Kurtuluş: The last stop

Gabriel Doyle is a Ph.D. student in History at the Cetobac / EHESS in Paris. His research focuses on the spatial and material implications of diplomatic, missionary and philanthropic activity in late Ottoman Istanbul. His wider interests include global history, urban studies and social anthropology. Born in Paris from Australian parents, he likes to cycle in his hometown thinking about his new travel destination.



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“Kurtuluş, SON DURAK !” Kurtuluş, the last stop of a classic Istanbul bus line running through neighbourhoods that ring a bell to most Stambuliots: “Elmadağ, Harbiye, Osmanbey, Feriköy …”. It’s on this bus line that one has the most chance of hearing some Greek, Armenian but also French, all mingled with Turkish, Kurdish, and Arabic. These neighbourhoods remind the urban dweller of a past for which it is easy to feel nostalgia. A past when Muslim, Armenian, and Greek Orthodox inhabitants were supposed to go shopping in the same pickled vegetable store, when they dipped their simit, the delicious sesame bread sold on Istanbul’s streets, in the same çays, the famous Turkish dark tea served in tulip shaped cups. Once called Tatavla, the neighbourhood was a Greek Orthodox dominated area, famous for its carnival and its Ferris wheel. Hidden on top of a hill right behind Taksim, it was severely affected by a fire in 1929. Today, the topographic names recall a different story: Kurtuluş Avenue crosses Ergenekon avenue. Kurtuluş, meaning liberation, is a reference to the War of Independence lead by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk after World War One, which led to the creation of the modern Turkish Republic ın 1923. Ergenekon is the name of a mythical valley, from which, according to dubious narratives of the 1930’s, the first Turks escaped, led by a giant she-wolf.

The end of Kurtuluş Caddesi

These changes date from the first years of the Republic, and give a strong mono-ethnic semantic to Kurtuluş, which has in fact remained one of the most diverse neighbourhoods of Istanbul until today: many Armenians with Turkish citizenship still live on the Kurtuluş Caddesi, and the terminal bus stop faces an Orthodox church. Down a steep and much grubbier street behind the Aya Dimitri church sticks out another Orthodox Church named Panayia Evangestria, which looks abandoned from the outside. Both of them are actually open for mass on Sundays but one might notice how few are the devotees. Because, as the graffiti on one of Kurtuluş’s side streets clearly states, people go away…

“Insanlar gider…” (People go away…)

During the 20th century, the number of Rum (the mostly Greek-speaking Orthodox population of the Ottoman Empire) and Armenian inhabitants of Istanbul continuously decreased. They left because of open oppression from the State, urban violence or just to join family members in foreign lands. Nowadays, Kurtuluş’s historical diversity is updated with “Greek looking” cafés decorated with fake antique columns that seemed more desolate than refreshing.

Panayia Evangestri Rum Kilisesi was built between 1877 and 1893 by the architect Petrakis Mimarikis

The restaurant “Olimpia”

Yet, the area is still materially marked by the politics of memory: walking along the side streets of the main avenue, I noticed graffiti in Armenian writing. Once my Armenian friend Gor kindly helped me translate them, I discovered these graffiti were not the messages I was expecting. One was simply wondering, without any question marks, as if out of desperation: “Where is our home…”. These graffiti cannot be read by most of the current inhabitants of Kurtuluş, but they are messages that are surely not exclusive to the Armenian community still living there.

“Where is our home… ” written in Western Armenian

Today, much like other neighbourhoods of Istanbul, many rural Anatolian immigrants live in Kurtuluş. Most of them originate from the province of Erzincan in Eastern Turkey and settled in search of an improvement of life conditions. On one street corner there is even an association dedicated to the improvement of the Boyalık village, situated in the province of Erzincan, where elder men hang out, play cards and drink çay.

“Erzican İliç Boyalık Köyü Kalkındırma Dernegi”, Association for the improvement of the village of Boyalik, Province of Erzincan

Before reaching this club, I had walked down to the aforementioned Panayia Evangelistra Church, in the neighbouring area of Dolapdere. There I mostly came across African immigrants buying bread and Syrian children playing soccer. Many of the African immigrants actually play in the local football club, heir to one of the oldest sporting associations of the Ottoman Empire, founded by local Greek orthodox athletes in 1896.

