Passing through narrow passages

Passing through narrow passages

Niki Gamm
Passing through narrow passages

Beyoğlu in the mid-1850s.

A Turkish passage (pasaj) conjures up narrow streets between buildings in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu/Pera district, most often lined with shops selling trinkets, ribbons, etc. In some of them, two people can’t walk side by side; in others, a horse and cart might make it. Almost all date from the 19th century.

Beyoğlu and Karaköy were the main areas where the Ottomans permitted foreigners to live after the conquest of the city in 1453. Beyoğlu itself spread north along the spine of the hills to where Taksim Square is today, but as its buildings were usually of wood there were frequent fires. The rebuilding after the fire of June 1870, which had devastated the area between Taksim and Galatasaray with the loss of more than 3,000 buildings, has given us almost all of the structures that we still have today along the north half of İstiklal Caddesi - four to six storied buildings with stores and businesses on the ground and first floors and, once upon a time, luxurious apartments on the upper floors. The street was dubbed the Champs d’Elysee, a reference to the famous Paris boulevard, in spite of its lack of resemblance.

Inhabitants of Beyoğlu

In the 19th century, Beyoğlu’s inhabitants were primarily members of the Greek and Armenian minorities and catered to foreigners and Ottoman Turks who were attracted to its relative freedom. The Ottomans had always been keen on keeping their “citizens” apart from foreigners, so any of the latter who applied for permission to reside in greater Istanbul was granted it only if they lived in the Beyoğlu area or along the Bosphorus coast. This is why the embassies built their stately residences on İstiklal Caddesi.

Hotels and boarding houses sprang up both on the main street and in the neighborhoods behind it, as more and more foreigners came to Istanbul. Many of them were looking for work in the capital as the Ottomans were determined to modernize, that is, to Westernize their empire. Architects in particular were able to find lucrative commissions, as everyone seemed to want buildings in the European style.

İstiklal Caddesi passages

In and amongst these European looking buildings were a number of passages. There were and still are at least 14 passages off İstiklal Avenue, with such evocative names as Çiçek, Atlas, Aslıhan, Avrupa, Rumeli, Aznavur, Suriye, Hazzopulo, Markiz, El Hamra, Halep, Nil, Crespin, Tünel and Hristaki.

In terms of architectural style, the passages resembled those built in Europe of the 19th century. Professor Zeynep Çelik in her book, “The Remaking of Istanbul” describes two of these passages as “miniature models of their European precursors ... ornate neoclassical interior and exterior facades.” Shops or restaurants lined both sides of a passage way which was covered by a glass roof. The Çiçek (Flower) Passage and the Avrupa Passage at Galatasaray are good examples of this. Both passages are fairly wide, the former accommodating outside dining at its many restaurants and the latter showing off displays to be found in the shops.

The Çiçek Passage, originally known as the Cite de Pera, is in a building that was originally built in the first half of the 19th century by one of the leading Greek bankers, Hristaki Zagrofos. He was so wealthy that he was able to loan money to the sultan when the latter needed it. But his original intention was apparently was to supply the nearby Greek Zografyon Lycee with income. The site had originally been occupied by the Naum Theater where European plays and operas were staged. The theater was so popular that even Sultans Abdulaziz and Abdulhamid II frequently attended performances.

One anecdote concerning Abdulhamid II that is rather imperfectly known has him falling in love with a seamstress plying her trade in one of the shops – a Belgian girl, Flora Cordier, with long red hair. He was still crown prince at the time so enjoyed enough freedom to visit the shop repeatedly until he was able to whisk her off with a promise of marriage. Certainly, the foreign community was convinced they were married although she never entered the harem. What happened to her afterwards is unclear although one rather sad story says she was strangled to death by the head of the sultan’s harem. It’s not exactly clear where young Flora worked but it’s likely in one of the shops at the entrance to the passage.

The Cite de Pera building, designed by an Italian architect whose name was Cleanthy Zanno, contained 24-25 very chic stores such as pastry shops, tailors and dress designers. Above these were 18 luxurious apartments. Its second owner was Grand Vizier Küçük Said Paşa. Over time it became one of the most famous drinking places in all of Istanbul and one of the noisiest since its rather rakish atmosphere attracted street sellers, gypsies, wandering minstrels and panhandlers and all sorts of people getting louder and louder as they consumed more and more rakı, Turkey’s favorite alcoholic beverage, as the evening wore on. Following extensive restoration by the municipal government and the imposition of licenses on entertainers, the Çiçek Passage became “sanitized.”

“But in the good old days,
I went, I looked, filled floor to ceiling the Çiçek Passage
I downed three shots, I’m a drunk standing.”

Oktay Rifat.

Undoubtedly all of the passages have their own story to tell. For instance, the Suriye Passage was designed by the architect Dimitri Vasiliadis although the owners were a Syrian family headed by Hasan Halbuni. Construction started in 1900-1901 and took eight years to complete. It is particularly remembered for one of its tenants, the Greek language newspaper Apoyevmatini, which was published on its premises until this fall.

One of the celebrated pastry shops on İstiklal Caddesi, the Lebon Pastanesi, later the Markiz, was located at the entrance to the Sark Passage. It was opened in the middle of the 19th century by the pastry chef Edouard Lebon who had worked for the French ambassador until the latter was recalled. The most remarkable aspect of the pastry shop was the several Art Nouveau panels on the walls. The four panels represented the four seasons. The pastry shop served generations of wealthy and upper middle class families who used to promenade along İstiklal Caddesi, knowing that they would run into friends along the way.

The passages have stood the test of time. Today the restaurants and pastry shops and even tinier retail shops with their brightly colored shawls and scarves, old books and postcards are waiting to be discovered. Just dive in. There’s no knowing what you might discover.