Talking to Timur earlier this week I mentioned how nice it was being back in Delhi for the most fleeting of breaks. In particular, I said, it was wonderful to be back in a city that has become really, wonderfully green. A lot of the trees that I saw being planted in the middle of the then barren road dividers when I was in school have now grown up, providing at times a complete canopy of green cover. I live very near the Lodi Gardens, which is a huge privilege and just so wonderful because the area can be so pleasant at times that you can just about forget about the chaos of the city.
I mentioned the trees in particular because seeing that kind of greenery was such a relief and such a break from Istanbul. There are few trees here. In general, what really characterises the lay of the land in this city is its construction. There is so much of it. Because Istanbul is built on hills and spans two continents it affords vistas that other cities might not. What you see are just endless houses. Absolutely endless. Every time I have stop and say, “Wow, there are a lot of people here.” It gets exhausting at times, the endless sea of construction. In the last few months the addition of the heat tired me even more. Hence all the running away to the Aegean.
One of the most frustrating things about being in Istanbul these days is seeing what is happening to the city. There is even more construction going on, the city is expanding even more. Earlier this month, I was working on a short report on the real estate sector in Turkey, Istanbul in particular. It was an exercise in self-induced depression. So much of Turkey’s growth is tied to the construction sector and so much vested interest lies in construction that I fear this city will be destroyed because of it. Some of the new infrastructure projects being undertaken by this government seem so blatantly engineered to aid land speculation and spur construction in as yet sparsely populated areas of the city that I am at times shocked by the sheer shamelessness of those pushing these schemes.
A third bridge is going to be built on the Bosphorous. Because Istanbul has a major traffic problem and to aid the transport of goods that are unloaded at the Black Sea, we are told. This bridge is being built so far up north the Bosphorous that it does not actually connect any of the main inhabited neighbourhoods in Istanbul. What it does do is make land that is forested land easily accessible and more valuable. As for the bit about transport of cargo and goods — apparently that was an excuse used for the second bridge too, but more than 90% of traffic on both bridges is non-commercial. A third airport has also been announced. Also up north towards the Black Sea. And then there is also the Prime Minister’s crazy project, a man-made canal from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara running parallel to the Bosphorous. What all these projects do is use up the city’s much needed and incredibly scarce forested land. It will have even fewer trees.
Timur pointed me to this post; the words of Ahmet Hamdi Tanpinar and what he wrote about Istanbul’s trees in his Beş Şehir (Five Cities).
If there were another beauty in old Istanbul that rivaled the grandeur of architecture, it was the trees. But could this be called a rivalry? If the truth is wanted, trees are our architecture’s and our entire lives’ most generous helper. As much as they know how to complement white marble and chiseled stone, they also know how to agree with a ruined roof, a fountain, its decoration lost to neglect, its basin shattered. They resemble a poem recited in the name of the sun.
After our conversation I went back to my copy of the book and found the section where Tanpinar talks about Istanbul’s trees. At one place he writes that the loss of a tree is like the loss of a big architectural work of art. And yet what remedy is there, he asks, when we have, for centuries, even longer, become used to both.