The View from Istanbul

The best place to get a sense of the city's past and future is up on a rooftop

By / July 2012

Up on a rooftop in Istanbul. Early July. Below, dirty apartments bending like bathers towards the Bosporus. Below them, yellow ferries slipping under Galata Bridge. Up above, Galata Tower, the favored perch of pigeons, the legendary launch pad of the first human flight across the strait. On nearby terraces, women with and without headscarves pull laundry from lines.

Weeds, framing green and purple stained-glass windows, climb brick walls tagged with graffiti: yellow cartoonish fists, a thousand evil eyes. In the distance, the golden, slender minarets of domed mosques — Sultan Ahmet, Süleymaniye, Yeni — flicker in fading light.

Situated somewhere between heaven and earth, somewhere between the clouds and the sea, the rooftops of Istanbul, whether rickety or pristine, offer perspective on and escape from a city that insists on growing taller and wider with each passing day. From such a height all but the most elemental sounds fade. There is the wash of sea, the squawk of pirouetting gulls, the call to prayer, and, of course, the rumble of construction.

Near the Haggia Sophia, tourists sit down to breakfast on terraces of fancy hotels. Sea gulls, like anxious busboys, descend on emptying tables. The imagination, sparked by views of terracotta roofs below, skips seaward across the slippery shingles like Cary Grant chasing burglars along the tops of French Riviera mansions in “To Catch a Thief.”

For locals, the climbing of stairs to rooftop havens often has more to do with utility, or even necessity, than impulse. Desperate to take a deep breath, they ascend like swimmers coming up for air. They pace and sit still. They light cigarettes and stub them out. They pray and they keep from praying. They wait, leaned over ledges or brick railings, for the salty breeze, if only for a few moments, to sweep their worries out over the longest bridges and highest skyscrapers, out beyond the mountains, away.

Yet the rooftops, like the hallways beneath them and the crowded passages below, also bear the residue of this megacity’s exploding population, nearly 15 million by many estimates. Plastic tables, wrought iron beds, faded clotheslines, and clusters of rusty satellite dishes litter many rooftops. On others, as if throwing open the door of a teenager’s bedroom, you cannot see the surface for the mess.

City planners, architects, and engineers are busy addressing the problems created by Istanbul’s overcrowding. An abandoned quarry along the Black Sea to the north of town is set to become the site of a new city, a city within the city — a city, developers hope, that will lure young Turks out of Istanbul proper.

Environmentalists call the plan shortsighted. Even if it works, they say, immigrants seeking opportunities in Istanbul will rush to occupy whatever space opens up. According to this narrative, the city’s already sparse forests and water basins will continue giving way to new-growth concrete. Urban sprawl will thunder on without an off-switch.

Politicians defend the Black Sea project as a way to start over from the outside in. Throughout the years, they admit, urban planning has been lacking. The new neighborhoods, in theory, will afford residential areas rich in green spaces and the latest in energy-saving technology.

Will it work? The verdict is still out. In the immediate, however, Istanbul’s answer to overcrowding appears to be coming in the form of new skyscrapers.

Take the Sapphire building, a swanky residential complex in the Levent district. At 56 stories high, this sleek, steel column is currently the tallest structure in Istanbul, and, at a price tag of $150 million, one of the most expensive. From the observation deck of the Sapphire, thousands of rooftops come into focus. Like brown and red pebbles at the foot of a mountain, each one is a tiny stepping-stone on the path to progress.

Dusk rises. Even from up here, the songs of hundreds of imams soar into the sky, faster than the elevator flies to the top of the Sapphire. Stretched out on every side, the latest stages of this empirical city’s evolution: modern sporting arenas, glittering bridges, cranes as numerous as the fishing poles on Galata Bridge.

From this vantage point, it is clear that Istanbul’s expansion, upward and outward, is inevitable. Still, here’s to hoping there will always be space for a respite from the cramped madness. Which is another way of saying, here’s to hoping modern developers, like their forebears, pay close attention to rooftops, Istanbul’s top floor, the best room in the house.


Brian McKanna is a writer and frequent contributor to EthnoTraveler.