“Istanbul is a mosaic, made up of people from all religions and ethnicities,” said a Greek Orthodox Istanbulite whilst sipping her Turkish tea and gathering the crumbling sesame seeds falling from her kandil simit, a pastry made to commemorate the birthday of Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) which happened to be the day prior. I was sitting in the garden of a Greek Orthodox Church after Sunday Mass in a remote village called Kuzguncuk on the Asian side of Istanbul. It was a warm summers morning and sat around me was a group of middle aged men and women conversing about their plans for the rest of the day in a language that meshed both Greek and Turkish.
At first the group were slightly hesitant to speak to me, an alien stranger stepping onto their territory with no prior introduction. A curly haired lady sitting on one of the tables invited me to join the group and offered me some tea and pastries, I soon became friends with the two ladies who sat opposite, one who had lived in Istanbul all of her life and the other who had just moved to Kuzguncuk a year ago.
“It used to be a lot more diverse in the past,” said the aged lady opposite, shading herself under a large tree. “Many people have migrated back to their homelands, some of my family members have gone back to Greece too but most of my relatives still remain in Istanbul.”
“I am very happy here,” stated the other lady. “I never married and after I lost my two other siblings I moved here and I love it.”
Kuzguncuk is by far one of the most culturally intriguing places I have visited in Istanbul. Located between Uskudar and the Bosphorous Bridge, Kuzguncuk is a distinct town which is different to the rest of Istanbul in many ways. It homes Jewish, Armenian and Greeks as well as Turkish residents, who have lived prosperously together for centuries. In the past Muslims were the minority in Kuzguncuk, with Jews and Armenians making up most of the population. During the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th Century Jews that were ousted from Spain and Portugal settled in Kuzguncuk yet later migrated after the establishment of Israel. The size of Armenian settlers rose between the 18th and 19th Centuries and the first Armenian Church was built in 1935.
Two decades later a Mosque was built in the garden of the Armenian Church and donations were made from all groups of people in Kuzguncuk including the Armenian Church and the two synagogues which were built during the 19th century. At first glance Kuzguncuk seems to reflect the epitome of intercultural dialogue and I set out to explore more.
Niso Yerusalmi, the General Secretary to the synagogue greeted me at the tall green doors of the synagogue. He had a warm and welcoming smile yet told me that I cannot enter the holy place without a prior request. “This is the policy,” he exclaimed. “We would need to photocopy your passport and run a check before you are given the go ahead.” Despite my pleading skills which had by this point had a lot of practice at the Grand Bazaar, the General Secretary did not budge. A police officer who had a permanent station outside of the synagogue and several locals from the cafe close by surrounded me and Mr Niso to listen to his story.
“I have lived in Kuzguncuk for my entire life, I was born and raised here and I want to die here, tell them to bury me in Kuzguncuk,” said the 60 year-old man. As I stood outside the synagogue Jewish locals walked in and out of the tall green doors, each time Mr Niso greeting them by name.
“Kuzguncuk is the best place in Turkey it is made up of a diverse population even though it has reduced over the years. People migrated to different places as time progressed but this was mainly due to economic reasons, some had a stronger means of income therefore went to bigger and better places where as others could not afford to continue their lives here and were forced to move,” he said. “Everybody has lived here prosperously and still continue to do so. The police station was shut down as crime rates were so low. After the bombs that took place on the European side of Istanbul it was decided that officers from Uskudar Police station would safe guard the synagogue 24 hours a day just in case,” explained Mr Niso.
The blue eyed, jolly police officer who listened tentatively to Mr Niso’s narrative added “We have never had any trouble here. I have been working in Kuzguncuk for 4 years now and the locals get on really well. I spend my time drinking Turkish Tea and speaking with friends whilst I work, there is no trouble at all,” said the Muslim Police Officer.
As the Islamic holy month of Ramadan dawns upon us, the Muslim locals plan for their 30 day fast. Neighbours, friends and family of different faiths support one another regardless of faith and ethnic background. “The Mosque in Kuzguncuk was built many years after the Church and Synagogue and everybody made donations to fund it,” said the General Secretary of the Synagogue.
This is not the only form of interfaith support which goes on in Kuzguncuk. Every year during Ramadan the Synagogue organises a fast-breaking dinner which sees approximately 250 Muslims attend. On the day, the Ezan (Call to Prayer) is recited in the garden of the synagogue. Other synagogues have been inspired by this yearly interfaith ritual and they too have begun to replicate annual fast breaking dinners. “Neve Shalom Synagogue located on the otherside of the Bosphoros has started to invite Muslims to fast-breaking dinners too; we have been doing this for 19 years now and will continue to do so,” said Mr Niso.
Kuzguncuk is a neighbourhood with a warming history propelled by the love for people and nature. It is a breath of fresh air to see that communities have lived and continue to live harmoniously despite ‘so-called’ religious and cultural differences. The amazing architecture and surreal scenery of this lively town is most alluring to any visitor of Istanbul. Whilst little cobbled streets home an array of authentic cafes and assortment of colourful artists’ workshops, the most intriguing and striking gift this endearing town has to offer is tolerance to diversity and openness to difference. Let’s pray that not only the towns and villages of Istanbul but the world on the whole can embrace such positive attitudes towards intercultural dialogue and peaceful coexistence.
*The ideas expressed in this column are solely the opinions of the author and not necessarily of the Dialogue Society