Spring, 2023. 163 acres of land. In between Topkapı Palace and Sarayburnu. Green as far as the eye can see. But I feel blue. I am in the middle of one of the biggest parks in Istanbul: Gülhane. The witness of Tanzimat Edict, of the Spring and Flower Festival, of the Archeology Museum. Whose is it today?
A couple, younger than the cedar trees, looking at the view where the trees sway in the sky like the arteries of the city. Long-bearded old men walking on the back of their shoes are in a hurry. Children calmly pass by. Some of them have bagels in their hands, handed to them by their parents and eaten without appetite. On one side are tourists with bags of Turkish delight and candy walking without knowing where they are going. A child holding a Turkish flag, questioning whether Atatürk spoke to the trees in the park.
"The number of foreign tourists coming to Istanbul in 2022 was 16 million 18 thousand 726, an increase of 77 percent compared to the previous year. Fatih hosted more than 29 million tourists in the first 8 months of last year." These things came to my mind while my eyes followed the hotel signs and my ears followed the hum of the tram and the crowd. Armada, Sumengen, Sultan, Avrasya, Blu. "When the data for 2021 is analyzed, we see that the highest number of overnight stays in Istanbul is Fatih with a number over 4 million." There are 2878 tourism facilities in Fatih. Or was it 278? I found the answer when I stopped in front of the market called "Discount", in English.
Today, I passed one stop, a few centuries, and I don't know how many areas are occupied by touristic facilities. From Gülhane to Giritli, where hope and despair stand side by side waiting for tulip bulbs to bloom. I walked towards Ayşe’s (Şensılay) house, the heart of Cankurtaran which is one of 57 neighborhoods of the Fatih district, the furthest point of the Historical Peninsula. To reduce the noise of the madding crowd and listen to the sounds of the neighborhood. Loudly.
From Gülhane to Giritli.
Istanbul, March 9, 2023
LOCAL: Neighbors are gathered around the dining table at Giritli, a Cankurtaran gem. The present company includes regulars clinking rakı glasses. In front of us sits, Mother Ayşe, the creator of the space we are in. She is telling the story in her own words.
NEIGHBORHOOD BY NEIGHBORHOOD: This is Cankurtaran. One of the 57 neighborhoods of the Fatih district. The furthest point of the Historical Peninsula. The place where you return home with instrumentalists accompanying you.
STOP BY: Muj Design. Where? Just next door to Armada Hotel at the back alley from the seaside. The conversation is about whether we belong or once upon a time belonged to the neighborhood.
HAUNT: Armada. Where? In between Giritli and Muj Design. The question in mind is how to define the periphery of Cankurtaran.
ROUTE: Food and drink route in the Historical Peninsula. Walking from Zahire Street, a little bit further you come across İskender Boğazı. If you follow the pastırma smell, it will guide you to Hasırcılar Avenue.
A gathering around the dining table in Cankurtaran, present company includes regulars, a few tek (glasses of single rakı) and heart-to- heart conversations. Across the crowd sits Ayşe Anne. She starts talking.
- My friends call me Ayşe Anne. (“Mother Ayşe”)
- I am a restaurant manager and cook. If I hadn't done that, I would have wanted to take on hotel management, which I am already trained for.
- According to my friends, my specialty is cooking food. Hospitality, if you ask me.
- I live in Cankurtaran in Istanbul, but in my heart I am from Büyükdere.
- If I'm not at home in the neighborhood, I'm usually in Giritli, my restaurant.
- If I find a beloved neighbor in the community I live in, I feel like I belong there.
- In the neighborhood, I like walking on the shore the most because the seaside gives me peace with the smell of iodine and the southwester.
- In the morning, I start my day by drinking mint tea around 7-8 a.m. I don't end the day without a glass of wine.
- When I'm looking for a quick chitchat in the neighborhood, I go out the door. I speak with all the neighbors or the children of the neighborhood.
- Only a true Cankurtaran local, who is fond of their stomach, knows that Giritli is the hood tavern.
- You can find the songs that are currently playing at Giritli in this playlist. This is mostly the ones I gathered during my travels to Greece.
The neighborhood where the tables reach out to the street
Neighborhood: Cankurtaran. Local: Ayşe Şensılay. Starting point: Giritli.
Neighborhood: Cankurtaran. Local: Ayşe Şensılay. Location: Giritli. Photos: Deniz Sabuncu.
Surrounded by Sultanahmet and Cağaloğlu, Cankurtaran encompasses Topkapı Palace, Gülhane Park, the Archaeological Museum, Hagia Irene, and Hagia Sophia; it is almost the heart of the Old Peninsula. The neighborhood starts from Akbıyık Mosque on the way down from Sultanahmet and continues until Ahırkapı Lighthouse. The Sultanahmet community is a mixture of day-travelling crowds and tourists, while Cankurtaran has more settled and established inhabitants but also some tradesmen who depend economically on Sultanahmet’s visitors. A cosmopolitan structure is dominant in Cankurtaran. It’s almost like each apartment building represents a different city. Roman people in one building, people from Çorum in another, people from Adıyaman in the building opposite, the list goes on and on.
