibitions are an important stop for Istanbul art lovers and the special shops offering pop-art of the 70's and 80's are enticing with their atmosphere steeped in art and history. Life is quiet in Çukurcuma's timeless setting, far from the madding crowd, and business here is done almost for pleasure.