Istanbul’s last artisans for Passion Passport

Melancholy is a real affliction for the people of Istanbul. Every day they are reminded of the past when they stroll through the backstreets of Beyoğlu, a neighborhood of neoclassical and Art Nouveau structures once designed by the Ottoman Empire’s prized European architects. They wander down İstiklal Caddesi, once the Grande Rue de Pera, where no one dared to stroll without dressing their finest. Tailor-made suits and silk handkerchiefs, handmade hats and matching gloves, parked Chevrolets reflecting the sunlight. They become somber when getting lost in old neighborhoods like Balat, where the old Rum (Greek Orthodox) schools are visited by only a few, a lot of them having closed their doors for good. But most of all, it’s the city’s last artisans who continue their trade despite the often unforgiving force of time. The last ones of their kind, always ready to share their memories of Istanbul when it was really Istanbul, still practicing their craft because they can’t imagine doing anything else. 

In one of those Beyoğlu backstreets, more specifically Kallavi Sokak, the nostalgic shopfront of Celalettin Benli hasn’t changed much since opening around 60 years ago. Once located inside the historic Hazzopulo Pasajı (Hazzopulo Arcade), Celalettin Bey’s first shop was right next to the perfume shop of Ara Güler’s father. Having learned the trade from a Rum master artisan at a young age, Celalettin Bey’s illustrious tailoring career had him dress six presidents. With a spectrum of pastel-colored garments neatly arranged on the wooden shelves behind him, the artisan puts down his heavy scissors and reminisces about the 1950s when no man would leave the house without first putting on his hat, a tie and, of course, a freshly pressed shirt. 

After taking a left at the entrance of the marble beauty that is the 19th century Three Altars Church, one of Istanbul’s oldest confectionaries appears in another one of Beyoğlu’s bountiful backstreets. Opened in 1926 by Ahmet Fikri Dörtler and now run by his son Feridun, Üç Yıldız Şekerleme continues to produce traditional sweets that soothe the nostalgic city dwellers. Inside traditional glass containers, a whole collection of glistening akide (traditional Turkish hard candies) are always on display, from rose to bergamot, while the more than 180-year old copper containers contain homemade marmalades. However, it’s the shop’s Turkish Delight with mastic from the Greek island of Chios as well as the long forgotten beyaz tatlı, a sweet white paste served on a spoon inside a glass of water, that are most famous. 

Tinkering with time pieces has been a family matter for the Özcans since 1956. After Kemal Özcan passed in 1989, his daughter Yüksel took over the shop, without changing the storefront one bit, including her father’s name on the nostalgic signboard. Inside, among a deluge of spare parts for watches, old black-and-white photos and newspaper clippings seem to have stopped time altogether. A photograph of her father is also still there, as if fondly looking over his daughter who continues to welcome watch enthusiasts who would rather repair than dispose and buy anew. The large atelier, which once produced all its own spare parts, may have been replaced by a smaller workshop upstairs where only watch glass, coil springs and cogwheels are produced by hand, but Yüksel Hanım is still there, ready to share the expertise passed down from her family. 

There’s nothing fancy about the eight-square-meter barbershop of Cavit Bey where loyal customers have been coming in for more than forty years for a close shave or a classic haircut. A real neighborhood barbershop with its nostalgic hand-painted lettering on the storefront window, the Istasyon Berberi Cavit is another piece of Istanbul where things haven’t changed much over the years. Regulars still come here to escape their modern lives, while Cavit Bey, clad in his classic white barber’s jacket and conversing jovially, expertly trims them back to their better selves. From the furry shaving brushes to the straight razor sharpened on a leather strop that hangs by the door, the tiny shop is like a museum with a collection of black-and-white photos of all the customers who have come and gone throughout the years. 

It was because Engin Eroğluer’s father worked as an apprentice for Manol Usta—one of Istanbul’s oldest and most well-known ud master artisans—that his life as a master craftsman himself was destined to be. In his shop in Aksaray, Engin Bey remembers how he rushed to his father’s side at the age of thirteen, learning rapidly and impatiently in his desire to become an ud craftsman too. For more than sixty years he has lived out his true passion, creating the beautiful stringed instrument by hand, with all the details and techniques passed down over generations of equally loving artisans whose old photos still hang on his walls.

Passion Passport
Photos by Deniz Yılmaz Akman

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