When traveling through Istanbul, Turkey, one can easily be subjected to a heavy dose of sensory overload – the multitudes of noises, the vibrant colors and shapes, and the curious smells all conclude to an exhausting journey. While the entire city holds an abundance of stimulants, there is one area in particular that cohesively weaves these stimulants together to create a place of true wonder.

Interior of Rustem Pasha Mosque

This particular area lies within the ever-bustling neighborhood of Eminà­ ¶nà­ ¼, a neighborhood known for its rich history, as well as being a popular tourist destination. Don’t let that keep you from making the potentially overwhelming trek to visit the colorful and eye-popping Spice Bazaar and the tranquil and awe-inspiring Rà­ ¼stem Pasha Mosque.

The contrasts of Istanbul begin with the landscape itself – the city resides over both Europe and Asia, and it is stemmed from this original juxtaposition that a realm of contrasts was born. The culture carries a mix of antiquity vs. modernity, east vs. west, and peace vs. chaos. The particular corner of life that perfectly balances such a contrast lies tucked away in the middle of Istanbul. This hub is able to evoke completely different emotions out of its visitors, and from this Mosque and Spice Bazaar that exist in perfect harmony of one another that we are able to see what Istanbul has to offer.

Spice Bazaar

The Spice Bazaar astonishes people with its extremely wide variety of Turkish delights (those candies you were always curious about when reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), the endless supply of dried fruits, and its countless mounds of multicolored spices.

Array of Dried Fruit

Rich in history, the covered and enclosed maze of corridors reminds its visitors of the historical past of Turkey  – the architecture evokes the late 16th century when Istanbul functioned as the last stop for camel caravans traveling the silk routes from China.

Turkish Delight

It now holds a treasure trove of tasty goodies that will evidently leave your belly full of delights and your bag filled with vibrant colors.


As the chaos of the Spice Bazaar can be taxing, the adjacent Mosque tucked away on a terrace over a complex of shops can offer a whole new set of sensations that Istanbul has to offer. An unmarked staircase leads up to a second story Rà­ ¼stem Pasha Mosque that relieves one of the bustling markets crowding below.

Exterior Rà­ ¼stem Pasha Mosque

Exterior Rà­ ¼stem Pasha Mosque

This majestic place of worship first astonishes you with a powerful force that maintains an intoxicating silence throughout the premise. However, even though the energy is calm, the beauty of this mosque stems from its intricate and aesthetically busy art. Delicately detailed tiles in various shades of blue cover the entire structure both inside and out.

Detail of Mosaics

Detail of Mosaics

Istanbul’s theme of contrast can even be seen in the meticulous décor of the building; fragments of ancient mosaics are pieced together with new tiles.

Collage of Mosaics

Even though it has been estimated that there are around 3,000 Mosques in the city of Istanbul alone, this particular one out-shines them all. The allure of the Mosque is overwhelming, the place reminds one to breathe, to think, to be still – quite the necessary place to encounter after the Spice Market.

Man Praying

Between these two extremely contrasting places, one develops a sense of the yin and yang of the city. This area is an example of such cohesive juxtaposition that makes Istanbul a unique and exciting traveling experiences to have. After experiencing such a potent and dynamic culture, it’s easier to become under-whelmed by what now seems to be a flat and homogeneous culture at home.

Istanbul’s rooftops are the baked red clay half-pipes that cup into one another, which you can find anywhere in Europe; in contrast to this, the facades of entire building blocks are accentuated by ornate geometric and floral tilings  – Eastern Europe fitting up against a traditionally Islamic, Middle Eastern sentiment. It is hard to think of any part of Istanbul as a relic of another time because the entire city is happening and changing in the moment, most immediately in the famous Covered Bazaar (or Grand Bazaar), a half-millennium old construction housing the most premium ateliers and shops, and the labyrinthine network of stands that grows radially out from it.

In this center of Istanbul, and in the city as a whole, ticks a carefully crafted mechanism of commerce. Every interaction between travelers is a transaction. It seems appropriate to say “travelers” because it is hard to imagine anyone knowing the exploded expanse of the markets intimately enough to call it a familiar home. In a very different way, the inviting nature of the bright stalls, the enticing duck-behind diukians becomes quickly familiar, not because of any direct interest in bartering, but because of the very human aspect underlying this life. Everything sold is directly useful to some degree, especially in the markets immediately outside of the old city, where the rows of hookahs, ranging from teaspoon to toddler-sized, are replaced by boxes of pipes and bathroom fixtures of startling variety, condition, and age, boxes of socks (“Chift chorapi!”), and the ever-present water bottle peddlers, the lifeblood of the city. Everyone is seeking to purchase something, and the entirety of social interaction runs around it.

