Graphics by Michelle Jia
I arrived in Istanbul with the hope of solving a literary mystery. Like many readers before me I wanted to locate the house where the Greek-Egyptian poet, C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933) had lived between 1882 and 1885.
The young Cavafy had landed in Istanbul with his mother and brothers to escape the British bombardment of Alexandria. In order to suppress the nationalist rebellion led by Colonel Ahmed Arabi, the British navy had fired onto the city from the port, destroying a large portion of the famed city center, including the Cavafy ancestral home.
In his account of their stay in Istanbul, Cavafy wrote that the family first spent a few happy days in a hotel in Therapeia (now Tarabya) and then they went to the opposite shore of the Bosporus in Kadiköy because his maternal grandfather (George Photiadis) had rented the family estate in Yeniköy (Neochori in Greek) to the Persian ambassador. When the lease expired, they took up residence in the grandfather’s yali which means waterside home in Turkish. But where was this yali? No records remain and no one has been able to find it. Cavafy never mentioned its exact location.
When I worked in the Cavafy archives in Athens the previous year I could not determine the address in any of the existing correspondence. No envelopes had survived.
With no leads of my own I wrote to various people for help before my trip. A renowned Turkish critic suggested that I seek the advice of Cavafy’s Turkish translator. But he had no clues.
My friend, Victoria, a long-time resident of the Bosphorus, promised to ask her master carpenter. Descending from a long tradition of family carpentry along the Bosporus, he would know something she thought. The Photiadis family must have been prosperous, Victoria added, to have a yali in Yeniköy for this was where diplomats and Ottoman officials lived. Sadly, her carpenter also knew nothing. As a last resort she suggested that I go to Yeniköy and ask long-time residents, like butchers or fish vendors, to see if they had any family memories about the village.
So, it was with little hope that I landed in Istanbul in May of 2019. My friend Nejat picked me up in the new airport and we drove to Yeniköy, a place that by now had for me a mystical status. After parking the car we walked up the stone path to the Church of Koumariotissa which Cavafy mentions and which served as the main place of worship for the many Greeks over the centuries.
From the top of the steps I saw two men having coffee in the courtyard and I approached them with some trepidation, identifying myself as a Greek professor from the US who was going to give a talk on Cavafy in Istanbul. One of them, Sotiri, the groundskeeper offered to open the church for us to tour.
As I entered the church, my eyes focused on the icons along the walls, I sensed that the floor was strewn with bay leaves from the Easter Service two days earlier. I stooped down to pick up a leaf and held it to my nose, imagining the young Cavafy doing the same more than 130 years earlier.
While still in the church, I asked Sotiri if he knew the location of the yali. No, he did not, but the president of the community might. He, however, was away on business in Cracow. “Oh no,” I exclaimed. “How could that be?” But thank heavens for WhatsApp. We stepped into the Church office as Sotiri phoned Mr. Viga and I, staying close to the modem to get a good reception, tried to get some information from him. Sadly he didn’t know where it was located but he was certain that Mr. Ilias had information.
Mr. Ilias now in his 80’s had been born in Yeniköy and moved to Athens in 1966 but had returned and was currently living nearby. He suggested that I approach him. But, Mr. Vigas cautioned that the house might not have been a yali at all, that is, built on the waterfront but a manor house with extensive gardens.
So Nejat, Sotiri, and I climbed up the stone path and knocked on the door of a house that stood opposite the church, with me anxiously awaiting the figure inside, my last hope of finding the house.
In a few seconds Mr. Ilias appeared. A soft-spoken man in his 80’s, he was pleased to answer my questions. He told me that his family had left Turkey in the 1960’s following the tragic events of 1955, when anti-Greek riots led to the dissolution of the Greek community of Istanbul. But he wanted to return to his “birthplace,” the town in which he felt at home. So, in the last years he was spending most of his time in Yeniköy rather than Athens.
Mr. Ilias, “you are my salvation, my only hope to resolve this mystery,” I told him. Quietly Mr. Ilias explained that the Photiadis house existed up until the 1950’s; he remembered walking past it frequently. “And today?” I asked. “Well, it’s gone;” he said, “torn down in the 1950’s to expand the road. But I can lead you where it was.”
His words came very heavy in my ears. It was a bright morning of May 1, a public holiday. As Mr. Ilias’ continued, I turned for a second to the cascading wisteria in the Church’s courtyard, finding solace in its bluish clusters. Though I had hoped for a better outcome, I had an answer at least, like a diagnosis to an illness.
I still wanted to see the place, however. So, Mr. Ilias, Nejat and I shuffled down the stone path, crossed the iron gates, turned slightly left as he pointed to the empty space where the house once stood. “It was there,” he remarked dispassionately, “until it was torn down about 80 years ago.” So, my journey ended with an absence or, rather, with a confirmation of a presence that had stood here for decades and which had been formative to the young Cavafy. For it was here that he felt the first link to the family’s Byzantine and Ottoman past and where he wrote his first poetry and works of criticism.
I let my mind roam again and tried to imagine Cavafy and his family on a broad verandah of their house, looking out to the pink blossoms of the Judas tree that decorated the Bosphorus in May. They would be eating “anginares a la polita” (artichokes Constantinopolitan style), I thought, my favorite spring specialty of the eastern Mediterranean (artichokes with peas, carrots, and potatoes cooked in a olive oil and lemon sauce).
“You can visit the family grave,” Mr. Ilias said, interrupting my culinary musings. After thanking him and exchanging email addresses, Nejat and I drove up the ridge of the Bosphorus to the Greek Orthodox cemetery of Yeniköy. It was a small place, beautifully tended and shaded by Judas trees and wisteria vines along the wall.
The kind Turkish gardener let us in and I spotted the column close to the entrance that marked the tomb of the Photiadis family, so long distinguished in Istanbul, wealthy enough to own much land and a large estate in Yeniköy. The cemetery must have always looked like this, especially in the spring sun,” I said to Nejat, who remained silent. I had come to the end of my journey in the cemetery but did not know what to do next.
“Let’s go to Katiköy on the Asian side,” Nejat suggested. “I know the best Ottoman-style restaurant in Istanbul. I’m sure you’ll get anginares there.”
So, we crossed the bridge from Europe to Asia and rambled around Kadiköy, the place where Cavafy stayed until the Persian ambassador had left his grandfather’s estate. Standing along the shore of the Bosphorus the young poet would have had uninterrupted views of one of the great panoramas of the world — the ancient city of Constantinople, beginning with the Topcapi Palace, the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and the undulating hills further on; and the slightly to his right he would have made out the waters of the Golden Horn, focusing finally on Beyoglu, what the Greeks called Pera — “beyond.”
“This vista has not changed much since the 1880’s, don’t you think?” I asked Nejat.
“When I was younger both sides of the Bosphorus were lined with the pink flowers of the Judas tree” he said. “But they too are gone with all the building up of the city.”
"At least Cavafy wrote his poetry here," I said. This has remained.