Though every urban settlement must withstand the violent winds of change, few have experienced as brutal a blow as the Istanbul neighborhood of Aksaray. The chief transport hub of the Turkish city’s historic peninsula, Aksaray is an ominous ode to modernization. A century ago, it was an oasis of handsome hammams and marble mosques, a semirural haven whose enormous “bostan,” or garden, grew the city’s celebrated cucumbers and lettuce, fruits of the earth that drank the alluvial waters of the Lycus river as it flowed into the Marmara Sea.
Today, Aksaray is a bewildering mishmash of six-lane boulevards, buses, bottle shops and cement blocks. Its bostan is a concrete blacktop, while the Lycus is a gridlocked underpass.
The neighborhood’s demography has also changed radically. Though Istanbul has always been diverse, Aksaray was for centuries the quintessential “middle-class Muslim” quarter, home to a host of Ottoman educators, civil servants and religious scholars. Educated, if never posh, it was here that “proper Istanbul Turkish” emerged, writes İlber Ortayli, the historian and patron saint of Ottoman saudade. Today, you can be hard-pressed to find a native speaker. If the neighborhood was 90% Turkish only 20 years ago, today it is 70% foreigners, reckons Hüseyin Ustaoğlu, who has represented the district since 1994. The vast majority are off the books, he maintains, migrants from every corner of Africa and Eurasia.
Since the end of the Cold War, when merchants began pouring in from the former Eastern Bloc, via the neighboring civil wars of the past decade, Aksaray has become the beating heart of Turkey’s foreign-born community.
If the first outsiders came from Eastern Europe to deal in Turkey’s lucrative trade in cheap textiles, later waves have come to escape conflict and economic collapse en route to scaling Fortress Europe. In this bewildering Babel, you’re more likely to hear Arabic, Russian, Turkmen, Georgian, Amharic or Urdu than Turkish. Ahmet, a Syrian engineer who fled here a decade ago, sums it up nicely: “Aksaray is the place where no Turkish is spoken.” The only natives of Turkey here are Kurds, and most of them want out, too.
If it’s a far cry from Eden, at least the rest of Istanbul is at its residents’ fingertips. The terminus of Istanbul’s first two metro lines, Aksaray is also at the heart of the city’s world-class transportation network. In addition to Istanbul’s most-used tramway, the district has the Marmaray, a 48-mile light rail linking Europe with Asia; the IDO ferry hub, which connects Istanbul to the Marmara Sea; the Eurasia Tunnel, a three-mile underwater marvel from Thrace to Anatolia; and the notorious “otogar,” a sad but boisterous little bus station built over the last bostan in the 1990s. With hourly beelines to the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, Aksaray is as easy to flee as it is to forsake.
If nostalgia is often the favored mood in writing about Istanbul, it’s worth remembering that Constantinople — as it used to be called — could be merciless. A vital square in Roman days, when it was known as the Forum Bovis (Forum of the Ox), Aksaray was then best known as a place of public executions. Perched at the intersection of the Mese (“middle”), Constantinople’s largest thoroughfare, and the Lycus river, Bovis took its name from a large bronze pagan statue of a bull, brought from Pergamon in Asia Minor. It was here that social unfortunates were given over to the “brazen bull” technique — that is, inserted into the bronze statue and roasted alive, a tradition that made saints and martyrs of several important Anatolian Christians.
Forum Bovis was even more crucial to trade than torture. In addition to being the city’s chief cattle and horse market, it also hosted goods from the Harbor of Theodosius, which imported the bulk of Constantinople’s wine and grain for 300 years. Built to serve the ever-growing Roman capital, the port, coterminous with present-day Yenikapi, also housed a famous prison that doubled as a breakwater. Byzantines called this Belisarius Tower, after briefly confining therein the great general who reconquered the western Roman empire from the Goths and Vandals. Turks called it Priests’ Tower, after the several Armenian clerics detained inside.
Yet the harbor also had a silt problem. By the 11th century, it was filled up altogether. Thus was born Vlanga, one of the medieval world’s largest gardens. Greek for “outside the city walls,” the Turks simplified this to Langa, a name still borne by large swaths of Aksaray to this day. Divided into two, Big and Little Langa, the latter was still producing vegetables until the end of the 20th century, when the last of it was paved over to make way for the bus station.
