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Volume 41, Number 4July/August 1990

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Remaking Istanbul

Written by John Roberts
Photographed by Ergun Çağatay

The Golden Horn is green, but the sky is grey. Children play in the new parks as, on the new through-way, traffic rolls by. The children have color in their cheeks and a cough in their lungs. On the new road, traffic lights, caution signs, pedestrian crossings and yellow taxis show the healthy colors of the city's improved circulation; the children's wheezing shows that Istanbul's smoky air has yet to be cleaned up.

This is Istanbul in winter: a city of jack-hammers and urban redevelopment, of heavy pile drivers pushing the foundations of new buildings deep into the waters which gave the city birth. This is a city striving to regain its ancient place as a world metropolis; a city where new roads and bridges, subways and ferryboats will serve the working man and woman, where fresh-laid parks will serve the child at play.

The roads, parks and other improvements were certainly needed: Stambulus say they have seen their city grow ten-fold in just a generation. The graceful Lady on the Golden Horn, and her daughters in old and new and ever newer suburbs on the European and Asian sides of the Bosporus, are now home to more than 6.6 million people. Her face has changed, and, necessarily, her way of life as well.

The best way to approach Istanbul is still by boat from the Sea of Marmara. The historic skyline of the old city still draws the eye and dominates all else. The seven hills of the city, rolling in a fluent line from the Ottoman Topkapi Palace to the Roman city walls, are yet punctuated by the slim minarets of some of the most beautiful mosques ever built. But on the foreshore, swathes of raw open space mark the construction sites of roads, sewage tunnels, and subway systems. And across the Golden Horn, new skyscrapers are changing the character of Galata and the western suburbs, while office buildings transform the once-remote suburbs of the Asian shore.

Istanbul is a city defined as much by water as by land. Founded on a roughly triangular point of land protruding west and north into the Bosporus like the toe of a Turkish slipper, its function was to control the passage of vessels through that strait, and its harbor on the Golden Horn - the narrow inlet that defines the slipper's northern edge - was world-renowned. Today the Horn may not be golden - nor has it been for 500 years - but it is not as black and foul as it once was. The warren of old hans and warehouses, their walls and woodwork blackened by man and time, is vanishing. And in a city sadly short of parks and greenery, there is fresh grass growing close by the water's edge.

The need to balance development and conservation, commercial needs against public aspirations, exists in all historic cities, and particularly in Istanbul. But finding the exact balance is not easy. The pressures of rapid population growth, of transport dislocation and other problems associated with runaway urban expansion, are such that conservation must sometimes appear very much a secondary consideration. Indeed, the Istanbul municipality's general secretary only cited conservation as a priority when he was reminded, at the end of a 45-minute interview, that he had not used the word once in discussing the extensive works in progress for the redevelopment of the city.

The city's renovation is certainly overdue. Political uncertainties and Turkey's economic weakness combined to frustrate local authorities' efforts to revitalize the city in the generations following the proclamation of the modern Turkish republic in 1923. Progress and change were intermittent: In 1980 the heart of Istanbul looked much the same as it had a generation earlier. No matter how magnificent its architectural heritage, the city that was once the capital of intercontinental empires now looked shabby, the soot and smoke of its industry clinging to its millennial monuments like widow's weeds.

Urban sprawl, inner-city overcrowding and the desperate need to overhaul or replace the city's infrastructure became key issues. In the years following the 1980 military coup, Turkey liberalized first its economy, then its political institutions. Political, economic and social conditions proved ripe for a concentrated effort to transform the city again into an attractive global center.

Although many specific programs, and much of the master plan, were in place before his arrival as mayor, Istanbul's dramatic revitalization is commonly associated with one man: Bedrettin Dalan. Elected in 1984 as a youthful symbol of Turkey's drive for modernization and liberalization, Dalan welcomed the chance to transform the city he loved. Istanbul, he said, was "a beautiful diamond in need of polishing," and in his five years in office he set out to do just that. The Stambulus loved him, and his defeat in the 1989 elections is conceded to be not so much a rejection of the mayor himself as of the party he was associated with at the time, the governing Motherland Party. Since 1989, Dalan has left the party, formed his own, and is now debating whether to run for mayor again on make his entrance on Turkey's national politcal stage.

During his term, however, Dalan's diamond-polishing metaphor rankled with his critics, who pointed out that it may have been more apposite than he had intended - since, for a diamond to sparkle magnificently, it must first be cut.

Indeed, Istanbul today has been, and is being, recut, as enormous projects begun under Dalan are continued by his successor, Nurettin Sozen. Between Dolapdere and the Golden Horn a great trench has been rammed through Tarlabasi, a district thick with traditional 19th-century Ottoman houses. Dilapidated yet elegant, they stood in the way of progress, represented by new buildings and a new road which has much improved the flow of traffic around the core of the modern city in Beyoglu.

