While Kuzguncuk is one of the many small neighborhoods on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, the role it plays in Istanbulites’ collective consciousness is far greater than its actual size. Kuzguncuk is almost the stuff of legend, as the mere mention of Kuzguncuk conjures up images of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan and multicultural past, a traditional neighborhood with strong social ties and a history of peaceful coexistence. Indeed, for centuries this pretty little neighborhood was home to a mix of Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Turks, as evidenced by the synagogues, churches, and mosques that were all built within a stone’s throw of one another.
Located in the Üsküdar district at the base of the bridge, this area used to be called Kozinitsa, while the current name translates literally as “little raven” in Turkish. Kuzguncuk was once home to many of the Jews who settled in the Ottoman Empire following their expulsion from Spain in the 15th century. In fact, it is estimated that as many as 10,000 Jews lived here at one point, with the result that the area was sometimes referred to as Little Jerusalem. Armenians began moving into the area in the 18th century. There was also a large Greek community, evident from the original Greek name and multiple churches. Indeed, there were so few Muslim Turks living in this area that there was no mosque here until 1952.
Unfortunately, the neighborhood’s history of tolerance and multiculturalism came to an abrupt end during the notorious riots that engulfed Istanbul in 1955. These bloody riots were triggered by the false rumor that the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki, which was also the house in which Ataturk was born, had been bombed. Violent mobs waged an assault on the city’s Greek residents in their churches, businesses, and homes, resulting in dozens of deaths. Businesses and homes owned by Armenians and Jews were also targets of these attacks, as the sentiment was not just anti-Greek, but against all minorities.
These riots were part of a broader trend of Turkification, a nationalistic movement that strove to do away with Istanbul’s minority residents. Istanbul’s minorities had already been hard hit by the 1942 wealth tax, and as a consequence of these riots, an already-underway emigration trend was rapidly accelerated as the city’s Greeks, Armenians, and Jews began to emigrate en masse.
Over the years following the exodus of the area’s long established minorities, the ethnic make-up of the area changed drastically, as immigrants from Anatolia, mainly from the Black Sea region, moved into what had now become cheap housing. Today, the neighborhood is known for being one of the areas most heavily affected by the 1955 riots as much as it is known for its pretty quaint houses.
Nevertheless, despite the drastic changes that have taken place, Kuzguncuk is still revered as a traditional neighborhood or mahalle where Turkish traditions live on, and as a place where neighborliness and old-fashioned values prevail. While there are very few minorities who still live here, the churches and main synagogue are still functional. Even Christians and Jews who live in other parts of the city come to Kuzguncuk for religious services on the weekends.
Given its rich and unique history, it comes as no surprise that Kuzguncuk elicits a very strong sense of identity and pride from those who live here and even those who lived here long ago. The area is revered by both current and past residents, who are rightly very proud of the neighborhood’s special history, sense of community, and neighborliness. While there are some today who consider it historically revisionist to depict the past as such an idyllic era of peaceful diversity, there can be no doubt that Kuzguncuk was an exceptionally tolerant neighborhood where coexistence and neighborliness dominated.
Must-see in Kuzguncuk
Beth Ya’akov Synagogue: Located on the main street, İcadiye Caddesi, the synagogue was originally built as a summer services synagogue in 1878. Today, it is the only synagogue that still functions in Kuzguncuk, with former residents who have moved to other parts of the city coming here on weekends to keep the synagogue from closing.
Church of Hagios Panteleimon: Also located on İcadiye Caddesi, the massive Church of Hagios Panteleimon was built in 1821 on the site of a church dating back to 550 during the reign of Emperor Justinian, lending it a reputation as one of the oldest churches still in use in Istanbul. The beautiful domed bell tower was added in 1911, as you can tell from its different architectural style.
Nakkaştepe Jewish Cemetery: This is one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the city, with gravestones in both Hebrew and Ladino, some dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries.
Abdülmecid Efendi Köşk: This is a historical wooden mansion originally built as a hunting lodge in the 1870s. Very much a gilded cage, this mansion was home to Abdülmecid Efendi, the cousin of Sultan Abdülhamid II, who banished him to this building, forbidding him to enter Istanbul. Neo-Turkish in design, it is surrounded by a large garden and is today owned by the Yapı Kredi Bank.
Armenian Surp Krikor Lusavoriç Church: This imposing structure was built in 1861.
Üryanizade Mosque: Located right by the water, Üryanizade Mosque is a small mosque that was originally built as a mescit (a small prayer room) in 1860. It was converted to a mosque several decades later, and it’s famous for its wooden minaret.