A stone’s throw away, incredible remains of the Theodosian port were unearthed during excavations for the Yenikapi Metro in 2004. As well as finding 34 boats and 25,000 artifacts, archeologists dug up millennium-old shipping ropes, iron anchors and hundreds of amphorae, or wine jars — further proof, if any were needed, that the people of Aksaray have been having fun much longer than in most places.
It was only after the Ottoman conquest in the 15th century that Aksaray became one of Istanbul’s first great Muslim neighborhoods. Soon after the Turks took the Byzantine capital, Muslim settlement began circa 1470 around Murat Pasha Mosque, a handsome religious complex built in honor of Hass Murad Pasha, a nephew of the last Byzantine emperor who switched sides and helped Sultan Mehmed conquer Constantinople. Around his mosque, Turks were brought in from the town of Aksaray in Central Anatolia to help populate the new Muslim capital, lending the name of their home to their new neighborhood.
Since so-called “külliyes” of this kind were the civic centers of the new majority-Muslim city, Aksaray was soon bustling. Unlike European cities, where neighborhoods were divided by class, Turkish ones followed the village model: a residential cluster of rich, poor and the middle class all living in close proximity around a mosque, butcher, coffeehouse and grocery. This, says Murat Belge, made Ottoman Istanbul a society or collection of villages; a social reality that, against great odds, survives in much of the city to this day.
Aksaray also lay directly between two other great early Ottoman additions to Constantinople: the new Grand Bazaar, around which thousands of merchants and manufacturers soon sprung up, and the great mosque complexes of Davud Paşa, Koca Mustafa Paşa and Cerrahpaşa (all built in the 15th and 16th centuries). As the gateway to the city’s new Muslim heart, Aksaray would spend the next 500 years straddling the middle ground between faith and commerce.
Topping these off was the Haseki Sultan Külliyesi (completed 1539), the first mosque complex commissioned by a woman, Hürrem Sultan, a Ruthenian slave girl who won Suleyman the Magnificent’s affections before dominating the Ottoman world for three decades. A product of Istanbul’s slave trade, which bought and sold 20,000 souls a year, Hürrem herself had been purchased in Aksaray’s Avret Bazaar, the capital’s chief female slave market. One of her first acts after ascending the throne was to raze Avret to the ground and hire Mimar Sinan, who would eventually become the empire’s greatest architect, to erect his first imperial mosque on its ashes.
Bound together as a location by religion, statecraft and commerce, it should come as little surprise that Aksaray was also home to one of the capital’s largest communities of Janissaries. A pillar of the Ottoman deep state for 300 years, these were the shock troops of the “devshirme” system, the levy of Christian boys from the Balkans to supply the future palace and army elite. While these Greek, Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian and Albanian boys were responsible for many of the empire’s early conquests, it wasn’t long before they formed dangerous peacetime rackets of their own.
In Aksaray, for example, they took over the trade in water — a profitable business in a city perpetually wracked by fire. “It might have seemed that Aksaray had a fondness for fires,” writes the historian Necdet İşli, rather wryly. With Janissaries in charge of local fire brigades, the gang did well out of these “red holidays.” Not only did they charge top “para” to put out the blazes; they often made off with the contents of the households, too.
Their headquarters was the Horhor Fountain, a Byzantine fountain that flows to this day. As the source of their income, the fountain became something sacred among local toughs. Water from Horhor, a Turkish onomatopoeia for “roar of the water,” was also traded in kind. Though the Janissaries were disbanded and destroyed in 1826, many of their descendants remained in the neighborhood. Well into the last century, Aksaray’s largest laboring demographic was “all those who dealt with the ancient fountains and water conduits,” said İşli. Though no one charges for it today, the Horhor still hums. On a warm spring evening, a young Afghan can be seen here having a twilight shave.