Few dispute the necessity of new roads, but some of Dalan's critics felt he put construction ahead of consequences. Yet, defenders replied, Istanbul had been strapped for cash for decades, until the arrival of the free-market-oriented government after 1980. Since then, and particularly after Dalan became mayor in 1984, money was available for redevelopment. And if it was there, then was it not wise to put it to work immediately, and continue the projects while one could? After all, who knows when the next round of national belt-tightening might begin?

Even after Dalan, Istanbul's is perhaps the most ambitious urban renewal program in the developing world. The city budget exceeds $1.2 billion, of which no less than one-third is required for the massive and long overdue overhaul of the city's water and sewer networks. The first person in four centuries to wield direct authority over the city - the result of political reforms which made the mayoralty an elective office rather than a central-government appointment - Dalan was perforce the heir to Justinian the Great,

Mehmet the Conqueror and Suleyman the Magnificent, each of whom refashioned the city in his lifetime. But while the city's Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rulers left palaces, churches, mosques and fortifications as their most obvious legacies, Dalan's chief bequest to his citizens - along with the much-needed sewers - is a road network that has subordinated almost everything in its path to its extensive requirements.

"Today we have 500,000 cars in the city - every twelfth person has a car or truck," says Atanur Oguz, a general secretary at the Istanbul Municipality and once Dalan's right-hand man. "But the world average is one vehicle to every four people. That means Istanbul can expect 1.5 million vehicles to cope with. We must prepare the city for this."

The needed road system is well on the way to completion. A new one-way traffic pattern, its roads built in part on reclaimed shoreland, has eased congestion in the heart of the old city. Between 1984 and 1988, says Oguz, some 347 kilometers (216 miles) of main roads were both planned and constructed - "50 per cent of our new road requirements."

Nor is it just in the heart of the city that the local road crews are busy. Just north of the waterside Dolmabahoe Palace, the pile drivers and paving machines are completing one of Dalan's most ambitious projects, a new superhighway along the western edge of the Bosporus.

This remains the mayor's most controversial project, as well. Originally, the road was to have been right on the shore, its way cleared by the destruction of wooden water's-edge row houses and some of the elegant yahs, or waterfront villas, where Istanbul's gentry were wont to retreat in summer. There were protests, however, and Dalan quickly relented: The buildings were historic; they would be saved. And they were: The road was built on an elevated platform over the Bosporus, parallel to the shore and in front of the yahs. It was an elegant piece of engineering but a rather literal-minded solution to the problem, ignoring the point of the protests. Conservationists were outraged.

What point was there in preserving the yahs if they were to be separated from the water by a roaring superhighway directly in front of them, asked Celik Giilersoy, the head of the - Turkish Touring and Automobile Club (TTOK). Giilersoy's own conservation and restoration efforts have made him a figure of both renown and controversy in Turkey. The shore road would destroy the harmony linking the Bosporus parkland, the yahs and the swirling currents of the waterway itself. A similar road built a little inland, with feeders down to the water, would have served the same functional purpose without increasing traffic in an area known for tranquility.

Such issues are the very essence of modern urban planning. But the roads are already under construction - some stretches are already in use - and they reach around and through the city, reducing delays, congestion and lost time as well as charm, character and historical values. What was, in the early 1970's, a ring road around the outer limits of the city is now an inner-urban highway. The first Bosporus bridge (See Aramco World, September-October 1973), an exceedingly elegant structure with a single span suspended over the channel from graceful towers anchored in Europe and Asia, is one of the city's few modern constructions of real architectural merit. The new second bridge, a copy of the first, opened in 1989 and is just as elegant. But it literally casts a shadow on one of Istanbul's most famous sights, Rumeli Hisari, the fortress built by Sultan Mehmet to pave the way for his conquest of Byzantium in 1453. Threatened Yildiz Sarayi, a late-Ottoman palace set in one of the loveliest parks in the city, has been temporarily reprieved: Construction of the third Bosporus bridge, which would have overshadowed the palace and destroyed the calm of its placid parklands, has been postponed by budget cuts in Ankara.

Istanbul's planners are sensitive to criticism. The city, they say, may have pushed ahead before the final details of the master plan were in hand, but the individual project studies were complete. Criticisms that new and planned roads do not mesh well with existing ones are dismissed politely: "The critics are not always objective; there are political reasons for criticism," said one senior planner.

Dalan's vision of Istanbul was, and remains, popular as well as populist, and it reaches well into the future. He initiated a plan, not discarded by his successors, intended to show the city how it will be in 2020, by which year the authorities hope Istanbul will be again a world center for business, trade, tourism, sports, culture and the arts.

