Charles Jencks, David Kohn, Seyla Benhabib and Merve Kaptan have sent their letters to Istanbul for the fifth issue of the NCR.
Istanbul – The Time City
Istanbul and Rome are the quintessential time cities of the world, with layers of history going back thousands of years, marked in stone structures and excavations. But in one way the Turkish city, and the country as a whole, has an even bigger claim to be the historical, layered site of the globe going back further than Rome.
Turkey has some of the first Neolithic sites in the world, such as Catalhöyük, where the town came into being, and Göbekli Tepe, the 12,000 year old site which is revolutionizing our view of what caused the first urban society. The Neolithic Period came about not just because of the revolution that started agriculture – the mutation in wheat that allowed people to collect into towns and live off farming, but for another surprising reason. They came together to worship, or at least build haunting architectural monuments laid out in concentric circles. Göbekli Tepe, excavated over the last seventeen years, was made from T-shaped monoliths carved with sculptures and bas-reliefs of animals. Most are ferocious predators baring their teeth, and they look as uncanny as the long arms, and thin fingers that turn each T-shape into a giant human figure. Generations at Göbekli Tepe built one circle of T’s inside or around another at great human effort. Some of the monoliths are comparable to those at Stonehenge. The ritual underpinning this collective belief is now mysterious to us, but archaeologists and anthropologists are calling the creations “the birth of religion” because they entailed a strong social cohesion. No evidence of houses survive, the farming communities must have lived nearby. Twelve thousand years ago the Neolithic Revolution apparently started partly because of this “oldest known temple site,” and Istanbul has evidence of habitation at least as long.
What are the implications for new building in such areas? A Time City is a layered amalgam of different ages and, like a geological section through a mountain, reveals its levels as different materials, colours and chemistries. In effect, these levels show a naturalistic picture of history, an indexical sign of time, and a palimpsest of cultures. To build in the Time City of Istanbul is to protect and dramatise this layering. Where construction is over new landscape or infill, it is to simulate the layering as an artificial construct. The Time City is constructed by the ages; the architect brings to consciousness evolution, destruction and the re-minting of coins – the palimpsest.
(Layered Walls of Theodosius….and The New Artificial Walls)
It is already two-and-a-half years since we met. I fondly remember you guiding us down misty streets in Beyoglu and Galata, and along the north shore of the Bosphorus. But of all the places we visited, it is Sulukule that I cannot forget. Much of the district had already been destroyed, but a few jagged houses remained like teeth in an aged maw. We picked our way through the rubble to be ushered into small courtyards. Our Roma hosts spoke numbly of a world almost entirely eradicated, of streets, celebrations and music.
Now, thoughts of my imminent return to Istanbul are soaked with dread. What will remain of those few courtyards? Will the city have drawn a blanket of new development across the remains? I fear walking streets populated by ghosts risen from Sulukule’s stories. I hope you will be able to guide me to find the city I once delighted in.
Whenever I return to Istanbul, the city of my birth, I ask myself when I will feel the tug. It is a tug in my heart, almost as if someone were pulling a tendon, and it aches physically.
The tug comes at unexpected moments: the sight of fishermen along the Karakoy bridge; the horn of the ferries shuttling back and forth to the Prince’s Islands; the strangely human cry of the sea gulls, accompanying the ferryboats or the fishermen; the smell of grilled corn on the cob, but above all, the sight of the water, of the Bosphorus — that blue miracle that runs like a vein through the heart of Istanbul’s dwellers. Achh, I say, and I sense myself enveloped by the water, smelling the salt of the sea and tasting the seaweeds – just as I did innumerable times as a child on Burgaz, on the Prince’s Islands.
Istanbul is a city that assaults the senses: sight, sound, touch, smell – all are in play all the time on its streets. But Istanbul also soothes the senses: I sit quietly by the water, let my eyes drink in the blue water as well as a cup of Turkish tea and I dream!
A strange calm comes over me and the tug still hurts, but I am also grateful that Istanbul can do this to me – more than forty years after I left its shores.
Inside a dark arcade. Sounds of men who are in the coffeehouse next door. Men spend all day every day playing backgammon, smoking cheap cigarettes, drinking tea, watching football games and horse races. When excited, they shout, stand up, throw their cigarettes before them and stand still looking at the screen. The stray cats seem to have adopted the whole building as their home they never know how to look after. The caretaker walks slowly with bags in his hands, he either lies all the time or wants to or has too many things to say. ‘We try to stay alive’ he says when asked how he is. There is a constantly blinking sign of the electrician’s, hung outside the entrance. The tea boy has a new tattoo he needs to put cream on every other hour. The winding stairs stop just by the entrance where a man is sat every day at 4pm putting powder on his toes thoroughly.
Then i stop.,
Things change here. Good i record all this. Tomorrow the caretaker’s home might be replaced with a Starbucks franchise or/and the arcade might hide in ruins after an earthquake or/and the stray cats may not be around anymore for the new EU H&S regulations. Many possible possibilities.
Coffeehouse men of istanbul, cats of istanbul, tea cups of istanbul… i like you. Please don’t change.