With or without janissaries, still the fires flickered. In 1854, 748 houses in Aksaray went up in flames. With the scent of the “Tanzimat” reforms in the air, policymakers were craving large-scale urban renewal. Fresh from redesigning central Smyrna after its own disastrous blaze, the Italian engineer Luigi Storari was called in to remake the area. In addition to clearing the way for Istanbul’s first horse-drawn tramway, he also made room for the Pertevniyal Valide Mosque for the mother of Abdülaziz, the most pro-European Ottoman monarch. Designed by the celebrated Armenian architect, Sarkis Balyan, the mosque was a combination of Moorish, Turkish, Gothic, Renaissance and French Imperial, marks of the ideological transition underway.
If Aksaray remained a traditional residential neighborhood well into the 20th century, fire and transportation had long been paving the path of its transformation during the republican era. If infrastructure was one constant, so too were some demographic facts, notably the age-old proximity of large Greek and Armenian communities in nearby Kumkapi and Yenikapi. Nowhere was this clearer than in Sandikburnu, a small quarter squeezed between today’s Aksaray Metro and the Yenikapi ferry terminal.
When large excavations were carried out up the hill from Sandikburnu to make way for Laleli Mosque (1757), the architects had to do something with all the dirt. So they filled in the area just beyond the old Theodosian harbor and invited the Karagümrük Armenians to settle there. The community had a storied relationship with the Sublime Porte. When Mehmed the Conqueror took Crimea in 1475, he encountered a large group of Turkish-speaking Armenians. Whether these were Turkified Armenians or Christianized Turks, no one knew. But they were invited to settle in Istanbul, where they soon left their mark. In addition to introducing the first printing press to the Ottoman capital, they later founded Sandikburnu.
Though the first generation of its beautiful homes burned down in 1782, they kept rebuilding — and entertaining. By the late 19th century, the Karagümrük quarter had become a famous waterfront bonanza of cafes and bars, tea gardens, nightclubs and summer cinemas. “For at least three centuries, this had been the scene of night clubs and tavernas and modest houses where the sound of music and the odor of alcoholic beverages was constant,” writes İşli. And this was hardly for minorities alone. It was in Sandikburnu that Hafiz Hüsnü Efendi, a prominent Ottoman statesman and religious leader, would host his famous raki gatherings after conducting the day’s final imperial prayer service.
With Sandikburnu’s famous drinking culture emerged a celebrated criminal underground, too. “To behave in a manner that violated their customs would result in direct or indirect undesirable countermeasures,” wrote Ahmet Rasim, a noted Ottoman journalist. Though this seaside underworld disappeared in the 1960s, it is still fondly remembered. “With the disappearance of the toughs of Aksaray,” laments İşli, “the former lifting of cups and the traditional comradeship among local tradesmen has also vanished.”
Seen in this light, the transformation of Aksaray into Turkey’s predominant migrant hub is not so radical a change. Since the moment the Ottomans entered Istanbul, the neighborhood was filled with forced migrants from Aksaray in Central Anatolia; Armenians from Crimea; Janissaries from the Balkans; and merchants from the world over seeking their fortunes in the Grand Bazaar. Its bleaker side was ever-present, too. From its Roman execution square to an Ottoman female slave market, Aksaray has always dabbled in the darker side of human affairs.
What differs today is its social anomie and enfeebling built environment. Though several Ottoman ruins remain, most of Aksaray’s handsome traditional architecture has been replaced by cheap hotels, textile stalls, seedy nightclubs and stinky kebab joints. Even its markets have moved underground to make way for Istanbul’s three largest avenues, great passageways of paralysis that have destroyed the old pedestrian culture. “The incompatibility between the pedestrian enjoying a humane urban environment and the simple existence of a fast moving metallic gadget still awaits an answer,” laments Doğan Kuban in his book “Istanbul: An Urban History.”
As a result, Aksaray is a rare space in the Turkish metropolis where neither trust, social pressure nor the police state keeps the peace. Though Istanbul is hardly dangerous by Western standards, Aksaray might have the worst reputation in the city. Unlike other tough neighborhoods, even its residents don’t bother defending it. “It’s a very bad area!” says Muhammad Demir, a 25-year-old hotel clerk who moved here a year ago from Mardin in southeast Turkey. “Nothing but thieves. And too many blacks! They’re nothing like the ones I saw on TV growing up.”
