During five years living in Turkey, I crossed the country in search of new experiences and insights along this extraordinary nation that stretches from the Balkans to Mesopotamia. Everywhere, whether watching ships pass through the Dardanelles or the sun set in Mardin in the southeast, Turkey has the ability to thrill, surprise and exalt. But also, I found, to my surprise, I could witness aspects of half a decade of extraordinary change and historical continuity that has bewitched travellers for centuries by stepping no further than my back room at home, with its breathtaking view.
I had fallen in love with the view from my apartment the first time I was shown it. I knew, irrespective of anything else, that it was going to be the place for me. Typically of the crammed central Istanbul district of Beyoğlu where I lived, the living room simply faced the opposite block of apartments at close quarters, where neighbours were so close I could even see what they were watching on television. If I craned my neck outside at a slightly precarious angle, I could just about make out the Bosphorus and even, at some times of the year, see the sun rise. But the view from the other side of the apartment was something else.
From this window I could see five of the most iconic landmarks of Istanbul. The Topkapi Palace — the home of the Ottoman Sultans until the final era of the Empire. To the right, the Hagia Sophia museum, the great Byzantine basilica that was the main Christian place of worship of Constantinople, then swiftly changed into a mosque after the 1453 Ottoman conquest and in the Republican era, for now at least, a museum. Then, eyeing the Hagia Sophia in a constant dialogue, the Sultanahmet (Blue) Mosque, one of the most perfect examples of Ottoman Islamic Architecture and further to the right the gigantic Süleymaniye Mosque, named after Süleyman the Magnificent. And completing the ensemble on the other side of the Golden Horn, the Genoese-built Galata Tower, its conical tower beautifully illuminated at night.
Meanwhile, I could enjoy the daily ballet of shipping on the Bosphorus, as ferries, cargo ships and even sometimes warships charged through the clogged strait on their way either to the Black Sea or the Sea of Marmara and the Mediterranean. It seemed miraculous there was never a clash as the fragile looking commuter ferries and even solo fishermen in small wooden boats skirted round hulking tankers, their fog horns blaring and making an unforgettable soundtrack to the daily unspooling movie of this city.
Aside for the occasional restoration, the view of the city’s great landmarks remained unchanged for the full half decade that I lived in Istanbul. And while there are now three bridges across the Bosphorus, a metro tunnel and road tunnel and probably more to come, it remains an awesome geographical obstacle dividing Europe and Asia. I am sure, whatever changes await Turkey in the future, the great monuments of Istanbul and the Bosphorus will still be a cause of wonder for travellers centuries in the future.
But as well as continuity, this view also gave me a window onto the breakneck social, economic and political change that took place while I was in Istanbul. These years saw a burst of intense construction as the authorities sought to achieve an economic growth spurt coupled with a greater emphasis on religion in public life as well as shifting geopolitical alliances. The country was also shaken by a succession of terror attacks and the failed 2016 coup.
When I moved in during the hot summer of 2014, I found that the beautiful view so extolled by the estate agent had been somewhat tarnished by the arrival of gigantic cruise ships which would moor at the port just below my window. They were so close that I could even here their morning messages to passengers over the loudspeaker system. But from the summer of 2015, when a streak of brutal terror attacks started to hit Turkey, they began to disappear and had totally vanished by the time the coup struck in 2016 and travel warning were issued against travel in Turkey. Then, in any case, the authorities began a gigantic revamp of the entire port area in a controversial development known as Galataport.
I would wake every morning not just to the sound of seagulls and foghorns but also to the deafening thwack of heavy construction echoing across the Bosphorus. This was evidence of the construction-fuelled boom that propelled Turkey to impressive growth rates but then brought it to recession when investment began to dwindle. Almost the entirety of the port area from Tophane to Karaköy was demolished to make way for the new development. This included the famous Istanbul Modern contemporary art museum, a symbol of the city’s most forward-looking aspect and a huge success since its opening in 2004. But under the Galataport project, the depot which housed the museum was demolished. The museum then moved to temporary premises in central Beyoğlu. I watched from my window visitors going up the ramp to visit the museum during its last days of operation as the Galataport construction encroached ever closer. And then, days after it shut down, the demolition team moved in. Within weeks, a museum that had been open for one and a half decades was reduced to rubble. The backers of the museum are planning new Renzo Piano-designed building within the new Galataport scheme but it will be many years before this comes to fruition.
