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Avi Alkaş

Avi is the former Chairman of JLL Turkey, a leading real estate and property company and he is the founder of Alkaş Consulting. You can listen to our conversation with Avi in two podcast episodes on The DNA of Istanbul.

Photo credit: Anna Berdnik via Unsplash.

Caitlin Morrissey

What is the DNA of Istanbul?

Avi Alkaş

In the DNA of Istanbul, I see dynamism, and I see ongoing and ever-changing growth. I was born in Istanbul; I lived in Istanbul ever since. I'm 64 years old, and I have witnessed so many changes, so many evolutions in Istanbul that I am really an Istanbul lover. And I would love to see the city going on for centuries as it has been the capital of the empires, as it has been the capital of trade in the region. Once it was the East Roman capital, once it was the Ottoman, and even though, after the establishment of the Turkish Republic, it did not become the political capital, but still is the economical capital of the country. The state, now, 97 years old with 83 million people and Istanbul, although with its 16 million so-called population but going towards 20, becoming one of the most crowded cities in Europe and even in the world. So I do expect that, as it is a rare city to have lands on two continents and becoming a bridge city, to melt the civilizations, sometimes giving strength to certain religions, like the Orthodoxy, which came after the Catholicism and then becoming an Islamic capital.

And belonging to a religious minority myself, as a Turkish Jew, we have found safeguards and a safe haven when Sultan Bayezid II sent the Ottoman flotilla to escape the Jews from the inquisition of the darkness of Isabella la Catolica and King Ferdinand in 1492. We have been living here in this beautiful city with all the freedom, with all the possibilities to express ourselves, to practise our religion. And I am a proud Turkish Jew, if I can give you as a summary, and I do believe that Istanbul not only with its natural scenic beauties but also with its liveliness, with its historical richness, with its economical activities and now, becoming more and more involved in culture, in the arts, in many activities but still with some space to grow further.

Greg Clark

Avi, this is a wonderful answer. Did you have more to say?

Avi Alkaş

Well, I mean, if you ask me to speak about Istanbul, I can speak for hours, but I want to confine myself to your time frame. That's why Istanbul is leading Turkey in its move. And we are witnessing, now, a political change because, after 25 years, the city mayorship has moved into the new mayor of Istanbul, and that's why sometimes it is even considered, within the politicians, that if you win in Istanbul, it means that you will win Turkey.

But keeping aside politics, I do believe that Istanbul needs an international-minded governance internationally, I mean, knowledged mayors and governors. That's why what I see in my lifetime changing in Istanbul is that Istanbul is becoming even more beautiful, becoming more sustainability-conscious, protecting the greenery and increasing the well-being of its citizens. And even though it's hard to live, when you consider traffic-- because I do believe that one of the main reasons we lost the Olympic Games to Tokyo was that we could not secure the transportation of the sportsmen in certain times. Otherwise, Istanbul would be magnificent city by joining Asia to Europe, Europe to Asia because as you would know, we are on the furthest-western part of Asia and also furthest-eastern part of Europe. Hence, the amalgamation of the cultures here and the richness in the historical places that still attract many tourists. Because Istanbul, before the pandemic, was receiving more than 11 million tourists a year which I believe-- I strongly believe that Istanbul deserves more, so we need to be, you know, equipped to receive more tourists.

The first attempt in the infrastructure was with our airport. The Istanbul Airport became one of the biggest in the world, most probably will become, after the pandemic, the hub of the region. But also, another main infrastructure investments coming in the format of a cruise port for Istanbul of the new cruise port format that we are working on as well. And with all the highways and improving fast rail systems, Istanbul would be better connected to many cities like Ankara and Izmir which is going to revive the economies even further.

But with the number of universities, with the number of institutions, with the number of museums and all the things, it still has a lot of space to grow. Istanbul needs to invest more on culture, on museums, on activities. Istanbul can become a city for many international events and with this, the Turkish hospitality can be expressed to all our guests coming from all around the world. I believe that when they will be going back, they will have some nice memories, some good souvenirs from Istanbul.