It is curious to see how any goods that are labeled as authentically Turkish – ornate sheet metal lamps, fine clothes and assaulting spices – are commodified, packaged and sold as eagerly as possible to visitors, a deep contrast to the juxtaposed markets outside of the tourist range, which sell ubiquitously comfortable Western brand names and goods to the authentically Turkish people. Tourists walk out of the covered market with a 15th century art print of a dervish, and Istanbulites walk out of an air-conditioned mall touting a Whirlpool. In order for Turkey to complete the transaction of entering the European Union, its own cultural tradition seems to have to be reduced to only skin deep.

Passersby are addressed in half a dozen languages if their eyes so much as stray over the goods in the shops (“Merhaba, Hello, Guten Morgen, Dobri den” and the always effective “Good price!”), locals loudly exclaim their disapproval of listed prices and are consoled with exultations and warnings that they are putting the seller’s family out on the street if he takes the price they are asking, one he takes anyway. Travelers who wish to avoid these scenes keep a dead look ahead, or sneak looks under large sunglasses. But these visual transactions permeate far deeper, into the core of cultural interaction. Looking into the eyes of your fellow market-goer, a common catch in the Western world where strangers often make eye contact to confirm one another’s movement, or to share a small humor over something they’ve both seen, takes on a more guarded form in these corridors of exchange.

More often than not, looking up to see the eyes of another person, especially someone of the opposite sex, is greeted by their gaze fleeting away. It’s as if the very act of looking at someone invites an interaction, but unlike the one in the shops, this one is not greeted with enthusiasm. It is particularly striking in the lower markets, where most of the barterers are women, and many of them are wearing burkas, with their eyes as one of the only direct human links, now diverted. This creates a sense of isolation, even among the throngs of merchants and soon-to-be owners of pashmina, tea, and evil-eye charms that they did not even know they needed, and simultaneously allows travelers to find the goods they want to purchase without distraction, and to intensify their own feeling of alienation in this crossover marketplace.

There was no other choice of location for Orhan Pamuk to craft his Museum of Innocence, the psychotically meticulous and fascinating house containing exhibits corresponding to each chapter of his  book of the same name, a story about a complex affection set in 1970s Istanbul. The museum itself is a study in obsession, with every exhibit a memorial to a particular memory that the narrator has of his object of desire, later wife, beginning to great effect with a display case of thousands upon thousands of labeled and cataloged cigarette butts. One has to imagine that Pamuk had a battalion of lipstick-clad assistants whose sole purpose it was to smoke and perfectly crumple the spent cylinders so that he could pin and tag them, butterfly-like. Other display cases are filled with a trinket collector’s dream, a decade’s worth of thrift purchases by Pamuk as he accrued the items necessary to complete the experience in his mind. Walking through the museum is to understand what it is like to take the most private thoughts and obsessions of a person and catalog them in a way for a public eager to peek in, without questioning the potential loss of  earnestness in such a drastic reversal.

Photography is not allowed inside the Museum of Innocence, all transactions must be complete at the door. The guards look you in the eyes here, especially when you are obviously lying about the validity of your student card, and it only serves to remind you that you are in between the outside and the inside, of the museum, of the market, of Istanbul, a traveler in a state of transit and transaction.

The Museum of Innocence / Masumiyet Mà­Æ’ ¼zesi
Firuzaà­”žà… ¸a Mh., à­Æ’” ¡ukur Cuma Cd 24, 34424 Istanbul, Turkey [map]
+90 212 252 9738

Grand Bazaar
Kayà­”ž ±à­”¦à… ¸daà­”žà… ¸à­”ž ± Mh., Hilal Sk 29, 34755 Atasehir à­”ž °stanbul, Turkey [map]
+90 535 220 1472

Follow the author on Tumblr. Read about what’s happening to Istanbul’s historical neighborhoods in the city’s push to become a global city.

“Renewal doesn’t mean transformation, it’s about rehabilitation. It means we have to restore the buildings.” 
-Deputy Mayor of Fatih Municipality, March 15th, 2011.

In a closed-door meeting, the deputy mayor of Fatih Municipality clarified the aim of controversial Law No. 5366 for us, an urban planning studio from Columbia University. Passed in 2005, its formal name is “Preservation by Renovation and Utilization by Revitalizing of Deteriorated Immovable Historical and Cultural Properties.”  However, the law is popularly referred to as the “Urban Renewal Act”  by community groups in Istanbul, who argue that it is used in practice as a tool for mass urban renewal and gentrification.