Tables from Giritli
Çilingir at the street, conversation on the doorstep
In Cankurtaran, life is on the streets. At night, when the day trippers withdraw, the night of locals starts as we know it. The neighborhood is full of musicians; everyone, young and old alike, plays an instrument. The sound of an instrumentalist returning from work at 01:00 a.m. can warm you on a rainy night. Doorstep chats are famous here. If it is summer, children play outdoors in the evening. The jolly good fellows of our neighborhood set up their çilingir tables (tables with friends and drinks) on the street corner, chatting and clinking their glasses to better days. The presence of designed hotels and a few local restaurants add to the sweet vibrancy.
Kandils (religious holy nights), funerals, and festivities are celebrated together in the neighborhood. Solidarity and cooperation are important values that are binding. This is also one of the fundemental principles of Giritli. We never honor a kandil without giving lokma (dessert with sherbet) and pide (flat bread with meat or cheese) away; offer the things served at weddings or festivities to our close neighbors; if someone has passed away in our neighborhood, their lokma and pide are always made at Giritli.
Mother Ayşe looks at us from the window of her house, into Giritli's garden
Meyhane for the regulars: Giritli
So how did Giritli become a local hub of Cankurtaran? It’s thanks to Kasım, the owner of Armada Hotel, who is my childhood friend. I was working in Bodrum as a business manager when he invited me to Istanbul to see Giritli's location. The first memory I have is the reflection of the stained glass inside the building. It took me three months to gather things in Bodrum and open Giritli. Since that day, 18 years ago, Giritli has been here, with the same team, in the same place.
Giritli was a restaurant called Alafranga before. The name came from the Levantines living in the neighborhood. With the region's revitalisation, Cankurtaran became a popular destination for foreign representatives. The restaurant dedicated to them didn't last long. This was an indicator of the changes the neighborhood had undergone and would experience further. In fact, one of the reasons why Giritli has been here for so many years is that it appeals to a wider audience.
The fact that Cankurtaran is a quieter, calmer neighborhood makes Giritli not just a place to discover on the road, but also a place of regulars. Most nights, at least 5 tables know one another or are acquainted in some way. It's like a social club where locals, neighbors and visitors meet. Those who come to Giritli know the quality of food is constant, the service is gracious and the prices are set. The Michelin Bib Gourmand Award we received this year is an indicator of this sustainability, I believe.
Yellow, blue, red
A tradition connecting the neigborhood: Once upon a time, hıdırellez
About 20 years ago, the first hıdırellez (traditional spring celebration) was organized for the neighborhood in the garage of the Armada Hotel. It was an urban festival, where all the locals would be in the streets alongside people from the surrounding neighborhoods. We would drink, eat the delicacies from Cankurtaran merchants, and accompany the songs of musicians from Macedonia. The festival had only one purpose: celebrating. It did not aim to make a profit, and those who took part in the festival knew that. Everyone in the neighborhood would work for the common joy enjoyed together, that's all.
In Cankurtaran, kuru pilav is eaten on top of a taxi
At one point, the event grew immensely that the municipality moved the festival to the shore stretching to Kumkapı, afterwards, it couldn't keep its spirit. All this work came about when Kasım said, "Let's organize a hıdırellez in this neighborhood." Looking back now, I can better see that the festival has a special place in the history of Cankurtaran, a Roman neighborhood. It was a collective process from beginning to end, precisely what made us feel at home.
Locals of Cankurtaran
Is it possible for neighborhoods to remain intact, as they are?
In the crowded and lonely world, we live in today, people need human contact. Smaller and established neighborhoods serve better for this necessity. I grew up in a time when the streets were playgrounds for children, we would draw hopscotch rectangles on the concrete, play dodgeball, game of nine stones, jump hoops, and stay outdoors until our parents called for dinner. Rich or poor, I made my friends on the streets. Nobody, even our parents, questioned what kind of life they led because we lived in the same neigborhood. At the time I am talking about, the city’s population was 2 million, now the population has grown to 20.
3 2 1 pose!
I seldom ask myself if it is possible for neighborhoods to remain intact, as they are. When you look at it, Cankurtaran is a bygone neighborhood, but its residents are not as bred-in-the-bone as they used to be. Since it is predominantly elderly, as the population changes, the upcoming generation does not embrace the neighborhood as much as the older ones. One of the reasons for this mobility is the fact that Cankurtaran and its adjacent neighborhoods are located in the touristic epidemic zone of Istanbul. Another culture, more ephemeral, short-lived, fleeting is taking shape but Cankurtaran to me is still the heart of old Istanbul: Giritli's house.
Next to the Armada Hotel, behind the shore, Muj Design.
Location: Next to the Armada Hotel, on the back street of the shore, Muj Design.