Just out of my profession, for example, Istanbul hosted the Grand Bazaar which was built in 1561. Can you believe it? I mean, a place already opened more than 550 years, still active, still enjoying around 200,000 visitors per day. Even though it started as a place of jewellery, it was the centre of wealth because, at any moment in the Grand Bazaar, there was going to be 2,200 tonnes of gold being worked upon, being presented to shoppers but also, the centre of leather, the centre of some tourist items, as well, but at the same time, a very interesting gathering place because it's created a good example. And I have many international friends who are coming from all around the world to study Grand Bazaar, to learn something from it still, even though we are into the modern thing. That's why we believe that along with the trade, along with the culture, along with the richness of the religious and historical sites, Istanbul is worth to come and definitely enjoyable to visit.

Greg Clark

Avi, it's a wonderful answer, and you've given us so much just in 10 minutes. It's incredible. I'm going to ask you two questions, if I may, to be a little bit more precise. But I want to invite you to talk a little bit, firstly, about business in Istanbul. How has business evolved? Obviously, it's been a great trade centre, but what else? I'm going to ask you to talk about that. And then the second question will be about buildings, the real estate historically and today, just to get a sense of that. So, Avi, tell us a little bit about the character of business in Istanbul. How has business evolved, and what is Istanbul good at from a business point of view?

Avi Alkaş

Istanbul has been the gathering places of food items from all around Turkey and even all around the Ottoman Empire land because our second, maybe, oldest place is called the Egyptian Spice Bazaar spice market which is only 15 minutes walking distance from the Grand Bazaar. There you would find food items coming from all around the empire be it the caviar from the Caspian Sea to the fruits, to the dried fruits, to the aphrodisiacs, to the, you know, exotic foods; be it the pastrami from Kayseri, be it the cheese from Trabzon from the Black Sea or be it the fruits coming from the Mediterranean. Definitely, the spices and the dried fruits developed out of them. And with this open-air bazaars, with an open-air food markets, Istanbul has always been a gathering place for many domestic tourists or for many merchants.

Now, merchant tourism in Istanbul has been one of the most attractive points because Istanbul has always been a port, so goods coming in to be distributed not only to Istanbul but all around the region: from Thrace to Europe, from the Anatolia side of Istanbul to inner parts of Anatolia and even to other countries under the Ottoman rule. The merchants, they have been accumulating around the Grand Bazaar. Those areas have been the historical peninsula, what we call, has always been the centre of trading.

But over time, Istanbul also became-- when the Ottoman Empire grew to have lands on three continents, Istanbul became a finance centre. Just across the Golden Horn, the historical peninsula, there was a quarter which is called the Karakoy. Karakoy area was the banking and insurance sector for the time of the 16th and 17th centuries. So over time, banking, from that point, from Istanbul to the surrounding supported the trade.

And then we started the introduction of industry, slowly, when the first clothing factory for the Fez that the Ottoman officers or the officers in the palace, the royal palace of Ottomans, would wear. But from Istanbul, then the industry grew to inner parts of Anatolia and nowadays, leaning towards organised industrial zones in a more modern and more planned way, let's say. Based on these, the industrial now is being pushed more and more out of Istanbul, so we are changing those places from brownfields to living residential areas, greener areas. The forest of Istanbul, which is towards the northern parts of Istanbul, still is being kept as the respiratory tools for Istanbul. And not because I am from Istanbul, but Istanbul is such a lovely city.

I mean, if you would climb up to the highest hill of Istanbul and overlook from the Anatolian side, over towards the European side-- because the European side of Istanbul was populated more densely in the past, but nowadays, it's becoming like 60% of the population living on the European side and 40% living on the Asian side. And where else, I mean, can you commute in between two cities every day, going to work from Asia to Europe and coming back home from Europe to Asia with many, many interesting places?

But of course, when you have trading, when you have banking, when you have hospitality, gastronomy became a very important issue for Istanbul, as I mentioned, in the spice market. So we have very interesting eating places because both royal Turkish food from the palace and also our home food, what we call the cooked and stewed food at homes, are really delicious. We have every sorts of ingredients. You can be a vegan, and you can have, still, the taste of many good Turkish olive oil cooked food. As well, with all the meat selections, even though you would not find much pork in Turkey being an Islamic country, but beef and sheep is sort of the two kinds of-- there are two kinds of meat that you would find, mostly. Of course, the doner, the Shawarma, as the Arabs would call it, the gyro style of having the meat-- with the minced meat specifically in Istanbul is more because there are different styles in Anatolia.