Yet Aksaray also contains a promise. “It’s very international,” beams Mohammad Sakib, a grocer from Lahore. “And very cheap! Everyone sells everything. It’s one big wholesale market. I love it here.” Sakib, who works at a South Asian grocery, came to Turkey in 2020 to seek a better life for his wife and two children. “We came because it’s got the same culture as Pakistan, the same traditions and family structure. We wanted a better future in a Muslim country.”
While Aksaray is anything but family-oriented, it does offer many a convenient stepping-stone. Take Meryem, a teacher from Addis Ababa who arrived here last spring. In her mid-30s, she fled to Turkey after Ethiopia’s civil war threatened to engulf her native city. Leaving behind a 14-year-old son, she settled in Aksaray. “It’s easy here for foreigners. Everything was very cheap.” Though she would rather live elsewhere, she likes her job at a small Aksaray cafe that does a brisk business for patrons from the Horn, even if it’s all she does. “Eat, sleep, and work,” she says. “But it’s better than a war.”
Burhan and Slavina, who run a basement antiquities shop around the corner, take a more long-term view. While Burhan is one of the rare middle-class Turks to remain in Aksaray, Slavina is from Istanbul’s small Orthodox Bulgarian minority. “It’s good when cultures mix!” beams Slavina. “That’s what produces ideas, improvements and reforms.”
Burhan is less sanguine. “When I came up it was a prim and proper neighborhood, full of Istanbul ‘hanimefendisi,’” or high-class ladies. The son of a local legend, he should know. After retiring from Turkey’s national football team, Burhan’s father ran a small neighborhood casino in Aksaray. A renowned dandy, he took an hour to get dressed each morning. “He had a strict limit on how much you could lose each night! The ‘belli elli,’ or 50 liras. Afterward, he’d dole out money to all the neighborhood ‘gariban,’” or local poor. “Many who came wouldn’t even gamble, they’d just dress up and gossip. There was booze, of course, but never drugs or interest-bearing loans. That whole world is gone now; we’re the ones who destroyed it.”
Like other port towns from Marseille to Mong Kok, Aksaray offers a kaleidoscopic view of the human condition. Perched between borrowed grace and delayed perdition, even its best-off residents are unambivalent. “This place is a shithole!” says Burhan. “The best thing they could do is knock it all down and start anew.” Easy for him to say: He owns property and employs a dozen illegal workers from Iran, North Africa and Central Asia. Yet others are also of the same opinion. From Hüseyin the Muhtar to Hasan Firat, the richest merchant in Horhor, an upscale antique market, everyone says the same thing: The only way to save Aksaray is to destroy it.
It wouldn’t be the first time. In addition to the great fires of 1782, 1854, 1890 and 1911, Aksaray was refashioned by the election of Prime Minister Adnan Menderes. During his decade in power (1950-1960), more was spent on modernizing Istanbul than the rest of Turkey put together. “Like the Ottoman sultans,” writes Kuban, “Menderes poured the entire resources of the country into the reconstruction of Istanbul.” No fewer than 7,289 buildings and monuments were expropriated and demolished during his tenure, a creative spate of destruction largely centered on Aksaray.
Like the cities reduced to rubble by America’s interstate highway system, the heart of Aksaray was pulverized to make way for historic Istanbul’s three largest roads: Avenue of the Fatherland, Avenue of the Nation and Ataturk Boulevard. In addition to forcing out many of its oldest inhabitants, the avenues “brought all the traffic of Thracian Turkey directly into the core of the old city,” writes Kuban. “These broad avenues ended at Aksaray, and destroyed it.” A few blocks further south, the ancient city walls and seaside beaches were leveled to make way for the Kennedy coastal road.
Yet out of this destruction arose a new phenomenon in Turkey: a den of modern vice in a historically Muslim neighborhood. If Istanbul had been no stranger to cinemas, tavernas, dance halls, bars and discotheques, these had always been limited to non-Muslim neighborhoods. In Aksaray, secular modernity now entered through the front door.
In Menderes’ defense, he did what he promised to do: make Turkey and Istanbul a “little America.” Rather than a chicken in every pot, Menderes promised a “millionaire in every neighborhood.” Though the big profits would have to wait until Turgut Özal took power in 1980, Menderes came close to putting a car on every road and a drink on every table. Before long, Aksaray was a beating heart of modern Turkish culture. In addition to hugely popular cinemas, it was home to many of Istanbul’s most beloved “gazinos,” or nightclubs, where the country’s biggest names played to sold-out crowds.
