This is the charming memoir of a childhood spent in No.4 Petraki Han, Constantinople. It was written by my grandfather’s first cousin, Frank, (Francis Xavier Calleja) in the 1960s when he was by then living in a little flat in West Kensington, London.
The place he describes, Petraki Han, is a 19th century apartment block directly facing one of Istanbul’s most famous landmarks, the Galata Tower. Frank was born in 1892 to Maltese parents and lived in Petraki Han for nearly 40 years until the early 1930s.
Petraki Han: A memoir by Francis Xavier Calleja (1892-1970).
Translated from the French manuscript by Judith Mulcahy and Esmé Clutterbuck. Transcribed and edited by Angela Fry with explanatory notes and comments in […].
These two words, one Greek, the other Turkish, would make no sense to those who do not belong to this region where races and languages eternally dance their ludicrous saraband, these words, which are indifferent to those who read them, yet so soft upon my ear, so full of charm for me and so rich with memories, these are the names of the house where we lived for more than forty years. We, who are we? We! were my maternal grandparents, my parents, four aunts, my three dear sisters and myself. A matriarchal family one would say.
Nowadays families so closely linked by a reciprocal affection, by the same fear of God, by a respect for traditions and by a feeling of duty towards family, are few, and the description of such will perhaps make the youth of today laugh.
But it is in this old fashioned and charming setting that the principal events of my childhood, adolescence and a good part of my youth took place. It is this dear chapter of my memoir which I will try to describe.
“Petraki Han” witnessed my first steps, my first words, my first tears. Petraki Han! Magic words to the memories, which you see, awakened in my soul, are magic words to the gentle ghosts of the past and which inhabit my solitude. Be blessed!
Those who are no longer, and whose names are written on my heart in letters of fire; those who are living still, but whom life has thrown to the four corners of the earth, those, the living and the dead will understand me. The others, strangers who read these lines, these indifferent lines, these stringless guitars as I call them from whom no sound echoes, they will smile perhaps and certainly treat me as a romantic.
The Petraki Han was situated next to the old Genoese tower of Galata, which formed the Northern limit of the ancient province of the Genoese Republic. There stood the old walls, of which a few vestiges remain still today, starting from the tower and descending on one side towards the Golden Horn and on the other side towards the Bosphorus which encircled the ancient quarters of Galata. These quarters had previously formed, before Byzantium, this part of the small, wealthy republic, which used to face the commercial and less wealthy Venetian Province [Province Vénitienne], which was to be found on the other side of the waters of the Golden Horn.
Our house was a great square building on five floors, without any adjoining building. Its large terraced roof, like those popular in the orient, was famed in our close circle for the fresh air and the marvelous spectacle of the view.
To the east one could see the Bosphorus, with the Asiatic Coast and the beautiful Haidar Pasha station with its turrets reflected in the Sea of Marmara, further off the Moda holiday resort, and in the distance, fading in the mist one can make out the almost green isle of Fanaraki by its great lighthouse.
To the south and in the foreground is the English hospital, an architecturally imposing building a bit like a Scottish medieval chateau, behind which tranquilly flows the Golden Horn with its two bridges, those of Galata and Azap Kapisi which in the Caucasian language we used to call “the old bridge”. In the background there was Istanbul with its high hills on top of which are the famous mosques silhouetted against the blue sky with their elegant minarets in white marble. Sometimes in the evening in the moonlight you can pick out behind Istanbul a strip of silver, the Sea of Marmara.
To the west of our house, we have the tower of Galata which hides a lot from us but which at least protects us from the winds from the west, the Tarsanali. Further away the populous working districts of Pera spread out in terraces offering us a view of a jumble of disparate houses, irregular roofs and chimney-stacks.
