It’s impossible to think of Istanbul without thinking of the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus defines the city and is the place of fantastic views, waterside neighbourhoods, opulent palaces, ornate Ottoman mosques, wooden yalı mansions, fish restaurants, charming tea gardens, walking routes, green parks, cross-continental vapurs (ferries) and much more. It literally connects the two sides of Istanbul – in more than one way.
Only a century ago, Istanbul’s borders were contained within today’s historical peninsula: the fortified stretch of land between Yedikule, Edirnekapı, Eyüp and Eminönü. Today, the older locals still call the old city suriçi meaning ‘within the city walls’. Today, Istanbul is a massive metropolis growing on both sides of the natural Bosphorus strait. As the city expanded its borders, sea transportation became a growing necessity… and it still is!.
Transportation in Old Istanbul and the Bosphorus Villages
Historical resources and records show that as the major part of the city was within the walled area, individual transportation was pedestrian right up until the 16th century. The shoreline beside the Bosphorus was mostly uninhabited up until the mid 19th century. Until the 1850s sea transport was performed with kayıks (caïque in English) and other types of rowing boats called sandals (from the Venetian sandalino) which came in different sizes and had different functions.
Bosphorus Shores and Villages: Who lived where?
The Beşiktaş, Ortaköy and Kuruçeşme shores were mostly inhabited by Ottoman Empire Hanedan (royal family) members, such as sultans, şehzades (crown princes) and the sultans’ daughters. Bebek was home to viziers and divan (court) members. Meanwhile, Arnavutköy and Kuzguncuk were home to both the Rum (Greek Orthodox) and Jewish residents of Istanbul. Rich Rums, Armenians and European diplomats preferred to live in the Yeniköy and Tarabya areas. According to Bostancıbaşı Abdullah Ağa (security officer of Ottoman Royal Palace and Bosphorus shores and ports in 1820s) there were 445 yalı (wooden mansions) on both sides of the Bosphorus, from which the city’s wealthy residents would have looked out upon the mesmerising strait.
Kayıks of Istanbul
Until 1854, sea transport in Istanbul relied upon with different types of wooden rowing boats, known as kayıks, sandals and peremes, which crisscrossed the city’s waterways carrying paying passengers to their destinations. Some of the different types included:
At kayığı (Horse caïque): a specific type of rowing boat designed for transporting horses. They had ramps on the front and back, and transported horses between Üsküdar and Eminönü.
Ateş kayığı (Fire caïques): relatively narrower and faster, and used by tulumbacı (firemen). Fire was one of the biggest problems in Istanbul since majority of civil structures were wooden. (see fires of Istanbul)
Pazar kayığı (Bazaar caïques): big transportation boats for carrying the ordinary population of Istanbul. Villagers used them to go into the city center carrying their shopping baskets or boxes of goods to sell.
Saltanat Kayığı (Royal caïques): the most decorated rowing boats for the use by sultans and the Ottoman royal family. They had a comfortable lounge at the back and animal symbols such as eagles carved into the front.You can see some exquisite examples at the Beşiktaş Deniz Müzesi (Naval Museum).
Kayık Hawkers: also found up and down the Bosphorus shores and bays, they sold food and products to the inhabitants of the yalı. These were essentially floating grocers bringing everything you need right to your door. How convenient is that?!
The First Paddle Steamers on the Bosphorus
With the expansion of the city and technological improvements, new transport mediums were necessary. This is why a private sea transportation company, Şirket-i Hayriye, was founded in 1851.
Şirket-i Hayriye was the first corporation (abbreviated to A.Ş in Turkish) in the Ottoman history. With the support of the Ottoman Empire, a local Galataen banker named Manolaki Baltazzi ordered six çarklı vapur (paddle steamers) from United Kingdom. Baltazzi was also the co-founder of Banque de Constantinople – the very first bank of the Ottoman Empire. This was an important milestone for Istanbul and the Bosphorus. It took three years to build and bring the paddle steamers (let’s call them vapurs from now on) from England to Istanbul.
The brand new public vapurs of Istanbul operated between Eminönü and the Bosphorus villages. The very first captains were Rum (Greek Orthodox Istanbulites). In the course of time, the company had 77 vapurs operating in the city. During the Tripoli, Balkan and First World wars the vapurs were commandeered by the Ottoman Navy.
