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.

Eskişehir: Turkey's Amsterdam without the Vice and Art Museums

I recently went to Eskisehir, which is a city in Western Anatolia about two hundred miles southeast of Istanbul. Despite Anatolia being known more like a dry grassland plateau, the western section is rugged and green. It's covered in forests and green ridges that contrast starkly with the heavily industrialized Sea of Marmara coastline to the west and the flat urban sprawl of the capital, Ankara, to the east. When I first arrived, I didn't know what to expect, and I was just told it was a fun city and only about a three-hour train ride from my home in Istanbul. It was hyped up by friends as a kind of college town, but I was just looking forward to a weekend away. As soon as we left the train station and made our way down the main street, there was a giant mall. In front of the mall was an, "I 'heart' Eskisehir" sign, much like the famous, eponymous ones in Amsterdam. IMG_1057

At first, I found the structure a cheap imitation. An attempt to make the city seem like a more prominent destination by mimicking a sort of banal tourist stop. I still think about the structures in both towns that way. However, the longer I stayed, the more it accentuated the parallels between the two cities in my mind over the weekend I spent there. Amsterdam's cultural history may be more famous, but Eskisehir's is even more significant. The title means "old city" in Turkish and the founding dates back to 1000 BC. While Eskisehir wasn't home to Van Gogh and Rembrandt or any famous Turkish artists, it does house a Museum dedicated to the artistic glassware that Ottoman art is known for. Amsterdam is probably most well known for its tourist drawing Red Light District, but don't expect anything like that. So, if you want to smoke a joint and buy a hooker, Eskisehir isn't the place for you. For a predominately Muslim country though, you can find a nightlife here that is more open than any other I've seen outside of the typical expat havens and Istanbul. It has a somewhat liberal population, as well as a high number of young people that leads to a pretty big bar scene with quality foreign beers, if like me; you get tired of drinking Bomonti and Efes (The Miller and Miller High Life of Turkey). You can also find pool and ping pong tables at most places, which aren't easy to find in bars in the rest of the country.

Most of these bars run near the Porsuk River. Unlike the iconic Amstel, it doesn't cross every nook and cranny, but still bisects the city. Cafes, restaurants, and various other shops line the river. You can regularly find people sipping on tea or drinking beer or raki with the rattle of dice from a game of backgammon going on. It's an excellent alternative to the packed and expensive tourist trap that is Amsterdam (don't expect to hear people speaking English in Eskisehir as they do in Amsterdam, though). Walking along the river, I couldn't help but feel the same relaxed vibe that I had felt this summer in Amsterdam but with fewer crowds and drunk 18-year-olds.

However, if you've ever been to Amsterdam outside of the Red Light District, you know that much more defines the city than drugs and prostitution. There is an artistic feeling that permeates the air there, and maybe that's what I breathed in while in Eskisehir. Its architecture exemplifies this. When I walked along the river banks, and in the Odunpazari neighborhood I couldn't help but notice the unique houses, similar to the ones that struck me so much when I was in Amsterdam. Amsterdam's homes are noted for their long and narrow style with white trim (seen below).DSC_0960

Odunpazari has a style that is a little different but felt reminiscent of the one in Amsterdam. They looked like inverse images of the typical apartments above. What with them being shorter and broader with inverse color schemes. Nevertheless, I felt like I had stumbled on an older Dutch colony as I walked through.DSC_1378

The structural differences are probably more due to the period they were built, with Odunpazari's neighborhood dating back to about 1000 AD, while the city of Amsterdam was founded approximately 400 years later. There is also more necessity for Amsterdam's tall, thin style because of the need to conserve space, which Eskisehir doesn't have to deal with. Similarly, the Odunpazari neighborhood has numerous mosques dating back to the 1400's and 1500's much like the era most of Amsterdam's classic churches are from.

Westerkerk...tallest church in the Netherlands

Alaadin Mosque. The oldest mosque in Eskisehir

Overall, the cities provide a lot of similarities and contrasts between Turkish and Dutch culture. There's unique architecture surrounding river banks with elaborate bridges connecting the sides. Religious buildings accentuate otherwise unimpressive skylines. There are apparent differences between the Muslim culture that shaped modern Eskisehir and the social democratic doctrine of Amsterdam, but they share common traits. They are two of the most beautiful places to relax, and they embody a friendly and welcoming nature that makes me wish I could go back.