Homeschooling history—literary sleuthing in Istanbul

Recently I was browsing in a little Istanbul bookshop, when I came across an autobiography called Portrait of a Turkish Family by Irfan Orga. The book caught my eye, and within a couple pages I was hooked.

Portrait of a Turkish Family

Written in 1950, the book chronicles the downfall of a wealthy Istanbul family between 1912 and 1940. It’s a gripping and poignant memorable account of the family’s prosperous and traditional pre-war lifestyle in Ottoman Turkey, their struggles with poverty and family disintegration during WWI, and finally, their life in the new, secular Republic of Turkey.

I bought it, tore through the book in a day, and then recommended it to Scout, who did the same. Portrait of a Turkish Family would be an excellent read for anyone interested in Turkey, but what a gift that we were able to read it in Istanbul, where the first part of the book is set.

After finishing the story, Scout and I couldn’t stop talking about it.

One day, aching to connect with the old Istanbul portrayed in the book, we decided to do some literary sleuthing, while Mark was off to the Apple store in Karaköy for some desperately needed converter plugs. (Thanks, hon!)

Roadschooling in Istanbul

The kid and I decided to scour Istanbul’s back streets and try to track down the house where the author had lived until he was six. It struck us both as a magical place we’d like to see.

Did the house still exist?

If not, could we at least find its location?

Googling the answers to our questions, but that would have defeated the purpose. What Scout and I really wanted was to discover our own connection to the book and to pre-war Istanbul. Could we find the house or—if it was no longer there—its location, a hundred years later based solely on the author’s description?

Here’s Orga’s physical description of the house, where he enjoyed a privileged, traditional Ottoman life until the outbreak of WWI.

Our house was behind the Blue Mosque, overlooking the Sea of Marmara. It stood at at the corner of a small cul-de-sac, with only a low stone wall between it and the sea. It was a quiet, green place and a very little mosque stood near it, and among my earliest recollections is the soft, unceasing sound of the Marmara and the singing of birds in the gardens. our house was a big wooden house, painted white, with green shutters and trellised balconies front and rear.

From this description, Scout compiled a list of characteristics that should be unchanged if the house still existed. These would be our clues:

  1. Wooden house built before 1900
  2. Behind the Blue Mosque
  3. Close enough to the sea to hear waves. No other old houses in front.
  4. Little mosque nearby
  5. On a cul-de-sac near a corner.

The low stone wall, the gardens, and the paint colors would likely be changed by now, so although we kept these things in mind, we didn’t seek them out.

We also made these assumptions:

  1. In 1908, the Sea of Marmara probably would have reached the Roman seawall. (These days a roadway, bike path and newer, rocky sea barricade separate the medieval seawall and the sea. They look to me like  20th-century landfill.)
  2. The street plan is the same today as it was back then.

OK, we were ready to begin.


But first, some köfte

First we stopped to eat at a nearby Köftesici. Literary sleuths need to keep up their strength.

OK, this time for real.

The hunt for Ottoman Istanbul begins

The Blue Mosque is only about 400 meters from the Roman wall where sea met city in 1908. And since the author’s house was at the edge of the sea, it stands to reason it must have been near the wall. This narrowed down our search zone to a pretty specific area, so if the house and any of our landmarks were still there, we should be able to find what we were looking for fairly quickly.

Scout led the way.

She guided us down from the Blue Mosque, through the windy, cobblestone backstreets lined by crumbling Ottoman houses, taking care to stay “behind” the mosque and not veer off course. It only took a few minutes to reach the Roman wall, where our first order of business was locating cul-de-sacs.

Along the way we had a few helpful inquiries from people assuming we were lost. One, an American chemical engineer visiting from Omaha, chatted with us for a while and shared a couple of his local maps with us. Another, a Turkish man who owned the small travel agency on the corner, gave us some street suggestions and then told us to come see him if we needed any help. Finally, two giggling, young girls approached Scout and tried out their few English words.

(Disclaimer: I was having so much fun I opted not to fiddle with my camera. Photos from here down are Scout’s.)

After half an hour of searching, we found a cul-de-sac. Well, a dead-end street anyway. We couldn’t be 100% sure how the writer, a native Turkish speaker writing in English, was using the word.

It was the only one we could find.

We looked around. Was there a turn-of-the-century house on the corner?

Indeed there was.

Oh my!

Scout and I both got tingly.

The house, now a fish restaurant, was closed for the afternoon, but the doors were open. We climbed the stairs and headed into what was now a dining room.

Because the waiters were busy chatting and smoking in the alley, we were able to have a good look around the place.

Inside we found ourselves in what would have once been a very fine house. The rooms overlooking the sea were large and airy. Peering outside, we confirmed there could have been room around the property for large gardens. There wasn’t a low stone wall, but at one time there could have been. The occupants would certainly have heard the waves of the Marmara. It was easy to imagine the charmed, traditional life of the author unfolding in this house.

We left the building feeling increasingly excited and optimistic.

As we headed back outside, we paused at the front door where Scout said, “the only thing missing is the small mosque nearby.”

But before she could finish her sentence, she looked up and saw this:

A block away was a  small, neighborhood mosque, its minaret dominating the surrounding blocks. We trotted over to confirm it had been around in 1912.