People did more than flock in from all over Istanbul to catch a show. As well as an older demographic of pharmacists, blacksmiths, marble cutters, bakers, pudding shop owners and taverna operators, the rich and famous often lived here, too. “It was a little Beyoğlu by the sea,” says Mustafa Yoker, a historian who grew up nearby. “The richest, most polite and famous people all lived here when I arrived in Istanbul,” adds Ahmet, a shopkeeper from Mardin who moved here in the early 1990s. “Cüneyt Arkin, Fatma Girik — you name it. Now they all live in Nişantai, Cihangir, Şişli,” richer quarters further north.
Like almost everywhere in the 1970s, this bright modernist spring soon festered into fall. For one thing, the influx of cars made Aksaray insufferable. From a mere 3,000 in 1945, there came to be 100,000 vehicles on Istanbul’s streets by 1970 and 742,000 in 1980. Yoker contrasts this with an idyllic childhood in which everyone walked. “There were so few cars that we all stopped to study their make: Şevrole, Biyik, Doyç and Ford!” (That is, Chevrolet, Buick, Dodge and Ford.) “As 6-7 year-olds, we walked to the beach in Yenikapi each afternoon. Anything else was unthinkable.”
By the late ’70s, however, the beaches had been closed, the roads clogged and the cinemas showed pornography. The same bright new boulevards that had once brought eager punters into Aksaray now whisked them away to the suburbs. The icing on the cake was a vast overpass erected in 1972 over Aksaray Square, obliterating its last open public space. Like countless North American cities, Aksaray was sacrificed on the altar of the automobile.
Nationalism played its part, too. For if Aksaray had been Muslim, nearby Kumkapi and Yenikapi had important Greek and Armenian populations. “The nightclubs along the sea were mostly opened by Armenians,” says Yoker, “and many of their proudest patrons were non-Muslims, too.”
That all changed with the events of Sept. 6-7, 1955; a bloody, state-sponsored social revolution in which Istanbul’s non-Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship were targeted for destruction. Though Aksaray was spared, nearby Kumkapi, home to the Armenian Patriarchate in Turkey since 1461, was not. Hundreds of homes were broken into and countless women violated. Though most of Kumkapi’s residents refused to leave Turkey, they sought refuge in areas considered safer, such as Beyoğlu, Kurtuluş, Bakirköy and Yeşilköy.
For Aksaray and the historic peninsula of Istanbul, the “cleansing” had a major unintended effect. While it was one thing to Turkify the bourgeoisie, as the republic had long been at pains to do, it was another to vacate entire ancient quarters overnight. As was often the case with mid-century “slum clearance,” Turkey’s social engineering backfired. Once the educated, middle-class Greeks and Armenians moved out, the urbane Muslims did, too. “Who wants to live amongst peasants and ruffians?” asks one middle-class holdout. Yet unlike Detroit or St. Louis, legions of newcomers were dying to get in, too.
“No one chooses Aksaray!” jokes Karim, an Iranian who moved here in the early 1980s. “When you leave everything behind, you take whatever you can get.” The longtime manager of Asuman, Aksaray’s best Iranian restaurant, Karim moved here from Tehran after 1979. “But I wasn’t running; I was already going to leave.” Indeed, Karim had studied politics and economics in England before the revolution, when Iranian passports were among the most coveted. After 1979, however, only Turkey’s door remained open. Like thousands of other Iranians, he found himself in Aksaray.
“I only lived here for a week!” he says with pride. “Nobody who works here actually lives here.” After 1979, however, that was no longer the case. With a large empty housing stock and close proximity to textile factories in Laleli and the Grand Bazaar, Aksaray was a perfect choice. Granted visa-free entry in 1980, more than 1.5 million Iranians passed through Turkey in the 1980s. Iranian travel agents, restaurants, grocery stores and cargo houses sprouted up, too.
