Apart from giving refuge to the troubled and destitute, the city also stole the heart of many renowned artists, thinkers and philosophers.
Throughout history, Istanbul has always stood apart as a prime travel destination. For others, however, the city has come to carry different meanings; political refuge for some, and a gateway to creative solace and artistic growth for others.
For some, who came as conquerors, the city would be their final resting place. Istanbul is home to the confirmed graves of at least 29 Companions of the Prophet Mohammad, although historians report at least a thousand have passed away in the city.
They include Abu Ayub al-Ansari, who died during a siege and was buried beneath Constantinople’s walls in 674 AD. One of the earliest Companions, he joined the long and arduous campaign in spite of his old age.
Istanbul’s first mosque is located in Karakoy district, and was dubbed the ‘Arab mosque’. After the death of Abu Ayub al-Ansari, the campaign managed to capture the Galata district, and built a little-known mosque nearby that boasts the signature Ummayad love of redstone bricks, elegant scrollwork, wooden panelled darkened with age and intricate calligraphy.
The district of Karakoy itself, meaning ‘Black Village’ was so named after hundreds of Arab fighters succumbed to overexposure and sickness. They were unaccustomed to harsh winters so far away from the dunes of Arabia. Cutting their campaign to conquer Constantinople short, they named the area City of ‘Kahr’, Arabic for defeat, before vowing to return.
Even after Ankara was designated the modern Turkish capital in 1923, the city continued to provide writers and thinkers with inspiration. As historian Charles King writes, Istanbul has long served a useful lens to explore Turkey’s Ottoman past and modern future.
For decades, foreign writers, artists, musicians and thinkers chose to stay in Istanbul, many in the once imperial iconic Pera Palace turned hotel found in Istanbul’s old Beyoglu district. The iconic Pera Palace was purchased from the Ottoman Empire in 1927 by Misbah Muhayyes, a Muslim businessman who hailed from Beirut. The raffish character, known for his bow tie and crisp pocket square represented a new Istanbulite.
The hotel, a landmark that brought together intellectuals and cultural interests since 1892, catering to visitors of the Orient Express, travelling from Paris through Munich, Budapest, Belgrade to end in Constantinople.
But the Orient Express was only one of two major railways that established Istanbul as the vibrant city spanning two worlds. The iconic Hejaz express linked Istanbul to Damascus, Syria, and continued on to Medina, present-day Saudi Arabia.
Throughout history, Istanbul has consistently welcomed refugees, and mass diasporas only for them to integrate and contribute to the thousand-year melting pot that gives the city its unique spirit.
With the end of the first World War, refugees flooded its streets. Charles King describes the sight of uniformed French and British officers frequenting hotels and traditional tea houses, amid throngs of migrants. They would be joined by Tsarist Russians escaping the Bolshevik revolution led by Vladimir Lenin.
Historians describe sedan chairs carrying visitors from trains to hotels amid the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
New culture shaped Istanbul deeply. The ‘Flower Passage’ on Istanbul’s famous Istiklal thoroughfare would become home to the city’s first opera house in 1831, built by Mihail Naum Duhani, a Christian from Aleppo, welcoming iconic artists such as Giovanni Bartolomeo Bosco, an Italian who would build a theatre house nearby in 1839.
Istanbul’s Opera house was a celebrated phenomenon among the city’s patrons and cultural enthusiasts, welcoming Austrian and British monarchs. One written account details how Ottoman Sultan Abdulmecid would attend after a long horseback trip from his grand Dolmabahce Palace situated along the Bosphorus. Such was its renown that Italian operas were often presented in Istanbul before other European cities, according to Sumeyra Teltik, author of “A Pera Tale”.
Teltik also describes in gripping detail how the cultural street came to be known as 'Cicek' passage, Turkish for flower. In the aftermath of the Russian Tsarist diaspora, young Russian girls would make a living selling flowers in the passage. Another interpretation says that a major florist cooperative set up a shop in the area, quickly coming to be known as the go-to place for beautiful bouquets and opera.
The unique locale would welcome several famous visitors including Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, Queen Elizabeth II, King Edward VII, Winston Churchill, and Jacqueline Kennedy.
Famous writers and actors also frequented the district, including Agatha Christie, renowned for her murder mystery novels. During her stay in Istanbul, she would write the critically-acclaimed Murder on the Orient Express.
Ernest Hemingway, one of the most prominent modern English writers and known for books such as The Old Man and the Sea and a Farewell to Arms also spent a considerable time in Istanbul during the 1920s. Historians say he was an iconic, but a familiar sight to the city’s denizens who frequented the district, and developed one of the main characters of his book Snows of Kilimanjaro at a bar in Beyoglu.
For decades, the city welcomed both rich and poor, those running from the past and those eager for the future.
