Off the beaten path: Nişantaşı through the eyes of an Istanbul local

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ISTANBUL: From marksmanship contests to abandoned embassies, Nişantaşı is full of small reminders of the rush to modernize and Westernize the Ottoman Empire, in a losing battle against its eventual collapse. Now the neighborhood embodies a different kind of modern: hip culture, internet memes and luxury

When Istanbul locals and tourists alike think of luxury, they think Nişantaşı. The neighborhood, sitting upon a hill overlooking Beşiktaş, is home to many luxury brands and is the stomping grounds of many famous VIPs. It seems like every deserted Sunday morning there’s a TV series being shot on some corner. That said, you don’t need a big budget to enjoy what the neighborhood has to offer. As someone who grew up in the neighborhood, I’d like to show you around my beloved home and show you what actually makes Nişantaşı special.

Nişantaşı lies between Maçka to its south, Harbiye to its southwest, Osmanbey to its west and Teşvikiye to its north. When people say they are heading to Nişantaşı, they typically mean they are heading to any one of three adjacent neighborhoods: Nişantaşı, Teşvikiye or Maçka. The three neighborhoods often overlap, and their history is inherently tied. I’m going to start my walk from Maçka and work my way up.

Maçka Park

Maçka Democracy Park is where you need to be to get a feel of youth culture in Istanbul. People head to the park in droves, setting up their picnic blankets or chairs on the grass to chat with friends over tea in a thermos or ice-cold beers. At any given moment you can hear a stray guitar, or maybe you might find yourself in the midst of a Zumba class. During the day it’s friendly and fun, and at night it turns into the equivalent of a large bar or club. Or you can simply take a stroll through the pretty woods, enjoying the occasional peek of a Bosporus view.

If Maçka Park isn’t quite your scene, head a little bit up the hill to Maçka Art Park, better known in my family as the “park with cats.” Possibly containing one of the largest stray cat colonies in Istanbul, the park is full of cuddly stray cats and kittens in all seasons. A small army of neighborhood folk, gracious volunteer vets and the local municipality work tirelessly to feed and take care of these cats, which is always an uphill battle. They’re certainly grateful – every time I sit on one of the park benches, a cat quickly comes to curl up in my warm lap.

A pair of kittens in Maçka Art Park, Istanbul, Turkey. (Courtesy of Yasemin Çelebi Paçalıoğlu)
A pair of kittens in Maçka Art Park, Istanbul, Turkey. (Courtesy of Yasemin Çelebi Paçalıoğlu)

The old Italian Embassy

The Italian Embassy that never was, this huge and imposing building was built to be the Italian Embassy during the Ottoman Empire, but it was never used. Nowadays we know it as the Maçka Vocational High School. But my sweet 95-year-old grandma, who grew up close by, knows it only as “the ruin of the Italian Consulate.” She has told me time and time again, as is the habit of anyone over 80, that when she was a little girl the building was a ruin, and plants grew out of its windowless panes.

Legend says that the Italians began to build the embassy, but the sultan at Dolmabahçe Palace ordered them to stop. Situated on a hill overlooking the palace, anyone with a good telescope could spy right inside the heart of the palace. How dare the Italians try and spy on the Ottoman sultan?

Like all good legends, this one is false. Instead of a triumphant story about the power of the sultan, the abandoned building is actually a monument to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. During the construction process, World War I broke out, and the Turkish War of Independence soon followed. The Ottoman Empire fell, and the capital moved to Ankara – and the Italian Embassy quickly followed.

The old Italian Embassy, now Maçka Vocational High School, Istanbul, Turkey. (Courtesy of Yasemin Çelebi Paçalıoğlu)
The old Italian Embassy, now Maçka Vocational High School, Istanbul, Turkey. (Courtesy of Yasemin Çelebi Paçalıoğlu)

If you’re looking for a bit of luxury, opposite the consulate is Maçka Palace, an apartment building built by the same architect, Giulio Mongeri, an Italian born in Istanbul. After housing generations of Istanbul’s elite, the building finally changed hands to Nusret Gökçe, better known as internet sensation Salt Bae. The ground floor houses an upscale Nusr-Et Restaurant, where you can have meat literally topped with gold. I haven’t been yet, but I hear it’s good, if rather expensive.

Cafes galore

I’ve been around a bit, and I can safely say that Nişantaşı is on the map for its coffee culture. There are streets full of just cafes, each one serving some seriously good coffee. Nearly all the Turkish gourmet coffee chains are in the neighborhood: Kronotrop, my pick for great acidic third-wave coffee; Ministry of Coffee, my pick for full-bodied, strong second-wave coffee, and Petra, if you want a good all-rounder. But what makes a good coffee shop is not just great coffee, but a great customer base, baristas and a pretty shop. If you promise not to spread the word too much, I might tell you my favorite for all of these.

On a side street just behind Teşvikiye Mosque, 44A is an art gallery and cafe combo founded by renowned artist Argun Okumuşoğlu. A lot of the neighborhood locals gather here for a quick cigarette overlooking the pretty mosque garden, tended to by a great crew of baristas. Personally, I love to poke my head inside and take a look at the gorgeous modern art inside while I sip my coffee. There’s always a new artist spotlight each time I visit, letting me meet a new member of the contemporary Turkish art scene.

