Returns and Reunions

A horse carriage and a tram in Sirkeci on a winter’s day

Ara Güler 1956

İstanbul Müzayede

Embankment, London

Wolfgang Suschitzky 1947

Peter Fetterman Collection 


Tuesday 20 June – Monday 3 July 2000

I left İstanbul for London in '47, the necklaces of its pulse fading, a winter moon on solstice rise. Late December, the 27th, a Saturday. Half a century later, more, I return, the voltage of Taksim life flaming into light, a summer sun at solstice rest. I remember little of that childhood flight - the moon mainly. But going back, crossing the Rumelian lands of my father’s forebears, swinging out over the Black Sea before banking to sweep in low over ochrous, pan-tiled houses and heat-baked concrete strips, then out again, this time across the Marmara, before folding back for the approach to the marble, tubular and stainless steel splendours of the new Atatürk Airport, is a cocktail of high adrenalin emotions. Here was a city and its place-names I’d always known - yet never known. 

Within an hour of landing, I’m at the Atatürk Cultural Centre listening to a thirty-year retrospect from the Philip Glass Ensemble - a glossily rehearsed fest, breathtakingly attacked and instantly awakening. It jolts me into why I'm here. To cover the 28th International İstanbul Music Festival. Well, that'd been the plan anyway back in March at a Turkish Embassy soirée in London, urged on by John Scott and Melih Fereli, tireless suave supremo of the various art disciplines that for four months make İstanbul a focal point of the Western calendar.

Ottoman Bosphorus Pasha

Leaving the hall takes me into a hot, dusty, stumbling, klaxon-counterpointed world of bustling crowds, garish neon advertising, cajoling street sellers, stalls laden low with apricots and melons, restaurants of faceless ‘continental’ cuisine, coach-loads of package trippers, and shoals of yellow taxis plying their trade whatever the obstruction. (Days within my arrival a parliamentary commission was being set up to investigate road accidents and ways of reducing their incidence: the ‘traffic monster’ has finally become a big issue. Many taxi drivers I encountered, mostly swarthy, wiry types from the east, seemed to be frustrated Grand Prix aspirants recklessly proud of their self-declared do-or-die approach to life. İstanbul’s road chaos is ingrained. In 1902 the poet Arthur Symons wrote feelingly of ‘unpaved cataracts’ of steep streeets and narrow lanes, of ‘dashing and struggling horses’ forced to set their hooves on the pavement before cabs driven at full speed, of people in confused mingling.) Chancing my luck, I make for my hotel, the neo-Ottoman Bosphorus Pasha in Beylerbeyi on the Anatolian side, built in 1890 on the site of a former residence of Selim III’s Grand Vizier. What should be a straightforward journey turns, however, into minor farce, my chain-smoking, accellerating, swerving, late-braking driver all the while cursing the traffic, calling his girlfriend, storming me in quick-fire Turkish peppered with Anglo-Deutsch. Crossing the newer Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridge (wrong), the road ahead is blocked by an accident tangled among the arc-lamps and rubbish. Suddenly we’re on the highway to Ankara, looking for any turn-off that will take us back into the city. Eventually we succeed, I get to the hotel, he takes his triple-fare. It’s midnight. I’ve been without sleep for forty-eight hours.