By 1985, Aksaray and Laleli were known as Little Tehran. Like Turkey more broadly today, Aksaray became an important transit-point for skirting Western sanctions, with cargo companies giving legal cover for shipping machinery, airplane parts and other sanctioned materials into Iran. As one BBC report showed, only 10% of Iran-destined cargo from a typical Aksaray-based shipping firm was legal.
Then came the end of the Cold War. As soon as the Iron Curtain fell, a flood of Eastern European wholesalers rushed in, chiefly from Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia and Moldova. “That’s why I pity the Russians!” exclaims Hasip, a 34-year-old architect whose family ran a textile shop here in the 1990s. “They had to learn capitalism from the Turks!” Though the first arrivals came to trade in textiles, practitioners of the oldest profession were present, too. “The first foreigners were Russians,” says Zeynep, a woman in her mid-30s who grew up in Aksaray. “We considered all Russians prostitutes, and all prostitutes Russian. Though we tend to refer to anyone from Eastern Europe as Russian, so I could be wrong.”
Eastern European merchants and sex workers were soon followed by a stream of Caucasian migrants, who brought in their wake yet another wave of alcohol, drugs and prostitution. “Worst of all are the Georgians!” a tea seller, Sedat Oruç, told a local paper at the time. “Once the Romanians and Bulgarians got into the EU, they stopped coming to Turkey, and much worse people took their place. The Caucasians are penniless and do nothing but drink chacha (Georgian brandy) all day. That’s why they’re fearless and take all the most dangerous jobs.”
Tipsy or not, these new legions would not have come without a major transformation in the Turkish economy: the neoliberal revolution carried out by Turgut Özal. “Before Özal, it was illegal to have more than $50 in your pocket!” says Hasan Fırat, an antiquarian at Aksaray’s famous Horhor Antique Market. Though untrue, his statement captures the zeitgeist. “Özal was the first to open the Turkish economy. Followed by [current President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan.”
Born in a village in Bayburt province in Eastern Anatolia, Fırat reckons his stock of antiques is now worth $5-6 million. “At first, we got our wares from Istanbul’s minorities. They had an appreciation for classical objects.” By the 1990s, the minorities were gone. “Now I have to go to France and Italy.” Men like Fırat embody the new opportunities made possible after Özal and the September 1980 coup. Turkish society took a destructive nosedive, which not only banned most politicians but prevented artists, writers and filmmakers from plying their trades and sent thousands of intellectuals into exile. Still, the economy boomed.
Under a strict neoliberal diet, Turkey depreciated the lira, lifted interest-rate ceilings and exchange controls, liberalized price controls, hiked prices on state-made products, removed subsidies, crushed the unions and depressed industrial and agricultural wages. In the first year alone, Turkish exports grew by 55%. By 1987, the economy was growing by 9.5% per annum, the fastest rate in Europe. Textiles, which account for 16% of Turkish employment today, did particularly well, especially the shoe factories in nearby Laleli.
The Laleli factories shaped the fortunes of Ahmet, who moved here as an adolescent. With war raging in his native province of Mardin between the Turkish army and Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militants, he followed his uncle to Istanbul in 1994. The latter had a convenience store at Aksaray’s Balkan Bazaar, a textile market catering to Eastern Europeans. After a stint as a handcart courier, a typical Aksaray entry-level job, Ahmet worked in a Laleli shoe factory for 12 years. By 2013, he had saved enough to add to the family empire and open his own business. “Now we have 20 stores across Aksaray.”
Yet even Ahmet is of the same opinion as most. “I’m very optimistic about the neighborhood. But the state must do three things: close the bus station, shut the nightclubs and limit the number of foreigners. Then knock it all down and rebuild it anew! I mean, think about it: this place has everything. The best hospitals, the best public transport, the best location in the city. Aksaray is the very heart of Istanbul — of all of Eurasia! But only urban renewal can save it.” He repeats the two most controversial words in Istanbul Turkish. “Kentsel dönüşüm!” (“Urban renewal!”)
“We betrayed this city,” President Erdoğan famously said in 2017. “And we betray it still.” Speaking of Istanbul’s pathological inability to protect its architectural heritage over the past half a century, it was a brave admission from a man who had himself overseen much of the city’s transformation since the 1990s. But it also masked the city’s remarkable infrastructural achievements, many of which originated in Aksaray.
