belgeseLAB Curiously Presents


Photographer: İsmail Vatansever
Story: Başak Günsever
Project Editor: Altan Bal 

The state of the buildings that witnessed to the last couple of centuries of Istanbul, one of the biggest cities of the World with its history of 8,500 years; home to three great civilizations, living under the shadow of passionate and ambitious power wars in modern times, is in front of our eyes.

In melancholic, gloomy and time-resisting hans, life continues despite everything. Although not as lively as in the past, people of the hans which open their iron doors with the first lights of the morning continue to work, to produce. Now, the fight is one of existence; they will either survive or take their place in the dusty pages of history.

Hasan Yılmazel, an ironmonger in Büyük Valide Han wanted to repair the room he rented by his own means but he was unsuccessful. “I had dreams” he says, however it seems he’ll have a hard time to make those dreams come true.

‘I had dreams about there, I couldn’t...’

Bent, rusted iron beams placed among the columns and pillars, sockets, fuse boxes hanging from the walls, cables covered with accumulated dust in time, which has transformed into tar... Old seats, broken chairs, coffee tables in the hallways... Makeshift sinks blackened with filth suddenly appear in a corridor…

Tea rooms are filled with brewing tea vapor all day; they are tiny but can accommodate all the essentials that are needed to maintain the daily life... Rows of diaphones on the wall linking the rooms to the tea waiter are still functional as a reminder of a dusty memory.

Dust motes spreading out from aging stones and bricks dancing and flying around in random light beams and dazzling our eyes as you find yourself gazing... Places harboring a different kind of light, dimness or a darkness in every hour of the day; the hans. Those stones, although fragmentizing to their atoms for centuries, keep these majestic buildings upright.

‘Han with a tower’

When talking about hans, one must especially mention Büyük Valide Han, built by Mahpeyker Kösem Sultan. Commissioned in the second half of the 17th Century by Kosem Sultan or ‘Grandiose Mother’ one of the last representatives of 100 years of “Women’s Reign” that made a mark on Ottoman history, , Büyük Valide Han (Great Mother Han) is the most huge and majestic example of the hans with its 210 rooms. In Evliya Çelebi’s travel book, it is mentioned as a very big and durable building, described as “On one side it has a four cornered pinnacle tower which is very high”. Important in Ottoman Empire’s development and enrichment, 17th Century has seen Istanbul’s development to the East with memorial buildings like Vezir Han, Valide Bazaar (Today’s Egypt Bazaar) together with Valide Han. In 18th Century, number of hans in Istanbul peaked and foundations of a new urbanization started. Buildings such as Büyük Yeni Han, Sümbüllü Han, Taş Han were built in this century.

A han is a building where –generally- tradesmen trading in similar wares have their shops and warehouses. Hans were the center of commerce during the Ottoman empire.

‘A place like love’

Now there is a weather-beaten wreck resides on the Çakmakçılar rise in place of the richness and splendor of Büyük Valide Han. Ironmonger Hasan Yılmazel, who settled here in the beginning of 2000`s summarizes his relation with the han as “I came here and changed. I fell in love with the place”: “If we make a call now, (municipality) will close the place in one day. Just like that. We can only say ‘adios’. But what’s still here for me? I have a big workshop in Sefaköy, I go there. This place is very beautiful. It’s something like love!”

He will go to Sefaköy, textile workshops will go to Merter, goldsmiths to Kuyumcukent; everyone can go to somewhere. Everybody have bigger places to go with modern machinery but where will the “place” go?

“I am not an artist, I’m an ironmonger. In my view, existence of this place is about the artisans. One of Ottomans’ reasons for building this place was ‘let the artisans come and show their skills. Make them here and take them below to sell. Let this continue for centuries.’ Youngsters, university students who make things for the sake of art should come and produce.”

‘I had some money reserved for the place’

In his room`s balcony with a panoramic view of Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, Hasan Yilmazel talks about his plans about his room in the han. He had to postpone these dreams after getting conned by a buyer. He was planning to repair the place with money from that job:

“I couldn’t make my dreams come true. I had dreams about this place but I couldn’t fulfill them. We saved some amount of money, someone came and took it. We couldn’t get it back. I had a small amount saved for this place. In last spring, we couldn’t build here, had to leave it. Anyway, I became angry with the place. Anger is very bad, I am unhappy here. Being here was something else. I was really feeling younger there.”

Bathroom Tiles

Young master Alex, who has a silver workshop in Kalcı Han built in the 18th Century, where sun always shines in its courtyard and where you can taste the best coffee in Istanbul on the second floor, talks about the “restoration” of the han which took place 10 years ago. Of course, the procedure Alex mentions is not a real restoration. Broken parts of the han was repaired with the budget made of the collections gathered from the shops by the concierge. Historical stones were replaced by cheap ceramics. Alex, who spent his childhood in the han says with sadness and anger, “They laid those bathroom tiles”.

