- x0x Büyükada
By Çelik Gülersoy *
Off Istanbuls Asian shore is a group of small wooded islands. On the
mainland the last two low mountains of Kayýþdað and Alemdaðý mark the
western extremity of the great continent of Asia, which in expending its
final energies overreached the shore to raise up these hilly islands.
Altogether nine islands of different sizes lie peacefully on the blue
waters of the eastern Marmara Sea. Most are covered with pine woods,
although the two westernmost islands, one pointed and the other flat
(features after which they take their names), are bare of trees, and hence
known as the Hayýrsýz (Inauspicious) islands. Beyond these are the four
main islands, each extensively settled, and arranged in order of
increasing size: Kýnalý, Burgaz, Heybeli and Büyükada. Facing Burgaz is
its tiny offspring, an island in the shape of an inverted spoon, hence the
name Spoon Island.
Finally, beyond Büyükada, are two more islands. One faces the open sea,
the empty and bare Tavþan Adasý, and the other on the landward side is
Sedef Adasý which has recently been settled.
The islands form a necklace of large emeralds on blue satin, the largest
and the loveliest of all being Büyükada.
When the nearby settlement on the mainland grew into a great city, the
islands began to share not only the blessings of crown and throne but also
the sufferings which power and supremacy brought. While ambition and
treachery repeatedly stained the Byzantine throne in blood, the islands
watching silently on. Büyükada was occupied only by a few monasteries
amidst its green pines and on its sandy shores, but before long these
mossy stone buildings began to serve as places of exile and imprisonment
for members of the dynasty. What a tragic destiny, so out of keeping with
the beauty of the islands!Despite everything, unconscious of human malice,
nature continued to pour out its own uninhibited beauty.
Before winter was even over it bedecked the bare branches with the bright
yellow flowers of mimosa, and in the early spring the glowing purple pink
blossoms of the Judas tree. It painted the pine glades with clouds of pink
cyclamen, and between the rocks along the deserted paths set a profusion
of daisies, pink and white rockroses, arbutus, thyme, mint, rosemary and
lavender, as if decorating the island for a wedding.
The coming of the Ottomans marked a turning point in the destiny of
Büyükada. No longer was this corner of paradise the scene of torture and
brutality. Instead, sultans deposed from their thrones and vezirs deprived
of their seals of office were dealt with inside Topkapý Palace.
Büyükada and the other islands were left to their own devices for the next
four centuries, inhabited only by a handful of monks and a few poor
gardeners and fisherman. They continued to lead their simple lives, eating
vegetables and cereals grown in the fertile soil, and the abundant seafood
of all kinds. The monks who had abandoned the material world for a life of
prayer and contemplation lived first in the ancient convent on the shore,
and when that became too ruinous moved to the monasteries on Ýsa Hill and
the even higher Haghia Yorgi to live out their lives overlooking the blue
horizons and listening to the sound of the rustling breeze.
The city folk did not make excursions to these corners of paradise because
there were plenty of woods and meadows close at hand on the Golden Horn
and the Bosphorus which sufficed for the small population of the time.
Then came the 19th century, and a new invention manufactured in the
distant land of Britain arrived in the capital city of the sultan: the
steam ship! This needed neither the strength of human arms like the kayýk,
nor sails to harness wind power like the galleon. Instead coal was
shovelled into the furnace to boil water whose steam turned a great paddle
wheel at the side of the ship, which moved forward literally under its own
steam. Moreover a steam ferry could carry a hundred people at one go.
This innovation fundamentally altered Büyükadas destiny. Wealthy
foreigners and members of the local Christian communities began to build
themselves summer villas on the island, and some Turkish statesman
followed the new fashion.
At first the journey to the islands took a considerable time, no less than
six hours! So that when one Ottoman gentleman was asked where he lived on
the island, he replied On the ferryboat! But the ferries were safe even in
bad weather, and the delights of life on the island made up for its
In the beginning, between the 1850s and the 1870s, the summer villas were
plain unostentatious wooden houses, but in subsequent decades under the
influence of western fashions they became taller, acquired carved
decoration, and the old fashioned door shutters were replaced by slatted
ones. Social life on the island, too, rose to the occasion. Büyükadas high
society belonged to the Yacht Club established by the British. For the
less privileged there were hotels, restaurants and cafés. Magnificent
picnics at which lambs were roasted on spits, dancing parties, walks by
moonlight and musical evenings kept the leisured summer inhabitants of
Büyükada happily occupied.
The departure of most of Istanbuls foreign businessmen with the
establishment of the Turkish Republic, and the removal of the capital to
Ankara took some of the glitter out of Büyükada as it did from societys
winter quarter of Beyoðlu, but Istanbuls genteel classes continued to
frequent the island. The sharp population growth and consequent concrete
building spree of the 1960s and 1970s reflected to some extent on the
islands, but not enough to spoil their natural beauty and character, and
they continue to be a delightful place for days out or to spend the
summers for many Istanbul people today.
As the example of the Touring Associations Cultural House shows, by
careful conservation of this important legacy and by encouraging small
scale convention tourism and perhaps honeymoon holidays, the islands and
their flagship, Büyükada, could make both economic and cultural progress.
* Celik Gulersoy is a writer and the former president of the Turkish