Different kind of bridge

It is impossible to talk about the city without mentioning its longstanding symbol; the bridge. The image comes up on everything from postcards and t-shirts to magazine titles and promotional posters. Yet the most important bridge in Istanbul is not the one from advertising campaigns, but the one that brings different people together.

text by Marzena Romanowska for BRIDGE
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There is a certain symbolism in the bridge. Apart from the practical aspect of getting from one place to another, bridges stir superstitions such as the idea that passing under one will bring love or good luck. Although the feelings summoned by Karaköy Bridge in its current state are far from romantic, there is “something intrinsically attractive about a thing neither young nor beautiful which performs so vital service,” Michael Pereira writes in Istanbul: Aspects of a city.

Karaköy Bridge – better known by its unofficial name Galata – has witnessed some of the most important events in Turkish history; personal joys and misfortunes, milestones of the city and heartbreaks that inspired great poets and singers. Those who claim that “without the bridge you cannot know the city” are spot on. The bridge and its continuous metamorphoses reflect Istanbul’s history as no other public space can.

Unite and conquer

The Golden Horn has always been an attractive spot for international trade ships. High shores on the north side (currently in the municipality of Beyoğlu) provided suitable conditions for docking. A growing number of retailers settling in Galata, as well as the booming shipyard industry further west, made it necessary to connect the new industrial areas with traditional market places in the Historical Peninsula.

Although several Ottoman rulers had plans to make connections across the water, no major construction took place until the first half of the 19th Century. In 1836, Hayratiye Bridge between Azapkapı in the north and Unkapanı on the historic peninsula was completed, and more than a decade later Cisr-i Cedid, also known as New Bridge or the first Galata Bridge, was opened at the mouth of the Golden Horn.

As the number of bridges between the two shores of the Golden Horn grew, it became clear that the location of the downstream bridge was of great symbolic importance. First of all, the connection between two relevant trade areas – Galata and Eminönü – improved the flow of casual clientele on both sides. Later, construction of the Tunel in 1875 made areas further up from the Galata Tower more accessible, while Grand Rue De Pera became an elegant retail hot spot and the city’s only promenade.

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In the past, crossing Galata Bridge was often compared to setting foot in a completely different culture, an opinion shared equally between locals and foreigners. According to Italian writer Edmondo De Amicis, the real Istanbul was on the southern end of the bridge, while Pera (meaning “outside” in Greek) offered an experience comparable to watching Istanbul “with a pair of opera glasses.” In his book Fatih Harbiye, Peyami Safa goes a step further, calling places on the northern end of the bridge a completely different civilization. However, for novelist Orhan Pamuk, who was born and raised further up from Pera, it was the areas at either end of the tram line running from Maçka and Nişantaşı that seemed “as if they belonged to a completely different country” as he writes in Istanbul.

Cultural divide

Pera had been perceived as a “different civilization” since the conquest of Constantinople. As religious law was the base of the legal system in the country, a special judicial district was created in Galata. It had its own religious court and, as Greek author Akylas Millas wrote, “was described in the language of the religious court system as the second city of the capital.” Ion Dragoumis, Greek ambassador to Istanbul at the beginning of the 20th Century, pointed out that the main differences between the neighborhoods were not only language, clothing and customs, but also population. “Whilst Pera and the coastline of the main city opposite seem to have succumbed to the flood of pedestrians, if you go beyond the Yenicami, the place is so deserted you become fearful the windows are shut tight and the silence is so deafening you do not hear even a baby crying,” he wrote. The crowd on the bridge, however, has been always a mixture of people coming from both sides.

The visible differences between the areas of Istanbul on either side of the bridge had captured the attention of the modern government. The Committee of Union and Progress established by the Young Turks undertook urban projects aiming to modernize both sides of the Golden Horn. A newly established system of municipal loans paid for the construction of the fourth bridge, while technology previously banned by Sultan Abdülhamit was re-introduced, leading to the first set of lights to brighten up the bridge.

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The most recognizable feature of the Galata bridges, a lower level lined with cafes, restaurants and shops, was introduced in 1878 in the third version of the bridge. The addition altered the meaning of the space. While people used to gather to defend their political views in demonstrations on top of the bridge, on the bottom level they discussed the same topics over a glass of rakı.

Although at that time the city’s main meeting point of political importance was established right next to Dolmabahçe Palace, it was the bridge connecting the two neighborhoods that made up the city’s new business district – Sirkeci and Galata – which eventually became Istanbul’s default center. The southern end of the bridge used to be a starting point for the horse-drawn trams of the Old City and a hub for many other means of transport, such as trains and boats. The relocation of Istanbul’s business center further north towards Levent after the foundation of the republic changed the perception of the heart of Istanbul. During rapid population growth from 1990s onwards, multiple centers have sprung up on both sides of the Bosphorus.

Changing views

The need for modernization of the third bridge was visible long before construction started in 1910. Its wooden structure had become impractical. By-passers and horses used to get injured by its protruding old nails. Wooden handrails, not secure enough for pedestrians leaning over them, were at the same time a constant source of entertainment. Stories about people falling from the bridge into the water still circulate today.

There were political reasons for delays in construction. The most visually impressive designs, proposed by French architects, were rejected by Sultan Abdülhamit II for security reasons. Commercial spaces, which were to be moved from under the bridge to the quays, seemed liable to harbor rebels, who might attempt assassination or attack the ruler’s guards as he went by. The sultan settled on a German partner, who successfully completed the project in 1912.

For the next two years the new bridge was considered one of the luckiest spots in the city thanks to the Kismet booth selling Teyyare Piyangosu lottery tickets. One particularly big win made it the most popular lottery sales point in the city, with a status comparable to today’s Nimet Abla booth in Eminönü, which has a reputation for selling winning tickets. But the lucky streak did not last long for Kismet, which was forced to close in 1914 when the tramway opened on the bridge. The same place a few years later saw the last sultan of the Ottoman Empire receive a traffic ticket for overtaking a car on the wrong side of the road.