The architectural diversity of Kurtuluş

While trying to get access to the run down church, I stumbled on a group of men who were playing a strange looking game. Speaking Kurdish among themselves, they were taking a break from their job, which consists in picking up paper waste around Istanbul in order to recycle it. The game involved a little coin that was thrown on the wall. I was not able to neither decipher nor follow it until the end, as the rusty door of the church suddenly cracked open.

Kurdish-speaking paper waste carriers on a break in Dolapdere

After crossing all these faces of today’s Kurtuluş area, I figured the question I had previously seen written without a question mark, in Armenian, might be appropriate for many other inhabitants of the vicinity. Whether fleeing war, poverty, ethnic hate or refusal of recognition, many locals could relate to such a statement. After that afternoon, the streets around Kurtuluş bus stop appeared to me as the meeting place of derailed tracks, where football and a mysterious game involving a 50 Kuruş coin are temporary exits. The next morning, I gave my dwelling exploration another chance. After watching part of a Turkish television documentary on Kurtuluş, I discovered Madame Despina, Kurtuluş’s last hidden meyhane, a typical Istanbul tavern. Founded in 1946, the place seemed like it had kept the same interior decoration since.

Inside the meyhane Madame Despina

Once I came into the empty restaurant, I was kindly offered a coffee by the current owner, Doğan. I had a long and pleasant conversation with him and Mariana, who works there as a waiter every evening. Doğan told me about the founder of the meyhane, a “kind, proud and people-loving woman”, who is buried in the local Greek Orthodox cemetery. He also told me about his happy childhood in Kurtuluş, and how he always got in trouble for falling in love with the “Rûm girls”. Mariana on the other hand had lived most of her life in Yerevan, Armenia, and had moved to Turkey in the 1990’s after the fall of the USSR. The rest of her family are still in Armenia, except for her daughter who studies in France. When I asked if she occasionally went back, she said she does, but feels “a pain inside” after a few days away from Kurtuluş, her real home. I said goodbye and left in a hurry, promising I would come back one   evening to have a rakı (an anise liqueur), and listen to the live music, feeling lucky I had met these two.

Doğan, the current owner of the meyhane, and Mariana, who works as a waitress there every evening

Many have departed from Kurtuluş and its neighbouring areas in the past century, only leaving tombstones and hidden churches to what was a lively urban area. Some pass through during a greater journey, and others still interrupt their quest and settle, making it a unique neighbourhood of today’s Istanbul.

One cannot thus stick to a specific idealized period and put an expiration date on this neighbourhood’s history. Kurtuluş may be the last stop of the bus line; it’s also an ever-surprising meeting point. In the dazzling metropolis of Istanbul, it remarkably blends history, memory and human movement, with many episodes still to come…


Further reading:

“Another world, Tatavla” – Article published on Agos about a recent exhibition on the history of Kurtuluş

Behar, Cem (2003): A neighborhood in Ottoman Istanbul. Fruit vendors and civil servants in the Kasap İlyas Mahalle. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press..

Büyükkürkciyan, Talin (2009): Feriköy. Anılarda … şimdi. 1. basım. İstanbul: Heyamola Yayınları.

Martin, Cilia (2011): Isimler ve sinirlar. Kurtuluş’ta mekansal kullanimlar (1910-2010). In Toplumsal tarihi (214).

Martin, Cilia (2015): Une réécriture urbaine. La mise en mémoire du quartier de Kurtuluş à Istanbul. In European Journal of Turkish Studies 20.

Morvan, Yoann; Logie, Sinan (2014): Istanbul 2023. Paris: Éditions B2.

Yigit, Ismail (2015): Survival Tactics of Waste Paper Pickers in Istanbul. In Journal of Ethnic and Cultural Studies 2 (1), pp. 1–14


All photos by Gabriel Doyle, 2017