I asked one of the owner’s of the shops in the Abud Efendi Han, built in the 19th Century during the reign of Abdulhamid II, why the antique clock on the high wall doesn’t work. Middle aged owner of clothing shop answered my “Why don’t you have it repaired?” question as “What clock! We can’t even feed ourselves here.” In truth, commercial activity in the hans is not like in the glorious days of the past. However when I told Valide Han’s ironmonger Hasan Yılmazel about this dialogue, he says, “I can fix clocks too, let me go and take a look, if they let me I’ll repair it.”

‘I’ll leave in a year…’

One of the oldest artisans of Büyük Yeni Han and heir of the fabrics shop called Amasya Pazarı (in service since 1946), Mr. Alber Gülbenk, comes running when I try to look inside through the closed store’s window. He opens the door with joy and orders a glass of tea as a friendly gesture of artisan’s tradition, right after telling me to sit down. I noticed the photos on the back of the door. Han’s image at 1800s is on one of them. There are photos from 1930`s and 1960`s too. I asked him about a photo where a couple of men with ties or bow ties sit around a table. He started telling me about this man whom he took inside out of pity on a very cold day and how he had became his apprentice and then worked at the store for years. He remembers that day was his birthday and there was a celebration. The guy worked in this shop until his death from an illness. We went to the atelier where Singer brand sewing machines are kept at the back of the store, there was a picture hanging. Mr. Gülbenk shows me a family tree where the founder of the shop, his father, his grandfather and all employees’ names and photos are found.

“We couldn’t even breath here! We didn’t have any time. Even eight of us working weren’t enough for the customers” he reminisces.

Now it’s only me and him. Courtyard is empty, rarely a store owner passes.

“I am here at most for another year, and then I will shut the place and go” says Mr. Gülbenk. He tells that the business is almost at the point of full stop, that it’s very hard to pay the credits due.

Municipality of Fatih wants to transform to a hotel

Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (IMM) Assembly passed a development plan which lets the ancient hans in the historical peninsula to be transformed into hotels and pensions in 2015. The decision about the buildings within the boundaries of Eminönü district which were transferred to Fatih in 2008 was submitted by Municipality of Fatih. Proposal passed from Fatih Assembly on March 6, 2015 unanonimously and from IMM by majority.

Mr. Hüseyin Sağ, an opposition member of IMM Assembly states that some hans in Eminönü had already been evacuated. Arguing that the municipality can reserve resources to properly restore the hans but doesn’t prefer to, Sağ says, “Some of them are already licensed. Demolitions may begin pretty soon.”

When we asked this matter to architect Sami Yılmaztürk, he notes that (the municipality) approves works such as repairs through the Protection Application Inspection Directorship (KUDEB), without having to obtain a decision from the Protection Commission.

Authority of Cultural Assets Protection Commission on the unregistered plots in the historical peninsula was transferred to Municipality of Fatih’s KUDEB and this decision was met with public rage.

Telling us about Municipality of Fatih’s wish to transform the old hans to hotels, Yılmaztürk points out that going through KUDEBs instead of protection commission is against the law: “They also obtained a resolution from the Ministry of Culture and sent it to the protection commissions. They want to erase the past and transform the Han area to a trade center. When the humans, artisans of these hans will be taken from them these hans will lose their identity. These are risky situations from a protection standpoint.”

Restoration and History

Ahenk Dereli says in the book “İstanbullaşmak” (becoming like İstanbul) printed by Salt: “What makes restoration different from any repair or reusing activity is firstly that building’s having a historical importance, moreover the acceptance of this reality. One of the fundamental concepts of modern restoration theory, ‘historical document value’ explains this originality and reality. A historical structure must carry the traces of history.”

Dereli continues: “Considering Istanbul’s historical past, it is clear that it can be a very rich resource for the restoration discipline. Regulations about museums and movable relics come into force in 1880s, protection of monuments in 1910s. In the early years of the republic idea of protecting the city’s natural and historical values can at least find a itself a legal protection in regards to urban planning. However, neither during the period from 1950s to 1980s, nor before the architectural practice of new buildings production, restoration could create its conceptual foundations as an area of expertise. (…) Illusions of historicity begin with opting for renewal instead of restoration. Will the historical houses and streets kept alive or simulated houses and streets will be built?”

This process told by Dereli can be seen in the examples of gentrification at “urban transformation” in Istanbul and Anatolia in the past few years. Historical streets, neighborhoods, houses are quickly renovating by erasing their identities. Many historical buildings are completely destroyed, preserving their facade but razing the identity. The best example is the Circle D’Orient building in Beyoğlu, which had been evacuated by the Beyoğlu Municipality and transformed into a shopping mall named ‘Grand Pera’.

999 Things to Do in Istanbul and Fall!

The Büyük Valide Han's roof is also famous for its spectacular view. Istanbul Strait, Golden Horn stands under your feet. The roof has become one of the frequent destinations of tourists in Istanbul since it became a set for popular movies and serials. When you climb on top, it seems as if you were walking on the skies above Istanbul, it offers a view that shows the city as if it was under your feet.