This Petraki Han despite fleeting memories, all the same had nothing attractive about it. It was one of these large houses made into flats in a very modest area inhabited only by the lower bourgeoisie without any great wealth, whereas at the beginning and when my family first lived there, the flat was new. I was only 2 then and all my sisters were born there. [Ed. Petraki Han was built around 1895 following a major fire which destroyed most of the buildings in the area]. Thanks to a landlord who was only really interested in the rent, the upkeep of this flat like many others of the same sort, was left to tenants to look after. In the summer we were literally suffocated by a very strong smell which used to penetrate the building caused by a colony of feral cats who lived in the cellars and left the remnants of their food there. The staircases were so dark we used to go up them on all fours because we had an inexplicable fear of going past the large doors that went over the road [Ed. I am not clear what this refers to as the staircases went up the centre of the building, see floor plan below. They were adjacent to a lightwell]. In the evening a smoking gas lamp lit every landing. In winter most of the time, a strong wind whistled and blew through the slightly ajar back door putting out the lamps. That, for us children made the stairwell all the more sinister and mysterious.
The old porter, Simon, an Armenian, did not give us cause [for concern?]. He used to wear blue billowing culottes and a Brandebouga gilet, had tufts of hennaed hair sprouting either side of the “Chechia” planted on his head [Ed. a type of Islamic hat] and was nearly always in his little place near the entrance crouched down on an old divan, a trail of smoke coming from his nargile [Turkish water pipe] watching all the comings and goings from the house.
Old ugly incorrigible darling that he was, old Simon was however a really good man. He would ceremoniously accompany the proprietor when he came to collect the rent and always enquired after the tenants’ needs, which despite his promises he always managed to forget. “Something wrong with the kitchen, well how can that possibly be?” “The windows won’t shut you say? But of course we will do everything necessary”. And in a voice that did not admit of a reply, the proprietor gave orders to the faithful Simon who cried out to the Guardian, repeating without ceasing “Pek eyi Efendius! Pek eyi efendius!” [Ed. – sic – Turkish pek iyi Efendi “very good Master”], but naturally he never did anything. These two characters were something of a comedy act.
In spite of the odour from the cats, the dark stairwell and old Simon, the flat where we lived on the second floor was for us sanctuary, where surrounded by the affection of our family we lived happily and carefree. There were cares obviously, certainly there were and many of them, but at this time, they were only ones which our parents took notice of and they did everything possible to protect us from them. The family was large and although the cost of living wasn’t very high we never had anything spare. We couldn’t afford any extras without it having an impact.
Entering into our house at no. 4 you found yourself in a little rectangular hallway which was quite dark in high summer but practically black in winter. The little light that there was came from two tiny windows one from the living room on the left and one from the dining room opposite, one being completely covered in the winter by heavy door hangings made from wool from Smyrna which father had a penchant for; he had them in all the bedrooms. In summer we took them all down because of the heat and fear of mites. All curtains and rugs were put in a large trunk with naptholine. At the end of October and the beginning of November we began to decorate the apartment again. Everything needed to be ready by the 19th this being a big name day for our good mother. [Ed: The name day is a tradition in some catholic and Eastern orthodox countries. It is similar to a birthday but celebrates the feast day of the named saint, in this case St Elizabeth of Hungary]. Curtains, carpets, trinkets and all other fripperies had to be put back in place for the little ones, and I believe for the big ones as well, an event we always looked forward to! When everything was ready we used to come into the living room on tip toes, proud of our carpet from Brussels, of our beautiful piano, of our large “Glace de St Gobain” [type of mirror], which nearly took up all the height of the room, our Louis XIV furniture which came from our grandfather, and an assortment of goblets and liqueur glasses which at this time were the joy of the whole family. In fact this living room had the air of a museum within which you couldn’t circulate very easily, nothing like this these days.
I loved our living room, I took refuge in it but took great pleasure in it when I was bigger and started to learn the piano and with my sisters we received many friends. When we were still little and there were lots of people in it, we were only ever allowed to stay long enough to say hello to the ladies and then sent politely away. This was still the time when children weren’t allowed to hear conversations.
