Can we still love Istanbul despite its destruction?  

Like many other residents of this city, I have been watching the ecological and architectural destruction of Istanbul with deep sorrow. Every generation likes to claim that “Istanbul no longer has its old flavor” or that “They’ve destroyed the city.” Yet since the 20th century, the destruction has been rapidly increasing in speed and scope.

It seems like every day something new happens to break the hearts of those foolish enough to love this crazy city. The most frightening new development is the “sea snot” or mucilage clinging to the coastline around Kadıköy on the Anatolian side of the city and choking out life at the bottom of the Sea of Marmara. Even if the pollution that led to this putrid substance were to stop today, scientists say it would take 7 years for the Marmara to recover. This spells disaster not only for the ecosystems based on the sea but for the city of Istanbul as well. 

Then there is the endless development. One of the most egregious examples of that is the Çamlıca TV-Radio Tower which opened earlier this month. The phallic monstrosity pierces the sky above Çamlıca Hill, once the site where Istanbulites would take carriage rides or picnic on the grass.  The pro-government daily Yeni Şafak had the nerve to call this structure “Istanbul’s new symbol.” As if a city whose skyline is dotted with centuries-old silhouettes of churches and mosques needed a new symbol. 

Like many other residents of this city, I have been watching the ecological and architectural destruction of Istanbul with deep sorrow. This city is full of both natural and human wonders, but they live under constant threat as the environment is polluted and historic buildings are demolished or “restroyed,” as my fellow columnist Paul Benjamin Osterlund likes to put it. At a certain point, loving Istanbul becomes too much of a burden. It only brings you mourning and regret, and so it’s easier to stop thinking about it altogether.

It is right at the moment when loving Istanbul feels impossible and we want to turn our gaze away that we need to find new ways to see the city. Director Zeynep Dadak’s award-winning documentary Ah Gözel İstanbul (Invisible to the Eye) provides a helpful model for how we can both mourn what is being destroyed and preserve our hope for the future. The film premiered at the prestigious DokuFest in Prizren, won special mention at the Istanbul Film Festival earlier last year, and is now available for streaming on the platform MUBI. 

Invisible to the Eye is based on a travel narrative written in the 1660s by Eremya Çelebi Kömürciyan, an Istanbul-born Armenian intellectual. His “History of Istanbul in the 17th Century” provided Zeynep Dadak with a new perspective on the city. Her film breaks down the boundary between fictional film and documentary as it follows Kömürciyan’s eight-chapter book exploring the main regions of Istanbul one by one. 

The film begins with beautiful scenes of the sea rising on the Sea of Marmara. We then see shots of the Theodosian Walls, built in the 5th century to protect Constantinople. Passing over the walls, the camera shows us the old bostanlar (farmland plots), in which lettuce and other crops have been sustainably tended to for centuries. 

From there, the film takes us to the Istanbul neighborhood of Kumkapı, where Kömürciyan’s narration kicks in. Kömürciyan was a native of the neighborhood. The voice-over tells us about Kumkapı’s many churches and how Armenians from across Anatolia were forced to settle there after Fatih Sultan Mehmet conquered Istanbul in 1453.

One of the most delightful aspects of the film is how the words describe the realities of 17th-century Istanbul while the visuals show us the city in our own day. Sometimes the contrast is unimaginably stark. At other times, it is remarkable how much continuity exists. Kumkapı, for example, has continued to be a first landing point for migrants and refugees. The beautiful scenes of the neighborhood show Ethiopian Orthodox people, recent arrivals, worshipping in the neighborhood’s historic Armenian church. 

The book and film’s second chapter moves to Sultanahmet. The narrative describes the Hippodrome while the scenes show fast breakers gathering in the square for Ramadan. The sound of horses galloping in soundtrack reminds us of how many layers of history exist in the same spot. The city is a palimpsest--like a sheet of paper written on and erased hundreds of times. Yet if you look carefully, the past peeks into view. Another example the film gives us is İbrahim Paşa Palace. In the 16th century, it was the residence of Suleiman the Magnificent’s grand vizier until he was executed. Then it became the home of other palace notables, was used at times as a prison, and was the place where Armenian intellectuals were first round-up and held in 1915. It is now the home of the Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum. 

The film is full of tragic moments, reminding us that the destruction of Istanbul is not something new but seemingly repeated in each generation. The camera’s eye takes us to the graveyard attached to the Church of St. Mary of the Spring in Balıklı. Many centuries-old tombstones belonging to Istanbul’s Armenians were destroyed during the anti-minority riots of 6-7 September 1955. Even worse, the Patriarchate’s archives were also ransacked. Tombstones can be fixed, but once historical records are gone they can never be restored.  

Another important chapter of the film centers on Beyoğlu. The camera moves uphill from Galata, where we are told the ambassadors and their translators lived in the 17th century. Little changes in the city sometimes, as the embassies of some countries, like the Netherlands, are still in their exact same spots. The same is not the case for Taksim Square, which one of the experts interviewed in the film describes as a 200-year-old battleground for different political ideologies. Gezi Park was an Armenian cemetery commandeered by the early Turkish Republic to build the first national park. In 2013 it became the site of the biggest social uprising against the current government. 

The camera shows us the destroyed Atatürk Cultural Center on one side of the square and the construction of the Taksim Mosque on the other. Earlier this month, the mosque was finally opened. The occasion was marked with a mass prayer and a speech delivered by the president. The scenes from that day showed once again that conservatives can only relate to the city through the urge to conquer it, which often includes destroying traces of the many non-Muslim communities who lived and continue to live here. 

In contrast to this genocidal impulse, one thing the film reminds us is that the most tolerant, relaxed, and often beautiful neighborhoods of Istanbul are the ones that have or had a strong non-Muslim presence: Kumkapı, Balat, Fener, Beşiktaş. We can also add Kurtuluş and Kadıköy to the list. While the gentrification of these areas in our day is based on a history of dispossession and Islamification, it is important to remember that it was minority communities like the one Kömürciyan came from that built these neighborhoods and are responsible for the different air they still somehow manage to preserve. 

Every generation likes to claim that “Istanbul no longer has its old flavor” or that “They’ve destroyed the city.” This painstakingly arranged film reminds us that even in the 17th century people were complaining about this. Yet since the 20th century, the destruction has been rapidly increasing in speed and scope. Looking back at Istanbul’s layers of history can inspire us to keep loving it even when it hurts. Neither the pain nor the beauty of this city is new.