Check out: The City of Absences today's Istanbul

Article published on Oct. 10, 2011
Article published on Oct. 10, 2011
for those you will be in Athens from 11-15 October, do not miss Alexandros Massavetas photo exhibition!! In “The City of Absences”, Alex Massavetas links the lively, raucous present of Istanbul’s historic quarters with their past and the history of their original inhabitants.
At the same time, he bypasses the feelings of nostalgia and melancholy and gives himself to the magic of modern Istanbul, to the joy of discovery, lets himself feel affection for the worlds he discovers and agony for their end approaching. The end, this time round, will be in the form of an “Urban Rehabilitation Programme”. This exhibition borrows its title from Alex’s book, a travelogue of Istanbul’s lost cosmopolitanism.

Visual memories of

eight years of wandering in the narrow alleys of Istanbul’s historical districts. An image diary from the lives of those who presently inhabit Pera, Tarlabasi, Phanari, Kumkapi, of the last artisans who retain shop in the old town’s caravanserais. Possibly the last images of the modest lives of those villagers who flooded the historic districts, as well as the entire city, in search of a better deal. Those lives are now under threat of exile in the periphery of the ever-extending megacity, retreating before the wave of “urban regeneration” which is sweeping over Istanbul.

These images will be immediately recognised by anyone who has ascended the precipitous seven hills of the old town, who has allowed oneself to be lost in the narrow, winding streets of Galata and Pera on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn: children made to sit on the window sills, the garlands of washing hanging over the streets to dry, the crowds of children filling the streets, the colourful street markets, the dyed pigeons used for races. Behind their prohibitive metal gates, the caravanserais of the old city shelter jewelers, tailors, artisans and manufacturers of all sorts.

Despite all this exuberance and movement, however, one’s every step in these quarters is accompanied by the undeniable traces of absence. Those who dwelt here until very recently – Greeks, Armenians, Jews – are conspicuous only by their absence. Some moved away to “upmarket” suburbs, but most fled abroad. The memory of their centuries-old presence and the sad story of their often forced exile sits heavily on the cityscape.

A sensitive eye will detect its traces pretty much everywhere. Locked up churches and synagogues, homes taken over by newcomers, cemeteries hidden behind tall walls, empty spaces turned car parks where magnificent apartment buildings once stood. In crumbling Belle Époque appartements in Pera and in much more modest houses in Kumkapi, Phanari and Balat, plaques carry the names of their architects, names now “exotic” and “foreign” to the average Turk.

In today’s Istanbul, absence weighs as heavily as presence on urban identity and culture. Right beside the megacity which is full of life lies the City of Absences, the city of memory. Istanbul drips melancholy and nostalgia. The all-pervasive sense of loss, the sad cry of the abandoned homes and shrines, of the desecrated cemeteries, the memory of a past evokes the feelings of nostalgia and sadness not only among the members of the members of the minorities, but also among the old Istanbul bourgeoisie. The latter expresses a longing, which grows stronger by the day, for the multicultural metropolis of the past obliterated during the 20th century.

Alex Massavetas was born and raised in Athens. He read law in Athens and Cambridge, but abandoned a career of a lawyer with much delight in 2003 and moved to Istanbul. The move was the result of a profound spell the space and time of the City had cast on him, a spell still very much in force. After experimenting with various jobs, he has been working as a freelance journalist for Greek and British media since 2003. Based in Istanbul, he now lives as a nomad between that city, London and Athens, not missing a chance to board a plane for a short escape further away. His camera is his travel companion and his notebook. At present, he says he is a traveller; he wants to become a writer when he grows up.