For Greek journalist Demetrios Ioannou, Istanbul was a place he was drawn to a couple of times a year, to soak up its heady atmosphere, cultural richness and architectural treats. Never did he imagine he’d see a city so full of life transform into a ghost town. Here are the photos he captured of the city’s quiet streets in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The sharp sound of a small axe chopping wood scares away a group of pigeons. Right now, they’re the only living presence in the empty park between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, usually one of Istanbul’s most crowded places. A police guard stands nearby, wearing a cheap surgical mask. He throws the wood into a handmade heater in an attempt to keep himself warm.
It’s a cold morning in April 2020. The area would normally be flooded with people—locals and tourists—their voices blending in with the sounds of the city.
Instead, Istanbul is virtually silent.
When the news about COVID-19 first reached Turkey a couple of months earlier, nobody took it particularly seriously. Events in China seemed so far away at the time. Personally, I was busy crashing Argentinian milongas (tango dance events) all over the city.
People were still out on the streets, the nightlife as busy as ever, and life continued, in its usual unrelenting way. No one could imagine what the future would bring.
When the Turkish government officially announced the first case of coronavirus on March 11th, things started to change. People began to feel fear.
And soon, the numbers started rising.
Cases of COVID-19 in Istanbul were much higher than in any other city in Turkey. However, even today, there’s a feeling among Istanbul’s residents that we were not told the whole truth about the real numbers during those first days.
“Be careful—there are many more people with ‘Corona’ than they’re saying. The numbers are much higher,” Ahmet, my Turkish flatmate, warned me every time he saw me going out.
He worked as a bartender at a local rock bar, but as bars, cafés and restaurants were the first establishments to shut down in Turkey, he spent most of his time at home, following the news on TV.
“Don’t go out without a mask,” he kept saying to me.
Some close friends had bought fabric masks online, and a couple of boxes of disposable plastic gloves, which they later shared with their friends, including me. It wasn’t long before we were all wearing them.
Istanbul never went into a total lockdown during the first months of the virus outbreak—we only had weekend curfews.
I remember the first curfew, on the weekend of April 11-12. It was announced on Friday night, and Istanbulites rushed out in a frenzy to buy necessities for the weekend. Videos of long queues outside the local markets dominated our social media feeds, as people waited impatiently to buy bread and milk.
This was the first time that social distancing disappeared.
But what struck me the most was that Istanbul had been under an unofficial lockdown since March 17th, when the first measures against the pandemic were announced. One measure was that only citizens aged 20-65 years old were allowed to walk on the streets, although people of all ages had been voluntarily self-isolating since the news of the virus was first circulated.
A few days before that first curfew in April, I took to the streets with a colleague, Katie Nadworny, a US expat who moved to Istanbul seven years ago, to see how the outbreak had changed the city.
“Usually, these streets are packed with people, to the point where it can be overwhelming. I never thought I’d actually miss the crowds,” Katie told me as we walked under the Galata Tower and towards İstiklal Avenue, the heart of modern Istanbul which was now, unbelievably, almost empty.
I first visited Istanbul in the summer of 2016, but since June 2019, I’d been visiting twice a year and staying a couple of months each time. I can’t quite say what it is exactly that keeps drawing me back again and again, but it’s something magical. It’s also the many friends I’ve made there; we’d spend time cruising in Bosphorus or chewing sunflower seeds sitting on the grass by the sea, or dancing every night to Turkish pop music. But I never imagined I’d ever see this city so quiet.
The only sounds interrupting the silence were the imams from the mosques around the city, calling worshippers to their daily prayers. After each prayer, they asked for people to stay at home to protect themselves from the virus. The fear of contracting COVID was the only thing keeping Istanbulites inside their homes.
Istanbul, a city of almost 20 million people, has been through a lot—an understatement to say the least—over the past few years. Multiple terror attacks, a failed coup, political turbulence, the Gezi park protests, an economy on the verge of a crisis… and yet none of this came close to shutting the city down. Now, a virus had silenced Istanbul. The tourists have left, the stores, bars, cafes and restaurants are closed, and residents are, mostly, staying at home.
“With the bombings in 2016 and everything else that happened over the past seven years, there were still crowds all over the city,” says Katie on one of our walks. “Terror didn’t keep people inside. It’s completely surreal to see Istanbul so empty now.”
We walked extensively for days, visiting some of the city’s most popular tourist spots on both sides of Istanbul. From the old city in Eminönü to Üsküdar and Karaköy to the hyped neighborhood of Kadiköy, nothing resembled the Istanbul we knew.
The Bosporus ferries are my favorite—and to my mind, the most scenic—way to commute between Istanbul’s European and Asian side. Usually, they’re packed with people, and sometimes you can’t find a seat.
But since coronavirus hit, the ferries have been traveling with as little as a dozen people each time. Unless it was necessary, nobody traveled further than their own neighborhood, especially after the city closed its borders to stop the spread of the outbreak outside Istanbul.
The city opened and closed a few times throughout 2020. It didn’t take long for the locals to, at least partially, regain some of their past habits, such as fishing on the Galata bridge.
Restaurants welcomed the first customers in early March 2021. Istanbul seems to be slowly returning to some form of ‘normal’, although Turkey went into a total lockdown for 17 days in early May, as new cases remain high.
I am back in my homeland of Greece now. When I left Istanbul last year, I took with me a white lale (tulip in Turkish), a gift from a local florist. And it kept me company on the difficult crossing of the border back home.
Demetrios Ioannou is an independent journalist and documentary photographer. He is based in Athens and Istanbul, covering a wide range of news in the region. His work has appeared in The New York Times, The Economist, POLITICO Europe, NPR and BBC Travel, among others.