Monday, August 3, 2015

How the Germans left their mark on İstanbul

How the Germans left their mark on İstanbul

How the Germans left their mark on İstanbul
(Photo: Today's Zaman, Mühenna Kahveci)

Strolling through the Hippodrome (Atmeydanı) in Sultanahmet visitors usually pass a large circular fountain near the tomb of Sultan Ahmed I. It's not an especially beautiful structure -- nothing in comparison with the gorgeous Ahmed III Fountain that stands in front of the entrance to Topkapı Palace, for example. Still, its design is something of a novelty for the city and behind it lies a story of Ottoman-Turkish friendship that laid the foundations for the path that eventually led Turkey to enter World War I on the side of the Germans.

If you gaze up at the fountain's ceiling you will see a pair of monograms set into a mosaic of golden tesserae designed to evoke the grandeur of the lost Byzantine past. One is that of Sultan Abdülhamid II, the paranoid monarch who reigned over the Ottoman Empire from 1876 to 1909, the other that of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the ruler of Germany from 1888 to 1918 who made two state visits to Istanbul, then still Constantinople, in 1889 and 1898. Designed by Prussian architect Max Spitta, the Alman Çeşmesi (German Fountain) was paid for by the Germans to commemorate the second of these visits. The emperor himself is believed to have designed it.

Alman Çesmesi, Hippodrome (Photo: Pat Yale)

Details of on Alman Çesmesi (Photo: Pat Yale)

At the time of his first visit Wilhelm had only been the German ruler for a year. However, his visit was part of what had become a gentle push by Germany to replace itself as the Ottoman Empire's number one ally in place of Britain. Already that effort had shown itself in the arrival in Constantinople of General von der Goltz, who was tasked with modernizing the Ottoman army. It had also shown itself in the German enthusiasm for building a new railway that was intended to stretch all the way from Berlin to Baghdad. But it was the visits of Kaiser Wilhelm that left the strongest mark on the city's architecture, not least because the sultan had part of the Yıldız Palace completely remodeled to house his important guest.

Aside from the fountain, these are some of the buildings still to be seen in İstanbul that serve a reminder of the ties between Turkey and Germany. A painting by court artist Fausto Zonaro (1854-1929) showing the kaiser and his wife, Augusta Victoria, arriving by caique at Dolmabahçe Palace can also be seen inside it.

Yıldız Palace


The least known of İstanbul's many Ottoman stately homes, Yıldız Palace lurks at the back of a large park overlooking the Bosporus and owes its entire existence to Sultan Abdülhamid II who lived in fear of assassination. This fear led him to create a new palace made up of many different buildings that today are almost impossible to visit on a single trip because of the way in which they were separated from each other to make it harder for an assailant to get around.

Most people settle for a visit to the so-called Şale (Chalet) that can be accessed directly from the park. A long, graceful, two-storied structure with frilly wooden decoration running round the gables, the chalet was designed in the 1870s to serve as a guesthouse separated from the sultan's own living area by a high wall. When it became apparent that the kaiser would make a state visit it was given a speedy upgrade by Sarkis Balyan, a task repeated by Raimondo d'Aronco when he returned for his second visit in 1898.

Visitors to the chalet get to see the huge reception room as well as the dining room in which the kaiser dined from golden plates and quaffed wine from gem-encrusted goblets. It's all decorated in the rather overblown baroque style then in vogue as the sultans tried to westernize the empire but it's hard not to be impressed by the largest Hereke carpet ever woven which adorns the reception room.

Haydarpaşa Station


Probably the best known of all İstanbul's German monuments is Haydarpaşa Station, which can be admired by anyone who takes the ferry across the Bosphorus from Eminönü or Karaköy to Kadıköy. Built in 1906 to a design drawn up by the German architects Otto Ritter and Helmut Cuno, it's a little piece of Germany dropped from northern Europe on the doorstep of Asia where it served until recently as the first point in every railway journey east into the heart of Anatolia and beyond.

The station stands as an everyday memorial to the monumental effort involved in building a railway line all the way from Berlin to Baghdad, a task officially commenced in 1903 but not completed until 1940. The story of that railway line is one of complex diplomatic and financial sparring in which the oil reserves of Mesopotamia feature prominently. It's also a story in which a German engineering genius named Wilhelm von Pressel (1821-1902) played a leading role. In that sense it's a particular shame that the upgrading of Turkey's railway infrastructure via the Marmaray and the new high-speed train network looks likely to render Haydarpaşa Station redundant.

Originally built on reclaimed land so that it is surrounded by water on three sides, it will probably reemerge as a luxury hotel (if not a shopping mall) although one must hope that a small museum detailing the story of the railway might be shoehorned into the plans. Failing that, Sean McMeekin's book, “The Berlin-Baghdad Express: The Ottoman Empire and Germany's Bid For World Power, 1898-1918,” tells the full story.

Deutsche Bank


In the back streets of Sirkeci the austere building that once housed the Deutsche Bank (formally the Basmadcıyan Han) was designed in 1890 by Prussian architect August Jasmund, the man behind Sirkeci Station. It was the Deutsche Bank that provided much of the initial funding for the Berlin to Baghdad railway. For the time being the building stands empty but a new use for it cannot be far away.

The building in Sirkeci was originally a sub-branch of the bank, the main branch being in what is now the Sümerbank building on Karaköy's Voyvoda Caddesi, colloquially known as Bankalar Caddesi (Bank Street) because it was home to so many banks. This building, erected in the 1880s, was also home to the company that operated the Anatolia Railway, another project part-funded by the bank

German Consulate


Visitors ambling down Gümüssuyu Caddesi from Taksim Square will see on the right-hand side of the road the impressively large building, erected between 1874 and 1877, that houses the German Consulate. During his visits the kaiser is known to have visited what was then the German Embassy. Today it's usually conspicuous mainly for the queues of eager visa-seekers standing in line beside the side entrance.

German Embassy summer residence


In the days before Mustafa Kemal Atatürk moved the Turkish capital to Ankara and the İstanbul embassies were all downgraded to consulates many of the wealthier nations also maintained summer embassies on the upper reaches of the Bosporus to which their staff could retreat in the sweltering summer months. The German summer residence occupied a house in Tarabya with a large garden that had been given to the kaiser by Sultan Abdülhamid II as a thank-you for his help in reforming the Ottoman navy. In the grounds a memorial commemorates earlier help given by Marshall Helmuth von Moltke to Sultan Mahmud II when he was trying to remodel the army. An imposing whitewashed yalı with a small turret, the building still survives today although it's not open to the public.

Teutonia German Club


Another monument with a colorful German history behind it is No. 65 Galipdede Caddesi, just downhill from Tünel. Originally built in 1847 to serve as a clubhouse for Germans and rebuilt in 1897, it went on to become a center for the dissemination of Nazi propaganda before World War II.

Kaiser Wilhelm's guesthouse, Hereke


As if it wasn't enough to have lavished money on upgrading the Yıldız Palace guesthouse for the kaiser, in 1898 Sultan Abdülhamid also had a pretty little pavilion purpose-built for him on the Sea of Marmara near the factory that produced the famous Hereke silk carpets. The kaiser had taken a particular interest in these carpets, bringing with him from Germany new color-fast dyes that could be used to improve them as well as a microscope that made it possible for the weavers to keep an eye out for parasites.

Newly restored, the guesthouse, now called Çivisiz Köskü to commemorate the fact that it was originally built without the use of nails, is once again open to visitors as is the nearby factory.
Keywords: Germans , Istanbul

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