Mayor Mustafa Demir (right) of Fatih Municipality, Deputy Mayor (center), translator (left)

Istanbul is also under fire from UNESCO for its lax enforcement of preservation. The city was declared a World Heritage Site in 1985, with the entire historic peninsula protected. Four priority zones were mapped out including the Topkapi Palace and environs, the Suleymaniye area, Zeyrek historical neighborhood and the old Byzantine city walls. The local municipality then drew up its own preservation map, which neither matched the UNESCO boundaries nor seemed to respect the extent of protection desired by the international organization, particularly around the ancient city walls. The cause behind this discrepancy is unclear, but it is known that UNESCO maps were not provided to local municipalities by the Ministry of Culture until 2003.  [1] In a report from 2006, UNESCO also expressed concern regarding the quality of reconstruction being done as well as the tendency to demolish and rebuild in the style of the old-with concrete clad by wood, in imitation of the Byzantine timber house aesthetic.  [1]

When we met with the IMP (Istanbul Metropolitan Planning and Urban Design Center), the officials agreed with UNESCO’s analysis. Unfortunately, it seemed that the IMP had been divested of much of its authority after political strife with the Istanbul mayor and was serving primarily as a research facility rather than a body of enforcement. It’s staff had been significantly cut and the office was eerily empty. Under Law 5366, the local municipalities have full control over development once an area is declared a renewal zone, further rendering the role of the IMP obsolete.

Sulukule (right) before demolition

One of the first initiatives under Law 5366 was Sulukule, a traditionally Roma (gypsy) neighborhood dating back to the Byzantine era. Sulukule was reportedly the first area in the world to be permanently settled by a Roma population. The neighborhood is 22 acres in size and is situated along the Byzantine Walls in a UNESCO priority protection zone. For centuries, the neighborhood served as a music and dance cultural destination for the city, open to Istanbul residents and visitors alike. The neighborhood was also characterized by a spatial pattern unique to Istanbul, featuring housing units that surroundedgent actively used courtyards and gardens for informal and family activities. However, the neighborhood had suffered economic decline and the homes were in varying states of disrepair.

In 2008, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee criticized the Sulukule Renewal Project as a “gentrification project”  and recommended “that a balance must be found between conservation, social needs and identity of the community.”   [2] According to Aslà­”ž ± Kà­”ž ±yak à­”ž °ngin of the Sulukule Platform, the neighborhood was also “highly stigmatized in the minds of the mainstream populations mainly as being a host to drug users and traders”  and was thus a prime target for an urban renewal project.  [3] The entertainment houses were forcibly closed in 1992 on grounds of prostitution, immorality and thievery. Sulukule was designated an urban renewal zone in 2005 and Prime Minister Erdoà­”žà… ¸an  announced, “We will save Sulukule from its state of aberration.”  (2008)  [4]

Sulukule Today

On the other hand, the deputy mayor of Fatih Municipality emphasized the “flexibility”  of the law, which he contended was one of its strengths. The law could be applied as needed, depending on the situation. In Sulukule, this meant relocating the 5,000 families who lived there to Tasoluk, a TOKI social housing complex 30 kilometers away, providing them with free transportation back to the city and some “cash,”  according to the deputy mayor. In the end, ┦”  of the residents never moved into Tasoluk, finding the rents and maintenance fees unaffordable and the location too far from their livelihood. The adjustment from a low-rise communal lifestyle to the high-rise housing apartments was also untenable for the residents and many resettled near Sulukule.

TOKI Housing under construction in the Suburbs (not Tasoluk)

TOKI is the Housing Development Authority of Turkey which reports directly to the Office of the Prime Minister. In addition to constructing social housing and infrastructure, TOKI is authorized to prepare and modify zoning plans, expropriate property and develop financial arrangements for urban renewal projects.  But in spite of this concerted program for affordable housing, TOKI has not been providing mixed-use or mixed-income in the new towns, and residents have found the housing complexes antithetical to their social patterns and lifestyle.

We were told not to look for Sulukule. But the next day, we climbed atop the Byzantine wall and got a panoramic view of Istanbul. The gash in the urban fabric was unmistakable. In its place was a small batch of concrete housing by TOKI and a vast construction site. We attempted to walk through the front gate of the site, stayed long enough to get a feeling for the vast demolition that had occurred and were shooed out by workers. At another entrance, I was small enough to fit in a crack between the gate fence and the construction wall.