On Sunday evenings in the winter, our father used to play the violin accompanied at the piano by one of the aunts. The modern cacophony called music hadn’t yet made an appearance. This was Viennese waltzes, ballades and nocturnes which charmed the ears of us children. It’s true that this music sometimes made me cry. I sometimes went and hid behind the curtain in my mother’s bedroom, which adjoined the living room. Here no one ever thought to look for me, I could listen while sobbing to the “Song of love”, “After the ball”, “Always and never” or “The military silence” and why was I crying? I wasn’t unhappy, if it’s ever possible at that age, it was a manifestation of the mind, in this day of isms it was something like sentimentalism if it was ever that simple, but what drove me to these sudden melancholic crises, these reminiscences of the mind, in a life that was neither happy nor unhappy? Was it a premonition of what my life was to be later; the agonising passing of time? Could I already have enlisted that that very instant of our lives, once it’s gone is irremediably lost forever? In summary this little living room, which was all orderly, discrete and intimate, will always remain vivid in my memory.
So it was a wrench when later, when our father died, we had to separate. When we had to sell off all our family heirlooms it was a catastrophe not because of the material value but for sentimental reasons; we lost all these things and the memories attached to them.
So in order to continue the description of our flat, next to the living room and adjoining was my parents’ bedroom. I can still see when I think about it, the large bed back against the centre of the wall of the room, surmounted by a large canopy with curtains on either side of lace, white like snow; this bed which assisted most of our entrances to this world and was later the witness to the partings of him that I loved. He suffered atrociously and finally left for another world, supposedly a better world, in the pursuit of modest but unrealised dreams. The bed was taken apart and sold to an old antiques dealer as soon as my father left. [Ed. Joseph Calleja died 16 Sept 1930 and is buried in Ferikoy Latin Cemetery].
On the side a little further away in a corner, there was a little bed. This was mine until the age of eight. I was its first occupant and it then became the bed of all my young sisters until the age of eight. One of the sides came down but as I was a bit of a sleepwalker and could not stay still, and was restless even when sleeping, my parents always kept it shut. The ultra religious education at school as well as at home made me a bit of a mystic. I always dreamed of Jesus and the Madonna, the angels with their wings and halos of gold and standing upright in my bed draped in my long white night shirt and although in a deep sleep would whisper unintelligible prayers to the Lady of the Rosary who was at my bedside. My good mother, still awake, used to approach trying not to frighten me and would very carefully calm me down, arrange my blankets and kiss me. I remember this as clearly as if it was yesterday. Such a long time has passed since and this guardian angel who was my mum is no more and has been at rest for a long time now in the little cemetery at Ferikeuy, still very raw in my emotions.
Later on and when it was my younger sisters’ turn to share my mother’s room, they prepared me a little corner in another room which [?] overlooked a large light well [clair voie – a partition that lets light in]. This room was divided in two. Father constructed a large cupboard with two shelves, which took up a good quarter of the room. All the clutter that all houses collect were gathered there.
A little dressing table and chair were the other bits of furniture in it. In the winter it was so dark we had to have a lamp on all the time even in the middle of the day. Despite this, it was in this little room that I spent my best years, first my school years and then my college years, which meant I spent long hours studying there in the evenings often until eleven o’clock. My little sister used to come in and being a bit of a tease, would come in on tip toe, tickle my ears and then scream to frighten me. This invariably came to a bad end and my sister used to leave crying. Later on, after the college years and the start of my life, my small and modest room continued to represent for me the saint of saints where I still sought refuge with delight.
The rest of the flat was occupied by my aunts and my young sisters. One large room in the corner looked out on the northwest side, this was my sisters’ room. In the winter it was a real ice box. When we had a lot of snow the wind whistled and sometimes the snow came through the cracks in the windows, which like the rest of the building, never shut properly. At the beginning of the winter we always tried to seal up the windows but the wind always got through to the great despair of my young sisters and the aunts who felt the cold. This room however, although very exposed to the intemperate climate, was to us children the loveliest room which after big snowfalls we got up to admire the blanket of snow and marvelous ice arabesques.
