Istanbul: Memories and the City, Orhan Pamuk

book cover

book cover


First Edition Provenance
 Pamuk, Orhan. İstanbul: Hatiralar Ve Şehir. İstanbul: YKY, 2003. Print.

Excerpt Provenance Pamuk, Orhan, and Maureen Freely. Istanbul: Memories and the City. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print.

Collage made from Ara Guler's photography selection for Istanbul: Memories and the City

Collage made from Ara Guler’s photography selection for Istanbul: Memories and the City

Introduction to the Selection from Istanbul: Memories of a City – by Eda Yetim

          In his novel, Pamuk writes about his feelings abouthimself, his “other self”, and his family, in relationship to the streets of Istanbul. As we discover Istanbul’s streets in 1950s,-the roads with cobblestones, ruined blasted wooden mansions, we also witness the authentic culture dissappearing with the invasion of “modernity.” He explores “the East-West paradox as a result of the Turkish modernization”1 Meandering around the streets to trace the reminents of the past, Pamuk creates a structure similar to that of a detective novel. “The lack of a linear development, the shift of tone in different chapters, and the coexistence of image and text are among the strategies that Pamuk uses in order to underline his experience of the city as fragmented and fluid.2Moreover structurally and thematically, “the novel stands on slippery grounds that are constantly moving” to underscore the continuous movement and dynamism.

Pamuk is not interested neither instanding at the centernor in finding homogeneous final answers, insteadhetries to explore : “the aporetic space that opens up in the in-between”. Istanbul: Memories of a Cityillustrates the geographical, literary, temporal and autobiographical dimensions of this experience while using the city as a non-linear text. While walking the streets of the city Orhan learns how to both read and re-write Istanbul through the texts and images that it offers. “Like a postmodern flaneur” Orhan, discovers the poor neglected back streets of the old city, where ruins replace the memories of the glorious days of the Ottoman Empire. The narrative also invites the reader to experience the city the way Orhan did, getting lost along the streets without necessarily following a predetermined itinerary. The novel invites the reader to create his/her own journey, “exploring the different spatial, literary and temporal dimensions of Orhan’s Istanbul.”3

Sketch by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan divides the city into two in an almost allegorical narrative; the melancholic backstreets and the newly Westernized, modern and affluent Nisantasi neighborhood. Orhan not only divides the city but also himself using autobiographical and literary episodes, where he is always looking for another Orhan. This signifies his condition of not feeling at home, and belonging to the either part of the city. Being trapped in this intermediary space, Orhan visually represents his situation by integrating Ara Guler’s renowned photography work of Istanbul in his novel. These photographs do not depict Istanbul-the touristic-hot-spot, buta city of sorrowwhich is blanketed with its shadows from the past. The relationship between light and shadow is reflected on the photographs; the smoke coming from the ships on the Bosphorus, the fog in the early hours of the day, and the shadows that take over the streets late at night… The gradient palette in these black and white photography serves as a great medium to emphasize the depth of field in order to emphasize the multilayers of the city.

Pamuk jumps from the urban scale to intimate scale. He describes his window both as an object which brings huzun through its materiality and physicality and also as a device which captures fragments of melancholic images like a b&w film camera. The steamed up window becomes a filter which Pamuk chooses to look through in order to liberate himself from the crisp image of reality:

Offering no clarity; veiling reality instead, huzun brings us comfort, softening the view like the condensation on a window when a tea kettle has been spouting steam on a winter’s day. Steamed-up windows make me feel hüzün, and I still love getting up and walking over to those windows to trace words on them with my finger. As I trace out words and figures on the steamy window, the hüzün inside me dissipates, and I can relax after I have done all my writing and drawing, I can erase it all with the back of my hand and look outside. But the view itself can bring its own hüzün.”4

Throughout the novel, we realize that Pamuk’s mourning for the past deepends with every new development he encounters in the city. He strongly rejects the post-republic perception of modernity. He believes thatIstanbul‘s eclectic character and multi-cultural texture gets violated by the generic modernist structures enforced by capitalism.He mourns for the palaces, mansions, gardens…[that] has been ruined during the Rebuplic era’,and the fact that “day by day the wooden mansions are thrown down and apartments are built instead”. The city finds its voice in Pamuk as much as Pamuk finds himself in the city. Therefore his melancholy becomes a shared emotion whichthe city knows that it will not go back to his glarimous days’

1Out of Place in Istanbul. Ubiquity Press, 2010. Internet resource.

