live in Sultantepe, or Sultan Hill. In the Ottoman days, much of the
area was hunting grounds for the sultans, my wife tells me. The hill,
and those surrounding it, stretch languidly along the shores of the
Bosphorus. At the end of our street, you can look out and see the
Martyrs’ Bridge, as it was renamed after the failed military coup
in 2016, which we remember all too well.
The cars pass back and forth on the bridge between Europe and Asia, and beneath it in the brilliant turquoise-colored water pass the broad ships bound for the Black Sea to the north and to the south, the Marmara Sea, which leads to the Dardanelles and the Mediterranean.
The streets of Sultan Hill are narrow and beat, with apartment buildings and houses rising up on both sides. Here and there you see a few yali, or seaside mansions, painted in bright, lovely colors, embroidered with rich gardens, and they stand proudest of all, the top floors commanding all the best views of the city.
We live in a tiny one-bedroom ground floor flat that we purchased a couple years ago. After years of living with what I could manage to carry in a bag, first in Prague and then Istanbul, it has been quite a change to settle down, to know each day where I am going to sleep and wake, to look out onto our small garden, the grass tall and a rich green from all the recent rains, and know that it is ours, and that pandemic or no, we always have a place to call home.
Each day after I finish teaching we take our son Leo out for a walk. If it’s not raining or too cold, as it has been in recent days, we use the stroller; otherwise Ozge carries him in the kangaroo pack. We walk through the quiet streets, down the steep hill to the busy boulevard near Mihrimah Sultan mosque. There are the usual jammed assortment of cafes and shops, the inevitable Migros supermarket, the street cats and notoriously fat sea gulls and pigeons over in the broad, flat square that looks out at the long thin span of Bosphorus passing along the waterfront.
To give Leo something colorful to look at, we head over to the covered bazaar, navigating the crowds, letting him point to the shiny fish, the fresh fruits and vegetables, and the other things on offer before circling back to grab daily necessities at Migros. The shopping done, and having let Leo look at the birds for a while, we head back up the hill to the neighborhood. Leo is just old enough to walk on his own, so we stop at a park and let him walk around. He likes the swing best and loathes to share it with the other children in the neighborhood. He always seems to be the smallest boy on the playground, but he is a natural-born diplomat, an ambassador, walking with a kind of disconcerted, wondrous royalty. I’m sure he’ll soon get over that, but for now it’s nice to see him greeting the world, and the people around him, with the manners and airs of a tiny, slightly unsteady conqueror.
The park itself sits at the center of a plaza, and at the top of Sultantepe. Here you get the full view of the bridge and strait. But that is only background; the foreground consists of a high school, which only recently reopened; a pharmacy, a stationary shop, bakery, an ev yemekleri, or “home cooking” restaurant, and two market stores, or bakkal. There are no bars or pubs anywhere in the neighborhood, and though you see women both covered and uncovered, covered is the norm. The tone is conservative, like the majority of Uskudar neighborhoods. The Turkish men tend to greet each other with “Salaam alaikum,” more than “Merhaba” or “Iyi gunler.”
When I first moved to Istanbul a decade ago, like most expats I greatly preferred places like Kadikoy or Besiktas. I never imagined myself living in a conservative neighborhood like Sultantepe. Why would I want to live there? But these days, being older and settled down, it’s not so bad. The streets are safe and mostly quiet, the people easy going, polite. At the bakery, for example, which is run by a covered woman and her husband, they always smile and make a fuss over Leo. “Peanut!” they say, or “My dear!” to which Leo stares back in that shy deserving way all young children have. Same goes with the guy who owns the corner market. As he tallies up the groceries, he always waves at Leo and says hello. The older ladies in the neighborhood pass by and say, “Masallah!” It makes me think back to my bachelor days in Kadikoy, where I always felt like a yabanci everywhere, everyone asking “Where are you from?” and worrying about being overcharged. Nowadays, walking with my wife and Leo, I am treated, if not like a local, at least less like a foreigner. I guess eniste is the term, “in-law.” I’ve graduated to in-law.
After three years, I have gotten to know a few things about Sultan Hill. I’m learning, very slowly, something about being a husband and father. Sultan Hill is not an exciting place if you are young and single, but as I said it is a great place to raise a family. And as a safe place to hunker down during a pandemic, I can recommend it highly. One day this pandemic will end, and we can again venture out to explore new vistas, be travel writers and all that, but until then we must make do with the circumstances and the places that we have.
For now, that is the view from Sultan Hill: we are happy to report that we are well, if bored, and thankful for the splendid views of the Bosphorus, for the good neighbors who are not too nosy, and with good work to be done. Best of all, we are happy and blessed to have a family, health, good work to be done, and a place to call home.
James Tressler, a teacher and writer, is the author of several books about Istanbul, including “Letters From Istanbul,” “Inside Voices” and “Strait Fiction.”