Büyülü Fener: A Magic Lantern to Istanbul’s Past

A middle-aged man passes under a vivid yet rustic sign that reads BÜYÜLÜ FENER, which fits like a puzzle piece among the colors of cafes and apartments that flood this block in Balat. He pushes open a glass door that rests under a row of rainbow stained glass. Once inside he’s greeted with a welcome from the owner, Gediz, as he scans the walls and shelves. This isn’t your typical antique shop, which pop up all over the neighborhood.

A Unique Antique

Not just because Gediz is the only female owner in the area, but because instead of the other shops where you feel like you’re walking into an old Ottoman tea house, here it’s like you’ve entered the Art Director from Turkish Mad Men’s supply warehouse. On the walls are rows of small tube TVs, record players, and typewriters flashing with vibrant colors. One of the record players spins a song from the 1960s that only the Turks seem to recognize.

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A Piece of our Past

The man’s eyes stop on an unassuming collection of retro cigarette packages. “Can I buy just this one?” he asks. Gediz tells him of course, but that it’s not worth much without the rest of the collection. “That’s fine. They used to sell this box in Cyprus when I was a kid there. So, when I saw it it immediately brought me back to my time there as a child.”

And that’s why people come to Büyülü Fener (magic lantern in Turkish), not necessarily to find the next rare find of the antiquing world, but to bring back a fond memory or experience. Gediz told me that what really separates Büyülü Fener from the other antique stores is that hers isn’t one; it’s a nostalgia shop.

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Balat a Microcosm of Praxis

In a city that is rapidly modernizing, the gentrification can be dispiriting. And, when your commute consists of passing block after block of Soviet-style apartment buildings, you want to find the colors, diversity, and romance of the storied Istanbul. That’s what propelled Fener-Balat to become such a hotspot for tourists, expats, and locals alike. Büyülü Fener fits this neighborhood aesthetic perfectly. It’s what drew Gediz here in the first place. Cihangir had become flooded with overpriced housing and Karaköy had been overrun with chain stores, making a small business nearly impossible. But here, every business is personally owned and new people are moving in droves, but they haven’t destroyed the neighborhood’s character. In fact, as long as they adapt to their surrounding culture they can help enhance it. The neighbors across the street are Bulgarian immigrants on the first floor, Syrians on the 2nd, and from eastern Anatolia on the 3rd. Imams walk the street and wave at the employees from the nearby Ecumenical Patriarchate. Women with head scarves will chat with their neighbors in mini-skirts. Gediz says there’s a weird balance where if you don’t judge, no one will judge you. This is why Fener-Balat is where the city on the cusp of two worlds analogy comes alive. When you live in a sterile apartment and work a sterile job, it feels like the old Istanbul is dead, but you can still find it here.

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I always assumed that antique shops were a staple of the neighborhood, but apparently, I was wrong. Büyülü Fener was only the 5th and opened a little over 2 years ago. Now there are 19, with that number changing every day. While the store may be new, Gediz tells me that opening it has been her dream since she was a teenager. After daring the corporate world for many years, while simultaneously filling her apartment to the brim, she decided to pursue her dream to open her own place and live the laid-back lifestyle of Balat.

A Bit of Nostalgia

She began collecting when she was 16. At first, it was anything that interested her, but then it slowly morphed into attaining collections as well. The evidence is on display everywhere. There’s an eclectic record collection with many hailing from Turkey’s rock heyday in the 1970s summed up with a Barış Manço print in the front row.

Turkish and international records. Photo by: Talha Ayar

Apparently records are making a comeback and many people who buy them don’t even own the players. However, she still sells them, and they all work because Gediz and different specialists team up to restore all the gadgets and electronics in the store. She will buy paintings and photos that barely get settled on the wall before they’re sold. Retro gas lamps are probably the highest selling item for locals, but tourists love trinkets because they can fit them in their suitcase. There are collections of old soda bottles, miniature alcohol bottles (still full), postcards, and a slew of things that you didn’t even know would make you feel nostalgic.

Mementos

The nostalgia bug hits me hard when I see an old tin toy car that looks like a larger version of a Hot Wheels toy. Across from the entrance, you’ll notice a giant one, like a Cadillac version of all those Fisher-Price commercials I saw as a kid where you actually can ride in the car. Not one to show bias, a miniature burgundy stroller, perfect for a toddler to play house in, rests opposite the car and in front of the original signage for Balat Hastanesi.

The Cadillac (or Ferrari) of toy cars. Photo by: Colin Craig

I bee-line my way towards the sign and begin sweeping through the box of Swiss and Turkish postcards underneath it, I can’t help but read all the messages people wrote their loved ones that now live on through the curious eyes that pry into them. It seems every item in the store has a story. A special one sits in the corner of the store on a 1950s era stove top. An old cast iron sauce pan lacquered in floral patterned paint looks banal at first. But, Gediz tells me these were exclusively made in Western Europe and discontinued there about 40 years ago with the development of lightweight cooking materials.

