I blame James Bond for my romantic vision of Istanbul. I got my first glimpse of the city from the edge of a seat in a dark Philadelphia theater on a Saturday afternoon in the early 1960s, watching Sean Connery save the world from the evils of Spectre in “From Russia with Love.” MGM/UA Entertainment Sean Connery as James Bond, and Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova, in the 1963 film “From Russia With Love.”
I moved to the real Istanbul a few years later, and as a young teenager trooped down to the fabled Emek Cinema to follow on the screen behind a vast proscenium arch, under its gilted rococo ceiling, Bond’s perilous trip on the Orient Express. I was a young orientalist myself, and my own journey home along the Bosphorus seemed every bit as exciting as the Istanbul on the screen.
Today I am among the first to cheer James Bond’s return to town in his incarnation as Daniel Craig. Whole sections of the historic city have been turned into a film set for the new Bond epic, “Skyfall.” I’m happy to endure the inconvenience of police cordons and traffic gone haywire as long as the result is another glorious rendering of Istanbul, as idealized as in the prequel. Some of the most exciting scenes in “From Russia with Love” take place in Istanbul’s ancient Romany quarters. Though filmed at Pinewood Studios, just west of London, they were accurately modeled on the Sulukule district near the Byzantine walls. This neighborhood is no more, however, having been recently razed to make way for luxury apartments and shops. The streets behind Emek Cinema were turned into a throughway in the 1980s, and what remains of the working class neighborhood nearby is being redeveloped. The cinema itself will soon be turned into a shopping center with a Madame Tussaud wax museum and a multiplex theater.
If my years living in Istanbul have taught me anything, it is the folly of nostalgia. The Istanbul of 1963, the year “From Russia with Love” was released, had a population of some two million. The Istanbul of “Skyfall” counts closer to 14 million. It’s hard to believe they are the same city. Not even the its historic peninsula, which now serves as the backdrop for “Skyfall,” is immune to uncontrolled real estate speculation. The developers’ bulldozers have been eating at it, too. “Skyfall” itself is doing a bit of damage. Indeed, the shopkeepers of Istanbul’s covered bazaar were distressed to learn this week that a stunt driver in the new Bond epic had crashed into a 330-year-old shop-front after losing control of his motorcycle trying to avoid a crowd of extras. “Licence to Destroy” was a favorite headline in the local papers the next day. In 1902 the poet Tevfik Fikret described the city where I live as “a young virgin who had survived a thousand husbands.” The notion that Istanbul triumphs over those who would possess her is an illusion as romantic as the idea that James Bond always wins. I still cling to it, but my grip is getting looser every day.
Andrew Finkel has been a foreign correspondent in Istanbul for over 20 years, as well as a columnist for Turkish-language newspapers. He is the author of the book “Turkey: What Everyone Needs to Know.”