But then it became-- the differentiating point of Istanbul is that - I must say this with my respect for all our female friends, colleagues - Istanbul's weather is considered to be like a woman which means that you can have four seasons in a day. You can start with snowing in the morning, then it can turn into raining, then in the afternoon, after being cloudy, it can become very sunny and bright. So with all these changes, with the four seasons of Istanbul, with the mild climate of Istanbul, yes, a few days snowing in winter, some hot days in summer but still usually comfortable and mild - the sea breeze on one side, the moving winds which change and clean the air all the time - gives Istanbul the possibility to host tourists and domestic visitors alike with beautiful weather all the time.

We had in the past, unfortunately, a few shocks, a few attack. I must mention here because Istanbul has always been a city of, what I call, the melting pot, with the mosaic of all different ethnicities, of all religious minorities living side by side peacefully, harmoniously, respectfully. But unfortunately, Istanbul has been the stage of some terrorist attacks in recent years which disturbed our tourism, which disturb our economy. And based on these attacks in two synagogues, twice in some tourist areas to some tourists which were affecting, and which were very traumatic for us because we have never lived or faced such animosity. And most of the times, it was coming from outside, from some international terrorist groups.

And the Istanbul people responded to it very firmly, very strongly. When a very famous Armenian journalist was killed in front of his newspaper, his funeral was an event. And all the people, all the citizens of Istanbul worked side by side, even carrying some postcards, 'we are all Armenians', just showing the solidarity with the Armenian journalist, Hrant Dink. The same was when the Jewish synagogues were attacked, then the whole people, you know, joined into the commemoration services.

So Istanbul's keeping together-- Istanbul trying together, to me, is like a very famous dessert that they will call-- I mean, we know there's Ashure. Ashure actually coming from an Arabic word of 10 but actually comes with the 40 ingredients in the ship of Noah before he disembarked into the Mount Ararat in Turkey. If you would remember the story from the Bible, that he sent the doves, and the doves usually came back with nothing on their mouth. But when the dove came with the olive branch in his mouth, then he understood that it's time to disembark as they are coming closer to the land. So he ordered to have all his 40 ingredients in his stocks in the ship to be boiled.

And we have a dessert - usually, it is cooked the last month, the 10th of Muharram month in the Islamic calendar - where you boil all the 40 ingredients, but very interestingly, all the ingredients still keep their taste and their characteristics. So you eat the pomegranate, you eat, even, the dried beans or all the other ingredients-- keeping their richness, their identity but being put together with a sugary syrup which is what we see as a symbol of our 'love your brother as yourself'. So that's why that combination, that putting together has always been the understanding of Istanbul.

The real Istanbul residents have always been very friendly to each other. The neighbourhood philosophy has always been on sharing, on caring for your neighbour. And this is how I was brought up in Istanbul; this is what I understand from Istanbul. So the DNA of Istanbul can be considered as the connecting, as the bond of 'love your neighbour as yourself', like I have learned in my Bible.

Greg Clark

Wow. Avi, I could listen to you for hours. I'm going to ask you to talk a little bit about the built environment in Istanbul. You might want to cover whether there is a natural kind of design or architecture but also how the city has changed its spaces and places. And also, you know, bearing in mind the continuous threat of earthquake, how does the city's built environment adjust to that? These kinds of questions.

Avi Alkaş

Sorry, I omitted that. Thanks for reminding. Istanbul has been under the influence of many architectural site-- I mean, moves or currents, let's say. So from the Byzantine time, from the ancient city that was surrounded by the Byzantine walls in the city centre, towards the Ottoman era, and now, to the modernity after the Republic, if you visit Istanbul, you will see that different styles of architecture is all around.

But the major influence is still on the Ottoman style. And especially, Istanbul can be considered a signature city by Sinan the architect which was one of the greatest architects of history. And the Suleymaniye Mosque that he has built, the Saint Sophia church that he made the additions on the four minarets. And of course, with all the minaret silhouettes, the Ottoman style, the Turkish style mosques are much different than the Arab mosque that you would find elsewhere, and it is a very authentic, very characteristic, special-to-Turkey type of mosque with all the minarets, with all the style. So from the old Seljuq style that is being favoured by the present administration was not that much popular in Istanbul, but mostly, there are the classical Ottoman, the neoclassical approaches.

