3 Places in Istanbul You’ve Never Been To

Below are three places I’ve recently visited during my wanderings through Istanbul: Aynalıkavak Palace, the Crimean Memorial Church, and the Zulfaris Synagogue Museum. There is no connection between them besides the fact that I had never heard about them in any guidebook or visited them on any tour: I stumbled upon or passed by them by chance, and happened to be pleased with what I found. Maybe you will be, too.

1. Aynalıkavak Palace

Aynalikavak Istanbul

There are few places in Istanbul where one can hear only the sounds of birds chirping and the hush of wind through the leaves. I was pleased to find Aynalıkavak Palace is one of those peaceful places.

Surprising to say, but Ottoman-era palaces in Istanbul are pretty much a dime a dozen. There are particularly famous ones, like Dolmabahçe, which were an obvious choice to become museums in their post-imperial lives because something made them famous (in the case of Dolmabahçe, it’s the place where Mustafa Kemal Atatürk spent his last days). But not all were that lucky. After the end of the empire, the palaces no longer served a purpose and they faced different fates–some of them became museums, some of them were converted into hotels or convention centrers (like Çırağan Palace), some of them sold to the highest bidder, and probably some of them are now gone. It would be an interesting historical exercise to survey the fates of various Ottoman palaces and what became of them over the decades after the end of the empire.

Anyway, Aynalıkavak is one of the lucky ones–it is an early 17th-century Ottoman palace-turned-museum in the Hasköy neighborhood of Istanbul, near Kasımpaşa. The building itself is a pavilion-style structure with a graceful sloping roof, topped with a dome. As I’ve mentioned, many of the structures we associate with the Ottomans are actually Byzantine designs (including Topkapı Palace) so it’s fascinating to see purely Ottoman architecture. The interior is gorgeously preserved and tastefully decorated with beautiful silk divans, inlaid-pearl furniture, chandeliers, stained glass, marble, and of course the eponymous mirrors (“Ayna” means “mirror” in Turkish). The basement floor is a museum of Turkish classical instruments.

In the backyard is a garden with a little tea shop next to a fountain and pond overlooking the lustrous Golden Horn and an expansive view of the Fatih and Balat neighborhoods–St Stephan’s Church is directly across from the palace grounds. Unfortunately, the palace’s view of said Golden Horn is almost entirely blocked by an old abandoned shipyard, an ugly development I’m sure Sultan Selim III, who restored the pavilion to its current glory and whose instrument collection is housed there, would disapprove of.

2. Christ Church (Crimean Memorial Church)

IMG_4308

Normally I try to be tactful, but I won’t mince words here. Tophane (the intervening neighborhood between Karaköy and Cihangir, named for the historical Tophane-i Amire structure nearby) is not a fun place. It’s a place where people can get death threats from their neighbors for throwing parties (true story). Last year during Ramadan, some locals attacked diners who happened to be eating lunch in the neighborhood. And remember those reports of pro-government gangs wielding knives and chasing down Gezi protesters? That happened in Tophane.

But during a typical day there’s no harm in strolling through Tophane, particularly because this neighborhood contains another one of those rare places of peaceful urban respite. Uphill from the waterfront and tram stop is the active Crimean Memorial Church, an Anglican church built in memory of British soldiers who perished in the Crimean War–you can read the whole story behind its history and design here.

When I visited, the building was almost entirely invisible behind the swells of nearby apartment buildings and a dense camouflage of tree covering. This makes it hard to catch a decent glimpse of the handsome Neo-Gothic stone facade. However, the upshot of its seclusion is that upon passing through the iron gate and stepping into the grounds, you feel you are in a different world. Inside the church there is a stone baptismal font, long stone inscriptions loquaciously honoring various British dignitaries, and a huge organ. On the grounds surrounding the church birds sing, cats wander, a bizarre gaggle of geese meander around with an odd sense of purpose, and groundskeepers and church clergy murmur in indistinct foreign tongues.

3. The Jewish Museum in Zulfaris Synagogue

Istanbul Summer 20141

You would be forgiven for not knowing there was either a Jewish history museum or a synagogue in central Karaköy, down the hill from Galata Tower. I myself did not know, until one of my former professors came to town. She pointed out a nondescript salmon-colored edifice (see top left photo) and explained that the entrance to the museum is through an alley around back. I returned to the indicated spot during museum operating hours and was pleased to find she was right. The much more attractive front face of the museum (see bottom left photo) is hidden behind a high wall, a guard desk, and a metal detector–the museum keeps a low profile and tight security, I assume, due to a regrettable history of terror attacks against synagogues in Istanbul.

The Jewish Museum is housed in Zulfaris Synagogue, built sometime around 1671 and an active place of worship until being converted into a museum in 2001. The museum has three floors–the bottom contains ethnographical displays. The second, main synagogue floor (see photo on right) has a mixture of chronological and topical information about the presence and influence of Jewish peoples in the Ottoman Empire and Turkish Republic. With the stained glass window, chandeliers, starry ceiling, and Ark, you also get a sense of the beauty of the synagogue itself. The third floor, which is a balcony area overlooking the main floor, contains info-panels going in-depth about some topic of Turkish-Jewish life and history.

The exhibits are informative and up to date with recent research and relevant artifacts. The displays are in Turkish and English, and the English translations are, mercifully, excellently grammatical and comprehensible (an issue in every Turkish museum I’ve been to). It was also striking, and a bit refreshing, how positively the museum regards the influence of Ottomans and Turks on Jews. It is easy to get caught up in the recent decades of populist anti-Semitism in Turkey and not recognize the positive contributions Turkish groups and individuals have made, from Ottoman sultans welcoming Jews during the anti-Semitic pogroms in Europe to Turkish diplomats furnishing Jews with Turkish ID cards during the Second World War (thereby protecting them from harm because Turkey was neutral). I also learned the extensive impact of Jewish families, commerce, and culture on the Karaköy neighborhood, and the next chance I get, I plan to take a walking tour through the area to find Jewish places of interest in Karaköy and Galata.

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