A rare quiet morning in 44A Cafe and Art Gallery, Teşvikiye, Istanbul, Turkey. (Courtesy of Yasemin Çelebi Paçalıoğlu)
A rare quiet morning in 44A Cafe and Art Gallery, Teşvikiye, Istanbul, Turkey. (Courtesy of Yasemin Çelebi Paçalıoğlu)

If modern art isn’t your scene, how about something historical instead? Just next door to the mosque, grab a seat at The House Cafe, a hip (and now international) cafe chain that was born in this very neighborhood. The cafe sits in a type of building that used to be called a Muvakkithane, which can be literally translated to “Time-Keeper’s-House.” This type of building can be found only in Turkish architecture and was particularly important so people could keep track of Islamic prayer times. Often placed next to mosques, these buildings had large windows so passersby could peer at the clocks placed on the windowsill and learn the time. Now this defunct structure makes for a pretty cafe with big windows, letting in plenty of daylight.

Teşvikiye Mosque

Teşvikiye Mosque is newly opened after an extensive restoration that took three years, and it looks all the more stunning for it. It’s a relatively modern building compared to most of Istanbul. Built in 1854, it contains a lot of hints about the major changes Ottoman society was undergoing. As a typical mosque of its period, it consists of just the main building and a courtyard – a sharp contrast to the sprawling complexes of earlier mosques such as the Süleymaniye. We’re now in a modern era; schools and universities no longer sit next to mosques, but exist as separate structures as they did in the West.

That said, the building looks like something burst out of antiquity, with its Roman columns topped with a triangular pediment. Other than its dome and minaret, there are barely any references to the building being a religious one. This was perhaps because architects of this period had to play a delicate balancing game. The style in demand was influenced by western elements, but they also had to avoid taking too much from church aesthetics. Thus this quirky building was born, looking more like a stately home in Victorian London than a mosque. It points to an age-old question of Westernization: How to become Western, while still being Muslim?

The House Cafe sits in the old Time-Keeper
The House Cafe sits in the old Time-Keeper

Nişan taşı

In the courtyard of Teşvikiye Mosque stand two tall yet unassuming stones. In fact, you’re looking at the namesake of the neighborhood. “Nişan taşı” means literally “target stone.”

The Ottomans loved archery and loved to celebrate it. According to tradition, if an archer broke a record during an archery contest, a target stone was erected there with an inscription describing the archer’s success. The city used to be littered with such stones, but few remain today. The ones that sit in Nişantaşı are some of the best-preserved (though even they have taken quite a beating). One is dedicated to Sultan Selim III in 1790, and the other is dedicated to Sultan Mahmud II in 1811. The one dedicated to Mahmud II in the middle of the courtyard is a bit worn down and hard to read, so I headed over to the fence to read the other.

When this stone was erected here in the 19th century, there were not yet any buildings in this neighborhood. In fact, this whole area counted as outside the city. Selim III would set out in a large, crowded group to this empty area to practice rifle marksmanship. It gives you an idea of how small Istanbul was, just 200 or so years ago.

The text is very difficult to read for me, but I can parse out one line “Ol padişeh bin padişeh şahenşeh-i encüm-sipeh” (“That sultan, son of a sultan, is the shah of the army as numerous as the stars”) and another “Oldu tüfeng ateş-feşan mânende-i berk-i cihan” (“His rifle burst out fire like lightning”) so it’s clear to me that they’re really praising him and his rifle skills. I learned later that the rest of the text explains that Selim III, upon hearing that his rival Abdullah Ağa broke a record, organized a marksmanship contest here. After everyone competed, he took his rifle and shot an empty crockpot from 1,263 steps away, breaking the record. Quite impressive.

The stone is a work of art and must have taken a few months of effort from a team of skilled artists and artisans. I know the poem written on the stone is by Naşid, a renowned and favored poet of this period, written in pretty calligraphy by a skilled but unknown calligrapher (at least, he did not leave his signature), and finally engraved in stone by an artisan. It’s very humorous to think how much praise a sultan got just for hitting a target, and how much effort went into it.

Modernity, Westernization

Indeed, until the 19th century the neighborhood was known as a spot where the palace elite would go to practice archery and marksmanship. After Selim III and his successor Mahmud II left power, Sultan Abdulmecid I entered the stage. Abdulmecid was a new kind of sultan, who had grown up with a Western education alongside a traditional Islamic one. He declared the new Dolmabahçe Palace in Beşiktaş was to become the official home of the Ottoman sultans, and opened the Nişantaşı neighborhood to habitation, and had houses built here to form a new neighborhood. Quickly, it became a neighborhood full of mansions and palaces for the elites.

To declare this decision, he had two other target stones built in marble, in the style of Egyptian obelisks. One stands next to Harbiye Police Station, a bit up the street from the mosque. It took me a while to read the writing on it: “Eser-i Avatıf-ı Mecidiye Mahalle-i Cedide-i Teşvikiye” or roughly in English, “The new Teşvikiye neighborhood, the product of (Sultan) Abdülmecid’s grace.” In fact, that’s what Teşvikiye means: “Encouragement.” The sultan has encouraged the public to settle in this neighborhood. A handful of stones give us the names of these two neighborhoods.

From rifles to abandoned embassies, the neighborhood embodies the Ottoman 19th and 20th centuries, full of small markers that remind us of their rush to modernize and Westernize in a fight against the collapse of the empire. Now it embodies a different kind of modern – hip culture, internet memes and luxury. No matter the era, Nişantaşı stands at the forefront of the intermingling between East and West.

Courtesy: Dailysabah

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