Çukurcuma & The Museum Of Innocence

If you walk down Istiklal street in Istanbul and take a left down a nondescript side street littered with kebab shops and hookah bars, your feet will eventually take you down a steep gully where ten story apartment buildings tower above you.

In this canyon of concrete and matte brown stucco glaze, a walking stride becomes a run, the aggressive grade carrying you like snowmelt down a mountainside.

This is Çukurcuma, a neighborhood that is steeped (bad pun) in nostalgia and melancholy, and it not only houses dozens of antique and vintage shops but also the Museum of Innocence, the namesake institution dedicated to a book written by Turkey’s preeminent writer and Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk.

The lines between museum and book, fact and fiction, are as hazy as the ubiquitous smoke wafting from the chimneys of Pamuk’s Istanbul c. 1975, and it isn’t 100% clear if Pamuk wrote the book to compliment the museum or vice versa. The protagonist/narrator Kemal’s wanders despairingly through the streets and quays of Istanbul, wallowing in the nostalgia of a bittersweet love that was his raison d’etre, and typically all too short. Çukurcuma, with its mazy alleyways, slick cobblestones, shuttered apartment windows, and perennial antique shops is a fitting setting for the book and museum.

To wander through the many antiquaries of Çukurcumais to be transported to your grandmother’s musty living room sofa and smell something sweet and hot wafting from the oven in her kitchen. It is to wear scratchy woolen newsboy caps or gently brandish delicate silk fans or smell the musk of your grandfather’s cologne. It is to pause in front of a gilded mirror or varnished armoire and muse upon the skin of an old lover, tawny and fine. It is to brush with your fingertips hardened plastic TV dials or speckled white heirloom china that your mother takes out for tea with guests.

I won’t spoil the plot of Pamuk’s novel other than to say it is essential reading for visiting Çukurcuma, or indeed Istanbul. The museum is a fitting homage to the narrator’s love—fictitious or otherwise, because even this, at the very top level of the house, is brought into serious question—to the novel. Or I suppose the other way around.

Çukurcuma is nostalgia; it is walking backwards into memory, and it is a living Museum of Innocence.

Thanks to Orhan Pamuk for the inspiration, and Santi Echeverria for the hospitality. You can read a tremendous meditation on nostalgia by Santi by clicking here (warning: it’s in Spanish).

A street in Cukurcuma

Assorted antiques, Cukurcuma

Antiques for sale

Some old bicycles

The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul

Cucurkuma, Istanbul

Nostalgia, straight ahead

10 thoughts on “Çukurcuma & The Museum Of Innocence

  1. I read Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul before I visited the city, so I expected it to be melancholy. Then I was surprised to find Istanbul completly un-melancholy: it’s lively and full of hustlers. Not sure how I feel about Pamuk’s writing–though my favorite is My Name is Red.

    1. Hey WOB,

      I wanted to read that one but never got the chance. I think Museum of Innocence left such a deep mark on me that even 6 months after reading it I still felt such a deep sense of nostalgia. Also, given that I visited in early March and it was cold and gray, the weather played along. Definitely still lively–just goes to show how our imagination plays things up one way or another.

      Also I never read My Name is Red, but apparently it delves quite far into art historical topics, which is right up our alleyway.

      1. I’ll have to add Museum of Innocence to my ever-growing reading list.

        Did you ever read A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor? This book really captured my imagination too. It’s the author’s memoir from when he was 18 and trying to walk across Europe all the way to Istanbul. His descriptions of art and architecture are fascinating there this uncomfortable vibe where he’s treated so well by many friendly strangers with this background of Hitler’s Europe growing ever stronger….

      2. How interesting! I’d never heard of it. I’ll look for it when I go used-book shopping in San Francisco tomorrow (I’ve been here for 2 weeks FYI–yes, I’m behind)

  2. Oh, great post! I must find Pamuk’s books before I visit Istanbul….. (Which won’t be until next year, probably)

  3. Beutiful post. So good to read your lines about his enchanting spot. May I also recommend Pamuk’s “Istanbul. Memories and the City” for anyone willing to feel this particular nostalgic atmosphere surrounding Istanbulite streets. It was great to have you here and big pleasure now to read your experience.

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