“Selfie” is everything in our day and without a selfie nothing has a meaning, and a photo-set like this is very popular. “Climb to Büyük Valide Han’s roof” can be found as an item in a social media group called “999 things to do in Istanbul”. However, that 300-year-old building’s roof is collapsing in some parts due to jumping visitors in the air to have their photos taken! I think not knowing, not learning history, not caring for the past is something else, carelessness is a different thing altogether. Though as humans we instinctively learn not to put our hands in a burning fire can brutally stomp on the roof of a collapsing building which manages to survive for through the history.

Buildings on top of each other

When you get off the tram and walk towards the Grand Bazaar in Cemberlitas, you will see the Vezir Han in the Molla Fenari neighborhood on your right. It’s one of the greatest structures of the Hans Area. Commercial activity is still continuing in the han, which was built in the second half of the 17th century and has a huge courtyard, like many other hans, a lot of cheesy, irregular structures are added side by side in time. Though it`s not scientific research we can argue by only observation that : around 60 percent of the hans total area is in an active state, like the other hans; other parts are empty, lifeless.

When you step into the Hans Area which is still mingling with its past, but defeated by the 'loneliness of the present', you feel as damned as you are enchanted. It’s a cliché but is it the nostalgia to the past or the disappointment of witnessing the irreversible destruction of the traces of the past, or the comfort in the delusion that we had no part in all this or the delicate pain you feel, you always stroll around in those places feeling excited, glowing, sometimes hopelessly, worried and drowned.

This is a feeling of taking no responsibility for all the change and destruction that has taken place in this city. The "seeing" is accompanied by a deep "ah" that is accompanied by a wandering after witnessing, followed by a feeling of "what can I do or could do" and finally you find your peace. You will come to the calm and safe harbor of “not caring” and save your soul from burning.

Trade Area

Hans were built in this area for its nearness to the ports of Haliç and Eminönü. Goods coming to the ports were transported to the city from the quays in the vicinity. The 16th, 17th and 18th century Ottoman Empire, where the world is commercialized and commerce is globalized… Silenced from the evening through the night, filling with noise after morning, where rich buy and sell the worlds, where porters walk with their pads, when the goods loaded are sent to the Haydarpaşa through Tophane and from there to the world… In 1587, a traveler named Lubenau, member of a diplomatic mission visiting the Ottoman Empire had written in his travelogue that there is no other city than Istanbul has some many bazaars and markets in the world. Evliya Çelebi’s stated that there were262,000 guild members , citing census made in 1638. French historian and turcologist Rober Mantran writes that the number of non-Muslims houses in the city was 68,000 in 1690.. Assuming five person tper house approximate population was around 300,000. Historians estimated total city population for the same period is around 650-700,000.

Numerous people and emotions' all together in the place!

According to the records we found in the sources; in 1792 the names of 278 hans were mentioned in the surveys initiated by the order of Selim III (Istanbul Hanları: End of 18th Century and 19th Century Head - Ahmet Yaşar). In the history of these hans there seems to be nothing that wasn’t sold.

From jewelry to food, hotel services to banking, precious stones to mounts, furs to rugs, to slaves all kinds of goods were traded; countless people, countless screams, tears, joys, and sorrows are intertwined with the bones of these structures, permeated in its air, mixed into the stone walls! For a second imagine the eyes of a 14-year-old Hungarian girl in the 16th century who is waiting to be bought by his master t in a slave market in Tavukpazarı as potential buyers is touching, squeezing her body! Try to hear the voice of people who still try to exist in these buildings with such a history.

Worn away with modernization: Destruction grows after the '50s

In 1935, French urban planner Henri Prost prepared an Urban Plan for the redevelopment of Istanbul with prioritization of its cultural/historical assets, with the invitation of the Turkish government. However, Democratic Party government revised this plan with Turkish planners after 1950, and started construction in the city, especially in the historical peninsula. In the 1950`s, the hans area had its share from the capitalist policies too; just like literally every part of the city. These policies have given birth to their own type of structure, and especially the two-storied houses of Mahmutpaşa had risen up to five-stories. An article titled "Repairs in Eminönü's Cultural Foundation Heritage in the Golden Horn Coastal Zone between 1920 and 2015 and the losses it had suffered" and published in the 10th edition of the Restoration Annals, lists the tangible project examples that shows the destruction of the cultural assets at the period of Bedrettin Dalan in 1980s. Asking “Did modernization bring renewal or defeat” now, might be a good starting point.

And let me give you a secret about these photographs: Don’t you ever believe everything you see on the photograph. Photographer’s frame is his illusion. He will tell the truth to the extent he wants you to see. If you see the photo of a graffiti “Love starts” on a wall, be sure there are other letters on the rest of the wall:

“Love starts – and ends where it begins.”

Translation by Emrah Sekendiz