It’s surprising how, for such a gigantic city, Istanbul can feel remarkably village like, once you have spent more than a day in one area. I have had no shortage of bizarre experiences since arriving here and this random encounter was one of the sweetest.
Last weekend, as I was setting off to buy a washing machine for our new apartment in Galata with my boyfriend Oli and his stepfather Cem, I noticed a large Victorian-looking chimney opposite the entrance to the Füniküler Tünel on lower Istiklal. No sooner had I asked Cem what the building was used for, than I found myself being led inside. As we entered, an extraordinarily jolly looking man, with a dusty blue coat and undeniably Poirot-esque moustache enthusiastically beckoned us to follow him. He looked familiar to me somehow, like a loveable character from some old black and white movie; his salt and pepper whiskers gave him an air of Ottoman gentry and the deep laughter-lines around his eyes rendered his broad smile infectious. His appearance was almost comical in contrast with the cosmopolitan buzz of Istiklal high street. We followed him through a narrow doorway and down some stone steps into a cluttered office brimming with old factory papers and other gubbins. The man’s small, beady eyes sparkled with pride as he presented his office to us, gesturing for us to take a seat. The stuffy room resembled a snapshot of a 1970s detective drama, every surface covered in dust and each random and archaic object drenched in the nostalgic glow of the lazy afternoon sun.
Once seated, the old man introduced himself. His name was Gokhan and he worked in the small maintenance office for the Tünel service. He spoke rapidly in Turkish and looked to Cem for the English translation. His voice was deep and husky and resonated through the small room, muffled by his thick moustache, like an engine warming up. His eyes glistened with the manic excitement of a child on Christmas morning as he told us the entire history of the Tünel. He relayed how the original Tünel was inaugurated in 1875 and that it is the second oldest underground system in the world. He spoke of how, in the days of Ottoman Empire, people used to work in the low Galata, which was the centre for Istanbul’s trade, stock exchange and customs industry, and how they lived in hotels and lodgings in the uphill area of Pera. As there was only one steep and narrow route up the hill, workers had to transport their goods up the 60-meter climb every day. Gokhan explained how, under the instruction of Abdülaziz – the 32nd sultan of the Ottoman Empire, the French engineer Eugène-Henri Gavand designed an alternative way of connecting the two districts of, then, Constantinople. The underground funicular spanned across 573 metres, with two stations on either end, uniting the quarters of Karaköy and Beyoğlu.
Talking about the history of his beloved Tünel evidently invigorated Gokhan and he continued at length, pausing only to let Cem explain the latest stream of information to us. Gokhan described how when the Tünel was first built, people didn’t trust that it was safe and so for several months it was only used to transport animals and other cargo. He recalled that there had once been an accident on the Tünel; due to a tear in one of the cords the free falling train had gathered momentum as it sped down the hill and had crashed into the shop in the streets below, crushing a man to death. But this didn’t prevent the Tünel from becoming the popular form of transport between Karaköy and Beyoğluin, not to mention one of Istanbul’s many historical landmarks.
As I listened to Gokhan speak so passionately on the topic, my eyes scanned the cluttered room. I wondered whether it was in fact some kind of Tünel museum, conveniently situated opposite the entrance to the functioning Funicular. However, this was not the case. Gokhan told the story of the Tünel on his own time, doubtless to any passer by willing to listen. Maintaining the Tünel was clearly not only Gokhan’s livelihood; it was also a personal connection to his Ottoman heritage. He went on with fanatical enthusiasm about how the Tünel had always been special for Istanbul, particularly Beyoglu, because at the time of its construction the radically ambitious underground system had symbolised the progressiveness and of modernity of Istanbul as a world power. It was obvious that, for Gokhan, the Tünel still represented the sense of pride he felt to belong to a country with such a rich and well-documented history. He seemed to have an unquenchable, almost desperate desire to share the tale of the Tünel with others, particularly foreigners, and to educate them on Turkey’s achievements. Like the archaic Tünel’s structure, Gohkan himself seemed to belong to another time entirely; his possessions, clothing, mannerism, facial features, and even his haircut appeared to belong to a bygone era. Perhaps this is due to the fact that while Istanbul’s construction industry is booming around him – the most contemporary structures including luxury hotels, plush office complexes and mammoth sky-scrapes complete with roof-top swimming pools and golf-courses – Gokhan spends his life underground, dedicated to preserving constructions of the past. Turkish people are, and have always been, extremely proud of their unique and pioneering underground transportation systems; the most recent focus of Turkey’s engineering feats is the celebrated Marmaray train, which runs under the Bosphorus itself.
Despite the slightly strange experience of receiving a spontaneous industrial lecture from a perfect stranger, meeting and talking with Gokhan was a sheer Turkish delight! We stayed in his poky office for the best part of an hour and I got the feeling he wouldn’t have minded if we had stayed forever. His excitement in sharing his passion with “yabancilar” (foreigners) was genuinely heart-warming. Having lived in Istanbul for a month now, I have become accustomed to Turkish peoples overtly lavish hospitality. Yet, the enthusiasm with which Gokhan took us under his wing that afternoon, whilst being rather intense, was certainly very generous. And I can safely say, that I have never met a man more proud of a train system. As a newcomer to the city, it is always a great feeling to have the opportunity to experience things spontaneously and for the first time. In that respect, it’s possible that being a new arrival in a place is not dissimilar to being a newborn and seeing everything in total absence of context. Of course, I new a little of Turkey’s Ottoman history before I moved here, but it was great to learn about the specific history of the Tünel from someone who holds it in such high regard.
From now on, whenever I take the underground Funicular, I’ll think of Gokhan, contentedly pottering about, day after day, in his poky time-capsule of an office; quietly continuing to preserve the legend of the Tünel, like a man left behind on the platform, as time goes rushing by.
*A Turkish Delight