The January 2017 Istanbul Snowfall — When a Blanket of White Soothed an Anxious City

There had been warnings days ahead. ‘It is Coming! Weather Warning!’ screamed the headlines. Newspaper websites gave up to the minute warnings of exactly what time the impending apocalypse would break. People cancelled trips, rescheduled travel.

The reason for this sudden outbreak of fear?

Snow.

True, it snows in many places in the world. And it snows a lot in Turkey with some settlements in the mountainous southeast blanketed for over half a year. But in few major urban centres in the world is snow capable of wreaking such havoc as Istanbul.

Battling the snow on Galata Bridge

This is not Russia or Canada, and snow is not so frequent that authorities have the experience or the hardware to deal with it. But it comes frequently enough that people know its effects. All those tight side alleys that make up the bulk of the city’s roads become blocked for days. Flights are cancelled en masse.

Hence the trepidation as people watch forecasters on their televisions trace the arrival of a cold front from Siberia.

It hit with a bracing suddenness. The temperature dropped some 15 degrees within the space of a few hours. I went to sleep nestled in my sleeping bag, listening to the wind howling down the Bosphorus amid the baleful hoots of the ships’ horns.

Ferries moored in Karakoy due to cancellations

I woke up to a city transformed in a night, everything familiar coated in white. The snow had been heavy and it would have been possible to ski down the busy steep hill by my apartment. People peered out of their windows at the white carpet, in apparent bewilderment.

Sulemaniye Mosque

But something different had also settled on the city. Peace.

Istanbul entered 2017 on edge after the city and Turkey were rocked by a horrific sequence of terror attacks blamed on Islamist and Kurdish militants. Just weeks before, a double suicide bombing targeting police on duty for a match of the Beşiktaş football team had killed 46 in the centre of the city. And then, just minutes into the New Year, a Uzbek gunman had ran amok inside the elite Reina nightclub on the Bosphorus, shooting indiscriminately at revellers and killing 39 people. After that horror, people were left imagining what other calamities could befall this city.

But then came the snow.

It brought a peace. A serenity. The fact that the city could not move the snow away rapidly meant that people happily admitted defeat and stayed at home. For once, in a city forever humming, there was no traffic. The sensation of calm was almost thrilling. All but the major highways were clogged by snow and taking a car out was an almost risky manoeuvre. The usually thronged coffee shops and restaurants were deserted. Schools closed for three days and no-one seemed too bothered by the lost classes. When the sun came out and the snow sparkled it was like Istanbul could never be defeated.

Blue Mosque, coated in snow.

Snow dusted the domes of mosques, icicles sparkled on the minarets. I trudged my way to the city’s historic core, over the Galata Bridge on the Golden Horn where a few hardy fishermen stuck it out.

Man fishing, Galata Bridge

Seeing the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia coated in snow was breathtaking, the two places of worship united in their shared transformation. Souvenir sellers tried heroically to open their stalls. Two Russian tourists, showing that the conditions meant nothing to them, walked around in heels, serenely taking pictures to the astonishment of the locals.

Pedestrians, Sultanahmet

This is not Moscow and within only a few days temperatures rose the snow started to melt. The melt waters raced through the gutters and care had to be taken of the falling icicles. Quickly, the mask of serenity fell and the city’s usual, frenetic, face was back. But no-one who was in the city at the time ever forgot those days in January 2017 when a blanket of white calmed an anxious metropolis.

Beyoğlu Municpality in snow.

Foreign correspondent and voyager. Worked and lived in Iran, Russia and Turkey. At home in Istanbul but always moving.

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