The following humid, cloudless morning I awake to two facts of İstanbul life. The extraordinary transparency yet depth, the physical vibrancy of seasonal turquoise tone that illumines from within the waterway it straddles. And the notion that reproduction equates with restoration. The truly old exists, of course, often poignantly beautiful. But so equally does film-set façade. The yalılar, the ornate presumed late 19th century Ottoman houses that crowd the ribbon-development banks of the Bosphorous, may look picturesque but I soon discover many of them to be fake - design-and-build concrete-framed affairs plastic-clad rather than timber-boarded, with modern insulated glazing rather than original windows and pre-cast mouldings in place of individually-carved detail: the more highly-coloured and symmetrical their exterior, the more likely suspect are these structures, the more darkly creosoted and warped the more probably genuine. In a city so many times ravaged and reshaped by fire (the Bosphorus Pasha was itself gutted in 1983: its present incarnation is a reconstruction from old drawings and photographs), what wooden buildings survive from the past are all too frequently a fading cacophony of the raggedly inhabited or the forlornly dilapidated. Some lean at precarious angles, some sink beneath their weight towards the water, their rotting, toothless torsos bared to the frame, every corner a mossy shelter to wraithlike prides of stray cats. Others, illogically, are pincered between high-rise plate-glassed offices or faceless mosaic-adorned, metal-casemented, post-war apartment blocks. Wandering among these relics, wondering at so much stylistic clash and disarray, so much cultural confusion and denial, I'm reminded constantly that here is a city where many of the dwellings have for generations been self-built ‘illegal developments’ (gecekondular), a place where, given so much ‘uncontrolled building speculation’ and historical erosion, the accuracy of even the best restorations ‘must be doubted’.1

Cavalry Barracks on the Bosphorus

Thomas Allom c 1838

Kuleli c 1930s

Mesut Uyar Collection

Remnants of village charm, private flower gardens and fountains, shady trees, a wood-burning hamam drifting its fragrant smoke on the night wind, an old floodlit mosque, fish restaurants, noisy diesel engines and cracked pavements make up the calm and clamour of Beylerbeyi. Here used to be the Sultan’s summer palace, ‘the most elegant edifice on the Bosphorus’ thought the English orientalist Julia Pardoe, visiting in the 1830s. On May 15th 1919 a small boy sailed this point on the ferry from Galata to Çengelköy, bound for Kuleli, the long, grandly proportioned Military School of the Ottomans. Once landed, he and his mother and younger brother walked ‘the sea-road, tree-lined and white in the noonday sun. The school loomed up on our right, like a Palace, I thought, so white it was against the cloudless summer sky.’ I trace his steps. Not so quiet now as then, but the hour as hot, dusty and bright as he would have remembered, gaily painted rowing-boats tethered to the shore, young and old alike fishing their silver quarry. Suddenly Kuleli is upon me, more massive close-to than from the water, dominated by its Teutonically tapering twin towers, its grey stone steps and great door, its guards beating their watch, its lastingly resonant symbols of Empire and Republic - the green-and-gold swirl of the sultan’s tughra, the crescent-and-star of the national flag. Contrasting the splendours of metropolis Harbiye, I find it a foreboding place. How intimated, how remote from the mosque where he'd pray on Fridays within sight of the last sultan, must that child have felt, here on the Anatolian side of a beaten people under occupation, with no bridges only a lengthy boat-ride to take him home. My eyes roam to the verdant hill behind. Here, as he grew older, he'd climb to a favourite tree to gaze upon the realms he might one day have to defend - up to the Black Sea, across to Bebek ‘in all its shimmering morning beauty,’ down to Dolmabahçe, ‘white and artificial as a wedding cake’. This was his place, his İstanbul, ‘jewel’ of the Bosphorus. ‘Grey it would look from this hill and the smoke from the boats would lie over it like a soft veil and tall and tapering are the minarets that enchant the skyline.’ He told me often about it. He was my father. 'Son of Hüsnü and Şevkiye of Beyazıt.'

Blue Mosque, Aya Sofya


Taking an afternoon ferry from Üsküdar to Beşiktaş, watching Leander’s Tower and the domed, slim-fingered mosques of the Old City and Golden Horn coalesce out of the haze, I head for Topkapı Palace, crossing the new Galata Bridge, before bearing left around the perimeter road and then turning right, up the steep, narrowly winding, cobbled streets, past timbered konaklar and invitingly canopied eating-places, towards the cafés and plane trees that proliferate before Aya Sofya - Justinian’s impassive alter to Christendom. In the leafy, fountained garden of Yeşil Ev, English tea with the violinist Cihat Aşkın and friends is to the unsynchronized antiphony of amplified muezzins calling the faithful to prayer. Nearby, Sultan Ahmet’s imposing Blue Mosque asserts its six minarets. Down the hill, in his grandparents' 'big wooden house, painted white with green shutters and trellised balconies’ overlooking the Marmara, my father passed his boyhood.

