Tolga was a tractor driver working on a renovation project near the Eyüp Sultan mosque on the Golden Horn. The project was aimed at restoring some stone houses near the mosque.

The mid-March weather changed every day, as the long winter refused a final surrender. A bright sunny day was almost inevitably followed by rain and heavy winds from the sea.

For the workers, it was frustrating, hard to plan their days.


Tolga, 47, was a big-bellied Black Sea Turk with leathery skin and a gruff demeanor. Like a lot of Black Sea men, he was perpetually high-strung, edgy. He was good with his hands and liked to get things done. And he was one of those who liked to talk to himself as he operated the big heavy tractor.

He was in a particularly foul mood that day because the work had come to a halt. The day before orders had come from the boss about some ruling from a local historic board. There was evidently some kind of ancient ruins – the boss had said, an ancient hamam, or Turkish bath, and some marble sinks. The site was said to date back to 600 A.D., during Byzantian times.

“A hamam, my ass!” grumbled Tolga. “About a thousand years old! That’s the problem with this city. You dig down three inches and you find some historic somesuch! The whole city is a damned graveyard. And it’s always the same. We have to stop work, sit around on our asses while they look around for a bunch of useless junk that nobody is using. I mean, who cares really?”

Tolga went on this way, muttering as he and the other workers sat having tea in a trailer set up near the construction site. The boss was around somewhere, probably meeting with those archealogist people.

“That’s all we need,” Tolga went on, to anyone who would listen. Most of the other workers were Kurds, and a few Syrians, and they seemed more interested in playing card games on their phones than anything else. “I’ve got three kids to feed! And on what, with enflasyon these days? A working man can hardly even feed his family! And now I’ve gotta stop my work – why? All because some people sittin’ on some board – who don’t work for a living – decide to save some stupid old pieces of rock that have absolutely no use whatsoever! Useless! I mean, what’s more important? Dead people or living? You tell me, abi!”


Across the Bosphorus, up near the green banks of Sariyer, 33-year-old real estate consultant Halil Bey was in completely the opposite mood. That morning he had a meeting with a potential buyer from Qatar.

The client was interested in viewing a yalı, or historic seaside mansion, one of some sixty such luxury that were currently on the market. The country’s economic woes, particularly the devaluation of the the lira, had, for people in Halil’s trade, created great opportunities. It was a buyer’s market.

Most of the interest in such high-end properties (you could expect to pay up to 100 million dollars, although in current conditions some of the homes could be fetched for far less) was expressed by foreigners, particularly from the Middle East. These foreign buyers were also attracted by obtaining a Turkish passport, an incentive thrown in by the government.

Halil’s phone rang. The Qatar client was calling from his hotel. “I am coming! 30 minutes!” Halil assurred him. He was planning to pick the client up personally in his car, a brand new silver Lexus. Adjusting his tie, and combing his hair immaculately, Halil headed out.

Fortunately, the traffic wasn’t too bad that morning. He had no difficulties getting to the hotel in Beyoğlu, where the client was waiting at the reception desk. The client spoke English, and Halil’s English wasn’t too bad.

They drove to the yalı. Along the way, they chatted about Turkish soap operas. They were hugely popular in the Arab World. The client was single, and worked in the oil business, naturally. He travelled frequently to Istanbul, in search of the romance amid the historic Ottoman settings that he had seen on the Turkish soap operas.

“So you would like to be a sultan, eh?” Halil teased diplomatically. “Have your Ottoman mansion by the Bosphorus, and of course your harem of beautiful Turkish women! Yes, if I were in your position, I would be really excited. There’s never been a better time to invest!”

They arrived at the yalı. It was a handsome, three-storied yellow Victorian right on the shores of the Bosphorus. It was flanked on each side by bigger, white mansions. The client asked about them, but they were not for sale.

“This one seems a little bit small,” said the client, referring to the yellow one in question. “How much did you say it was going for?”

“The owner wants at least 5 million dollars,” Halil said. “Of course, the amount must be paid in lira, according to Turkish law. That’s – “ he calculated the adjusted sum in lira.

“That seems reasonable,” the client said. “But I think I’d like to shop around a little. What other properties do you have? Any like those there?” He pointed to the sumptuous white mansions.

“Well, let me just check!” Halil got on the phone to his assistant.


Back at the work site, it was past lunchtime. The skies over the neighborhood were greasy, charcoal-colored. The boss had called and set aside some odd jobs for the workers, menial tasks to keep them busy.

Tolga simmered as he and the other workers picked up scattered debris and deposited them in a bin. “Lanet olsun!” he cursed. “Busy work! Do I look like some day laborer? Some Syrian migrant worker?” The other workers nodded in agreement, but mostly went about the work silently. At least they were working, they reasoned, especially the migrant workers, many of whom shared tiny apartments with a half-dozen of their coworkers.

“It was the same with the Marmaray Project!” Tolga continued. He had worked on the Marmaray, the undersea metro, several years before. Work on that Project had come to a long halt upon the discovery of an ancient fort and the remains of an ship that had reportedly transported grain from Egypt.

“How many days did we lose on that one, eh?” he asked himself. “And for what? So the archaeologists could tinker around with bits and pieces of some boat! They said the site was like a museum, a living museum. It looked dead enough to me, brother! Allah! Allah! Trust me, if you left this city to the archaelogists, the whole place would be a museum. That’s why I like our president. Yes, he is interested in progress. Progress! He knows that what this city needs is tunnels, bridges, trains and highways! Even satellites! Who needs NASA when we have our GökTurk, eh? We could be on the moon, instead of sitting around with these dead bones of history. Can we eat dead bones, abi?”