Narrator: Müjde Mısırlı Zoto
Subject: To belong or not to belong to Cankurtaran
30 years ago, Kasım (my husband) was impressed by the vivacity of the neighborhood and wanted to open a hotel, and we have been here ever since. We lived in a wooden house at the end of the street for 15-16 years. Even though we've decided to move some time ago, we are still bonded to this neighborhood thanks to work. Cankurtaran is effervescent, with music coming from all the corners of the streets. Musicians keep you company on daily walks. In spring and summer, households take out dining tables on the sidewalk and dinners are eaten together on the street.
The opening of Armada Hotel set off a significant change. The 10-15 years after the beginning of the Armada Hotel the neighborhood came to life, and the streets became crowded. Cankurtaran became a common destination for Istanbulites and tourists. For example, tango has been practiced at the hotel every Monday for 30 years, so the audience that follows this has met and embraced Cankurtaran.
Not being a Cankurtaran local
Over time, the hotel factor, which had been the driving force of the neighborhood, became the cause of Cankurtaran's demise as the neighborhood popularized. My neighbor of 15 years has to move in the upcoming days because their house was sold for the construction of a hotel. Nowadays instead of homes, you encounter colorful hostels every step of the way. A neighborhood is special because of the people who make it their home. When we force them to move, we erase its soul. Nevertheless, Cankurtaran has managed to preserve itself relatively well compared to other touristic places. I think the most important factor for this is that a place like Sultanahmet, which is visited by almost every tourist, is located below the neighborhood and therefore Cankurtaran does not attract as much attention.
In the neighborhood with Kasım Zoto, at the Armada Hotel.
Together with Kasım Zoto, the founder of the Armada Hotel, we are once again on his pleasure ferry, the so-called gentleman's boat, which he built in Cankurtaran. This time we watch the neighborhood from the sea, without docking at the shore and lighting the hıdırellez fire: Where is Cankurtaran?
For me, Cankurtaran starts from Erol Taş Kahvesi, which is unfortunately closed now. This is an area predominantly inhabited by Roman people who migrated from northern Greece after 1945. Over time, real estate prices increased with tourism, so people sold their properties and left the neighborhood. Nowadays, the tourism-urban balance has changed due to the increasing number of hostels and hotels in the neighborhood. The neighborhood has taken on a structure where its inhabitants cannot stay long even if they settle.
An established hotel and lit fire for the neighborhood
Our being here was actually shaped by the story of the building we are in now. It all started with the restoration of the buildings built by Barbaros Hayrettin Pasha for the Levents on Ahırkapı Street. We have been a part of the neighborhood ever since. I think maintaining the culture of the place you are in depends on getting to know your neighbors and ensuring unity. For this reason, our priority has always been the relationship we have established.
The Ahırkapı Hıdrellez Festivals we organize in the neighborhood are the best example of this bond. We wanted to remind Istanbulites of Cankurtaran again, and while doing this, the Roman residing in our neighborhood and the Ahırkapı Roman Orchestra became our biggest supporters. In the early days, the festival had 600 people. In 10 years it reached 100.000 people, but in 2010 we ended the festival for various but mainly security reasons. I would like the next route of hıdırellez to be Sultanahmet. These events that create an environment for sharing are very valuable in terms of connecting neighborhoods.
Food and drink route in the Historical Peninsula
In the Historic Peninsula, we follow Ayşe Şensılay's route surrounded by the smells of food.
- Perfect addresses to taste Istanbul’s diverse gastronomic culture: Armada Hotel terrace and Balıkçı Sabahattin.
- As for the street food of the Historical Peninsula, I go to: Sedef Büfe in Sultanahmet, Gül Ebru Kantin for döner; Hamdi for kebab; and Tarihî Pide Fırını for pide in Kuveloğlu Han.
- Hacı Muhiddin Bekir for Turkish delight and candy, Elit for chocolate. If I can't get enough sugar, I head to Day Day Pastanesi for baklava.
- Fahri Usta and Havuzlu are my favorites as artisan restaurants in the Historical Peninsula, even though they no longer have the old taste. Because they are nostalgic and representatives of the Grand Bazaar artisan restaurant culture.
- I drink Turkish coffee at Şark Kahvesi and tea at Fes Cafe. These are the places where the locals are regulars.
- I head to Eminönü for a quick bite on the go. At small kebab shops, I can find the most delicious dürüm and the historical Namlı Pastırma.
- In the evening, I settle at Giritli's tables and order appetizers.
- If I want to take something to eat at home, I stop by Cankurtaran Gıda; Namlı for breakfast and Elmaslar Kasabı for meat.
3, Ricardo, Ayhan, Garfield, Chruchill, Enkaz and Fatmagül, let's meet in Giritli's garden at 07:10 p.m. We have the food we prepared with the salmon we bought from Sabahattin the fisherman. Bella, we have a little surprise for you if you promise to leave Ricardo alone.