Üsküdar was the Plymouth Rock of the Turkish Straits…
Geographically vulnerable as most harbors are, Chrysopolis was better suited to commerce than war. This is why nothing remains of its Roman or Byzantine origins: unlike Constantinople, within whose ancient walls the treasures of antiquity still linger, those of Chrysopolis were obliterated with each passing invasion. And plenty there were.
First came the Arabs, whose Abbasid armies took and held Chrysopolis in 782 AD. Though lacking the naval power to seize Constantinople, they camped out for several years at what is now the hilltop Karacaahmet Cemetery. Four centuries later came the Crusaders and their Venetian allies, who occupied and ravaged both Chalcedon (modern Kadıköy) and Chrysopolis en route to capturing Constantinople in 1204.
By 1339 it was the Turks’ turn to try. Unlike the Arabs and Franks, however, the Ottomans were in it for the long haul. Under the leadership of Orhan Gazi they not only seized but held Üsküdar, by then known as Scutari, for the next seven hundred years. Bar a brief Italian occupation after WWI, they never let it go.
Scutari, rendered in Turkish as ‘Üsküdar,’ had never been the endpoint; that was always Constantinople, just across the Bosporus on the European side of the straights. As such, the Ottomans used their 114-year head-start to mold Üsküdar to their heart’s desire. As a result of this advanced flank honeymoon, nowhere in Istanbul is more Turkish.
At the risk of simplification, this means the adoption of Turkish Anatolian life to antiquity’s greatest polis: the mosque, han, and dervish lodge as center of social life; class-transcendent Islamic social ties (with Muslims first among ‘peoples of the book’); and Turkish, rather than Greek, Arabic, Persian, or Armenian, as the lingua franca.
“[As] the first step in the conquest of Istanbul,” writes historian Sinan Yilmaz, “[the seizure of Üsküdar] was the harbinger of things to come.” But it was also so much more. For the Turks who’d go on to put Constantinople under new management, Üsküdar was a beginning and a base—the Plymouth Rock of the Turkish Straits.
No city, to be sure, survives mass urbanization intact. Growing tenfold between 1940 and 2000, from 55,000 people to more than half a million, Üsküdar has clung impressively to its original ethos. If exaggerated by old-timers, its dignified neighborliness is alive and real. If not quite the ‘holy land’ beloved by the late journalist and Sufi musician Nezih Uzel, it’s still the most peaceful neighborhood in Istanbul, says Professor Sönmez.
Teetering on the edge of Asia, Üsküdar has always been a place that strikes impossible balances, like a train rounding a wincingly sharp curve.
But which Üsküdar will prevail? The compassionate, wise, and wistful one that produced Ahmet and Atik Valide, Ferhat and the Fisherman’s Protection Association, Aydin and Aziz Hüdayi? Or the Üsküdar brimming with tunnels and trains, shopping malls and mega-mosques, alcohol bans and breakfast chains? With a little love and respect, perhaps they both can.