That evening there’s another İstanbul Festival assignment, a concert within the Topkakı grounds in the echoing spaces of the Byzantine basilica/Janissary arsenal of Aya İrini, the ‘Church of Divine Peace’ - a magnificent survivor from antiquity hallmarked within as much by chilled stone floors, vaulted windows and stripped walls as its spotlit Iconoclastic Cross of black tesseræ promising heaven. Under its stylistically elegant music director Gürer Aykal, the Borusan İstanbul Philharmonic is the Turkish orchestra to watch these days, its strength, youthful personality and unjaded enthusiasm a tonic to ears tired by the indifferent complacency so often encountered in bands westward. Strengthened with members from Aykal’s American orchestra, the El Paso Symphony from Texas, and with two charismatic soloists in Kishna Davis and the theatrically outrageous Lawrence Craig, their spontaneous, time-bending, way with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Dvořák’s New World Symphony could not have been more idiomatic.

Minutes from the concert ending, I’m being pressed by Gürer to join the orchestra on their tour south. I go with them as far as Ephesus, crossing the Marmara by sea-bus to Bandırma before setting out on the coach journey to İzmir. My companions are the orchestra’s indefatigable artistic adviser, Ömer Umar - a raconteur of infinite knowledge who’d had the satisfaction over the years of bringing to Turkey many of the legendary greats of his time, from Rubinstein to Richter. And its wise-cracking, long experienced sound engineer, Engin Aksan - cheerfully optimistic whatever the (not inconsiderable) recording odds stacked against him. Stone-baked, tinder-grassed Ephesus - unassuming and scarcely visible from the parched roadside, powerful and astral-charged within - is the closest I come this trip to the tourist trail. While our guide quaintly goes through her routine, I make my own acquaintance with the rooms and homes that stood here, with the ghosts who perchance still wander these ruins when the visitors are gone. This Saturday of apricot sunset, though, they have to wait. First for the concert in the Roman amphitheatre, an open-air presentation of the 14th International İzmir Festival – Craig’s impromptu use of every ancient stone as a theatrical prop setting the press cameras flashing ... the cor anglais solo of the Dvořák touching greatness to the call of cicadas ... an old dog from the bush padding the tiers caring for neither minister nor millionaire. Then for a candle reception in the colonnaded remains of the Library, the heat of the night a backcloth to spontaneously pulse-quickening folk dances from the girls of the orchestra, to intoxicated flirtatious exchanges, to aching romance within the shadows. Then for our long walk out of history down the Marble Way torch-lit beneath the Pleiades, back to Jack Jones ‘standards’ and air-conditioned amenity.


Thomas Allom c 1838

Exchanging old-regality Bosphorus Pasha and my room in the former harem quarters for new-efficiency Hilton with its Turkish-night ‘specials’, my second week sees a friend from Cambridge arrive to keep me company - the composer and Anglophile Emre Aracı.2 In seventy-two hours of spiralling discovery we accomplish much. We drop by 40 Savaş Sokak, Şişli, where, liked and watched over by Greek neighbours, I'd spent my infancy. It says nothing. Past the suspension bridges, the gracious Balyan-designed Ortaköy Camii, past red-roofed Kuleli, the wooded grounds of the old American Robert College for Boys (Bosphorus University), past the natural marina and landing stage at İstinye, we take the boat up the Bosphorus to Sarıyer, formerly summer refuge of the Ottoman elite where my father as a child before the Great War would go to his uncle Ahmet's yalı, with its rose-scented rooms, its magnolia gardens and greenhouses, its grapevines and orchard. As a young air force officer he went back, but by then it was tumbled down, ‘vanished like its long-dead owners,’ its garden ‘choked with weeds’. We have less luck, able only to imagine. But we do find the dark, balconied, curvaciously carved, weather-boarded, three-storey house that had once belonged to Emre’s family, now padlocked and up for sale, in a bad state of repair, a depository for the flotsam and jetsam of the fishing boats tied up nearby, suffocated by take-aways and tenement washing-lines. Sad and forsaken maybe but it gives an idea of what these grand playgrounds must have been like.