And now, Istanbul is like any other big metropolitan city: it's growing vertically, so especially, on the new business districts, we are starting to see buildings of 20-plus, 40-plus floors becoming even denser, creating further traffic problems for the city. And Istanbul, because of its richness in history, because of the difficulty of excavations not to bother historical richnesses, we were sort of late in implementing our underground system, even though Istanbul has the second oldest metro coming down. Even though a short ride-- but it's the second oldest metro coming down from an area called Tunel in Beyoglu, the district of Istanbul, down to Karakoy where is the start of the Port of Istanbul, the new cruise port of Istanbul. But it's growing; it's getting better.

It's still very much a, you know, motorway, but now, we are starting to become like other big cities-- that we should be greener; we should be more sustainable. That's why cyclism is being motivated-- new roads. Especially on the newer parts of Istanbul, on the Anatolian side, you will find some cycling paths and different routes for cyclers. The Anatolian side is greener because it was later built, and, with the later plans of architectural or metropolitan plans of Istanbul, they are trying to keep distant from each other, each building giving some space on the floor, basements for gardens.

But unfortunately, in the old part of the cities, the buildings are adjacent. And even though there is a renovation move, because of the earthquake threat, especially, some areas were built. Because unfortunately, one of the weaknesses of Turkey and Istanbul is that we relied on an Ottoman rule that if you could put your roof overnight on a small shanty, that was not demolished, just giving you the right to live on there, even though it's not on your legal land. When this heavy urbanisation after the Republic came-- because in my childhood, Istanbul was a city of one million population, and now, it's more than sixteen. So as we could not accommodate that many, you know, incoming residents into Istanbul, there are some areas which were not built properly.

But in the last years, there has been an urbanisation and urban regeneration plan, so it is being promoted for investors to recycle, to demolish and rebuild certain areas. So we started to see some new quarters that are being built strongly against the earthquake threat, and we still have something like more than a million house to be built in Istanbul, to be renewed, and that is continuing. Of course, it needs financial funds. It needs many supports from the locals to accept the terms and conditions and to stay away for the construction period to come back, and that is not an easy process as you might imagine, but it's going on. I mean, it's a positive move forward to renew the city, to rebuild the weaker areas.

And based on that, of course, the institutions are being renewed; bids for the schools, bids for the roads. Many upper bridges were demolished and rebuilt over seeing the threats so that the transportation should not be affected in a crisis time. And many campaigns were held, many homes have their emergency bags in their homes, and the students are much more educated what to do and when to do. But I think, still, it's an ongoing process. So Istanbul, on one side, going towards modern buildings, glass-covered higher floors.

But with this pandemic, I think we will move into another area-- into another era, sorry, that the urban living might be going to the suburbans-- more peripheral move. People are now trying to move away from the city centre. That's why I'm claiming that with the new coworking trends that started with the sharing economy, in due course, in the near future, we might be facing co-living in the city centres. If the working week will change, if we will have three or four days of weekends and three- or four-days working days, depending on the companies, depending on the types of activities, based on those, we might see even a conversion of upper floors in some of the plazas of some of the cities. And the high rises-- that the upper floors might convert into co-living staff dormitories and then to have the working areas on the lower floors, not to have the need for more elevators. So that's the current situation I see in Istanbul. The move will be more towards different types of living areas and living types on certain days, like you might find in London, in Tokyo. That people will be staying in the city for the first three days, and then they will go to their homes out of the city for passing their prolonged weekends, let's say.

Greg Clark

We've developed this idea of the blended city, the city of hybrids?

Avi Alkaş

Exactly what we advocate as well, nowadays, because the move is certainly not to the satellite offices because the satellite concept will disturb the generations that work because they don't want to be pushed away. They don't want to be kept away from the centre which is the heart of the attraction, heart of the activity. So that's why, as solidarity of my generation is fading out, now, the engagement is coming with the newer generations. So to keep them engaged, to keep them in social environments and to make them work in areas closer, in destinations closer to their living areas, so that they can walk to the office, so that they can cycle, or they can even use the skaters. So that's why we believe that the hybrid model of working, the hybrid model of living would be a solution for the happiness of the residents.