The rare saucepan (bottom-left). Photo by: Colin Craig

She lifts up the top to an engraved “Made in Turkey”. “It’s the only one I’ve ever seen in all my years of collecting that was made here,” she says. So, maybe the rare finds are here as well.

The Business of Antiquing

I finally ask her how she knows what to buy and that it will sell? She says it’s impossible to predict what items people will buy, so she gave up trying. Instead, she buys things that she’d want to decorate her home with and that sometimes that’s beyond just an eye for commerce. “It’s hard for me to sell some of this stuff because I like it and I become sort of attached to it,” Gediz tells me. She then shows me her favorite item, a toy robot resembling R2D2 and when you open its head there’s a cassette player inside. I ask her how much she would charge for something like that. “It’s not for sale. This is still part of my personal collection.”

Robot cassette player. Photo by: Sveta Nekrasova

If you think you can pry it from her, come to Büyülü Fener in Balat from 10-7 any day but Monday and try.

This article was originally printed here on yabangee.com. All photos are the property of the photographers.

Wadi Rum: The Perfect Escape to Simplicity

If you've seen The Martian and thought you too would like to colonize Mars, you actually don't need to go as far you'd think. Matt Damon flew out to Wadi Rum, Jordan, which is also the home of the famous Lawrence of Arabia during WWI. There are numerous sites, both historical and geological, but the real jewel is the insight that you gain into the Bedouin culture and lifestyle. We signed up with Wadi Rum Nomads who are one of the top rated companies because the tours are informative, comfortable, reliable, but mostly because the people who organize it are friendly and open about their lives in the desert. Our guide, Atillah, told us about chasing his pet camels into Saudi Arabia, growing up as one of 30 kids, and hunting. My favorite was about the tiger that once got loose in the desert.

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There's different trips and varying lengths you can do from riding a camel or jeep for a morning or up to nine days of walking. We opted for a day of visiting all the major sites followed by a night camping under the stars. The walking treks can be intense as it's hot and climbing sand dunes are much harder then they appear. But, if you still want some of that, you'll get it. Jeep tours are 95JOD for 1 person or 55JOD if you're 2-4 people.

Below, are some of the awe inspiring spots that the Nomads team will show you along the way.

  • Lawrence Spring

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The first stop on the tour ties is connected to Wadi Rum's most famous story, that of T.E. Lawrence or more famously known as Lawrence of Arabia. The Brit who helped lead the Arab Revolt against the Ottomans in WWI. For the Bedouins, the spring has been a major life force for centuries. Now, the water flows through piping, but you can climb the rocky hillside and simulate what the Bedouins used to have to go through to get a drink. With gorgeous views of the Red Desert ahead of you it's a great introduction to the beauty and strain of the valley.

  • Khazali Canyon

  • This quick jaunt is a break from the sun, but also protects ancient Arabic inscriptions and ancient Nabatean hieroglyphics. The mountain appears daunting; however up close it's a quick walk to see the inscriptions that put into perspective the history and alien nature that desert holds in all its nooks and crannies.

  • Abu Khashaba Canyon

  • The hardest walk of the day tour, but still a moderate hike. Words don't really do justice to the experience - walking through the middle of sandstorm, the only respite being a lush oasis encapsulated by a silver haze. The thing I least expected about Wadi Rum (and Jordan, in general) was its palatial size. Unlike pink sand beaches in the Bahamas that are beautiful but manipulated on Instagram, out here everything was bigger and more striking than I'd seen before.

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    • Um Fruth Rock Bridge

    The most visited locale in the preserve, this bridge is worth the vertigo-inducing climb. It's also much easier going up then down. However, the view is worth it. A 30 meter climb with nice panoramas, make sure you arrive early as it can be difficult to get a shot of you on your own.

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    • Um Sabatah

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    This dune is the perfect spot to watch the sunset. Some days there will be those elusive watercolor-like skies. However, ours was almost like a negative photograph. There were all the colors of the desert streaming across the ground with white and silver streaking through the sky. A truly unique view, that taught me those cotton candy skies online aren't the only immaculate sunsets. Weather permitting around here is where you'll sleep.

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    The full day trip will also bring to a massive red sand dune, which is a bit arduous, but worth it to sand board down; Lawrence of Arabia's house, where he stayed to endure the tough desert winter, but more interestingly, the home was supposedly built by Nabateans; and also the Little Bridge, which is smaller than Um Froth, but fun to climb around nonetheless.

    The most beautiful bit of the evening came after an unexpected disappointment. Weather prevented us from sleeping out under the stars in a bivouac tent, instead we were brought to one of the guide's uncle's camp where we were treated to Bedouin music and home cooked food, as we fell asleep beneath the stars or in a makeshift cabin. A magical way to end the night.

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