VOL: 10 NO: 1  37-50  2013-1


Limits of re-writing and legibility of transformations in Istanbul’s Historic Peninsula: An interpretation inspired from the Wabi-Sabi philosophy



N a z l ý T AR AZ

Izmir Institute of Technology, Faculty of Architecture, Ýzmir, TURKEY


Received: August 2012         Final Acceptance: February 2013






The Japanese philosophy Wabi regards beauty as the results of imperfections and changes of daily life, and Sabi teaching supports this attitude by advocating the idea that life experiences and accumulation of years are important factors increasing beauty. From the viewpoint of Wabi- Sabi, urban transformation is an inevitable and imperfect activity that, nevertheless, always progresses to beauty. In this article, the Wabi-Sabi philosophy will be related to the event’s theme “imperfection” and life experiences to analyze Istanbul as “the palimpsest city”. The discussion will be carried out step by step from the first urban settlement at the Historic Peninsula and the following transformations in the light of Wabi-Sabi philosophy, by tracing the continuities and changes at the civic heart of the city.

The geographical location of Istanbul has always provided a productive living environment that
was preferred by communities due to its vital superiorities. As a result, the town has always remained as a populated, though changing and transforming area throughout the history. When the traces of these transformations are analyzed, the Megaran colonies of Byzantion and Chalcedon, which introduced an urban way of living into the region, appear as urban textures consisting of temples and sacred areas as outcomes of the commercial ports and Pagan traditions. As a result of the passing years, the increasing beauty of these sacred areas, whose locations were determined according to the topographical characteristics, resulted in their being handled as references for the later transformations of the town. For example, the juxtaposition of the sacred area Athena Ekbassia and the contemporary Topkapý Palace at the same location highlight the palimpsest aspect of Istanbul. Similarly, the co-existence of the Pagan traditions with Christian buildings shows the associated relationship of two different urban languages in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. This situation is an indicator to the deletion of “the palimpsest town” Byzantium and writing of Constantinople gradually by inevitable transformations in the town texture.

Likewise, the public and ceremonial centers of the first settlement show parallelism with
contemporary Istanbul with regards to the positioning of today’s buildings in the town. The direction of this continual deletion and re-writings of the town has progressed from the highest point of the Acropolis towards the east from the Antiquity onwards, and all civilizations have created their own centers by protecting or transforming the pre-existing spaces of urban experience. The Sultanahmet Square over the Hippodrome appears as the beauty of earlier experiences in uppermost writing of today.


From the viewpoint of “imperfections”, as a result of the increase in population, the city walls of Byzantion were extended, creating space in the middle of the town. This area was transformed into the Augusteion Square, which became the construction site of the Hagia Sophia, later. With the reign of the Ottoman Empire, this monumental building, whose importance increased with life experiences and passing years, became an “imperfect” building that continually necessitated intervention to the degree of giving up the religious functions, and the building become a museum for today.

When the continual transformations of Istanbul are evaluated with the Wabi-Sabi understanding,
while the speed of re-writings of Istanbul increase with the socio-cultural, political and technological dynamics; the opportunity of erasing, changing or transforming diminishes synchronously with every intervention. This is reminiscent that after erasing a paper repeatedly, soon after, it becomes unreadable and non-erasable.

The essence of this article is the increasing beauty of the Historic Peninsula by virtue of life
experiences and passing years, despite all the “imperfections” that affect the course of daily life, as reveals in the light of Wabi-Sabi philosophy.


Keywords: Life experience, Wabi-Sabi philosophy, history of town, palimpsest town, Historic Peninsula


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