Why You should Read: Galata, Pera, Beyoğlu: A Biography, by Brendan and John Freely

By Luke Frostick


If you're an émigré living in Istanbul, like me, you've been to Beyoğlu, there is a good chance you live here (in fact, I think I can see you), and there is an equal chance that Brendan and John Freely’s book Galata, Pera, Beyoğlu: A Biography is going to interest you. Many of us live here in this strange part of the city without understanding the streets we walk on; this is a book that can correct that by detailing the history of this important but overlooked corner of the city.

As the book’s blurb mentions, histories of Istanbul have tended to focus on the historic peninsula. While this is fine, Istanbul would not be Istanbul without the settlements across the Golden horn, and it has a history as long as the rest of the city. For example, even back in the Byzantine times, Pera was regarded as the fourteenth district of the city and the word 'pera' in Greek simply means ‘the other side.’ I learned both of these facts from the first page of the first chapter.

The book is divided up into chapters detailing different districts of Beyoğlu starting on the shores of the Golden Horn and traveling east ending around Gezi Park. These chapters are again subdivided into two parts: a chronological overview and then a guided stroll pointing out the important buildings along the streets and the stories behind them. Each stroll includes a map of the area being discussed. 

The chronological overviews provide concise histories of these districts. Their main purpose is to give much-needed context for the strolls. This overview is necessary because the walks are full of details that would be quite meaningless without context .

The walks go into a lot of details including architecture, ethnic makeup of the area, culinary history, anecdotes (some tragic some hilarious), and a rich cast of characters from beggars, gangsters, and sailors to ambassadors, imams, and artists. All these details have create a mosaic effect which describes everything from Byzantine foundations to Ottoman hans to tattoo parlors in a chaotic mess. It didn't take me long until I was out on the streets; book in hand like a tourist, looking for the hidden churches and infamous brothels of history. Every street the Freeleys take us down is dotted with anecdotes providing a nice mix of the humdrum events of the city, the gossip mongering of the time, and events that would shake the history of the region. One I particularly loved detailed the siege of the Ottoman Bank by Armenian revolutionaries and the Russian intervention on their behalf, a fascinating story in it’s own right and a dark omen of things to come.

 It is admirable that the book does not present a sugar-coated view of the district. My heart broke a little every time I read about some important or beautiful building that has fallen down and been replaced with something "of no architectural significance." As the Freeleys point out in their afterword, the rate of change has been too fast for them to keep up with and buildings have been allowed to decay or have been replaced. They put the blame for this squarely on the move away from residential buildings and towards short-term profiteering, an opinion that I can't help but agree with and frankly needs to be said more. I mean, who honestly thinks that the waterfront developments being done now are going to be anything other than the damn Zorlu Center by the sea?

There are some problems with this book that might make it difficult for a reader. Firstly, the book expects a reasonable knowledge of Byzantine, Ottoman and Republican history before you even start. They don't waste ink explaining the fundamentals of Istanbul history. Secondly, sometimes the details are a little sparse and I found myself wanting more information about an event, character or building. That being said, it’s never a true criticism to say I wanted more and it certainly encouraged me to do some more research into the particular areas that interested me.

To sum up, I enjoyed this book and I learned a lot about the city I inhabit from it. It also reminded me of a few things. There is a slightly ugly sentiment floating round that the Arab immigrants have ‘ruined Beyoğlu’. This book reminded me that it wasn't so long ago that the Greeks were saying the same thing about Turks, that Beyoğlu has always been a home for those who are dispossessed and homeless. This book reminded me that despite the Starbucks, faux-velvet chairs of the nargile bars, and concrete monsters, the old city is still here and you don't have to look far to find it and the fascinating stories that accompany it.


Note: After the  writing this article and before publication, John Freeley, one of the authors has passed away. Through his life, he made a great contribution to the historical literature of this city and he will, no doubt, be missed.