The town of the blind

An interesting profile of a lesser known part of Istanbul

From Today’s Zaman

Kadıköy is indisputably the hub of the Asian side of İstanbul. With its vibrant center and shopping artery, Bahariye Caddesi, lively bars, clubs and restaurants, chic neighborhoods like Moda in the center and then extending along Bağdat Caddesi all the way to Bostancı, before handing over the baton to Maltepe, Kadıköy is a city in itself with a cumulative population — suburbs included — of some 2 million people, making it bigger than the UK’s second city, Birmingham. It is also the center of English language teaching, boasting innumerable large, medium-sized and small private schools.

Aesthetically, Kadıköy cannot be described as attractive. It is a huddled mass of shoulder-to-shoulder buildings of various ages and conditions from the few remaining traditional wooden houses and Ottoman red-bricks all the way to gleaming blue glass and steel office blocks. Apart from the seafront, there is almost no greenery anywhere. Here and there, some trees have been spared and serve as a blessing to the eye amidst such a concrete jungle. The rapid construction boom of the post-World War II era did not bless Kadıköy with much in the way of attractive architecture nor take into consideration the expanding population’s need not only for places to work and to live but also for space and air — green spaces — to relax and recover. Indeed, today’s Kadıköy has a history of suffering that dates back centuries.

Walk around Kadıköy today and there is desperately little evidence of the city’s origins — the odd tower that can be seen around Acıbadem, fountains (çeşme) which have recently been restored and a brick arch in ruins on Bahariye Caddesi, all that remains of an Ottoman hamam — as opposed to exactly the opposite in what was Stamboul: magnificent mosques, palaces, aqueducts and city walls and so on, which continue to draw millions of tourists every year. And yet, beneath the brutal concrete structures of Kadıköy, probably to some extent forever buried, lie the shattered remains of what was a significant city, albeit in the shadow of its European counterpart across the Bosporus.

If you walk through the street that leads from the bus stops (opposite Vakıf Bank’s building) on the way to Migros or eventually the book market (Akmar Pasajı) you will cross two intersections that have been decorated with memorabilia of what was before today’s Kadıköy. Marble pillars, flagstones and plinths attempt to tell a story. Granite slabs on the pavement spell out the word “Kalkedon.” Not many people know what this all refers to. One low plinth supports a bronze crocodile. A crocodile in İstanbul? What can this possibly mean?

What is Kadıköy today was, centuries ago, the ancient maritime town of Bithynia, almost directly opposite Byzantium and just south of Scutari (present-day Üsküdar). Unfortunately, as Wikipedia points out, almost no evidence of the ancient city survives in today’s Kadikoy; whatever objects were uncovered at Altıyol as well as other excavation sites are now on display at the Istanbul Archaeological Museum. How times change. The stream that runs past Fenerbahçe’s Şükrü Saracoğlu Stadium out to sea, known as the “Kurbağalıdere” (stream with frogs), was called the Chalcis or Chalcedon and is the place where the settlement of Chalcedon was established by Greek colonists from Megara in 685 B.C., just 17 years before Byzantium was founded.

The same source says that a Megarian colony was established on a site that was widely regarded as patently inferior to what had been established opposite on the European side. Commenting on this, the Persian general Megabazus is alleged to have joked that Chalcedon’s founders must have been blind. This led to the much chuckled about story that Chalcedon was the “City of the Blind.” Nevertheless, it was a flourishing town with a thriving trade. The first great sea-traders, the Phoenicians, used it as their main trading base in Constantinople. Important satellite villages included Chrysopolis (today’s Üsküdar) all the way to Panteicheion (Pendik). So what about crocodiles? Strabo noted that “a little above the sea,” in Chalcedon, lies “the fountain Azaritia, which contains small crocodiles.”

So why are there almost no traces of what was clearly a significant trading town in what is today’s Kadıköy? Again, according to Wikipedia, the city was partly destroyed by Mithridates. Although the city recovered during the Roman Empire, it fell under constant attack. Chalcedon’s problem was its proximity to the new imperial capital of Constantinople. Worse than defeat, in terms of archaeology, both the Byzantines and later the Ottoman Turks plundered the city in order to use the rubble of building materials for Constantinople’s monumental structures. Worse still, Chalcedon was constantly preyed upon by armies attacking Constantinople from the east. During the Fourth Crusade (A.D. 1204) the city suffered serious damage (again), eventually falling under the Ottoman rule of Orhan Gazi a mere century before the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople.