Caitlin Morrissey

There are two questions I want to really pick up on. The first question is about inventions and discoveries in Istanbul, and then the second one is about any key leaders that stand out in Istanbul's long history as having really shaped it. But let's first go to the key inventions or discoveries. Is there anything that comes to mind?

Avi Alkaş

Yes, I believe medicine has been one of the areas because the capital of the Ottoman Empire was in Istanbul, and the palace was attracting the best doctors. And I don't want to comment on the lifestyle of our sultans with the harems or with the exotic stories-- not to denounce any females. And of course, Istanbul has been the centre when I say gastronomy. But within the gastronomy, I must mention, specifically, Turkish coffee because it was this style that was evolved, even though coffee, at that time, was coming from Yemen, and there are even songs for the coffee that was coming from Yemen under the Ottoman rule. But the way you would cook the Turkish coffee, stirring the hot water with some coffee put on it, and depending on your taste, the sugar: either no sugar, mild sugar, more sugar. That's why Istanbul is very well known for its coffee as well.

And of course, the Turkish tea because today, for example, we prefer to have the Turkish tea in a glass that is shaped like a woman's body so that you can feel the warmth and the heat of the body when having the glass in your hand instead of drinking like the British with a cup, or like the Arab world with a holder. So we hold the glass even at the time it's hot. But of course, this is coming from the tradition of the construction site, of the working places where people would heat themselves with the Turkish tea. So Turkish tea and Turkish coffee can be considered as one of the specialties of innovations in the way of cooking it, in the way of presenting it. And then the Turkish bagel that we would call simit. So the best breakfast for Turks would be a simit and a tea. So the simit is the sesame bread that is turned around. It is much thinner than the Arab one or much larger and, again, narrower than the American bagel. 

Well, in the Islamic time, painting was not that popular-- I mean, both in Judaism and Islam, the painting side. But music in Istanbul, the royal music, the Turkish classical music has been one of the instruments. And even some religious minorities like us, like the Christian Orthodox, even today, we would pray with Turkish hymns, with Turkish makams, what we would call the Turkish style of music.

But when you come to Istanbul, you cannot go away without a hammam. So the Turkish bath, even though the connotation is not that good in Japan-- but still, the Turkish hammam was one of the healthiest ways to refresh, to relax, to have the steam bath in it and to be washed, even. That's why I will say that these might be the additions to the world civilization. And hopefully, now we are looking forward to have a new discovery for the vaccine. So let's see who will be the first. The Turkish doctors claim that they are very close to find the vaccine. They are now in quarantine, making the test on human.

And based on these discoveries-- and of course, Istanbul being the capital of the Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Ottoman flotilla, the Ottoman Naval officers - although pirates in the beginning, but then attracted to the regular ranks of the Ottoman Navy - they were based in Istanbul, like Barbarossa Hayreddin Pasha who has his tomb still at the entrance of the Bosphorus. We have very interesting stories, mythical stories like the Maiden's Tower in front of it. So if I may mention some characters from history, these are some figures that come to my mind, but of course, I could provide you even later.

Istanbul had very successful mayors in the past, but interestingly enough, we did not have presidents or prime ministers coming out of Istanbul in the Turkish Republic time. But the Ottoman rulers - the Ottoman Padishah, we would call them - the sultans, were based in Istanbul when they were ruling. So we have Sultan Mehmed II, which conquered Istanbul in 1453, is still being celebrated every year on May 29th which is the day of taking Istanbul from the Byzantines with a big, big entrance and penetration into the city but not touching the city, not touching the beauties of the city, not touching the minorities of the city. And in fact, he was a great, great sultan, which came into power when he was 21, and speaking many languages and with some very, very interesting, you know.

We had many sultans with musical capabilities and rhymes, but when I consider one of the best poems for Istanbul, I would mention Yahya Kemal Beyatli - I can write you his name later - and Yahya Kemal Beyatli has been writing fantastic poems over Istanbul, 'Overlooking Istanbul from Hills'. And we have, also, some very interesting, beautiful Istanbul songs, one of the most famous being the song that the Japanese adore. I can sing it a bit in Turkish if you would like. It starts like this: Üsküdar'a gider iken aldı da bir yağmur.  Kâtibimin setresi uzun, eteği çamur. Which is the song depicting a young lady who would like to show her interest in the young katip - katip being a royal officer - which was very handsome with his long jacket, with his red Fez.. So to attract his attention, the lady would drop her handkerchief, and the man would put into the handkerchief, some lokum, which is the Turkish delight. Again, another Istanbul, you know, fantastic dessert that you make from sugar. So that's the story of the young lady and the katip, which is sang, and it is one of the most famous songs of Istanbul which has been sang by many, many singers.