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The fourth bridge served the city for decades, although not everyone was equally pleased with its service. In the 1930s, poet Nâzım Hikmet spoke about how late the bridge remained open for naval traffic, making it impossible for pedestrians and cars to pass. “If Istanbul is to start work at seven, the bridge cannot remain open until six thirty!” he wrote. Serving also as a connecting ferry port and a popular meeting place, it used to be crowded at all times.

The 1950s and 60s were dramatic years. The bridge saw many events, such as oil tanker explosions on the Bosphorus and spectacular sea fires. It was a popular observation point for curious onlookers, as Sait Faik Abasıyanık noted in one of his poems, “On the bridge you don’t make friends, from the bridge you watch and see.”

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In the 1970s, the bridge captured the attention of the media, being a popular cultural center and meeting point for artists. However, coverage of the bridge’s slowly slipping into the Golden Horn compared it to sinking Venice. The existing construction also contributed to a major pollution problem, as the pontoon bridge blocked the natural flow of water. Despite these issues, it took another decade for construction on the fifth bridge to begin. Pontoons were finally replaced by steel tube piles and the quality of water in the area improved. The bridge’s two incarnations stood side by side for a long time until on May 17, 1992 a fire rendered the old one unusable.

The city moved some of its parts upstream near Atatürk Bridge, where they serve as a venue for the Istanbul Design Week organized in the fall. According to Murat Güvenç, Head of the Centre of Urban Studies at Istanbul Şehir University, this turned out to be a very useful solution for the city, not only in terms of events, but also for practical reasons. “There is an advantage in a pontoon bridge because you can move it from one place to another,” he says. For example, when maintenance on the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge caused heavy traffic on the E5 highway and Haliç Bridge, the old bridge was moved and temporarily reconstructed to ease the traffic.

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The current bridge was officially opened on June 17, 1992 by president Süleyman Demirel and Deputy Prime Minister Erdal Inönü, before its completion. It was opened to pedestrians after the fire destroyed its predecessor, and later accommodated car traffic and a tramline. Commercial spaces under the bridge were completed more than a decade later and currently serve thousands of visitors each day.

This side of history

Galata Bridge no longer serves as the backdrop of a poetic city. Romanticism and nostalgia have been replaced by the reality and needs of a rapidly growing metropolis. Istanbul’s aspirations to become an international hub emphasize constructions over the Bosphorus, which metaphorically aim to bring Turkey and the rest of the world together. But on a local level, the Karaköy Bridge remains an important symbol of the city’s diversity.

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Until the 1960s, 70 percent of the city’s overall population lived in and around the historical peninsula. It was literally impossible to avoid passing by Eminönü, Karaköy or over the bridge between those two areas. With the population of the Anatolian side growing up to 50 percent, the importance slowly shifted toward the construction over the Bosphorus. The underground retail passage, which runs under the tram line in Karaköy, changed from a prominent and popular shopping destination for books and music records into a relatively empty space selling gardening equipment and electronics.

According to Professor Murat Güvenç, the areas around Galata Bridge will again come into focus within the next 12 months. One of the new Marmaray rail line’s final stops is in Sirkeci, meaning that the area will have to accommodate a portion of the line’s estimated 70,000 passengers travelling in each direction every hour. “These are the last days of Istanbul as we know it,” Güvenç says. Naturally, the world’s most expensive underground project is going to have a certain impact on the connected areas. “[The project] will completely change the landscape of Istanbul, which can be both positive and negative change, regulated by the needs of the market,” Güvenç adds.

The change will be great, but the area around the bridge has been adapting to such changes in the flow of people for centuries. Michael Pereira writes that Galata Bridge “cannot be considered beautiful, but it is lovable.” Unlike the Bosphorus bridges, which are off-limits to pedestrians, the city is reflected through the people on Galata Bridge: fishermen, tourists, street vendors, business owners, amateur photographers and passers-by. As in every contemporary society, the population of Istanbul is a mixture of different views, opinions, preferences and ideas, which might not necessarily meet half way, but definitely cross paths everyday. ‘Bridge’ means something different for each of them, but is “above all, itself, and we shall leave it at that,” as Geert Mak points out in his book Bridge: A Journey between Orient and Occident. The bridge is a necessary link in a city divided, and will remain indispensible, regardless ever-changing perceptions and landscapes.

Galata Bridge timeline

1845 – Cisr-i Cedid – first bridge in the mouth of the Golden Horn

1863 – Second Galata Bridge opens for pedestrians

1875-78 – Construction of the third Galata Bridge

1910-1912 – Construction of the fourth Galata Bridge

1987 – Construction of the current fifth bridge begins

1992 – Fire destroys the fourth bridge and the fifth bridge opens for pedestrians

1994 – Completion of the fifth bridge

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Çetin Altan, From One End to Another

Underneath Karaköy Bridge

always smells of Istanbul.

In the spring, summer,

autumn and even when the snow

falls in the winter. With the barges

gently rocking as ferries pass,

the sherbet sellers, greengrocers

wrapped up in colors like a miraculous garden

with a different air each season,

newspaper sellers, small restaurants

bustling kiosks,

and with its own rusted

moisture, under the bridge

is one of the most indispensable pages

in the album of Istanbul.

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Play the bridge

The meaningful act of crossing the Karaköy Bridge took its place in world history thanks to British officers, who used to spend their evenings playing cards in Pera’s coffeehouses during the Crimean War. The game they favored, known as “cross the bridge,” gained popularity around the world under its shorter name, Bridge, and was even considered to become an Olympic discipline in 2002.

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