Bingo. A plaque outside dated it from the 15th century.

This had to be it. Scout and I were giddy. She even asked me if she could write an essay about the experience, but my inbox is still empty, so we’ll see about that one.

I can’t be positive he had the right place, but I’m pretty sure we did. And if we were wrong, it didn’t really matter. The author would have lived in a similar house nearby. My daughter and I had found our connection to Ottoman Istanbul.

From an education standpoint, the experience was a huge success. Scout learned so much from the book, from the devastating impact of WWI on Turkey to Atatürk’s post-Ottoman reforms and the changing roles of women throughout. And our day searching for the house made it all real.

Even better, the two of us shared a lovely adventure that we’ll both remember for a long, long time.

The author’s house, now converted into a restaurant, from the beach side.




{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Athomeintheworld6 September 4, 2011 at 8:39 pm

Wow! What an adventure! Sounds so much fun, I wish I was there to partake in it too!


2 Anonymous September 5, 2011 at 11:35 am

Thanks, it’s been incredible so far.

Sounds like you’re partaking in your own wonderful adventure as well…


3 Amy September 5, 2011 at 6:19 am

LOVED this post! How amazing to actually have possibly found the same house.  What a lesson in history!


4 Renee September 5, 2011 at 9:23 am

Thanks so much, Amy. It was such a great day. And if it wasn’t the same house, it was surely one just like it, so I’m totally comfortable using the visual when I think about the book.


5 Renee September 6, 2011 at 7:11 am

Thanks! Amy, it was SO much fun. Truly memorable.


6 AimeeLC September 5, 2011 at 6:36 am

Wow. I am so amazed at your wonderful experience and wish in my heart that I’d had the strength of my convictions years ago to continue as a homeschooler/unschooled. Thank you for your inspiration. Although my eldest is now a senior in public high school, my youngest us only starting sixth grade, do maybe it is not too late for her. God bless you and your beautiful, wise world-schooling efforts. How very blessed Scout is.


7 Renee September 6, 2011 at 7:09 am

Thank you, Aimee.

Of course, it’s never too late! Sounds like you’ve already done it for a few years, yes? How’d it go? It’s not always easy, is it.

I’m incredibly grateful that we’ve been able to take this trip, because it really had brought history and geography alive for my daughter. Thanks for following along. Your comment means a lot to me


8 staceystoyanov September 5, 2011 at 10:31 am

Thanks for laying it out the way you did (the journey) because it makes it easier for me to see how it can be put into practice / life (world schooling). An amazing experience for both of you, and on so many levels – cultural connection, history/ literature / geography, not to mention the analytical skills it took to narrow down the search field. I love how you guys were able to glean so much from reading a book together. Talk about enriching your life!


9 Renee September 6, 2011 at 7:13 am

You’re welcome, Stacey. Just as you say, the whole experience was meaningful on so many levels. And really fun to boot!

Thanks for stopping by the blog, and especially for taking the time to leave a comment. Always appreciated very much.


10 Andrea and John September 5, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Oh wow – how fun…would love to do something like this! Sadly, I haven’t had time to read a good book in ages. Really enjoyed this post =)


11 Renee September 6, 2011 at 7:20 am

Thanks, guys. Welcome to the blog and cheers for the comment.

You know I anticipated having much more down time for reading than I actually have had. Trip research, planning, and blogging eat up a lot of hours.


12 Rebeca September 5, 2011 at 11:16 pm

What a grand adventure… and so glad you found it! 


13 Renee September 6, 2011 at 7:25 am

Thanks, Rebeca. I’m so grateful we finally decided to go for it!


14 Educating Mama September 9, 2011 at 12:50 am

What a cool story, Renee.  Thanks for sharing it with us.  What’s the last food picture of — some sort of sweet? 

Lisa in Ontario


15 Renee September 9, 2011 at 8:35 am

Hi, Lisa. Nice to hear from you. How are things in Ontario?

It’s a picture of “irmik helvasi,” a sweet semolina cake. When we ordered it, I expected it to be pretty bland, but that wasn’t the case at all. The pine nuts and semolina gave it a deep, earthy flavor, which balanced the sweetness really nicely. Also it had a lovely mouth feel. Very moist and crumbly. Delicious.

Are you still blogging? I’ve tried to visit KKaH a few times but didn’t get through.


16 Educating Mama September 9, 2011 at 10:21 pm

Hey Renee,
Ontario is undoubtedly very boring compared to Istanbul, and I haven’t had any interesting food like that in a long time!

I still have the blog, but haven’t written for ages.  Finding it hard to figure out which audience to write for, IYKWIM.  I was on a privacy kick for a bit and removed it from public viewing, but it should be okay now.  Check back in a month or two and maybe I’ll have written something ;-). 

Enjoy your wandering!


17 Markied September 9, 2011 at 8:13 am

Portrait of a Turkish Family, sounds like a good book.


18 Renee September 9, 2011 at 8:16 am

I recommend it it a highly. A gripping read.


19 SE November 11, 2011 at 7:24 pm

How cool! What a wonderful idea .


20 Renee November 18, 2011 at 10:52 am

Thanks, it’s been a lot of fun.


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