A city split in two by deep blue: one shore Asian, the other European. The deep blue, the Bosphorus, is a thirty-two-kilometre-long meandering strait connecting the Black and Marmara seas. A crucial and notorious shipping lane marked by a tremendous current. Ships, massive and small. Surrounding hills and forests. Stunning restaurants and houses on its shores.
The city is Istanbul, home to many millions and a place often reached via an enchanting and miraculous commute. The seething, ancient megalopolis ceaselessly throbs with traffic mayhem. In one of the most congested cities in the world, where billions of dollars have been poured into new infrastructure, it is the original mode of transcontinental transport—by sea—that offers a spectacular and soothing alternative: a refreshing yin to the yang of the pulsing landmass.
Every day, for over a year, I took the ferry from Kadıköy on the Asian peninsula to Karaköy on the European, and back again. Usually I was headed to work, other times to see a show or meet friends, and on a handful of occasions, I hopped on the ferry just to be on the ferry. On these occasions, I wouldn’t even make landfall at Karaköy.
“Aboard an Istanbul ferry, you feel as though you could be on a decaying Wes Anderson set.”
Major routes likes this one are government-operated and feature the largest ferries in town. Often two or three decks tall, with capacities over 800 and up to 1,600, most have been in operation since the 70s or 80s. Their wood, steel and leather have aged gracefully. Aboard an Istanbul ferry, you feel as though you could be on a decaying Wes AndersonWes Anderson is a film director renowned for his idiosyncratic films featuring meticulously designed sets resembling some eccentric fairytale. He directed <em>The Grand Budapest Hotel</em>, <em>Moonrise Kingdom</em>, <em>The Royal Tenenbaums</em>, among many others. set. Floorboards have softened. There are rivets and reinforcing bolts on every panel. Windows are small but numerous: a nod to the sea’s occasional volatility. They don’t open easily. Bench seats, a relic of more collectivist times, allow you to squish up or spread out according to necessity or mood. Toilets, at least in the men’s, have small vents from which you can watch the sea. The engine room is naked, and the curious and mechanically minded often study it keenly. Much of the bottom deck is exposed to the elements and includes both seated and standing areas. This is where I used to sit; I preferred to be outside, the salty air smacking me across the cheeks.
It’s a privilege to ride the sea twice a day. Once aboard, my first move is to the canteen where Turkish tea Turkish tea is, most commonly, Rize tea (a black tea) brewed strong then ‘cut’ to your liking by adding water. It is served in small, tulip shaped glasses with or without beet sugar but never with milk. is on the boil, and other beverages are offered alongside pastries and toasties, all at rock-bottom, democratic prices. The cost of a ferry ticket is also low—even for the many in Turkey who get by on very little. Still, pensioners receive free travel and students a substantial discount. The idea is that public transport can be inclusive and work for everyone: a seemingly radical concept in certain parts of the world.
Once I have my tea and simit,A <em>simit</em> is a bread ring resembling a bagel dipped in molasses and topped with sesame seeds. if the weather obliges—and it usually does in Istanbul—I seek out a spot on the wooden benches running along the sides of the vessel. As we prepare to take off at Kadıköy, schools of fish dart below. Once we’ve departed, colossal seagulls glide alongside. Locals relish the opportunity to toss them bread; and tourists, overjoyed at the sight of these swerving and swooping birds, are often quick to join in.
Tourists teem through Istanbul. In 2015, it was the world’s fifth most-visited city, but the political unrest of 2016 seemed to halt its rapid popularity. Few tourists grace the seats of the early morning ferries, where low voices accompany newspapers held up like personal sails. Despite the wilting of Turkey’s freedom of press, print media retains a high degree of variety: each newsstand offers at least fifteen dailies to choose from.
Soon after we start our voyage, staff prowl the ferry collecting empty tea glasses or offering top-ups. Often, I’ll swiftly accept my second. Engines rumble below, sending vibrations through the vessel. It’s invigorating, you feel alive.
Early in the trip, we are struck by the last great piece of Ottoman architecture—the Haydarpaşa train station—which for one hundred years, had been the gateway to the east, putting Baghdad, Aleppo and Tehran within reach. The building itself resembles a castle in the Swiss Alps or at Lake Geneva. Built by the Germans and set against the backdrop of industry and concrete, the structure appears as if it had simply been ripped out of German soil, towed over and plonked down—a fantastic juxtaposition. Controversy now surrounds the future of the building. In 2011, it was hit by a suspicious blaze and closed down. Rumour has it that the ever-opportunistic government would like the station turned into a resort. Each Saturday, a nearby rally campaigns for its protection and restoration.
Following the station, we pass the brilliantly colourful ships of Port of Haydarpaşa. To the left is the Sea of Marmara, which flows through another continent-bisecting strait, the Dardanelles, and into the Aegean.