For the adults and for the children, the harsh winters of Constantinople constituted an important event; Mum and the aunts plunged themselves into their crafts and looked for bits of woollen material, and under lamplight proceeded to make the “terlicks” [Ed. sic. Turkish word is terlik], little slippers to wear outside […] so as not to slip on the ice. The streets, particularly in the little passageways where we lived, were all downhill and treacherous in the winter.
Life at this time was relatively easy. People mostly stayed at home in bad weather and when the snows came, schools were shut and offices too because of the lack of transport. So in nearly every house families gathered together around a brazier to roast chestnuts in a big pan with roast potatoes in the ashes, eating them all smoking.
Our dining room was in the centre of the flat and adjoined directly every bedroom. I can see it now thinking about it, this central room with its old furniture and tapestries of flowers, where in the evening after a laborious day we all gathered around the large table. How could I ever express what I feel about these intimate evenings. On Saturday night in particular, because the next day was a feast day and we didn’t have to get up early, we extended our evenings to the early hours.
I would read or write, my sisters would be occupied with making embroidery or tapestry while our lovely mum used to sing airs from the opera in a very flute like voice but which still resounds in my ears.
The memory of the night before Christmas those lovely memories of another time are still vivid; when we all used to go to midnight mass at the little church of St. Peter, our parish church [Ed. St Peter and Paul RC Church in Galata].
After the evening meal, always particularly light on that day, we amused ourselves playing dominoes or tombola while waiting for the time when we had to leave for church nearby. Old Aunt Emilie, always the first to signal the time, appeared at eleven thirty, at the door of her bedroom, all ready to go.
It was then when the laughter and teasing began, “Oh Aunt Emilie, you are ready? there’s a good half hour to midnight and the church is only 2 minutes away” but Aunt Emilie didn’t bite, she maintained her composure in all circumstances and said that we shouldn’t run to go and see God but should take our time. And that’s how it was in all things for her until the end of her life, energetic, methodical, and not allowing herself to be impressed or discouraged by anything. She never succumbed to any obstacles. Her strong character helped her to get through all the vicissitudes of life with courage and there were many of them. She remained always for us a model of a strong and energetic woman, an example to us all.
But coming back to our Christmas Eve, the celebration above all, maintained its particular charm for me, so much so it makes it hard for me to express. When it was time to go to mass, we dressed ourselves warmly and went off with a light step, but carefully because of the snowfall so as not to fall. The road down to the church was steep but that didn’t matter, one fall more or less was of no consequence.
The distance wasn’t great but with the weather dog cold as it always was, we were frozen to our bones, so it was with great relief we went into the little church where there was a large number of the faithful gathered. [There we find] the old organ playing familiar hymns, the large candles on the main alter and the numerous candles on the candelabras making all the precious chalices and sacred vessels twinkle, as well as the tassels on the end of the tapestries that ran around the walls and which were put there to celebrate the great feast day.
Entering the church on the left, all down the side there was an enormous straw crib, a masterpiece of old vintage in front of which all the faithful were ecstatic. The donkey and the cow were perhaps disproportionate compared to the other figures who peopled this little corner of Galilee made of glue and papier-mâché. The little houses put there were a bit too like Swiss chalets and had nothing of the local colour. Also in among the papier-mâché were a few beautiful dolls all done out in velvet and lace. It didn’t matter, no one was looking at the details. The impact of the religious manifestation was above all and just blew away any critical thoughts. We were all in agreement it was a really lovely thing.
Once mass finished, or rather the three masses, because we weren’t able to go home alone and our elders wanted to be part of all three, even though we were falling asleep, we found ourselves back in the street where everything was covered in a blanket of snow. The cold woke us up immediately but the idea of a lovely traditional supper waiting for us was enough to help us forget our tiredness.As soon as we got back we all kissed each other and wished each other Happy Christmas and then sat down to table. Oh the lovely smell of foaming hot chocolate and the exquisite cake made by my mum and the famous Turkish kaimak which always appeared on the table on Christmas Eve after mass. It was so simple but so wonderful.
