By Lisa Morrow
People who live in Istanbul will be amused and even laugh out loud as they read this, but when I catch the Istanbul metrobus from Soğutluçeşme in Kadıköy to Zincirlikuyu on the other side of the Bosphorus, I am transported to a different world. The complete route covers a total of fifty kilometres and the long, bendy buses carry nearly a million people a day from one end of Istanbul to the other. Passengers ordinarily describe their trips as jam-packed, too hot, and often smelly, but to me, the journeys on these crowded vehicles are an adventure in which every stop brings me to another time and place.
We start in Söğütlüçeşme, a name which conjures up visions of a refreshing fountain shaded by willows. I imagine the neighbourhood women walking there every morning to collect the water they need for daily use. While their husbands think they are being dutiful wives, I see them gathered around the fountain, chatting and relaxing and catching up on the news, as their children play and run circles around them. As the women gossip, they surreptitiously eye any unmarried daughters to see who would be a good match for their sons. The girls in question walk slowly to and from the fountain, dawdling when they come to particular houses in the hope of attracting the attention of the boy they fancy. In the past, they might have looked for a chance to leave a chickpea or another such coded item on the path for the boy to find. I don’t remember the exact meaning of leaving a chickpea, but I know the chickpeas grown widely in the Mediterranean are thought to have come from Afghanistan. They are called kabuli in Hindi and Urdu, which in Turkish, means ‘acceptance.’
Next we come to Fikirtepe, which roughly means the ‘hill of ideas.’ As we move slowly down the side of the valley and stop to take on more passengers, I stare out through the tinted windows and wonder what deep and brilliant thoughts once emanated from this place. In 1876 a wooden hunting lodge was built here for Sultan Murad V. His reign came to an end after only three months due to his declining mental state, so I think it’s unlikely it was named for him. He was brought up within the confines of the kafes in Topkapı Palace. Known as the ‘cage’ in English, the kafes was a two storey building in the palace grounds where the heirs to the empire were kept locked away until they ascended the throne or died. Elaborately appointed, the kafes provided all the luxuries a prince could want, except for windows on the ground floor, and freedom.
Now all that is left of the suburb’s possibly brilliant past is a ramshackle hamam, or Turkish bath, on the edge of a desolate wasteland awaiting urban renewal. For many years, the area was home to Turks who migrated from the southeast during the country’s internal turbulence of the 1980s and 1990s. They lived in rickety huts called gecekondu, which literally translates as ‘night dwelling.’ Newly arrived residents collected old pieces of wood, scraps of corrugated iron and even flattened oil cans and hastily put together shelters before the sun came up. At the time, a law existed that deemed any dwelling erected overnight legal, but didn’t stipulate as to their quality. The haphazardly built apartment blocks, which later replaced the gecekondu, have since been declared unsafe, and the inhabitants have been forced to move elsewhere in their search for a better life.
At Uzunçayır, I envisage the long fields to which the name refers. Fully grown sheep and brilliantly white newborn lambs dot meadows covered with long blades of grass swaying gently in the cooling breezes. In my mind’s eye, the reality of the ugly sprawling mess of over and underpasses connecting the intersection of two major highways and numerous side roads is always blanketed with the red poppies of spring or the purity of winter snow. It’s hard to believe now, but not that long ago, much of this side of Istanbul was a wilderness of green. Densely packed forests boasting a rich array of wildlife provided a cool respite for the sultans and their court during the grueling heat of summer, while the lush pastures bred succulent lambs for their feasts.
After a slow crawl out of the basin comes Acıbadem, which is also the name of my favourite Turkish almond meal biscuit. The name correctly translated means ‘bitter almond’ but is a misnomer for these moistly sweet treats. Caught up in the delight of remembering the taste, I wonder if the acıbadem on the metrobus line is a sobriquet. Was this the site of true love turned bad, when a man’s little almond blossom turned out to be a bruised and damaged flower? Or is the story more mundane, and the soil only yielded almond trees whose fruit was bitter to the taste? I know from talking to local taxi drivers that the hills next to the highway we’re on used to be covered in orchards. In spring, the air would be heady with the scent of fruit blossoms. I try to finish the tale of the fragile bloom of my imagination but sadly, as I gaze out the bus windows, my dream is interrupted by insistent lines of new villas cascading down the terraces, mowing down the remaining patches of unspoiled landscape.
The meaning of the word Altunizade, also the name of the next suburb on the route, is open to interpretation. Altun on its own means gold coloured, and zade derives from Ottoman Turkish and means ‘son of’. The present day suburb sits on a hill that in the past would have had a commanding view to the Bosphorus away in the distance. I like to imagine Altunizade was the much-awaited first born son of a pasha and his blushing bride. On reaching maturity, a grand palace was built for him here and he lived out his days casting a golden light on the rolling hills of Istanbul. In reality the neighbourhood was in fact established by a pasha, one Altunizade Ismail Zühdi Pasha, in the second half of the nineteenth century. He was responsible for building a mosque, the main road, a hamam and other properties, which he rented out. Numerous members of his family can still be found here, resting peacefully in the local cemetery. In my story his proud parents lie there too, alongside their beloved boy.
The next stop on the metrobus line is Burhaniye Mahellesi. Burhan in Ottoman Turkish means ‘proof’ or ‘witness.’ This small and almost hidden suburb sits tucked away high above the turbulent waters of the Bosphorus, on the edge of which Beylerbeyi Palace can be found. When I look out the bus window I can see the residents creeping down the hill to spy on the ladies of the palace. Were they privy to the secrets of the sultans? Did they watch as the courtesans, dressed in their finery, giggled and laughed as they waited for the arrival of a golden caique to come and row them to the Sweet Waters of Asia on balmy summer nights? Were the locals of Burhaniye the first to gossip about who had a new gentleman caller and who had fallen from grace?
The actual story behind the name is equally interesting but far less romantic. The neighbourhood was originally settled by refugees from the 1876 April Uprising in Bulgaria. First known as Muhacir Köyü, ‘Immigrant village,’ it was renamed for the Burhaniye Mosque built in 1902 by Sultan Abdul Hamid II for his son Burhanettin Efendi. This story might be true, but I still prefer my version.
The next stop, Boğaziçi Köprüsü, the Bosphorus Bridge, needs no imagining as the moment the metrobus starts the crossing, one is swept away by the sun sparkling on the bright blue waters below and bouncing off the minarets that sketch in the skyline. As we cross the bridge, wide brushstrokes of detail paint in the city and there is more than enough to feed my daydreams before I alight at Zincirlikuyu. Here, at the stop whose name means ‘well or shaft equipped with a chain,’ my imagination halts as if suddenly tethered to the earth. I return once more to the present and alight from the bus to join the throng of commuters scurrying for the exits, heading off on more journeys to other places with equally mysterious and bewitching names.
Lisa Morrow is a Sydney born sociologist, blogger, writer and author of three books about Turkey, who lived in Istanbul for eight years. Her website www.insideoutinistanbul.com came about from her determination to scratch away the seemingly mundane surface of ordinary Turkish life to reveal the complexities below.
This article is an extract from her book Inside Out In Istanbul available here.