The plan is founded firmly on infrastructure. In parts of the city, giant sections of sewer pipe two meters (79 inches) in diameter lie by the roadside waiting for the trenches in which they will be sunk - part of the more than 18 kilometers (11.2 miles) of new mains being laid, serving districts as varied as Fatih, in the heart of the imperial city of Stambul, and Eyiip, to the northeast, beyond the city's walls. Paralleling this work is a project designed to bring more than 7,500,000 cubic meters of water - some two billion US gallons - into the city each day, enough to provide about 300 gallons for every man, woman and child. About half of this quantity will come from Lake Sapanca, 100 kilometers (62 miles) east of the city, and a cluster of small rivers beyond the lake. The work is the 20th-century equivalent of the fourth-century Aqueduct of Valens - still in use today - whose columns stride along the spine of Istanbul just past city hall.

Last May, Nurettin Sozen also unveiled a new gas-supply scheme of a similar scale, and, along with roads, the city is giving priority to the creation of new central business districts. "Before Dalan, there was planning only for one downtown core," said Oguz. "Everybody came to Eminonii, Karakoy... .There were two million coming in the morning, two million leaving in the evening."

Indeed, the crowds of suburban workers still pour into these choked-up entry points every day, arriving by ferryboat, hydrofoil, and bridge from the Asian suburbs, and by bus, train and subway from the European ones. These are the new Stambulus, arrivals one or five or 10 years ago from the Anatolian countryside who emigrated to seek work in the fabled city during Turkey's long and difficult progress toward development. Their loyalties, necessarily, are to their jobs, their livelihoods, but it is such people that Dalan and Sozen strive to serve, for the more they find the city livable, the more they will find it lovable, until their feelings for this great and ancient capital are as strong as those of its long-time residents - as strong as those of Dalan and Sozen themselves.

It is the immigrants' children, not they themselves, who have begun to appreciate the necessity for conservation of Istanbul's unique amenities and to feel their positive impact. On the Asian shore, on one of the few hills to survive the ravages of urban sprawl, pine trees surround the 18th-century pavilions of Camhca. Here the young Stambulus come for quiet recreation, gazing over the Bosporus toward the gilded palaces, sipping tea or eating elegant sweetmeats at the coffee houses restored - or designed - by Celik Giilersoy.

Gulersoy is known for the speed of his conservation and restoration efforts. In 10 years he has restored more than 50 historic buildings, often converting them into profitable restaurants, cafes or small hotels. He is his own interior decorator, ransacking the antique shops of the world for the right furniture to put in the right buildings - and if the furniture is not available, he hires Istanbul's skilled artisans to make him duplicates. From the art nouveau of the summer lodge of Abbas Hilmi Pasa, the last khedive of Egypt, to the quiet simplicity of the wooden houses around the Kariye Camii (St. Savior in Chora), Giilersoy has left his mark. Where once there was a ragtag row of rundown wooden houses clustering along the wall of Topkapi Palace, behind the great church and mosque of Hagia Sofia, today there is a neat hotel, tricked out in fresh pastel colors and with tiny, daintily paved courtyards. Yet the buildings are in fact the same ones, and the colors added to them, says Giilersoy are merely the shades in which they once were painted.

Gulersoy holds strong views on what is happening to the city. He bemoans a lack of respect for tradition, while acknowledging that that tradition ensured Istanbul's physical decline for more than four centuries until the elections of 1984. "The municipality was given enormous financial possibilities - but they didn't consider the cultural costs," he argues. The destruction of the Tarlaba§i site is a particularly painful example to him: Not only were 400 19th-century houses destroyed, he says, but 25-story buildings are going up in the area. "That will mean the total end of the character of that part of the city."

Gulersoy is worried lest the greening of the Golden Horn result in further destruction of the communities along its shores. He is particularly concerned for the character of two districts, the traditionally Greek district of Fener, situated just inside the old Roman walls, and the Turkish "village" of Eyüp, situated just outside the walls and made famous to Westerners by Pierre Loti. The small, two-story houses so characteristic of both districts face possible elimination, or at least the loss of their views of the Horn, since new high-rise apartment blocks are planned at the edge of the newly-created waterfront parks and playgrounds. Gulersoy terms such development "a ridiculous copy of the French and Italian rivieras."

Yet change is needed. A city which aspires to be both a contemporary world center for business and a living monument to almost 16 centuries of imperial Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman rule desperately needs to shed some of its grimier aspects. Heavy industry is being moved out wherever possible. The dockyards established on the Golden Horn in the 1950's are being moved to new centers, one near Haydarpa§a, on the Asian side, the other 50 kilometers (30 miles) away, on the Sea of Marmara. Bit by bit, the new parks are growing. When Dalan took office, the city had just over four square meters (43 square feet) of greenery for every person. Some five years later the figure was nearly seven square meters, or 75 square feet. The target is ten meters -107 square feet.