Once the meal was finished, we exchanged good wishes again and then finally, happy and contented, we went to bed not forgetting to place our slippers somewhere obvious so that Jesus could put some nice things and sweets in them that we had earned during the year. Many times I remained disappointed on finding in the morning when I got up, a piece of coal or onion, indisputable proof because it came from Jesus himself, that I had not been good enough which led to floods of tears, but all swept away when mother suggested that if I made amends, and promised to be good then little Jesus might change his mind – which was always the case!
“Oh, our early days! what would we have become without them?” as Alfred de Musset said in his famous elegy. [Ed. Possibly this refers to the quote “A lively retrospect summons back to us once more our youth, with vivid reflections of its early joys and unstained pleasures.”] I confess it without any embarrassment, I believed in this little legend of Jesus for a long time and in Father Christmas bringing presents to little children who were good and when the time came when I couldn’t believe it any more, it was if there was a real tear (wrench?) inside me, I felt a bit of poetry disappear out of my life and a bit of resentment at having been misled for so long.
In the summer on holidays we assembled on our large terrace with all the people who lived in the block. The adults formed little groups, some chatting, talking politics or fashion [fanfreluches]. The children played ball or flew kites. Sometimes we played “Four corners” [a children’s game] or we danced and sang the old song about le pont d’Avignon. Normally I didn’t join in much with the others; I preferred to shrink into a corner or perch on a wall, my nose in a book. I had a real liking for pink headed books from the library like Le Gribouille or Le General Dourakine or Le Petite Comtesse that I read or reread many times. [These were childrens books written by la Comtesse de Segur born Rostopchine, daughter of the governor of Moskow. She wrote them for her grand children and they were published in a special collection with a red-pink color cover]. These stories from my childhood engrossed me to such an extent that the world around didn’t exist for me anymore. It also meant that I was really annoyed when from a very nearby place I could hear my father or mother’s voice calling me down for a meal.
We gathered together our bits and pieces and went down making a lot of noise on the iron staircase which led from the last floor onto the terrace. Later on this terrace at Petraki was witness to a little love affair without any [good] end it’s true, but which I always remember with much emotion.
One evening by moonlight I took my little white terrier, “Mapi”, a dog who was afraid of everything and everyone, even his own shadow made him tremble and he would not be comforted. Probably to hide his inferiority complex he made an infernal noise barking at everything everywhere. Some new tenants came to occupy number 7, a German family who were very distinguished, composed of a father, mother, and two young girls, and a young man who was, it seemed at that time, the darling of all the women and young girls of Perote society which meant we never saw him. As always we were very curious to see the new arrivals and that evening my wish was granted thanks to my little dog. The terrace was deserted except for the two young German girls who were alone and admiring the beautiful panorama of the Golden Horn and the minarets bathed in moonlight.
Etiquette didn’t permit me to approach them, when my dog, approached by a fly ran towards them furiously barking. I shut him up and went up to them to apologise, which allowed me to present myself and make acquaintances of these two charming sisters. I was immediately attracted to the diaphanous beauty of the older one. She was blonde, very slender, with big grey eyes and a Madonna like look that I would never forget. I don’t know why blondes have always held so much attraction for me because they’ve never brought me much happiness.
Briefly that evening, the great sentimentalist I’ve always been, felt his heart beat a little bit faster and a little more softly. Following that, our respective families got to know each other and met up quite often. Sometimes when we were alone my blonde friend played me waltzes and Chopin nocturnes, which she knew how to embellish.
Both of us had dreams that were never to be realised. The war of 1914-18 arrived to put a stop to our idyll. Forced to leave the country I took refuge in my uncle’s place in Bucharest. [Ed. as Turkey sided with Germany in WW1, the family being British subjects were considered “enemy aliens” and the men risked internment. It was decided they would leave for Romania to stay with Joseph’s brother Octavius Calleja until it was safe to return]. During the first months of my exile I received touching letters but later on our correspondences became rarer and then ceased completely. I heard nothing more about her until my return to Constantinople after the war where I learned that she had married a Swiss German who had lived in our place. This is how the little love affair born on a Petraki rooftop terrace by moonlight ended.