About halfway through the twenty-minute journey we reach the heart of the Bosphorus. To our immediate right is the Maiden’s Tower.The Maiden’s Tower, also known as Kizkulesi or Leander’s Tower, is a popular icon of Istanbul. In Turkish legend, it was once used as a checkpoint and customs area for passing ships, then as a lighthouse during the Ottoman era. Today it is a restaurant and bar, offering 360° views of the Bosphorus. Legend has it that an emperor had it built in response to a prophecy that his daughter would die by snakebite by her eighteenth birthday. On her eighteenth birthday, the emperor himself took her a hamper in celebration. In it, of course, was a snake and she died in her father’s arms. Further to the right are the three bridges that now cross the Bosphorus, the first of which is visible from the ferry: the sensibly named Bosphorus Bridge, built in 1973. Before then, there were no bridges or tunnels; the only means across were by air or by sea. A pontoon bridge was said to have been built by Darius the Great’sDarius the Great was a Persian King during the peak of the Persian Achaemenid era where he ruled much of west and central Asia, and parts of Egypt, Libya, Sudan and the region bordering Asia and Europe. Persian army in 513 BC, yet the engineering challenges presented by the deep, fast-running strait prevented a permanent bridge. The second bridge further down the strait went up in 1988 and the third in 2016. Each promises to liberate Istanbul’s clogged arteries, yet barely seems to lower the collective cholesterol of a city whose population has surged from just over two million in the early 70s.
“Here, traces of the old city still exist: the church of Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Süleymaniye Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, Topkapı Palace and countless hamams.”
The latter half of the journey sees the European continent come into better view. On the left, the historic peninsula and the remnants of the legendary walls of Constantinople are within view from the water. Here, traces of the old city still exist: the church of Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Süleymaniye Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, Topkapı Palace and countless hamams.<em>Hamams</em> (also <em>ḥammāms</em>) are public bath houses associated with Turkish culture, where patrons perspire in a hot, dry room before a cold bath and massage. To the right, the city’s cultural and political heart—Beyoğlu and Taksim Square—are growing ever skyward. The city is said to be built on seven hills and its topography makes it naturally spectacular despite the rampant and often haphazard sprouting of new construction. A concrete city, an agglomeration of wealth and desire, represents the turning of a poor but humble agrarian nation into an urban and competitive one within a generation.
Charged by foreign, particularly Saudi, capital, this ancient city tries not to respond to demand for housing but to preempt it. Many huge empty towers await new tenants. Cynics suggest that the government has opened its doors to Syrian refugees in order to bolster the construction boom.
We close in on our destination, Karaköy, and water traffic increases: ferries, police boats, fishing and commercial ships dart across the water, as do dolphins, if you keep your eye out for them. It’s been a peaceful morning’s journey. Turks, normally insatiable conversationalists, rise slowly.
The return leg is more boisterous. Buskers ply their trade, usually to the delight of the crowd. They play anything from Turkish folk and pop to The Rolling Stones. A favourite of mine is a young guy, maybe nineteen or twenty, with aspirational sideburns and a suede jacket, who strums his guitar and sings with a gravelly deep voice, sounding not unlike Tom Waits.Tom Waits is an American singer-songwriter whose voice was famously described by critic Daniel Durchholz as sounding like “it was soaked in a vat of bourbon, left hanging in the smokehouse for a few months, and then taken outside and ran run over with a car.” He never fails to get a smile or two from the crowd as well as a smattering of coins. Almost as frequent are the travelling salesmen and women, though usually men, who offer their wares with fierce enthusiasm. They stand tall and sell their revolutionary, must-have devices—from transistor radios to kitchen gadgets—with unmatched flair. The freshly shaven man who sells radios in his double-breasted suit will say, “I’ve been doing this for twenty years, ladies and gentlemen, you might know me by now, and I tell you what: never have I come across a product I believed in so much!” Then there’s the man with the magic vegetable and fruit slicer who brings in a bag of vegetables, pulls up a bin and begins slicing an array of colourful produce: cucumbers, cabbage, tomatoes, capsicum. “This will change your life!” he exclaims, at which point he’ll select a person from the crowd to participate, hand them the slicer and within seconds sceptics will be converted into happy customers.
“As the relentless city grows and heaves on either continent, Istanbul’s ferries remain dignified bastions of a bygone era, evoking notions of simplicity, solidity and egalitarianism.”
As the relentless city grows and heaves on either continent, Istanbul’s ferries remain dignified bastions of a bygone era, evoking notions of simplicity, solidity and egalitarianism. They are not merely capsules of nostalgia; they continue to offer comfort and reliability. Yet today they are under threat: not so much due to the three bridges, the underground metro that opened in 2014, or the new car tunnel, but to a new fleet of ferries that promise to be more functional and more efficient. They’ve replaced wood with plastic, steel with aluminium, tea glasses with disposable cups; a miserable development. The new ferries appeared on the eve of the 2015 election and have been dubbed many things, the most poignant of which I believe to be “space coffins.”
It appears inevitable that the old ferries will make way. Yet until then, they continue to rumble along: a daily pleasure, an ember, from a past that is ebbing away in today’s Istanbul.