"Until yesterday, Istanbul was a green city," recalls Professor Metin Soysen, who advises the Turkish parliament on cultural and historical issues. "In the heart of the city there were actual forests. Some are still there, but the dense construction close to the forest has meant that the city has lost its dominating color. You can feel this especially along the Bosporus," he adds.

Soysen is working with the city authorities to rectify the situation. His work involves the renovation of the 19th-century palaces from which the later Ottoman sultans ran an empire stretching from the Arabian Gulf to the Adriatic Sea. "Once the insides of the palaces were renovated, the Istanbul municipality cooperated in renovating their surroundings, in resettling the grounds. Now we are preparing environmental plans for the area and giving them to the municipality."

Soysen is also trying to convince the city to do more to preserve its historic buildings. Dalan was particularly proud of the restoration work being carried out on the city walls, one of the great symbols of the city. The massive towers of the Belgrade Gate are still being rebuilt, and it may well be that the project will not be finished until the walls are as complete and pristine as they were when the emperor Theodosius had them built 1500 years ago. But the walls are not the most difficult restoration. At root, the problem is that almost every square meter of the imperial city, and large sections of the major European and Asian suburbs as well, are potential architectural and archeological treasure-troves. The character of Istanbul has largely been determined by the splendor of its imperial monuments, religious and secular. Unless they are restored, the city's character will be determined in future by these massive infrastucture projects instead, carried out on a scale not seen since the great Ottoman architect Mimar Sinan was in charge of public works four centuries ago.

Somewhat unusually, at least one of the major contractors has considerable experience of conservation work. The Yapi Mer-kezi company is the Turkish partner in the extremely complex project to build a 23- kilometer (14.3 - mile) rapid - transit system from the heart of the old city to the newer northern suburbs near the city's Atatiirk Airport. Work on the "steel necklace," as the company terms the project, began in 1986 and the aim is to have it in operation by the end of 1991, along with a new railway tunnel under the Bosporus to Asia. In the past, the company has worked on such delicate projects as the restoration of the Galata Tower, one of the great landmarks of the city's former Genoese quarter, the reconstruction of Atatiirk's boyhood home in Salonika, and the preservation of a medieval bastion in Algiers.

Yapi Merkezi's chief executive, Ersin Anoglu, politely contrasts the "more mechanized and engineering viewpoint of Mayor Dalan" with the "more humanistic approach" of Celik Giilersoy. As the city's first elected mayor, Dalan had to prove his ability to get things done. In consequence, says Anoglu, municipal officials sometimes leapt before they looked. "In a very short time they must do a lot of things. Sometimes they acted too fast, but this was because the people are pushing them," he adds.

Nonetheless, Arioglu is convinced that Istanbul is broadly on the right course. "The face of Istanbul will be changed after a few years. It will be a pleasant place to live in 10 years' time," he affirms.

This may well be true in some parts of the imperial city where proper water supplies, drainage and transport networks will all work to benefit ordinary people. But it will not resolve the question of the Bosporus. "There are some things that are very important examples - symbols - of history," says Professor Soysen. "The Bosporus is one of them. In my opinion, none of us should try to change the Bosporus. On the other hand, 6.6 million people living in Istanbul have to use it. In my opinion, we need very detailed and long studies of projects which involve the Bosporus. Water traffic should be encouraged and highways should be on the hills. Further construction on the Bosporus should be stopped, so that it is not such a concentrated area in terms of population."

Dalan's legacy - including his impact on the Bosporus - is considerable. The new highways, the sewers, the metro system are major accomplishments and, because of the force of his personality and his personal central role in implementing so many projects prepared by his predecessors, the city's transformation will be indelibly associated with him. His successor, Sozen, is far less charismatic, and far less controversial. More important, he must run the city not in a period of economic expansion but in a more straitened era, with the government in Ankara ordering public-sector spending cuts.

Yet the controversies over the relative merits of construction, restoration, conservation and development go on, running as deep as ever. The conversion this year of Hagia Eirene, one of the loveliest of early Byzantine churches, into a concert hall has evoked strong emotions in those who treasured its sense of solitude.

One city planner summed up the effects of the changes in the city this way. "This is a historical city," he said. "The city planner must be careful; he must consider the beauty, the esthetic aspect. I believe Dalan was an Istanbul lover - he was the Istanbul lover. I believe he felt for Istanbul. But sometimes lovers can be dangerous: They can love too much."

Veteran business journalist John Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the Middle East and its trade. He is now senior editor with the Oil Daily Energy Compass in London.

This article appeared on pages 3-11 of the July/August 1990 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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