The old yalı in Sarıyer

hypnagogic fantasy on a 2017 watercolour by Ayşe Türemiş

Emre Aracı Collection

'There were those mansions which floated on posts immersed in water. There were those still daydreaming, 

as if in an unfinished reverie. Some of these mansions looked like traps set uo to catch a dream by the quayside, some were like boats about to set sail in full wind, towards lands of the imagination'

~ Abdülhak Şinasi Hisar 1954 ~

Ayşe Türemiş cover-designed the 2009 Turkish edition of Portrait of a Turkish Family 

translated in 1993-94 by Arın Bayraktaroğlu

The following day takes us on a very different journey, across the Bosphorus, then east along the arid, drab, bumpy road through İzmit to Karamürsel on one of the long blue inlets of the Marmara. This is 1999 earthquake country, more than 17,000 having lost their lives. Everywhere there is devastation - broken houses, cracked walls no more than a brick wide, mound upon mound of rubble, dangerously tottering apartment blocks leering like sightless corpses, their windows torn out, their flimsy floors and shells bared to the elements, their distorted fragments of rooms and kitchens pathetic echoes that people had once lived here. Whatever the sense of drugged sleep, life, though, does go on. Maybe there’s an air of resignation (no one can sell their property or move, and, the locals tell us cynically, buildings aren’t being demolished because the authorities are waiting for the next earthquake to finish off the job). Yet old men sit around politicising, smoking and drinking pale red çay from delicately waisted glasses. Tanned, compact, short-cropped, bare-foot little boys play in the dust. The taller buildings are no longer inhabitable. Yet their ground floors are home to ramshackle open-front shops. Fruit sellers water their produce to keep them fresh. Everywhere satellite-dishes sprout from unlikely corners (communications technology is big in Turkey), the convex domes of God become Mammon's concave reply.

Karamürsel is where aunt Bedia and cousin Oya live. I cannot recall ever having met them - though they assure me I have. We communicate falteringly, silently, a whole lifetime of different experiences between us. Effectively we’re strangers linked only by name and blood, strangers known to each other only through dated, faded images. Yet they open their house and arms to me. Here are the foods and smells of my childhood. Photographs from when we were young. A shrine to my father’s books. The telegram I sent thirty years ago telling of his death. Carefully pressed memorabilia of other times, another land. We touch, we sense, we drink the moment. The evening bus comes. My aunt gazes after me, matriarchally impassive but her eyes piercing deep, wanting perhaps to see something again of the men into whose family she had married. My cousin, so yearningly ago promised me in the way of tradition, busies herself. Her niece and nephew come to say their good-byes, pictures of eau-de-cologne grace and discrete modesty. As we pull away I look back, uncaring for time, lingering to remember better this spot where the earth gasps and the sea comes so lazily to kiss.

In the 1890s Pierre Loti called the fortress walls on the west side of the Old City ‘the most solitary spot in the world where nothing seems to have stirred since the days of the last Byzantine Emperors ... always the same battlements, the same turrets, the same dark hues, laid on by the hand of time, the same regular lines, running straight and dreary, till they are lost on the far horizon ... the surrounding country ... studded with clumps of lowering cypresses, as tall as cathedrals, beneath whose shade thousands of Osman sepulchres [lie] crowded together... so many cemeteries, so many tombs, so many dead.’1 Here, from where in 1453 Mehmet launched his final attack on Constantinople, Emre and I spend an afternoon, eventually finding the graveyard we’re searching for, Merkezefendi, a forgotten 16th century expanse of cool stillness and aromatically smoky sun-beamed shadows countering the noisy once-Roman road that separates it from the ramparts. We come across Halide Edip’s grave, shamefully neglected and uncelebrated for so famous a mistress of letters. We stumble upon a rusting, long-ruined mausoleum to a Dervish cook. We disbelieve a small roughly chiselled rock marking the resting place of the painter İbrahim Çalli. Suddenly she’s there. Şevkiye Orga, my Albanian grandmother, 1895-18 May 1940 – not only shorter-lived than my father remembered but confirming a childhood recollection of him saying she was only thirteen when he was born. The rose-trees he and his brother planted have gone, the once shining marble headstone facing the walls is dull, everywhere is a brittle tangle of overgrown weeds. Tidying what I can, I stoop to her dignity. Then, following her sons before us, ‘with the sun and the kindly rain and the eternal nights to come,’ we leave her to her sleep.