All this being said, Chalcedon was an important center of civilization to such an extent that an ecumenical council of Christian leaders convened here in A.D. 451. The object of the Council of Chalcedon was to define the human and divine nature of the prophet Jesus, but it simply provoked the schism between the churches and led to the composition of Oriental Orthodoxy. While all this may appear to be theological sophistry — how many angels can you put on a pinhead? — the outcome of the conference was to separate various Christian persuasions to this day. It certainly separated mainstream Roman Catholicism and Russian and Greek Orthodoxy. It also left the Egyptian Copts in an invidious position. Was Jesus God and Man? Was he God on earth? Was he a man who became a god much as the Roman emperors? The Council of Chalcedon set down the doctrine in the face of alleged heretics and set the pattern that remains unchanged to this day with all the factions and fractures that have inevitably become built in to a manmade religion that is no different from politics and runs all the risks and ruses, hair-splitting and enmity with which we have all become so familiar.

Today’s Kadıköy shows no evidence of the once great trading port of Chalcedon. How much of the ancient city, which was razed under multiple attacks, was plundered for its stone to contribute to other construction projects in the far superior Byzantine side directly across the Bosporus we will probably never know.

From Sulthanamet to Beyazıt memories of Chalcedon are built into numerous structures and may even be among the scattered bits of carved stone that litter the roadside beside the tramway line through Beyazıt. It is somewhat of a benefit that over the last decade of Justice and Development Party (AK Party) rule, some consideration has been given to preservation and restoration after decades of neglect. Throughout Turkey there are immeasurably valuable ancient sites. This country is incredibly rich in historical remains as it was the crossroads of many civilizations and cultures for thousands of years. Many of the remains, however, are waiting to be properly excavated and documented. It would be a wonderful project to establish a museum here in Kadıköy depicting, with as many artifacts as are available, the very ancient history of the ground on which we walk and to try and reconstruct in our mind the glory that was and has been so long ignored. It is time that the town of the blind regained its vision.

About proverbs6to10

Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
This entry was posted in Istanbul and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The town of the blind

  1. Evmenis says:

    Regarding the transformation of “Konstantinoupolis” into “Stampolis (Σταμπόλις)”, maybe one should point out the existence of greek last names like “Stampoles (Σταμπόλης)”, “Stampolides (Σταμπολίδης)” etc. However, there are also similar surname versions in neighbouring nations like “Stambolic”, “Stambolitz”, “Stambolinsky”, “Стамболийски”, and “Stambolov”. Probably, that is why modern Greeks consider “Stambol” as a non-greek innovation, if not turkish, then surely slavic. So they dismiss the matter, concluding to the exclusive usage of the “Polis” abbreviation, as a name of the imperial capital, during the Middle Ages. Personally, I’m genuinely curious, not so much as who has come up with the inaccurate idea of “Istanbul”-deriving-from-“Eis ten Polin” in the first place, but why this absurdity has managed to become so widespread of a rumor.

    Ffirstly Constantinopolis was shortened in greek into Stampoli. Subsequently, the vulgar name of the imperial capital, “Stampoli”, underwent an altaic transformation during the 16th c, becoming “Istanbul”, as much as the fancy name of the slavic town of Velesbud (Велбъжд), that is “Constantinopol”, had also experienced an altaic transformation during the 14th c, becoming “Kyustendil”, a name used up to now by the Bulgarians (Кюстендил). Cases similar to the “Stampoli” –> “Istanbul” name transformation, are well attested in the Uralic – Altaic Language Group:
    Stephanos –> Istvan, in hungarian
    skala –> iskele, in turkish
    Skoutari –> Uskundar, in turkish
    Skopje –> ϋskϋp, in turkish
    Romania’s imperial capital, Stampoli, is also called “Kizil Elma” by the Turks, which means “the Red Apple”, not unlike New York’s nickname: “the Big Apple”. Maybe it is because both cities used to share a horce-racing tradition, once valued as an ecumenical heritage, like soccer football today.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.