Cihangir: eyes the colour of the Turkish sky Click for more photos

Four suburbs in Istanbul

Cihangir: eyes the colour of the Turkish sky Photo: Louise Hawson

Sydney photographer Louise Hawson goes beyond the cliches in Turkey's largest city in the third stop on her "52 Suburbs Around the World" series.

Hoş geldiniz! Welcome to Istanbul. A sprawling metropolis of 13-plus million and the only city in the world to have one Turkish slippered foot in Europe and the other in Asia.

I’d been to Istanbul twice before. But only as a typical tourist, visiting the usual suspects in star-studded Sultanahmet – Topkapi Palace, the Blue Mosque and Haghia Sophia. What was Istanbul like beyond the postcard cliches, I wondered? And so here we are in Istanbul, the third city in 52 Suburbs Around the World.

For week one my daughter, Coco, and I headed up the Golden Horn to Balat – and snuck in neighbouring Fener while we were at it. Once upon a time these places thrived, filled with fine mansions and vibrant communities of Greeks and Jews. But the fairytale didn’t last and they’re both now struggling and run-down with many buildings derelict and empty. Yet if you squint hard you can imagine what Fener and Balat might have looked and felt like in their heyday. And despite the dilapidation, I still found so much beauty there, from the colourful bay-fronted houses to the impressive churches and mosques we had virtually to ourselves.

For week two in Istanbul we changed gear and ducked over the Golden Horn to Istanbul’s ‘it’ neighbourhood, Cihangir. This is where you can roll down the hill from a big night out in the entertainment district of Taksim and wake up in your European-style apartment to a ridiculously impressive view, stretching right over the Bosphorus, across to Sultanahmet and down to the Sea of Mamara and beyond. I heard the place is heaving with celebrities but as I wouldn’t know a Turkish celebrity if I fell over one, I can’t verify the rumour.

In week three we left Istanbul’s boho darling to explore the city’s black sheep - Tarlabasi. Like Balat and Fener, Tarlabasi was once happily Greek with charming row houses but is now desperately poor, a mixed community of Kurds, Roma and Africans. However, this neighbourhood is much closer to ruin than its friends across the Golden Horn. The government has started to demolish large chunks of it in a so called "renovation" plan that will see old replaced by faux old. Only they seem to have got halfway through that process and downed tools. They’ve gutted entire streets of buildings then just left them completely exposed, a windfall for desperate scavengers who have ripped out everything they can to burn or sell. Floorboards, windows, doors, security bars, all gone. What were once lovely bay-fronted homes are now devoured, rubbish-filled, stinky wrecks.

In the midst of the mess, however, is the neighbourhood’s original Greek Orthodox Church that still stands tall and proud, and the kids of Tarlabasi. On sunny days they lift the place no end with their wild energy, chasing their shadows down the steep hills and treating the gutted houses like one big playground. Sure, there are no swings or brightly-coloured plastic play equipment in their playground but I suspect it’s more fun.

For the fourth and final week in Istanbul we visited the neighbourhood of Eyup. Well, I say neighbourhood but to be honest, we really only explored one thing there – its hugely significant mosque complex. After Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem, Eyup is the fourth holiest Islamic site in the world. Given that Istanbul is so deeply Muslim despite its glitzy bits, I thought it sounded like a good place to finish. And it was. We met young boys in their glamorous pre-circumcision outfits, hung out in the Ladies Section of the mosque and were force-fed Turkish Delight. Okay, that last bit isn’t true.  

So what did I find beyond the postcard clichés? History that seems visible at almost every turn but a challenging future in terms of preserving some of that past. Aside from that, an intriguing mix of east and west, and an incredibly warm people. Although Coco could do without the endless cheek pinching and I’m not a fan of Istanbul’s cranky taxi-drivers. They’re an absolute shocker.

See you in a month’s time, in Paris.

Follow Louise and Coco weekly at www.52suburbs.com