Emre Aracı 2000

Climaxed by Matthew Bourne’s choreographically, visually, sonically stunning Swan Lake, İstanbul Festival's ‘Britain-Turkey 2000’ theme - offset by an American sub-plot plus the 250th anniversary of Bach’s death - focused on The King’s Consort (Bach's orchestral Suites), Kiri Te Kanawa, Nigel Kennedy and Lynn Harrell, Trevor Pinnock and the English Concert (St Matthew Passion), the Philharmonia under Leonard Slatkin (Copland's Third Symphony, Beethoven Nine), The Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and Julian Lloyd Webber. Among the big-time violinists I missed Repin, admired Shlomo Mintz, but was disappointed by Vengerov. Turkish music was represented variously - ranging from the classical vocalist Meral Uğurlu and revivalist Ottoman period-instrument Bezmârâ Ensemble, through contemporary song (Mesut İktu), to the premiere of Kudsi Erguner’s (ney/voice orientated) Nâzim Hikmet: Of Life and Death. Uğurlu’s phrasing and artistry was unmistakeable - but the Turkish weakness for indiscriminate amplification made for an unmusical balance, with her voice edgily to the fore at the expense of the intimacy of the instruments around her. The result was an exaggerated stereo sound-picture reflecting neither the proximity or projection of the performers nor the acoustic of the auditorium (nothing new in this of course - witness a century of Turkish traditional and popular music recordings - but no less excusable for that). Add microphone distortion, and many an artist might well have felt unable to brave the situation. Socialites and powerbrokers – dollar-flushed businessmen escorting high-heeled ladies, dinner at the Hyatt or Hilton in the offing - were unperturbed.

So to Beyoğlu and my final Saturday, with the soprano Yelda Kodallı for morning coffee and patisseries à la parisienne at the Pera Palace - little reproduction here, simply decadently immoderate Orient Express ornament and chandelier vintage 1895, art nouveau wrought-ironery, and the most overwhelming of turquoise-domed ballrooms. I ask to try out the pianos, only no one can find the keys to unlock them. My plane to Heathrow is Monday sunrise. Time still to meet the composer Kamran İnce - who lives life on a high and whose pulsatingly physical, spiritually ritualistic music has been likened to the very topography of Turkey itself - ‘a fantastical jumble of mountains, deserts, plains and oceans.’ Time to watch the navy patrols, the rusting container argonauts surging their way to and from the Black Sea, the cruise liners at anchor - white sarays as overbearing as must have been those hundred-and-twenty-gun ships-of-the-line meeting one in the street reported by Kinglake in 1835. Time to ponder a society of contrasts and paradoxes. Time to recall a landscape where mountains are sliced in half for their marble, where advertisement hoardings savage the forest harmony, where flags affirm and re-affirm the national psyche. Time to re-live again that first recognition of Kuleli in the distance of the night, floodlit to the stars, to remember good companionship by the waters of Beylerbeyi.

Pera Palace

Viktoria Mocharska 2016

Blaxhall, Suffolk

summer 2000

Tilbury Juxta Clare, Essex, 3 February 2023

Christa Beck, Christiane Forsting, Istanbul: an Architectural Guide, London 1997.

Whom I'd met originally through Sinan and Arın Bayraktaroğlu in Sawston Hall, and whose first album, European Music at the Ottoman Court, I'd produced in London a few months before [Kalan CD177]. It was Emre who introduced me to Cihat Aşkın, leader of the ensemble at those sessions.

3  Aziyadé, translated Marjorie Lawrie, London 1927.

Editorial abridgement, Cornucopia, issue 22, 2000/21

under the title 'Return of the Native'

Other passages adapted in the revised Afterword to the

2011 Eland reprint of İrfan Orga's  Portrait of a Turkish Family