Mending Wall

Inside of Istanbul's old city wall, a hidden community of craftsmen, food venders, nomads, and old timers carves out a living.

By / December 2011

Smudging sawdust across his sweaty brow, Kemel Künteci takes a well-deserved breather to commend the worth of a hard day’s work. “If a person labors, he earns himself a living,” he says. “If he doesn’t, he earns the wind.” A carpenter by trade, the 78 year old spends more time constructing proverbs than cabinets.

At his small woodworking shop, hidden in a dark cavern inside of Istanbul’s old city wall, Kemel offers wisdom to any who will stop and listen. He has kept shop here for 44 years, just one of the countless individuals who call this ancient wall home. The barrier, which stretches for nearly six kilometers through Istanbul’s Edirnekapı district, dates back to the Romans, who built the elaborate fortification as a way of guarding the city from outside attack. Centuries passed, armies invaded, Istanbul expanded, the city spilling over the wall into the surrounding countryside.

No longer needed for military defense, the wall now attracts the city’s poor and listless, people like Kemel who invade its alcoves in search of shelter and sustenance. In the 21st century, craftsmen, watermelon venders, and nomads are the new sentinels of the ramparts.

Just outside of the Edirnekapı gate, a quarter mile south of Kemel’s shop, on a shallow and somewhat secluded ridge, a family of twelve wakes to the morning sun climbing the eastern wall. The matriarch prepares tea over a gas stove inside a flimsy cardboard box, upright and open. The men lie motionless until the brewed tea is served. Immediately afterward, breakfast — half-rotten peppers and tomatoes collected from grocers willing to help a family in need — is prepared over the same open flame.

As shoeless children huddle around, Hasan, aged 52, speaks up for the clan. “We came here four months ago from Adana, desperate for a new start,” he says, “but there are no jobs to be had in Istanbul. Our future is uncertain.”

By day, the family collects garbage in large pull carts. They rummage for recyclables they might be able to resell. They sell small booklets of Islamic prayers on the streets. By nightfall, they return to take their places on makeshift beds, no shelter around them but for the crumbling wall.

They are not alone. What Kemel, the carpenter, says he loves most about life along the wall is the camaraderie: “I’m all alone, so now I enjoy sitting around, watching the families across the street. The ladies gather. There are kids chatting, passing the time together, eating and drinking together.” The patchy dry grass around the wall is littered with empty beer cans and water bottles from nights past. Carpets, cots, and tarpaulin litter the once majestic fortification, evidence of a hidden community whose lives mirror the precarious rocks above.

Along the hill up to the north, in between Kemel’s shop and Hasan’s bunker, curious tourists straggle through the gate where Fatih Sultan Mehmed’s soldiers are said to have breached the wall in 1453 during the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople. Battalions of mini-buses line up for a pit stop. Drivers stand at attention along the wall, facing backward, watering the soil.

Farther up, at the main intersection of Edirnekapı Rami and Beylerbeyi streets, the largest break in the wall, a gaggle of Japanese tourists congregates to sketch the ruins on notepads. Above, some 40 feet up, at the wall’s highest point, there is an old Greek neighborhood, a landscape of bustling streets, silent cemeteries, and colorful wooden homes.

In the shadow of Chora Church — which boasts one of the world’s finest collections of Byzantine mosaics and frescoes — lives Ahmet Uludağ. He retired years ago but says his pension check is hardly enough to put food on the table. For spare change, he tries to lure tourists into his nephew’s scarf and trinket shop.

“The future just doesn’t look too good,” Ahmet murmurs as he repositions an already folded scarf on a table. “Business, slow. I can’t even travel inside of Turkey, my own country, and yet these Europeans are always coming here.”

Two blocks up, back along the wall, a demirci (iron seller) wheels a hand-made cart around the corner, on the hunt for scrap metal. The path he walks leads to 13th century Tekfur Sarayı (Palace of the Sovereign), Istanbul’s only surviving Byzantine palace. There a man named Barış stewards a small beat-up shed, one rooster, a television, and a herd of charter buses.

The buses are empty. For the most part, no one visits the unkempt and uninhabited Tekfur Palace unless they’re lost or on a Lonely Planet trek. Barış handles the daily traffic, ten or so visitors a day. Because the front gate stays under lock and chain, he offers tours to those willing to follow him up an iron ladder and across crumbling archways to the top. He has worked as a parking lot attendant for the last eight years, but the locals know him as the palace’s peerless guide. His tours are free.

Just a few hundred feet from the deserted palace, carpenter Kemel’s hole-in-the-wall woodworking shop is still open for business, the musty cave lit by three fluorescent bulbs and a few rays of sun filtering through the front door. Machinery clutters the entryway. In the main room, cabinetry and doors are slowly taking shape. A wooden ladder in the back leads to the second floor, more work space. Walnut and beech boards lean against the craggy rock, but Kemel’s stock is mostly pine, pale and sweet-scented.

Kemel’s grandchildren sometimes work alongside him in the shop. He worries about their future, fears they don’t share the commitment that wakes him at four each morning.

“Everybody should work, at least if they want to sit at the table,” he says and spits into the sawdust at his feet. “I don’t have time for lazy folks. We earn a living through our sweat. That’s the best way.”