But it was not just the most immediate architectural changes that I could witness from my window. I could also see some of the colossal changes in society, security and even politics that shook Turkey from 2014 to 2018 just by looking through the glass. Along with the clank of construction another increasingly familiar sound in the early morning was that of helicopters whirling above, supporting Turkish police in another security operation. These became increasingly intense from the 2016 failed coup as police launched daily morning raids across the city, sometimes netting dozens of suspects at one time.
I covered half a dozen elections in my time in Turkey and could in the streets below see the gigantic billboards displayed by President’s Erdoğan both in the run-up to and even after elections. When most parties go into hibernation after a poll, the AKP replaced its campaign billboards with “thank you” messages ensuring there was no let-up to the momentum built up in the polls. This tactic may have backfired in the March 2018 local polls when immense billboards were put up with the slogan “Teşekkürler Istanbul” “Thank You Istanbul” only for the actual results to show that the opposition had won mayor’s office.
Meanwhile, one of the most astonishing sights, if I was quick enough to catch them, was the occasional passage of Russian warships through the Bosphorus. This is a right granted to Moscow along with other Black Sea littoral states under a 1936 treaty and transit even continued during a 2015 diplomatic crisis between the two sides. There is no warning as to when the ships will pass, although amateur Turkish ship spotters alert when one is on its way.
Generally, I would see them randomly, rubbing my eyes after getting out of bed as gigantic Ropucha-class landing ship ploughed its way through the fishing vessels and morning ferries. The traffic of the Russian vessels was intense, with sometimes as many as one a day passing through. The boats, based in Black Sea ports, were on their way to and from Syria where Russia has a naval facility in the port of Tartus. It’s an incredible thing, even after witnessing it many times, to think that Istanbullus sipping their coffee in a waterside coffee shop or waking up at home are suddenly confronted by a warship on its way to a global trouble zone. If a ship steamed out into the Sea of Marmara, past the Topkapi Palace (moving much faster than it seemed to the naked eye) then it was on its way to Syria. The other direction meant coming home to a port on the Black Sea. Another extraordinary sight was the occasional visit of the Saipem construction vessel, the size of several football pitches, which was to lay pipes under the Black Sea in another fruit of Russian-Turkish cooperation. Once, I awoke before dawn to find it illuminated and entering the Bosphorus guided by two pilot ships, like a giant gleaming ghost ship.
It was fascinating to watch these aspects of the city through the window. But perhaps the most magnetic changes were the eternal ones, through the interplay of light that came with the changing of the seasons. If I could sometimes see the sun rise over the Bosphorus by squeezing my head out of my living room window it was from the bedroom — the room with a view — that I could watch the sunset. In midwinter, in January coinciding with my birthday, I could see the sun set right behind the Galata Tower and shining through its last rays of the day through its arched windows.
Then, as the days grew longer it would move away further down the Golden Horn. And most spectacularly, during a brief period in winter, the sun would throw its final rays onto the windows in the tower of the Topkapi Palace which would reflect the bright light back. I initially could not work out where this light was coming from. Was someone trying to send out a secret signal from ghosts of the past from that tower, like in Jane Eyre? Or had a fire suddenly erupted after the museum closing hours? It was just the sun, but what a spectacle as the foghorns blared and the Uludağ mountain reared up in the background on the other side of the Sea of Marmara.
But even now, after I have moved out, handed back the keys and boxed up my possessions, I know that the sight of change is marching on through the prism of those windows. Another spectacular sight I enjoyed at night was the procession of lights above the Galata Tower as passenger planes waited in holding pattern to land at Atatürk Airport. The facility, named after modern Turkey’s founder, was its main aviation hub and one of the busiest airports in the world. Until March. The airport was shut down and all its flights moved to the new Istanbul airport by the Black Sea, the most ambitious of Erdoğan’s grand projects and a symbol of his aim to make Turkish Airlines a world-beating global carrier. No longer will those lights flicker above the Galata Tower. The construction of Galataport continues apace and it won’t be long until new structures appear on the shoreline. Meanwhile, Erdoğan has made clear his desire to build a new canal for Istanbul to move the shipping on the Bosphorus to another waterway. But at a time of economic turbulence, it’s arguable if this will ever come to fruition.
Yet whatever changes await Istanbul in the future — and they are likely to be immense — the sun will still set behind the Galata Tower in winter and its rays reflect off the Topkapi Palace. And the new residents of the apartment, whoever they are, in whatever era they live, will feast their eyes on an unwinding panorama of history and beauty.