Between 1988 and 2014, the neighborhood became home to Istanbul’s most important metro hub, its largest ferry terminal, its most modern tram and an underground tunnel connecting the city’s two continents — “the culmination of a 150-year-old dream,” as locals are often heard to say.
Any of these alone would have transformed the fabric of the neighborhood. Together, they rendered it unrecognizable. If Erdoğan boldly continued these infrastructural projects, they had not begun with him. Nor had Turkey’s open-door migration policies. What did occur on his watch was the internationalization of the Syrian civil war, which eventually brought over 3 million Syrians to Turkey, some 550,000 of them in Istanbul.
Yet it was not just Syrians who transformed the neighborhood. It was also fighters from all over the world en route to Syria who briefly made the Turkish metropolis the McJihad equivalent of 1930s Barcelona. “The whole neighborhood changed when Turkey started letting jihadis pass through Istanbul,” says Adem, a man from Erzurum in Eastern Anatolia who works at one of Aksaray’s oldest motels. “It became a huge crossing point for North Africans in particular.”
Though the ferocity of the Syrian war has diminished, many of its offspring remain. Ahmed and Fevzi, for example, came to Istanbul from Aleppo a decade ago. Though they now live in Şirinevler, a bustling suburb six miles to the east, they still take the train into Aksaray each day. An eloquent charmer, Ahmet is an e-commerce fashion photographer for plus-size Moldovans by day and an MMA fighter by night. “I’m also taking [artificial intelligence] classes,” he smiles, “which is why my English is so good.” His friend Fevzi, who has bright green eyes and a flaming red beard, is a central heating engineer who thrives on word-of-mouth referrals. “I move every two to three years to gain a larger clientele. Here’s my card.”
As Turkey has gone global in the past two decades, so have its visitors, merchants and migrants. Between 2002 and 2021, for example, it opened 31 new embassies across Africa. Farah, a 27-year-old engineer from Somalia, is living proof. “Turkey was always my parents’ first choice for university,” he says at a crowded Ethiopian cafe in Aksaray. “It has a similar culture and food. Growing up, we always loved Turkish TV. Especially Ask-i Memnu,” a wildly popular soap from the early 2000s about Istanbul’s rich and beautiful.
After graduating from Şehir University, a private university both founded and shuttered by the government between 2008 and 2020, Farah landed work in a carpet factory in Gaziantep near the Syrian border. “I worked 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., six days a week. Me and lots of Syrians.” Though he’s grateful to Turkey and its people and institutions, work conditions were unpleasant. “All my Turkish friends want out, too. Hopefully I’ll join my brother in Riverside, Minneapolis,” aka “Little Mogadishu.” “He’s a truck driver with five beautiful children who makes good money. I’ll do whatever it takes to get there,” he smiles. “Even marriage!”
Whatever Farah’s disenchantment, ties between Turkey and Somalia have blossomed in recent years. In addition to running the port and airport in Mogadishu, Turkey has also become the most popular destination for Somalis seeking higher education and healthcare. “You see that park over there?” asks Abdi, a young Somali in the courtyard of Murat Pasha Mosque. “We call that ‘Little Minneapolis,’ for all the American Somalis who come here for hair transplants.” Memories may be Turkey’s largest export, as an American journalist once said, but bloody scalps are not far behind.
“Aksaray gets an unfairly bad reputation,” says Zeynep. “Mostly because social media likes to fixate on negative things and exaggerate them. But it’s true that many Turks are wary about how many refugees we have. Not that I mind! I’m grateful for the help the Arabs gave us during the War of Independence,” she says, misattributing the support received by Ataturk’s nationalists from the Bolsheviks in the Greco-Turkish War. “But the people leading our state have accepted them, whether or not we have.”
Therein lies the crux: the rapidly dwindling support for Erdoğan’s open-door policies. At nearly 5 million, Turkey hosts the largest refugee population on earth. For many, this is a good thing: a source of cheap labor and, according to liberal fears, support for Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) at the polls. Yet, with elections looming, even government backers are beginning to clamor for Syrians’ resettlement. “Erdoğan’s already built homes for 500,000 of them [in Turkish-controlled Syria],” says Hasan the antiquarian. “Once he’s gotten rid of them, he’ll send a million more.”