2Out of Place in Istanbul. Ubiquity Press, 2010. Internet resource.

3Out of Place in Istanbul. Ubiquity Press, 2010. Internet resource.

4)Pamuk, Orhan, and Maureen Freely. Istanbul: Memories and the City. New York: Knopf, 2005. Print, 79

Cartoon by Matteo-Pericoli depicting Sultanahmet

Cartoon by Matteo-Pericoli depicting Sultanahmet


Excerpt 1

Melancholy is everywhere: in the museum houses, in the cupboards, over the curtains… Everything makes him suffer emotionally and physically, maybe that is why Pamuk is in search for his unborn twin who is hopefully enjoying his life elsewhere.

The Photographs in the Dark Museum House

 My mother, my father, my older brother, my grandmother, my uncles, and my aunts—we all lived on different floors of the same five-story apartment house. Until the year before I was born, the different branches of the family had (as with so many large Ottoman families) lived together in a stone mansion; in 1951 they rented it out to a private elementary school and built on the empty lot next door the modern structure I would know as home; on the facade, in keeping with the custom of the time, they proudly put up a plaque that said PAMUK APT . We lived on the fourth floor, but I had the run of the entire building from the time I was old enough to climb off my mother’s lap and can recall that on each floor there was at least one piano. When my last bachelor uncle put his newspaper down long enough to get married, and his new wife moved into the first-floor apartment, from which she was to spend the next half century gazing out the window, she brought her piano with her. No one ever played, on this one or any of the others; this may be why they made me feel so sad. But it wasn’t just the unplayed pianos; in each apartment there was also a locked glass cabinet displaying Chinese porcelains, teacups, silver sets, sugar bowls, snuffboxes, crystal glasses, rosewater ewers, plates, and censers that no one ever touched, although among them I sometimes found hiding places for miniature cars. There were the unused desks inlaid with mother-of-pearl, the turban shelves on which there were no turbans, and the Japanese and Art Nouveau screens behind which nothing was hidden. There, in the library, gathering dust behind the glass, were my doctor uncle’s medical books; in the twenty years since he’d emigrated to America, no human hand had touched them.

 To my childish mind, these rooms were furnished not for the living but for the dead. (Every once in a while a coffee table or a carved chest would disappear from one sitting room only to appear in another sittingIf she thought we weren’t sitting properly on her silver-threaded chairs, our grandmother would bring us to attention. “Sit up straight!” Sitting rooms were not meant to be places where you could lounge comfortably; they were little museums designed to demonstrate to a hypothetical visitor that the householders were westernized. A person who was not fasting during Ramadan would sitting cross-legged in a room full of cushions and divans.

 Because the traffic between floors was incessant, as it had been in the Ottoman mansion, doors in our modern apartment building were usually left open. Once my brother had started school, my mother would let me go upstairs alone, or else we would walk up together to visit my paternal grandmother in her bed. The tulle curtains in her sitting room were always closed, but it made little difference; the building next door was so close as to make the room very dark anyway, especially in the morning, so I’d sit on the large heavy carpets and invent a game to play on my own. Arranging the miniature cars that someone had brought me from Europe into an obsessively neat line, I would admit them one by one into my garage. Then, pretending the carpets were seas and the chairs and tables islands, I would catapult myself from one to the other without ever touching water (much as Calvino’s Baron spent his life jumping from tree to tree without ever touching ground). When I was tired of this airborne adventure or of riding the arms of the sofas like horses (a game that may have been inspired by memories of the horse-drawn carriages of Heybeliada), I had another game that I would continue to play as an adult whenever I got bored: I’d imagine that the place in which I was sitting (this bedroom, this sitting room, this classroom, this barracks, this hospital room, this government office) was really somewhere else; when I had exhausted the energy to daydream, I would take refuge in the Leaving the library to return to the main room of the museum, stopping briefly by the crystal lamps that only add to the gloom, we find a crowd of untouched black-and-white photographs that tell us life is gaining momentum. Here we see all the children posing at their betrothals, their weddings, and the other great moments of their lives. Next to the first color photographs that my uncle sent from America are snapshots of the extended family enjoying holiday meals in various city parks, in Taksim Square, and on the shores of the Bosphorus; next to a picture of me and my brother with our parents at a wedding is one of my grandfather, posing with his new car in the garden of the old house, and another of my uncle, posing with his new car outside the entrance to the Pamuk Apartments. (p25-29)

‘We might call this confused, hazy state melancholy, or perhaps we should call it by its Turkish name, hüzün, which denotes a melancholy that is communal, rather than private’

Excerpt 2

Melancholy is within the houses as well as the neighborhood close by. The old Ottoman Emperors have built the glorious palaces in İstanbul where their princes and viziers has built their wooden mansions nearby.  Old Empire’s heritage has not been wasted completely and it is open to the public. However İstanbul is not the same İstanbul anymore.


