Posted on 19 February 2014
Many of the ten million or so visitors Istanbul attracts annually are lured by its long, exotic past. The
soaring, mosaic-encrusted dome of the Haghia Sophia, surmounting what was once the greatest
church in Christendom, is a reminder of a time when the city was the heart of the Byzantine Empire,
an imperial power renowned for its faith and pomp, notorious for its intrigues. Liberally adorned
with a riot of stunning white, red and blue Iznik tiles, the monumental Blue Mosque opposite it
symbolises the magnificence of the Moslem Turks, who captured the city in 1453 and made it the
bustling capital of an even more powerful empire, that of the Ottomans.
There are so many more visible (and visitable) reminders of a time when Istanbul was the fulcrum of
two of the world’s greatest empires that it might seem perverse to seek out the more recent relics
of another great imperial power, Britain. But for Brits and citizens of many former Commonwealth
countries in particular, wandering through the lush, immaculately tended Crimean War Cemetery in
the suburb of Haydarpaşa on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus Strait, is one of the most evocative
things to do in Istanbul.
Not only is the cemetery an oasis of peace and tranquility in a metropolis where such calm is at
a premium, it’s also a reminder of a period when British-Turkish relations were on a high. With
Russia threatening from the north, Britain formed an alliance with the Ottomans to thwart Czarist
ambitions, resulting in the Crimean War of 1853-6. The graves of those who fell, beautifully kept
by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (www.cwgc.org), are a poignant reminder of that
terrible conflict. Shaded by stands of gracefully tapering cypress and spreading plane trees are the
simple graves of those who lost their lives in two even more savage wars, WW1 and WW2.
Not far beyond the cemetery and clearly visible from vantage points on the European shore of
the city stands another reminder of the Crimean War, the imposing nineteenth-century Selimiye
Barracks. Still used today, the northwest tower of the complex was once a hospital where those
wounded in the Crimea were tended. Part of the former hospital is today the Florence Nightingale
Museum, and two of her iconic lamps are on display in the room where she worked. Gaining entry
needs some advance planning, as you must phone and fax the ID page of your passport to the
military authorities at least two days before your proposed visit.
But you don’t have to cross the Bosphorus to Asia for evidence of Istanbul’s British connections.
Rising incongruously above the minaret of a neighbouring mosque is the spire of Christchurch, right
in the heart of the pulsating entertainment district of Beyoğlu. Completed in 1868 this
attractive church was built to commemorate the war in Crimea and is often referred to as
the Crimean Memorial Church. Its walled compound-garden, studded with fig and chestnut
trees, helps form another peaceful British oasis in the heart of this mega-city. Designed by G.E.
Street, also the architect of the Royal Courts of Justice in London, this Gothic revival gem is
presided over by its energetic chaplain, Ian Sherwood, and Sunday services are well attended
Even if you don’t have official business there take a look at the exterior of the British Consulate (the
embassy until its demotion when the Turks moved their capital to Ankara in 1923) is well worth a
glance. A splendid neo-classical pile finished in 1855, its architect was no less than Charles Barry,
better known for the Houses of Parliament in London. The delightful stained glass-window of St
Helena’s chapel, attached to the consulate, is best appreciated from the courtyard of the stylish
Chappelle restaurant (www.rixos.com/en/rixos-pera-istanbul-hotel/food-beverage) in front of the
A fine conclusion to this mini-tour of reminders of Istanbul’s British heritage is the Galata House
restaurant (www.thegalatahouse.com). The cuisine may be Turkish-Georgian fusion, but the
building, just a stone’s throw away from the landmark Galata Tower, was constructed as a prison for
British subjects in 1904. You can admire the original prison bars and search for graffiti scratched into
the walls by home-sick inmates whilst sipping a fine Turkish wine and tucking into hearty Georgian
dumplings. For the sake of diplomacy it’s probably best to gloss over the nadir in Anglo-Turkish
relations; the British occupation of Istanbul at the end of WW1. During this period (1918-1923) the
prison became a British military police station.