In the near history, I mean, Istanbul is looking. Tayyip Erdogan, our president, was the mayor of Istanbul, and actually, his success in governing Istanbul opened up his way to the top. He became, first, the prime minister, and then, now, he is the president. So Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been one of the most influential figures of Istanbul. Uniting or dividing, I don't want to comment on it because he came with a majority of more than 50%, so he is our president. If we are democratic people, we are respecting, but of course, there are pros and cons about and around his leadership. But since the time that they became in power, after the mayorship of Istanbul-- that he learned a lot, he claims, from Istanbul, in the governing, because he says that if you can run Istanbul, you can run a country. So his experience about Istanbul may be considered because he is from a city, from a quarter of Istanbul called Kasımpaşa even though his roots are coming from the Black Sea, a city called Rize. But he lived in Istanbul ever since he was moved there.

So now, our new mayor has managed to change the course of history for 25 years. It always was in the hands of the right-wing. So coming from the left party, the CHP, the People's Republic Party, Ekrem İmamoğlu, the present mayor, is giving hope to the people that he might change things, and he might unite. So I can mention these two names in the recent years in the Istanbul history.

Caitlin Morrissey

Thank you so much. There are a couple more questions, I guess, that I'd like to ask, and one of them is about myths or stories that unite Istanbulites. 

Avi Alkaş

One of the myths that I already mentioned is the Maiden Tower story, the daughter, the princess of the Byzantine Empire. He was giving the presumption that she would be killed by something from the soil, so the emperor, the Byzantine emperor built a small manmade island just across Üsküdar on the Anatolian site, and she put the prison in confinement to be protected. But again, the myth came true: that when they were bringing a basket of fruits, there was a snake hidden in the basket and bit her, and unfortunately, she was killed even in the middle of the sea.

Another myth, which is believed to be true, is that the first flying man from the Galata Tower - built in the 13th century by the Genoese overseeing the port - that he made himself two wings, and he flew. Hezârfen Ahmed Çelebi, he flew from that Galata tower towards the Üsküdar site, the place with the song. So these are the most famous: the flying man of Galata Tower, the snake-poisoned princess, but also the dungeons of Istanbul.

I mean that there were many hidden-- there are still many hidden dungeons under the palaces connecting buildings to each other, which they are still unexplored. And now, we are seeing some new Netflix films. Unfortunately, Istanbul was not very high, until very recent, on the making film, making series; although we have the James Bond film, although we have, now, two new Netflix series made in the Topkapı Palace under the Hagia Sophia, the Saint Sophia church. And based on this, hopefully, we will have more myths as they are digging out for the metro. And now we are finding that the history of Istanbul is going back to more than 2,000, 3,000 years by the findings of the metro excavations. So these are the myths. 

Caitlin Morrissey

And the second question was about any misconceptions that you encounter when you're talking about Istanbul.

Avi Alkaş

Yes. Now, one of the biggest misconceptions that we suffered - and we felt very bad about it - was the film called Midnight Express: that a drug smuggler-- the drug dealer was caught in that film story, and it was based on a true story-- that he was mistreated in the Turkish prisons, and his negative advocate affected tourism against Turkey. And sometimes, if not specifically for Istanbul, but for Islam, that Islamic support for terrorism can create some sort of misconceptions.

But other than that, the Turkish hospitality, the Istanbul reception-- I mean, I remember that when we had the First World Summit in Istanbul in 2005, that it was an unforgettable event. And usually, the positive memories are well above other things, except when there was the fear of terror, which nowadays, it's stopped; it's under control. But now we have a pandemic. So Istanbul, with the high number of infected people, we are considering that we will overcome this crisis as well in due course. But pandemic is not specific or special to Istanbul; it's a global result. But I don't remember many other negative incidents in Istanbul, no.

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