The Destruction of the Pashas’ Mansions: A Sad Tour of the Streets  The Pamuk Apartments were built at the edge of a large lot in Nişantaşı that had once been the garden of a pasha’s mansion. The name itself, meaning “target stone,” comes from the days of the reformist westernizing sultans of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century (Selim III and Mahmud II), who placed stone tablets in the empty hills above the city in those areas where they practiced shooting and archery; the tablets marked the spot where an arrow landed or where an empty earthenware pot was shattered by a bullet; they usually carried a line or two describing the occasion. When the Ottoman sultans, fearing tuberculosis and desirous of western comforts (as well as a change of scene), abandoned Topkapı Palace for new palaces in Dolmabahçe and Yıldız, their viziers and princes began to build their own wooden mansions in the hills of nearby Nişantaşı. My first schools were housed in the Crown Prince Yusuf İzzeddin Pasha Mansion, and in the Grand Vizier Halil Rifat Pasha Mansion. Each would be burned and demolished while I was studying there, even as I played soccer in the gardens. Across the street from our home, another apartment building was built on the ruins of the Secretary of Ceremonies Faik Bey Mansion. In fact, the only stone mansion still standing in our neighborhood was a former home of grand viziers that had passed into the hands of the muncipality after the Ottoman Empire fell and the capital moved to Ankara. I remember going for my smallpox vaccination to another old pasha’s mansion that had become the headquarters of the district council. The rest—those mansions where Ottoman officials had once entertained foreign emissaries and those that belonged to the nineteenth-century Sultan Abdülhamit’s daughters—I recall only as dilapidated brick shells with gaping windows and broken staircases darkened by bracken and untended fig trees; to remember them is to feel the deep sadness they evoked in me as a young child. By the late fifties, most of them had been burned down or demolished to make way for apartment buildings. (P 42-44)


Excerpt 3


Black and White

 “Accustomed as I was to the semidarkness of our bleak museum house, I preferred being indoors. The street below, the avenues beyond, the city’s poor neighborhoods seemed as dangerous as those in a black-and-white gangster film. And with this attraction to the shadow world, I have always preferred the winter to the summer in Istanbul. I love the early evenings when autumn is slipping into winter, when the leafless trees are trembling in the north wind and people in black coats and jackets are rushing home through the darkening streets. I love the overwhelming melancholy when I look at the walls of old apartment buildings and the dark surfaces of neglected, unpainted, fallen-down wooden mansions; only in Istanbul have I seen this texture, this shading. of fellowship, almost as if the night has cloaked our lives, our streets, our every belonging in a blanket of darkness, as if once we’re safe in our houses, our bedrooms, our beds, we can return to dreams of our long-gone riches, our legendary past. And likewise, as I watch dusk descend like a poem in the pale light of the streetlamps to engulf these old neighborhoods, it comforts me to know that for the night at least we are safe; the shameful poverty of our city is cloaked from Western eyes.

A photograph by Ara Güler perfectly captures the lonely back streets of my childhood, where concrete apartment buildings stand beside old wooden houses, the streetlamps illuminate nothing, and the chiaroscuro of twilight—the thing that for me defines the city—has and pavements, the iron grilles on the windows or the empty, ramshackle wooden houses—rather, it is the suggestion that, with evening having just fallen, these two people dragging long shadows with them on their way home are actually pulling the blanket of night over the entire city.