As if to illustrate, Tolga picked up a piece of stone. He held it out, waving it in the damp, mid-March air. “Can we eat this brothers? Can my three children eat museums? I ask you that. Progress, man!”

The other workers nodded, bowing to Tolga’s economic logic, and went on with the work.


Halil drove the Qatar client over to Bebek, a cozy, tree-lined district on the northwest side of the Bosphorus. Here, there were plenty of attractive yalıs at the water’s edge, and the waters here lapped calmly, almost regally, against the banks.

“What do you think of this one?” Halil asked. They were looking at a majestic, three-storied white mansion, with trimming like icing on a wedding cake, and staircases that led gently down to the waters like a bride being escorted by a handsome groom.

“This one is straight out of ‘Aşk-i Memnum!’” the estate agent enthused, making a well-timed reference to the popular Turkish soap opera, “Forbidden Love,” which he knew was the client’s favorite.

“Yes, you are right,” the client answered, looking the place over with appraising eyes. The sun had come out a little bit, throwing a flattering glow over the facade. Halil let the client fill in the scene with his imagination.

Allah belanı versin!”

This Turkish curse, and many others, came from a nearby garden. “These pimps! These pezivenkler!” the heckler went on. “Just look at them! Selling our proud history to the highest bidder!

It was a man’s voice, and loud enough to attract the client’s attention. Fortunately, the client did not understand Turkish, and looked to the estate rep for clarification.

“It’s nothing,” Halil said, blushing. Of course, there were some Turks who objected to the foreigners, who did not like to see historic properties being scooped up by yabancılar, especially Arabs. But what could he do? He would sell willingly to a Turk, absolutely. But there weren’t that many Turks in the market for a yalı nowadays.

“He’s just some busybody,” Halil answered. “Come on, let us go inside and I’ll show you the bedrooms.”

The angry shouting from the nearby garden continued, and it was all Halil could do but physically shove his client into the yalı and shut the door.


Two-thirty. The workers had finished the menial odd jobs, and most were just sitting around smoking cigarettes, playing with their phones.

Tolga was still worked up. How many hours had they wasted already? His father, who had supported five children as a fisherman near Trabzon, would never have tolerated such ineptitude, such slackness.

“Enough of this,” Tolga said. He got up and mounted the tractor. While his colleagues looked on, startled, Tolga fired up the engine, and drove it forward. Toggling the controls, he maneuvered the heavy machine to where it was in front of the site of the ancient hamam. “A bunch of useless stones!” he muttered. “Nobody has used that bath for five hundred years, I’ll bet. There’s only one way – forward!”

He revved the engine, brought the big loader to bear, and began pushing against some of the stones around the site. The stones were heavy, but of course no match for the loader. Tolga began scooping them up and moving them aside, one by one.


A voice called out after some minutes. Over the sound of the engines, and his own muttering, Tolga didn’t hear this voice at first. But some of the workers waved and got his attention. Angrily, Tolga shut off the engine. “What?” he yelled.

Napiyon’ya?” the voice came again. Tolga could see it was several local residents. They had been keeping an eye on the work. One had even recorded the whole incident on their mobile phone.

“Where’s your boss? Why are you destroying this site? Don’t you know that it is historic, you ignorant bastard? We will report you to the belidiye! Do you want your boss to go to court?” The angry residents fired off these and other questions to Tolga and all the other workers.

Tolga, not to be intimidated, fired right back. “Who the hell do you think you are, arkadaşlarım? Telling me how to do my job? I have a family to feed! There’s work to be done around here! We have no time for your stupid trinkets and artifacts!”

A fist fight nearly broke out, but it was stopped when some of the workers intervened. The site boss finally showed up and sent everyone home. The concerned local residents posted some pictures of the damage online, prompting the culture ministry to order all work halted until the ruins could be safely transplanted to a museum.

But by then it was too late. Nearly 70 percent of the Byzantian and Ottoman ruins had fallen under Tolga’s tractor onslaught.

As of this writing, the future of Tolga remains unclear, but some of the workers suggested he’ll probably just wind up transferred to another work site. After all, in the megacity, there’s always plenty of work to be done.


7:30. Halil and the Qatar client sat in a five-star restaurant near Taksim, having an expensive kebab dinner. Halil was tired, dejected, but tried to remain upbeat. The client had said he wanted to shop around a bit more, maybe even look at some summer places down in Bodrum. After dinner, the client wanted Halil to show him some good nightclubs. He probably couldn’t expect to be home until well after midnight.

Halil wondered if the heckler had influenced the client. No, probably not. These Arabs didn’t care what anybody said, not in his experience. If they wanted something, they usually got it. So it was something else. Probably he wanted something newer, or bigger.

Anyway there was a plus side. Over dinner, Halil’s phone beeped several times. It was his assistant back at the office. She already had three more appointments lined up the rest of the week, all solid prospects.

“This kebab is really excellent!” the Qatar client enthused.

Afiyet olsun,” Halil smiled, wishing him good appetite.


This story was based on events reported in the press. They had nothing to do with one another. I have adapted the stories for my own purposes, and obviously given them dramatic re-enactments just to make them more readable.

Reader, you of course noted certain distinct parallels in these twin narratives, or twin curses. For those of us who live here, we never cease to marvel how the old and the new sit side by side, skyscrapers and mosques, shopping malls and street bazaars. But it’s not always a stable partnership, and as the city continues to expand, no doubt the pressures to balance the city’s ancient heritage with its very modern needs will continue to collide.

But as they say in this part of the World: İt ürür, kervan yürür. The dogs bark, yet the caravan moves on. I guess we could say the same for everything else.


James Tressler, a former Lost Coast resident, is a writer and teacher in Istanbul.