In 1961, the iconic American writer James Baldwin came to Istanbul, initially planning to continue on to Africa before finding himself snared by the city’s charm. Istanbul would become his home away from home throughout much of the 1960s, writing his bestseller novel Another Country as well as at least two other books and a play during his stay.
“I find it easier to work here than I do anywhere else,” Baldwin once said. “I am left alone here.”
Baldwin found the city’s hospitality and welcomed a sharp relief from the heightened race tensions that plagued the United States at that time.
“I feel free in Turkey,” Baldwin once told his friend, Turkish writer Yasar Kemal.
A getaway for the cultural elite of the West, Istanbul also was home to notables and thinkers from the East. Jamal al-Din al-Afghani, father of Islamic political modernism, spent his last years in Istanbul, before being buried in an unmarked grave in Sisli. His work would inspire generations in an anti-colonial struggle before giving rise to the modern Muslim brotherhood. The scholar’s remains would later be exhumed and transferred to Afghanistan.
At the time, Arab nobility, closely intertwined with the Ottoman Empire, kept homes in the city, and often chose to raise their children there to benefit from the education, exposure and opportunities there.
Among them was Hussein bin Ali Sherif of Mecca, who was born in the city and visited it frequently. Sherif would go on to lead the Arab revolt against the Ottoman empire with the help of British officer T.E. Lawrence.
Saudi Arabian Princess Iffat Mohammed Althunayn was born in Istanbul to a Turkish mother and Arabian father, spending her formative years there, before joining the Kingdom’s court as the wife of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz al Saud.
A dedicated philanthropist, she remains beloved by Saudi Arabians to this day. Those who knew her speak of the cultured elegance she brought to the royal court after her return to the Kingdom.
Other notable figures include Alphonse de Lamartine, a French poet, who was so infatuated with the city during his stay he once wrote, “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”
This sentiment seems to have been shared by French emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, who is credited with saying, “If the earth were a single state, Istanbul would be its capital.”
Not all of Istanbul’s transient visitors would be remembered fondly, however.
Max Muller, German Orientalist and father of Aryanism spent a lengthy period of time in Istanbul developing his linguistic theories, only to be saddened by the racist interpretations they would be subject to.
Other notable refugees to the historic city include novelist Vladimir Nabokov, nephew of Leo Tolstoy and author of Lolita. Along with other Russian aristocrats fleeing the ‘Red’ Bolsheviks, the ‘White’ Russians would establish the city’s first detective office, not to mention a photography and painting studio.
It wasn’t long before even Red Communists would call the city home, preeminent among them was Leon Trotsky who fled Russia after losing a struggle with Joseph Stalin in 1929. He lived on Büyükada island off the coast of Istanbul where he wrote A History of the Russian Revolution, before moving to Mexico city where he was assassinated with an icepick in 1940.
Russian emigres and refugees included Azerbaijanis, Ukrainians and Georgians, arriving by way of Black Sea steamships to find a new life in a new land. The arrivals numbered so many, they increased Istanbul’s humble population of 1 million by at least a fifth, with others arriving in different ports throughout Turkey.
Many would not return to Russia. The affluent would move on to Paris, London and eventually New York. The majority who could not afford the costly moves remained in Istanbul.
Former Russian Senator Nikolai Chebyshev describes the welcome found by the uprooted diaspora in his memoirs.
“I think that one could say, without exaggeration, that nowhere during the period of immigration, even in the Slavic countries that welcomed us, did the Russians feel more at home than in Constantinople,” he writes.
With their arrival, it was only a matter of years before Russian restaurants sprang up and began serving borscht and stroganoff. Istanbul’s ubiquitous ‘dolmuş’ mini-buses were first introduced by drivers from the defeated Tsarist White Army armoured brigades.
With its demographics constantly in flux, Istanbul boasts a population of over 15.6 million souls, though locals claim the numbers are much higher when you take in tourists workers visitors from every part of the country.
“Istanbul has always reached out its hand to the estranged, to the weak and destitute. At the same time, it has a unique pull to the powerful, to thinkers and creatives. For me, it’s the center of the Muslim World” says one Arab dissident in Istanbul who cannot return home after speaking out against government corruption.
After welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees from neighbouring countries, it was not long before historical Arab districts were revived, with the reintroduction of Arabic pita bread, delicacies and foods.
Many come to Istanbul seeking knowledge. In 2020, Turkey was home to over 185,000 international students.
Others come seeking safety, dissidents and intellectuals, finding a safe space to discuss the future of their nations.
For most, Istanbul’s busy modern streets make it easy to forget the layers of history imbued in the city, unaware of the untold royals, scholars, scientists and artists who came to know it as home, and continue to do so today.