Art and history on the Bosporus: Sakıp Sabancı Museum, Borusan Contemporary and Rumeli Hisarı

Rumeli Hisarı (Photo: Today's Zaman)

December 11, 2013, Wednesday/ 16:47:00

The middle section of the thirty-one-kilometer, continent-dividing Bosporus strait, is visually dominated by the monumental yet surprisingly graceful span of the continent-uniting Fatih Sultan Mehmet Köprüsü, or Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror Bridge. Completed in 1988, the one-and-a-half-kilometer road bridge linking Europe with Asia has become a prominent landmark for tourists on one of the city's musts, the Bosporus cruise.

Yet relatively few foreign visitors to the city take the time or trouble to explore a trio of exciting Bosporus-front sights located on the European side of the strait and within hearing distance of the constant stream of traffic that thunders across the landmark bridge. This is because, unless you are prepared to take a fairly expensive taxi ride from the city centre (the furthest of the sights, Sakıp Sabancı Museum, is over ten kilometers from Taksim or thirteen from Sultanahmet) you'll have to throw yourself on the mercies of the İstanbul bus system, which is not the easiest to negotiate even if you speak Turkish.

This is a shame, as a visit to the Borusan Contemporary and Sakıp Sabancı Museum exhibition spaces, along with the mid-fifteenth century Ottoman fortress of Rumeli Hisarı, makes for a truly memorable day out. The cheapest way to reach all three sights is by one of the buses plying the European shore of the Bosporus from the T1 tram terminus at Kabataş, the 22, 25/E or 25/RE. Alternatively, take the 40 or 40/T from the new terminal in Taksim Square. Ensure you've bought an İstanbulkart smart travel card (TL 6) and topped it up with credit in advance -- otherwise you'll have to rely on a sympathetic local swiping their card on your behalf.

Assuming you can grab a seat rather than "strap-hang" for the duration, the ride up the European side of the Bosporus from Kabataş is very pleasant. Look out for the rear views of the Dolmabahçe and Çırağan palaces in Beşiktaş, the facades of an Orthodox church and a synagogue in trendy Ortaköy, the unmistakable span of the first Bosporus suspension bridge, completed in 1974, assorted wooden yalıs (wood-built waterfront mansions) in the posh suburban villages of Arnavutköy and Bebek and, ever present, the improbably large tankers gliding silently up or down the strait between the Black Sea and the Aegean.

Sakıp Sabancı Museum

The Sakıp Sabancı Museum, one of the city's premier museum-cum-exhibition spaces, stands in beautifully landscaped gardens running down to the banks of the Bosporus a kilometer or so north of Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror Bridge. Originally, the section of the museum housing the permanent collections was a private villa built in 1927 by architect Edouard de Nari for Prince Mehmed Ali Hasan, grandson of the Egyptian Khedive Ismail Pasha, but in 1951 the building was bought as a summer home by the wealthy Turkish industrialist Hacı Ömer Sabancı. The villa then served as the home of a family who would remain one of Turkey's wealthiest, until 1998, when it became a part of Sakıp Sabancı University. In 2002, following the completion of an annex to house temporary exhibitions, it opened as a museum. The villa was popularly known as the Atlı Köşk (Pavilion of the Horses) after the two fine, life-size bronze equestrian statues, cast in the nineteenth century, which still proudly flank the entrance to the museum today.

Inside the villa, you'll discover a fine collection of Ottoman-era calligraphy and three rooms that have been preserved as they were when this was the Sabancı family's private home, complete with showy Louis XIV-style furniture, glittering chandeliers, ornate eighteenth-century porcelain vases and elegant bronze statuettes. There is also a decent collection of mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth-century paintings on display, including works by the founder of İstanbul's Archeology Museum, Osman Hamdi Bey, whose most famous painting, the Tortoise Trainer, is housed in another wonderful private museum of İstanbul, the Pera Museum in Tepebaşı.

It is the temporary exhibitions, however, that make the trip up the Bosporus really worthwhile. Running until Jan. 5, 2014 is Anish Kapoor in İstanbul, a striking introduction to the works of one of the world's leading sculptors, whose works grace cities across the world, from Jerusalem to New York and London. On display on the blank white canvas of the annex are a number of Kapoor's sculptures in alabaster and marble, a mix of eerily smooth surfaces juxtaposed with intriguing hollows and crevices that draw the viewer in. Works such as the monumental "Yellow" are iconic, as is the polished steel satellite dish of "Sky Mirror," set on the lawn fronting the elegant white villa. "Sky Mirror" reflects the trees of the pleasant gardens and the ever-changing Bosporus sky quite beautifully, as does "Turning the World Upside Down," another polished stainless steel sculpture set on a terrace overlooking the strait. There's also an informative audiovisual presentation on the artist and his works.