The wooden mansions of my childhood and the smaller, more modest wooden houses in the city’s back streets were in a mesmerizing state of ruin. Poverty and neglect had ensured these houses were never painted, and the combination of age, dirt, and humidity slowly darkened the wood to give it that special color, that unique texture, so prevalent in the back neighborhoods that as a child I took the blackness to be original. Some houses had a brown the eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries described the mansions of the rich as brightly painted, finding in them and the other faces of opulence a powerful and abundant beauty. As a child, I would sometimes imagine painting all these houses, but even then the loss of the city’s black-and-white shroud was daunting. In summer, when these old wooden houses would dry out and turn a dark, chalky, tinderbox brown, you could imagine them catching fire at any moment; during the winter’s long cold spells, the snow and the rain endowed these same houses with the mildewy hint of rotting wood. So it was too with the old wooden dervish lodges, forbidden by the Republic to be used as places of worship, now mostly abandoned and of interest only to street urchins, ghosts, and antiques hunters. They would awaken in me the same degrees of fear, worry, and curiosity; as I peered at them over half-broken walls, past the damp trees, and into the broken windows, a chill would pass through me. am captivated by the line drawings of more discerning western travelers like Le Corbusier and by any book set in Istanbul with black-and-white illustrations.

……Even the greatest Ottoman architecture has a humble simplicity that suggests an end-of-empire gloom, a pained submission to the diminishing European gaze and to an ancient poverty that must be endured like an incurable disease. It is resignation that nourishes Istanbul’s inward-looking soul. To see the city in black and white, to see the haze that sits over it and breathe in the melancholy its inhabitants have embraced as their common fate, you need only to fly in from a rich western city and head straight to the crowded streets; if it’s winter, every man on the Galata Bridge will be wearing the same pale, drab, shadowy clothes. The İstanbullus of my era have shunned the vibrant reds, greens, and oranges of their rich, proud ancestors; to foreign visitors, it looks as if they have done so deliberately, to make a moral point. They have not—but there is in their dense gloom a suggestion of modesty. This is how you dress in a black-and-white city, they seem to be saying; this is how you grieve for a city that has been in decline for a hundred and fifty years.” (p 57)

Chapter 5

The Bosphorus

“For centuries, it was just a string of Greek fishing villages, but from the eighteenth century, when Ottoman worthies began building their summer homes, mostly around Göksü, Küçüksu, Bebek, Kandilli, Rumelihisarı, and Kanlıca, there arose an Ottoman culture that looked toward Istanbul to the exclusion of the rest of the world. The yalis— splendid waterside mansions built by the great Ottoman families during the eighteenth and nineteenth identity and architecture. But these yalis that we see photographed in Memories of the Bosphorus , reproduced in Melling’s engravings, and echoed in the yalis of Sedad Hakkı Eldem—these grand houses, with their narrow high windows, spacious eaves, bay windows, and narrow chimneys, are mere shadows of this destroyed culture.

This waterway that passes through the center of the city is not to be confused with the canals of Amsterdam or Venice or the rivers that divide Paris and Rome in two: Strong currents run through the Bosphorus, its surface is always ruffled by wind and waves, and its waters are deep and dark. If you have the current behind you, if you are following the itinerary of a city ferry, you will see apartment buildings and yalis , old ladies watching you from balconies as they sip their tea, the pergolas of coffeehouses perched by landings, children in their underwear entering the sea just where the sewers empty into it and sunning themselves on the concrete, men fishing from the banks, people lazing on their yachts, schoolchildren emptying out of school and walking along the shore, travelers gazing through bus windows out to the sea while stuck in traffic, cats sitting on wharfs waiting for fishermen, trees you hadn’t realized were so tall, hidden villas and walled gardens you didn’t even know existed, narrow alleyways rising up into the hills, tall apartment buildings looming in the background, and slowly, in the distance, Istanbul in all its confusion—its by house, neighborhood by neighborhood, and also from afar as a silhouette, an ever-mutating mirage.

If I see my city as beautiful and bewitching, then my life must be so too. A good many writers of earlier generations fell into this habit when writing about Istanbul: Even as they extol the city’s beauty, entrancing me with their stories, I am reminded they no longer live in the place they describe, preferring the modern comforts of western cities. From these predecessors I learned that the right to heap immoderate lyrical praise on Istanbul’s beauties belongs only to those who no longer live there, and not without some guilt: for the writer who talks of the city’s ruins and melancholy is never unaware of the ghostly light that shines down on his life. To be caught up in the beauties of the city and the Bosphorus is to be reminded of the difference between one’s own wretched life and the happy triumphs of the past.

