Istanbul streets reveal city’s true soul

Istanbul streets reveal city’s true soul

Turkish delight: The street changes according to the time and day of the week, which leaves travellers with memories of the city’s dynamic and vibrant street culture. — VNS Photos Le Huong
Old school: A replica of the historic red trams of Istanbul, which are now back in service along the Istiklal Street that link Taksim Square and Tunnel.

by Le Huong

A Thai Indian friend of mine, who prefers to remain anonymous, and her American fiance decided to organise their wedding soon in Istanbul.

And until my recent trip to Istanbul, I was worried about the most important decision in their life.

The location, which links Asia and Europe, is a unique place that gathers Eastern and Western cultures. My friends certainly wanted to choose a place where diversities mingle and live in harmony to mark their multi-national marriage.

My impression of the city may be told in 1001 nights but my very first and closest experience was Istiklal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), where I strolled on the first day and also passed by many times during my visit as the street was just few minute walk from my hotel.

The street was named Cadde-i-Kebir during Ottoman times and was also known as the Grande Rue de Pera.

Strolling along the three-kilometre-long pedestrian street, one can see a bustling modern life of Turkish people between 10am and 2am as well as the quiet charm of Eurasian architecture.

The cobbled street reminds me of the past with cosy cafes, restaurants, shops, bookstores, movie theatres and music stores. Most of the movie theatres in Istanbul can be found here.

The street seems to have its own soul which I more clearly see when I understand more about its historic meaning to the city.

Mahmut Batur Temizsoy, a Turkish colleague told me that Taksim Square, known locally as Taksim Meydani, was considered the heart of modern Istanbul, and is the location of the Cumhuriyet Aniti (Republic Monument), which was built in 1928 and commemorates the formation of the Turkish Republic.

In Arabic, the word taqsim means “division” or “distribution.” Taksim Square was originally the point where the main water lines from the north of Istanbul were connected and branched off to other parts of the city, he said.

This use for the area was established by Sultan Mahmud I. The square takes its name from the stone reservoir which is located in the area.

Taksim is a main transportation hub with a nearby Metro station. An old-fashioned tram runs from the square along the avenue, ending near the Tunnel. Built in 1875, it is the world’s second-oldest subway line after London’s Underground built in 1863 and the first subterranean urban rail line in continental Europe.

Surrounding Taksim Square are numerous travel agencies, hotels, restaurants, pubs and international fast food chains.

Buried treasure: Many cafes and restaurants are hidden away in the small lanes of Istiklal.

Mahmut said that Taksim’s position was given an extra boost in June 2006, when the new funicular line connecting the Taksim Metro station with the Kabatas tramway station and seaport was opened, allowing travellers to ascend to Taksim in just two minutes.

According to various historical material on the city, the square has been an important venue for group political protests, which are now banned following many violent incidents.

However gatherings for events such as New Year’s Eve, Republic Day celebrations or mass-screenings of important football matches are excluded from the ban.

Replicas of the historic red trams of Istanbul, which operated in the city between 1939 and 1960s, have been put in service along the Istiklal Street to link Taksim Square and Tunnel since the end of 1990.

“While I walk along the street, I see people, both locals and tourists, out enjoying themselves,” said Besma Khalid, a tourist from Iraq who was visiting the city for the first time, “They sing, dance, chat, and have a laugh. I love the street so much. There is no gender discrimination in such a Muslim country.”

“People drink beer freely within the praying sounds from nearby mosques,” he said.

“There is enough history and shopping along the street to fill an encyclopaedia,” Khalid joked.

The street changes according to the time of day and day of the week, leaving an unforgettable impression of a dynamic and vibrant street culture, he noted.

Further along the street is the beautiful gothic Catholic Church of St Anthony. It was constructed in 1907, and resembles Notre Dame in Paris but on a smaller scale.

Most of the buildings are from the mid-19th century and bear a French influence. French Baroque and neo-classical style were two leading styles at that time.

According to a local passer-by, foreigners who worked in Istanbul used to live in this area and shaped the neighbourhood in a very European way. There are old Russian and French restaurants hidden in the small lanes of Istiklal, which still provide a taste of the old days.

There are some bookshops that are well worth visiting such as Pandora, Robinson Crusoe and the Istanbul Greater Council Publications store, which offer a wide range of English-language books and publications.

A cultural centre in the middle of the street offers traditional Turkish dance lessons every Sunday afternoon. My friends and I enjoyed a wonderful Sufi dance there.

Sufi whirling (or Sufi spinning) is a physical active meditation which originated among Sufis, and is still practised by the Sufi dervishes of the Mevlevi order.

This is practised by abandoning one’s nafs, egos or personal desires, listening to the music, focusing on God, and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles, which is seen as a symbolic imitation of planets in the Solar System orbiting the sun.

Istiklal Street finishes in Tunnel Square, terminus for the tram and entrance to the Tunnel metro.

Here, by entering the 573m Tunnel running straight to Karakoy, one may feel as if having travelled into a dream. The Tunnel had been continuously in service since 1875. Two trains run on a single rail every 3.5 minutes and a trip takes 1.5 minutes, servicing over 15,000 passengers per day.

But let me wrap up my Turkish dream on this centrally-located street and consider more in my later stories. — VNS

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