Past temporary exhibitions have included Picasso, Dali and Rembrandt, so it is always worth looking out for the next one. If you are in the money, you could always pop in to the up-market Muze de Changa, a suitably arty in-house cafe-restaurant. Here the decor is subtle Scandinavian chic, lit by the white Danish lamps recently popularized by critically-acclaimed political TV drama, Borgen. A latte will set you back TL 10, as will a herbal infusion. There is also a small shop with art books, posters and other up-market souvenirs for sale.

Borusan Contemporary

A couple of bus stops away, as you return south along the shores of the Bosporus into the city, is another interesting period building, the Perili Köşk (Fairy Pavilion). Almost in the shadow of the Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror Bridge, this unusual-looking red-brick mansion house, whose construction was begun in 1910 (when it was known as the Yusuf Ziya Paşa Köşkü), apparently got its more supernatural moniker when, following a halt to construction caused by World War I, the wind whistled through its incomplete upper stories in a haunting fashion.

Following a lengthy restoration process which began in 1995, the building became the headquarters of Borusan Holding in 2007. Then, in the autumn of 2011, it became one of the city's most innovative art galleries. What is odd about Borusan Contemporary is that it is only open at weekends, while the rest of the week it continues to function as Borusan Holding HQ.

Although the presence of supernatural beings such as fairies may be just a story, there is still something haunting about the Perili Köşk today. For here, the exhibition spaces and the company's offices merge, quite deliberately, into one. On floor eight, for example, you find yourself looking at a wall painting by Jerry Zeniuk and a suspended neon sculpture by Keith Sonnier in an eerily empty boardroom. Even more disconcerting is wandering around offices completely stripped for the weekend of any evidence of their white-collar workers. Admiring some fine examples of twentieth-century photography, including stunning black and white images by Chinese photographer Chen Jiagang and American icon Robert Mapplethorpe hung in the office rooms of floor 4A, you will not be distracted by so much as a stained coffee cup, family photograph, packet of gum or even a stray pen, never mind the workers. The atmosphere is akin to wandering around a very tidy Marie Celeste.

Many of the exhibits are, however, displayed in designated gallery rooms and, impressively, in the designer staircase coiling its way up the seven-storey building. The current temporary exhibition, Segment #4, running until Feb. 16, 2014, is not for the traditionalist, as the majority of the works are neon light "sculptures" and video installations. These include dramatic works by Brigitte Kowanz and Erwin Redl. If ever a gallery was truly "state of the art," this one is, and with so many hands-on installations, it is a great place to introduce kids to the visual arts. Before leaving, remember to explore the two upper "decks" of the building, where there are a couple of colorful sculptures by Beat Zoderer and Andrew Rogers, as well as fabulous views of the bridge, across the Bosporus to Asia and south to your last stop of the day, the towers and battlements of Rumeli Hisarı. The museum shop has a good stock of art books and there is a smart cafe.

Rumeli Hisarı

For a touch of history, walk a few minutes south down the coastal road to one of Istanbul's most iconic historic sites, the fortress of Rumeli Hisarı. Most İstanbulites will have viewed it from a vehicle rumbling across the Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror Bridge; the majority of visitors will most likely get to see it from the decks of Bosporus cruise ship. Relatively few people, however, either locals or visitors, actually explore the inside of this remarkable and historically significant fortification. Built in a mere four-month period in 1452 by Sultan Mehmet II opposite the earlier and smaller Anadolu Hisarı fortress on the far side of the Bosporus, its purpose was to control the strait and prevent aid coming to the besieged city of Constantinople from the Black Sea. The fortress was remarkably effective and played a vital role in enabling Sultan Mehmet II to capture the city less than year after its completion.

To be honest, unless you are an aficionado of late-Medieval fortifications, it promises more than it delivers, especially as the three major towers are closed to visitors. An exploration of its interior is more about the views over the strait and bridge from the parapet walls (take care as there are no safety barriers), but it is attractively landscaped inside and, especially on a nice sunny day, it provides an oasis of peace and tranquility amid the bustle of the metropolis.

Sakıp Sabancı Museum www.muze.sabanciuniv.com TL 15; Opening hours: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Wednesday and Friday 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed Monday

Borusan Contemporary www.borusancontemporary.com TL 10; Opening hours: Saturday and Sunday only, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

Rumeli Hisarı TL 3; Opening hours: daily, except Wednesdays. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m.

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