“Istanbul is, at the best of times, a city divided. Weird currents drag along the chasm of the Bosphorus, where Europe and Asia almost meet, and the Black Sea tips into the Mediterranean. Levantine are the mosques and bazaars of Istanbul, and Byzantine its steep, winding streets; but its bars and trams are Balkan, almost Mitteleuropäisch. As the capital of empires Roman, Greek and Muslim, Istanbul stands uneasily between its imperial past and its future as a provincial giant in a secular Turkey.”
This is the New York Time’s description of Istanbul in a review for Joseph Kanon’s 2012 novel ‘Istanbul Passage’, an espionage thriller set just after World War Two. It’s a great description of the city I’ve returned to again and again in the last few years. The ceaseless crowds and quiet alleys, the sometimes uneasy balance between modern and traditional. For photographers, it’s almost too much.
I took this shot on a very brief visit in 2015, on one of the ferries which ply their way between the European and Asian shores, on an old Soviet FED 50 compact and Fomapan film. They are the quickest way to cross the gulf between two continents, avoiding the traffic-cogged streets that radiate from the pair of Bosphorus-spanning bridges. The fare costs 4L, little more than £1 – it’s a decidedly democratic form of transport for the millions of workers who keep the city wheels spinning.
The ferries come complete with refreshments; sellers plying the commuters with tiny, fearsomely hot glasses of Turkish tea. The journey is just long enough for the tea to cool down enough to drink. It’s strong, and bitter. Sugar cubes help take away the acrid tang.
The ferries belch plumes of back smoke that drift down from the funnels to the oily gloom of the water. There’s so many ferries – picking their way amongst the fishing boats and the cargo vessels ploughing their way to and from the Black Sea – that the waterways are constantly punctuated with the sound of foghorns. It’s a sound that wouldn’t have been out of place in the days of Kanon’s thriller, or the dying days of the Ottoman Empire a century ago. A constant, like the call to prayer drifting from the minarets.