Another memory amongst all the others, is that of the 1st September, the feast day of S.M. Abdul Hamid, given the name The Red Sultan.
This day was celebrated every year with great aplomb and significance. [Sept 1st is start of a 4 day public national holiday in Turkey. Called the Sacrifice Feast it commemorates the story of Abraham displaying his obedience to God by offering to sacrifice his son]. The whole of Constantinople was on its feet with parades, military music, and great pomp. In the evening all the public buildings, the palaces, the bridges, the mosques were resplendent with light. Hundreds of lanterns were lit with large candles because even though SM [the Sultan] had electricity within his palace at Yildiz, he refused to allow it for the people in the capital. In the daytime of the 1 September we climbed onto our roof to watch the “karakaula” or guardian of the [Galata] tower set up his decorations with flags and lanterns.
In the upper part of this colossal edifice, a red light was perched. From where we were it gave the impression of little devils up to some sort of mysterious work and our hearts trembled to see it.
In the evening our terrace became the rendezvous for the whole apartment block, from where we would watch everyone circulating all along the Corniche.
Before going up to meet our friends, our father brought down from the old cupboard little packets all wrapped up in paper, where they had been stowed away for several days. We all knew what they contained. We were really proud of possessing Bengal fires, roman candles and firecrackers. Equipped with all these things, we hastily climbed the three floors and let off the firecrackers. Indeed we had great fun at that time and age had nothing to do with it, because the adults had as much fun as the youngsters.
I have tried basing things uniquely on my memory, to give you as accurate description as possible of our life in no 4 Petraki Han. I have simply decided to mention certain events which I remember very clearly and which made an indelible impression on me. I’ve never intended to put a whitewash on all our daily lives. For forty years a large amount of work and an absence of notes has made this impossible to write and it wouldn’t have interested anyone.
In conclusion I would say after 60 years I have only to close my eyes to see it all again. The day when we left the place which saw us all born, where we left this great apartment standing alone and empty – YES empty! But so many memories.
This has been a sort of pilgrimage across the rooms, the desolate empty rooms, a real Stations of the Cross. I’ve stopped at each one and alone with myself I have tried to condense everything that’s been in my spirit; all the events I’ve witnessed. Thus plunged into reminiscing about a happy past I found myself called by the porters who demanded the keys and wanted to lock the apartment. I’ve now left and must never go back there.
Today a long way from this place (and there have been a large number of occupants who have gone through towards a better life), all I can do is put my thoughts about Petraki Han on paper and what has happened in front of my eyes is a magnificent vision, a kaleidoscope of marvelous forms which have crystallised in such a way that I’ve had difficulty in discriminating between the past and the present. What has unfurled in front of my eyes is so real that I refuse to believe that the past is really past.
All our acts, all our thoughts, our secrets, our desires, our emotions, all of these are manifestations of our spiritual being which is always there. We form a sort of backdrop in front of which inexorably we are all pushed by destiny and advance without respite and without hope.
My thanks go to: Esmé Clutterbuck for sharing Frank’s manuscripts and many family photos, Jude Mulcahy for translating the document into English, Jeremy Neave and Moira McGrother for additional family photos.
Daily Sabah, 2017, Magic Slippers: Tales of the Turkish “Terlik”: https://www.dailysabah.com/expat-corner/2017/08/11/magic-slippers-tales-of-the-turkish-terlik
Gözübüyük Melek, Dilsad, (Dec. 2004), New Interpretations of Domestic Space and Life: the Emergence of Apartment Buildings in 19th Century Istanbul. MA Thesis submitted to the Graduate School of Social Science of Middle East Technical University.
In recent years Petraki Han has been fully renovated and a number of the apartments are now available for holiday lets. Modern and luxurious, many original features have also been retained and visitors have free access to the wonderful roof terrace. Go to Istanbul Place Apartments for more details.