Anyone who has ever walked down Nisantasi’s chic Abdi Ipekci Street full of designer stores and elegant cafes would have trouble imagining what this quarter looked like half-a-century ago. Think of vast empty fields with several dispersed wooden mansions, connected by dusty, unpaved roads. “It was so unpopulated and scary that our servants chaperoned us to a neighbour’s mansion,” says the long-time resident Betûl Mardin.
Betûl Mardin has lived in Nisantasi for over 70 years and is a legend herself when it comes to the history of Turkish society. Inspired by the famous statesmen, diplomats and businessmen in her family, Mardin fought for her right to work, a right which had been traditionally denied to women of her generation. She began her career as a magazine journalist in 1955 and moved on to radio programming and theatre production for the state television, excelling in whatever challenge she took on. When she finally settled in the field of public relations, it was just a matter of time until she earned the title 'Grand Dame of PR.'
Now at the age of 85, Mardin is as energetic and witty as ever and still goes to work every day at the I.M.A.G.E. public relations company she co-founded. Chatting with this elegant and resilient woman in the apartment she has lived in for the last 58 years makes one feel as if they had access to a time machine. Even though surrounded by antique furniture, books, works of art, artifacts and family souvenirs, Mardin does not live in the past. Her memories are vivid and as sharp as her jokes and she is very much aware of the fact that she is one of the last few witnesses to the neighbourhood’s transformation.
Nisantasi today is an alluring district with a lively downtown feel, boasting many exclusive shops and department stores. The history of Nisantasi dates back to the 18th century when it was a practice shooting range for the Ottoman Sultan's imperial army. The obelisks erected at the crossroads where Tesvikiye meets Osmanbey and Valikonagi meets Harbiye are monuments to the origin of the neighborhood and its name (“Nisan tasi” means target stone).
In his book ‘Museum of Innocence,’ Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel prize-winning novelist, talks about Nisantasi as being the preferred district of the Turkish upper class. Betûl Mardin agrees that Nisantasi used to be populated by the well-educated, well-mannered and well-to-do, though not always rich, residents. “Whenever we went out to the street, everyone used to greet each other and say ‘Bonjour canÄ±m (sweetie)’, ‘Bonsoir hayatÄ±m (dear)’, mixing Turkish and French, the lingua franca of the time.” Ladies walking their puppies was a common sight, unheard of in the other parts of the city. When Mardin's father and his business partners bought Tesvikiye Palas in 1940, there were only three other apartment buildings in Istanbul. Things began to change dramatically in a matter of 10 to 15 years.
The state’s unjust policies during World War II, such as the implementation of Capital Tax in 1942, severed the city’s ties with its Levantine, Jewish, Armenian and Greek residents. Many tradesmen, shopkeepers, restaurateurs and artists had to flee, leaving behind a free-for-all for opportunists who seized their property. Then began an era of uncontrolled urbanization and construction, which resulted in the labyrinthine streets and lack of green space in Istanbul today.
Nisantasi, however, managed to preserve some of its most beautiful buildings such as Macka Palace (which is now home to Park Hyatt Macka Palas Hotel), the former Italian Consulate during World War II (Akif Tuncel High School today) and the Art Nouveau police station of Tesvikiye. The neighbourhood also managed to keep its reputation intact as the elite's preferred district. Today, Nisantasi is the symbol of new Istanbul, an international hub of luxury. It is famous for its world-class brand boutiques, opulent spas and gyms and some of the best restaurants and bars in the city.
Betûl Mardin, too, still does her shopping, both grocery and luxury, in Nisantasi. The neighbourhood features an impressive number of designer boutiques, including Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Max Mara, Gucci, Emporio Armani, Valentino, Alexander McQueen, Prada, Hermès, Escada, Chanel and Burberry. Turkish fashion giant Beymen also has an exclusive multi-storied department store which is a must-see for fashionistas, they carry many brands from Chloé to Michael Kors. For the stylish and sharp gentleman, Ermenegildo Zegna, Brioni and the recently-opened French boutique Zilli offer the highest quality in menswear. If you are looking for an authentic present to take home with you, make sure you don’t miss Armaggan’s splendid textiles, jewellery and home décor pieces. The fact remains Nisantasi has something for everyone of every taste and every age.
Istanbul City Guide