Irfat, a 27-year-old Uyghur from China’s Xinjiang province, is luckily on the right side of current Turkish sympathies. Even if Ankara no longer confronts Beijing over its policies in “East Turkestan,” Istanbul is thought to harbor more Uyghur exiles than anywhere on earth. Though Irfat’s mother was a civil servant and his sister a doctor, they moved to Turkey in 2010 to secure him a better future. Like Farah, the engineer from Somalia, he graduated from Şehir University, though now helps his mother with the family business, a chain of bustling Uyghur restaurants, the most successful of which is in Aksaray.
“Things were so good before the pandemic, I drove a Mercedes!” he recalls. “But now I’m back to a Kia.” With flawless Mandarin and delicious Middle Kingdom recipes, most of Irfat’s customers were Chinese tourists. “They came straight to our restaurant from the airport! We easily had 400-500 Chinese customers per day.” Though he shares a religion, language and now a passport with Turks, the latter are notoriously skeptical about non-Turkish food. So with China under lock and key, his main clientele has disappeared. “We’re hanging on by a thread thanks to Chinese students and businessmen visiting from Europe.”
Such is the promise and precarity of Aksaray’s place at the crossroads. When China, the Middle East, Russia or East Africa sneezes, Aksaray catches a cold. “After the ruble collapsed in 2014,” recalls a merchant, “half the businesses here went under!”
Fortunately, this logic goes the other way, too. Sasha, a Russian-Chechen software programmer who works for a German multinational, moved to Aksaray from Moscow in March. Though Turkish immigration authorities have become tougher in the past six months, he got a residency permit and apartment in less than two weeks. While he’s grateful, his goal, like many in these parts, is Germany. As Irfat says, “Aksaray is a place of migration: You stay for a bit and then go on to the next thing.”
“Aksaray is a glimpse of what Istanbul could have been,” says Olof Heilo, a Byzantine historian and Director of the Swedish Institute in Istanbul. “A place where everything’s in Cyrillic, English and Arabic; a great cosmopolitan mix where all are welcome.” This is what the city was for so many centuries, and could be still.
Which is not to discount its darker side. It’s “where the enterprising and the desperate connect,” as the journalist Mehmet Dinç put it. “Every group of traffickers has its agents here,” a resident tells me. “These for Italy and those for Greece. People work until they’ve enough for the passage and then go. Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don’t.”
As countries and economies around it collapse, Turkey proves time and again that it’s the America of the Old World, or at least its Ellis Island. Whether it wants to be this is one of the defining questions of the day. At a recent far-right rally in Turkey, protestors held up two banners. The first read, in English: “Do you speak Turkish?” as if to mock the ignorant foreigner. The second responds, in Turkish: “Down with hospitality!”
If quaint by far-right standards, the resentment it represents is real and on the rise. This is especially the case among the young and educated, many of whom have watched their Euro-dreams from the early Erdoğan years go up in smoke since the lira began its calamitous collapse in 2018. “Not a single person in their 20s is happy in this country,” says May, a 30-year-old Somali who moved here from Mogadishu in 2015. Add to this runaway inflation, the spiraling cost of living and the world’s largest refugee population, and the recipe for strife in the lead-up to next June’s presidential election is real.
Somehow, many in Aksaray are not flustered. “Everything’s gonna work out just fine,” says Zeynep, who recently landed work in a local call center. How does she know? By citing an old song from the father of Anatolian rock. “Bariş Manço said it would be!”
Hüseyin is similarly bullish. “Aksaray may be lost, but I’m very hopeful for Istanbul.” Why? “Because to be anything else is to lose the will to live.”
It’s reminiscent of something William James once wrote. “By their fruits ye shall know them, not by their roots.” The same might be said for Aksaray and Istanbul. “Today I’m far more Turkish than Iranian,” says Karim, who moved here from Tehran in 1979 and married a Turkish woman. “My kids refuse to speak to me in Farsi!” Burhan, son of the dandy footballer-bookie, agrees. “Aksaray is a little America! Or at least it should be by now.” Nuh, a local taxi driver, minces even fewer words. “Turkey’s always taken in everyone,” he says with compassion and resignation. “And it always will.”