Istanbul’s Celebrity Boats
Halas 71: The Halas 71 was built in Glasgow as a passenger boat and purchased by the Ottoman Empire in 1914. During the occupation of Istanbul after the WWI, it was used by the Allied Forces. In 1923, the Republic of Turkey took became the new owner of the ship. It was named ‘Halas’ meaning ‘Salvation’ and/or ‘Okay’ in Arabic and was boat number 71 of Şirket-i Hayriye.
For nearly six decades, the Halas 71 was used along the Bosphorus Strait as a public transportation boat with a capacity of approximately 1000 passengers. In 1984, it was purchased by a private Turkish company and converted into a luxury cruiser. Today the Halas is available for private rentals for special occasions such as meetings, dinners, celebrations, cocktails, and even small weddings.
MV Savarona (Atatürk’s Yacht): The MV Savarona was built and completed in 1931 in Hamburg, Germany. The very first owner of the yacht was Emily Roebling Cadwallader, the granddaughter of John A. Roebling who was the engineer and designer of the Brooklyn Bridge, New York. The Savarona, with its 124m length and 16m width, was the largest yacht in the world at the time it was built by Blohm & Voss. The total cost was approximately $4 million dollars (estimated $57 million in 2010 rates). But it never made it to the US, due to tax and regulations problems that forbade it from entering US waters, so it was returned to Germany where it was built.
In 1938, the Republic of Turkey purchased the yacht for $1.2 million dollars. ($19.4 in 2015 rates). Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of Turkish Republic, spent nearly 56 days on board the Savarona so it has forever been known as ‘Atatürk’s yacht’. During WWII, the Savarona was used as a training/education yacht by the Turkish Navy and anchored in the bay of Kanlıca. Following an unfortunate fire in its engine in 1979, the yacht suffered a massive damage and was sent to Gölcük for restoration and repair.
In 1989, it was rented by the Turkish ship owner, Kahraman Sadıkoğlu, for a lease of 49 years. The Sadıkoğlu Company invested $45 million dollars in its renovation and revival (which took three years). Between the 1990s and 2013, the MV Savarona was privately rented to esteemed guests and companies for special occasions, gatherings and multi-day holidays. Monaco’s Prince Rainier, Brunei’s Sultan Hassanal, KingJuan Carlos of Spain, Princess Diana, Elizabeth Hurley, Sharon Stone, Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman were among the visitors of the Savarona. Since 2013, it has served as the Turkish Republic Presidency’s yacht for special events and high level national and international meetings.
Istanbul’s Oldest Vapurs: Many of the vapurs still in use are named after famous sea captains and admirals and intellecturals. Althoug one of the very oldest of them all, built in 1973, is named after Barış Manço, the famous Turkish singer, musician and TV personality, known of his hippy looks and pyschadelic Anatolian rock. It may not the obvious choice for a ferry name, but it shows what a huge influence he had on popular Turkish culture!
Water Transport in Istanbul Today
Despite two suspension bridges (soon to be three), an inter-continental metrobus system and an underground railway (the Marmaray line), most find that water transport is still the most efficient, fun and enjoyable way to commute in Istanbul. There are 28 public vapurs and 34 iskele (ports). A short vapur ride is always a good excuse for Istanbulites to enjoy a twenty minute escape from the city crowd and welcome the refreshing navy-blue waters of the Bosphorus and Marmara. My favourite routes are Karaköy to Kadıköy and obviously Kadıköy to Adalar (Princes Islands). The earliest vapur departure from Karaköy is at 6.20am – highly recommended for early risers in search of sunrise over the city.
Private Sea Taxis and Tours
Today, private boats and sea-taxis are available along the Bosphorus. They’re a very convenient and comfortable (yet pricey) way to commute between the shores of Istanbul. Even better, it’s available 24/7. You simply mention the closest public or private port to you, and get picked-up and taken to your final destination. Since 2015, there is even an Uber boat service available from Emirgan to Kanlıca.
If you want to experience skimming along the flat waters of the Golden Horn at daybreak as the old caïque rowers would have done, raising the sails and heading out to the Princes’ Islands, or simply living it up on a Bosphorus cruise, check out the I’m Rowing in Istanbul, I’m Sailing in Istanbul, and A Day Out on the Bosphorus tours on our main website.
Resources used: Istanbul’un 100 Yalısı by Mahmut Sami Şimşek; Envanter.org