Bosphorus tour of Istanbul

Besides his literary criticism, theoretical writings, guidebooks and years of teaching English literature in the universities, Murat Belge has been leading tours through every quarter of Istanbul for almost 25 years. His is the first name that pops into mind when the history of the Bosphorus is mentioned.
A Bosphorus tour with Murat Belge, who has spent years living in its unsurpassed waterside mansions soaking up its way of life and culture, means a journey through mythology and Ottoman history right up to the early years of the Turkish Republic.
On the tour, which lasts four hours not counting an hour and a half break, Belge tells an authentic Bosphorus tale through the history of its mosques, palaces, waterfront mansions and groves, not to mention its sultans and padishahs, its envoys, governors, shopkeepers, lowlifes, and just plain ordinary folk.


The many legends surrounding the Bosphorus are an indication of how important this geographical region has been over the centuries.

Its very name ‘Bosphorus’ means ‘Ox Ford’. Needless to say, not all the Bosphorus myths and legends Belge recounts can be squeezed into the pages of a brief article such as this. To swim in the Bosphorus, warns Belge, you need to have learned how to negotiate its waters. “The Bosphorus is not treacherous, but you need to know the direction of the currents. There is a surface current from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, which changes course when it hits the points. A person unfamiliar with those currents could easily be swept away and have to swim a lot farther than he bargained for!”


Settlement on the Bosphorus first got underway in the 18th century. But the hills that run parallel with the shore have always made access difficult. The construction of the Dolmabahce Palace and the introduction of steamship travel in the 19th century facilitated settlement even in the waterway’s most remote recesses.
Eventually, with the construction of the Imperial Palace, embassy representatives and prominent Istanbul figures, who spent the summer months in houses on the Bosphorus, began having seaside mansions built for themselves on its shores.
As we tour the palaces, mosques, mansions and pavilions that line the waterway, it is impossible not to notice the works of the Balyan family, five or six generations of architects who earned fame as builders of palaces. The first of these buildings, Dolmabahce Palace, which was completed in 1853, and the Dolmabahce Mosque and Clock Tower and Ortaköy Mosque are all by Nikoðos Balyan. Originally built out of wood by Krikor Balyan, Beylerbeyi Palace on the Anatolian shore was destroyed by fire in 1851 and the present palace built by Sarkis Balyan, again from the same family. Similarly, Nikogos Balyan drew up the plans for the Çiragan Palace, which were then implemented by Sarkis and Agop Balyan.


The word ‘yali’, which means ‘shore’ in Greek, is used in Turkish to denote the wooden mansions built on the waterfront. Although some of the Bosphorus yalis have succumbed to the humid climate and the sea’s damp or to fire, a significant number have also survived right up to the present in restorations faithful to their original style.
Yalis consist of two main sections. The ‘selamlik’ or men’s quarters, where guests are received and most everyday activities take place, is the larger of the two. The ‘haremlik’ or women’s quarters is the preserve of the women of the family. In some yalis the two sections are adjacent while in others they are separate buildings. Another area that was constructed below the yali was the ‘kayýkhane’ or boathouse. Contemporary tastes determined the design of the yalis, most of which were built in Rococo, Baroque or Art Nouveau style and painted green or white.
Bosphorus yalis were known by their owners’ names; for example, the yalý of the Oduncubasi family at Rumelihisar, and the yali of Recai Efendi at Vaniköy, renamed
after his death the ‘Recaizade (son of Recai) Ekrem Yali’ for his son, Ekrem. Of course, a unique story is associated with each of these names.


One of the most interesting stories told by Murat Belge is about the yali of Recaizade Ekrem Bey: “Recaizade Ekrem Bey lived briefly in a brown yali next to the little lighthouse at the northern tip of Istinye bay. Ekrem Bey, who grew up in his father Recai Efendi’s yalý at Vaniköy, was very pleased with his new yali but was unable to reside there for long. Abdülhamid’s ubiquitous spies compiled a report which alleged that Ekrem Bey was transmitting light signals by night to the family of the Egyptian Viceroy, who lived in Çubuklu Pavilion on the opposite shore. Buying a mansion at Cihangir out of his own pocket, the morbidly suspicious sultan made a gift of it to Recaizade Ekrem, who was thus forced to vacate his own yali.”
The stories of the yalis between Kücüksu (also known as the Sweet Waters of Asia)
and Kandilli Point are as interesting as their facades, especially that of the Kibrisli Yali. Once again in Murat Belge’s words: “The Kibrisli Yali was built by Mehmed Emin Pasha of Cyprus. Tevfik Bey, who hailed from the second generation of the family, was killed in the infamous raid on the Sublime Porte in January 1913. His brother Þevket, a literature buff, was a friend of Yahya Kemal, and the poet was a frequent guest at the yalý, from which he gazed admiringly on the beautiful Belkis Hanim who lived in the nearby Abud Yali. The Kibrisli Yali teemed with intellectuals like a Paris literary salon. But besides the literati, there were also some eccentrics living here. Among the poets, Fazil Ahmed’s brother Mahmud Bey suffered from an indisposition which necessitated the removal of an enormous tumor from his leg. Seeing that his body had produced such a sizable growth, Mahmud Bey concluded that he was capable of bearing a child and therefore that he was a woman. Changing his name to the feminine form, ‘Mahmude’, he began going about dressed in women’s clothes. He stayed at the Kibrisli Yali for a long time.”


“When telling the stories of people and buildings on a Bosphorus tour,” says Murat Belge, “inevitably we pass by the yalis very quickly and the stories are reduced to brief anecdotes. Even though they are never told in their entirety, these stories are nevertheless the most charming tales of the Bosphorus.” Reaching the end of the strait where it joins the Black Sea, we encounter a pleasant breeze at the point known as Yom or Müjde Burnu (Good News Point), so named by sailors who probably thought they had reached safety upon arriving here from the Black Sea. Together with a raft of names and hundreds of yalis, palaces and mosques large and small, the Bosphorus’s all-pervasive tranquility lingers on in our memory at the end of our tour.
“I’m a gossipmonger of the 19th century,” confesses Belge. “I know all the scandals and sensational incidents that occurred on the Bosphorus and the buildings in which they took place.
But I haven’t followed the scandals of the twentieth century and know nothing about them,” he adds with a sly smile…



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