Ottoman Timber home inside the construction site at Sulukule

I spent about ten minutes exploring and photographing, even inside some of the remaining houses. In terms of preservation, the supposed goal of Law 5366, only a handful of the 43 buildings and 11 historical monuments listed as historic remain today, all in a state of severe dilapidation. In 2009, the Sulukule Platform found that “houses registered as historic buildings have been developed and almost all of the listed properties are in no state of conservation due to the detrimental impact of ongoing (demolitions) in the area.”  [5] Our first-hand observation of Sulukule confirms this assessment. Most of the remaining homes are in poor condition and without structural intervention, restoration will be challenging. My guess is that the developers are well aware of this and found it convenient to keep the buildings in order to maintain a semblance of abiding the law–demolition by neglect.

The interior of the houses had the look of a place left in a hurry. The kitchen had been fully cleared but clothing was strewn all over the floor. Empty clay flower pots law haphazardly near a window. Old newspapers, straw baskets, shoes, a full bottle of nail polish-all elements of a home, once occupied. And in the center of the house-a vintage upholstered chair-with a t-shirt carefully placed atop one of the arms with the words “SAADET PARTà­Æ’ SI”   [6] : felicity party. I heard some workers nearby so I scurried out of the house, crossed what was once a local street and back through the crack in the wall.

Mayor Mustafa Demir of Fatih Municipality admitted to us that they made mistakes with Sulukule: “I will make a confession. We are really sorry we relocated the people.”  But there is much more to the story, and it goes beyond the jurisdiction of just one local municipality. There are 47 areas in Istanbul targeted for urban renewal, making Law 5366 and the subsequent decision making process that accompanies it, a critical key to development in the city. Mega-projects, such as the $2.5 billion Zorlu Center and Zaha Hadid’s plans for Kartal (6 million square meters), are springing up all over Istanbul. Meanwhile, residents are just starting to understand what citizen participation could mean.

Zaha Hadid Master Plan for Kartal

Zorlu Center

Whether or not the leaders of Istanbul (and Turkey) are prepared, the country is on a precipice. The desire for expression is embodied in the daily protests we witnessed in Istanbul-against the recent government imprisonment of journalists for example.  Architecture and urban planning will be key sites of contestation, manifesting the angst of a population in transition.  The Turkish are also one of the most virtually connected populations. Turkey is the fourth highest user of Facebook and its users spend nearly as much time online per month as those in the United States. Users are also particularly young, with 70% of the internet audience under the age of 34, compared to 54% globally. One of the recent protests against Web censorship was coordinated online via Google Maps, a virtual march from the capital of Ankara to Istanbul’s Taksim Square:

In its push to become one of the “global cities”  of the world, what will happen to the built environment in Istanbul?  Change is inevitable but what mechanisms can be implemented to enable the voices that are silenced to be heard?  Without a legal mechanism of community participation, who will ensure that planning balances the needs of the city with the needs of its current citizens?

Istanbul is unique because it is a city in which the layers of history and the fingerprints of diverse empires are collaged upon each other, both physically in the city and within its people. One cannot understand its nuances from papers or two-dimensional methods alone. But once on its streets, the complexity of space, time, history and politics become palpable. If “rehabilitation” means bulldozing and relocating its citizens to places outside the city, can Istanbul retain the diversity that has made it unique?

Special thanks to Jaeyoung Paek, Yasmin Zaerpoor, Charles-Antoine Perrault, Kevin Selig, Piryanka Jain, Michael Curley, Fred Sham, Markus Dochantschi, Pamela Puchalski, Zuhal Ulusoy (Kadir Has University), Cihan Baysal, Burà§in Altinsay, Aslà­”ž ± Kà­”ž ±yak  à­”ž °ngin, Omer Kanipak, Dr. Asu Aksoy (Istanbul Bilgi University Santral),  Levent Soysal, Gà­Æ’ ¼ldem Baykal, Yonca Kà­Æ’ ¶sebay, Burak Haznedar, Eylem Gà­Æ’ ¼lcemal and Harun Ekinohlu, for their role in the formulation of these observations both in Istanbul and in New York City.

[1] Joint ICOMOS/UNESCO Expert Mission Report.  6-11 April 2006.

[2] World Heritage Committee/United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Mission Report. 8 to 13 May 2008.

[3]Aslà­”ž ± Kà­”ž ±yak  à­”ž °ngin. “Urban Renewal Processes in the Historic City.” 27 to 28 June 2009.

[4] Aslà­”ž ± Kà­”ž ±yak  à­”ž °ngin (Human Settlements Association).  Sulukule UNESCO Report by the Sulukule Platform. May 2008.

[5] Sulukule Platform. Report on the Impact of Sulukule Urban Renewal Project. 25 April 2009.

[6] SAADET PARTà­Æ’ SI is a political party in Turkey