“It was the happiest moment of my life, though I didn’t know it yet.” So we’re are greeted as we step across the threshold of this nondescript, maroon 19th century house on a quiet street corner in Çukurcuma, Beyoğlu.
Directly opposite this affirmation printed on the wall is a collection of mounted cigarette butts – 4,213 to be precise – some with red lipstick stains and all sorted chronologically according to when each was discarded. Walking up the narrow, rickety stairs of this three-story house, the carefully organised displays of bric-a-brac continue: beautifully tailored dresses; newspaper clippings and movie tickets; vintage jewellery boxes and perfume bottles; a selection of rusted, ornately fashioned brass keys; expired bottles of prescription meds.
These objects of curiousity belong to a deceased man named Kemal and his late, much younger mistress, Fusen. Even without knowing their story, one can surmise how it played out – an upper-class (and engaged) man falls for his poorer distant relative, resulting in decades of secret rendezvous, tense arguments, tearful farewells and passionate reunions. Their story is a love affair to remember. Especially because that’s all it is. A story.
Yes, the most peculiar aspect of this whole house isn’t that it is filled with random objects and an extraordinary number of the cigarette butts, but the fact that the two lovebirds didn’t actually exist in the real world at all.
The house is better known as the Museum of Innocence, named for the eponymous novel by famed Istanbulite, Orhan Pamuk. The Nobel laureate’s story chronicles the romance between Kemal and Fusun; each chapter corresponding to an exhibit in this museum. The collection is an ever-updating work, the objects painstakingly collected by Pamuk himself, or donated by admirers of the book.
If that doesn’t have your head spinning, here’s another kicker: Pamuk actually wrote himself into the book as a character who helps to build this museum as per the wishes of his friend Kemal. The Museum of Innocence was awarded European Museum of the Year in 2014, just two years after first opening its doors. It’s a worthy accolade, given that the space also offers so much for those who aren’t aware of the story. It’s a museum of nostalgia, where multi-generations of Turkish families can visit and reminisce, and where visitors can gain extraordinarily detailed insights into life in Istanbul in the seventies and eighties.
It is probably more correct to say that the real love story isn’t the one between Kemal and Fusen. It’s the love affair between an author and his beloved Istanbul.