….Slowly they disappeared: the yalis that were burned down one by one, the old fish traps my father used to point out to me, the fruit sellers who used to go from yali to yali in their caïques, the beaches along the Bosphorus where my mother would take us to swim, the pleasure of swimming in the Bosphorus. The ferry stations that had stood abandoned turned into fancy restaurants; the fishermen who would pull their boats up next to the ferry stations are gone. It is no longer possible to hire their boats for little tours. But for me, one thing remains the same: the place the Bosphorus holds in our collective heart. As in my childhood, we still see it as the font of our good health, the cure of our ills, the infinite source of goodness and goodwill that sustains the city and all those who dwell in it. Life can’t be all that bad, I’d think from time to time. Whatever happens, I can always take a walk along the Bosphorus.” (pg 35-38)


Melling’s Bosphorus Landscapes 

“Of all the western artists who painted the Bosphorus, it’s Melling I find the most nuanced and convincing. His book Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore— even the title is poetry to me—was published in 1819; in 1969 my uncle Şevket Rado, a poet and publisher, brought out a half-sized facsimile edition, and because my heart was then ablaze with a passion for painting, he gave us a copy as a present. I would spend hours studying every corner of those paintings, finding in them what I thought to be Ottoman Istanbul in all its unspoiled glory. I derived this sweet illusion not from the gouaches, whose attention to detail is worthy of an architect or a mathematician, but from the engravings that were later made from them. At times when I was most this sort of Istanbul chauvinism—I found Melling’s engravings consoling. But even as I allow myself to be transported, I am aware that part of what makes Melling’s paintings so beautiful is the sad knowledge that what they depict no longer exists. Perhaps I look at these paintings precisely because they make me sad.

The first thing Melling did for Hatice Sultan was to design a western-style maze garden with acacias and lilacs. Later he built a small ornate köşk for her palace in Defterdarburnu (on the European shore of the Bosphorus between two towns now known as Kuruçeşme and Ortaköy). This colonnaded neoclassical building no longer exists, so we know it only from Melling’s own paintings; it did not just express a Bosphorus identity but set the standard for what the novelist Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901–1962) would later call a “hybrid style”: a new Ottoman architecture that successfully combined motifs of western and traditional origin.

To look at Melling’s Bosphorus views is not just to conjure up the Bosphorus as I first saw it: the slopes and valleys and hills that were then still bare, a purity almost impossible to recall for all the ugly construction that would crop up over the next forty years. As I leaf through his book, the very thought that this lost heaven has bequeathed to me even a few of the landscapes and houses I’ve known in my own lifetime produces a kind of rapture. Here, at the point where melancholy mixes with joy, is where I notice the little continuities discernible only to those very familiar with the Bosphorus. When the time comes to leave that lost heaven to reenter my present life, the effect operates in the other direction too. Yes, I’ll tell myself, just when you’re leaving Tarabya Bay and the sea is no longer calm, suddenly the north wind ripping down from the Black Sea ruffles its surface, and on the crests of its hurried, nervous waves there are the same small, angry, impatient bubbles that Melling shows in his painting. Yes, in the evenings, the woods on the hills over Bebek recede into just this sort of darkness, and only someone like me or someone like Melling, someone who has lived here for at least ten years, would know this darkness for one that comes from within.(p 62-65)

Another House-Cihangir

“Was I attached to the house, perhaps? Fifty years later, I am indeed back in the same building. But it’s not the rooms of a house that matter to me or the beauty of the things inside it. Then as now, home served as a center for the world in my mind—as an escape, in both the positive and negative sense of the word. Instead of learning to face my troubles squarely—awareness of my parents’ quarrels, my father’s bankruptcies, my family’s never-ending property squabbles, our dwindling fortune—I amused myself with mental games in which I changed the focus, deceived myself, forgot what had been troubling me altogether, or wrapped myself in a mysterious haze. We might call this confused, hazy state melancholy, or perhaps we should call it by its Turkish name, hüzün, which denotes a melancholy that is communal rather than private. Offering no clarity, veiling reality instead, hüzün brings us comfort, softening make me feel hüzün , and I still love getting up and walking over to those windows to trace words on them with my finger. As I shape words and figures on the steamy window, the hüzün inside me dissipates and I can relax; after I have done all my writing and drawing, I can erase it all with the back of my hand and look outside. But the view itself can bring its own hüzün . It is time to come to a better understanding of this feeling that the city of Istanbul carries as its fate...”(page 105)



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *