Musing on İzmir, Aegean metropolis

The Journal of Turkish Weekly recently published a review I wrote of Ottoman Izmir: the Rise of a Cosmopolitan Port. You can read my review here.

It is an interesting book, a scholarly investigation of a period during the mid-19th century when İzmir (then generally known as Smyrna) experienced unprecedented growth, thriving as a multicultural trading port linking the fertile Anatolian hinterland and the markets of the eastern Mediterranean and Europe more broadly. Written by an art historian, Sibel Zandi-Sayek, the book aims to present a non-partisan view of the machinations and interactions of the city’s very ethnically diverse citizenry at a time when a centralising Ottoman bureaucracy and foreign powers were seeking to capitalise on burgeoning trade networks and shifting geopolitical dynamics.

İzmir is Turkey’s third city but it is generally outshone by the star quality of İstanbul and Ankara’s capital-city kudos. İzmir’s 19th-century boomtown persona was effectively extinguished in 1922, when triumphant Turkish armies expelled a Greek expeditionary force and the historical core of the city was put to the torch. Today it is a busy, workaday city without any particular distinguishing feature, its multicultural history all but eradicated. The wholly admirable Bir Zamanlar publishing house in İstanbul is currently holding an exhibition of postcards displaying the diversity and vibrancy of İzmir in the early 20th century.

İzmir was the city I lived in for a bit over a year in 1994-5, teaching at a private language college in the bayside neighbourhood of Alsancak. At the time I was blissfully unaware of its colourful past, spending my time generally underwhelmed by ranks of tower blocks and pedestrianised promenades lined with interlocking tessellated pavers where once stood the bustling neighbourhoods and “polyglot enclaves” of Levantine entrepreneurs, Greek and Maltese stevedores, Frankish merchants, Armenian traders and printing presses that clanged through the day to produce periodicals and flyers in five different scripts and many more tongues. Back in the day, Izmir even had its own dialect of Greek, known as Smyrneika.

In retrospect I can recognise that there is a significant historical imprint on the modern city. Looking at some of the 19th-century maps in Zandi-Sayek’s book I can see that the avenues of Alsancak, and the broad avenues of neighbourhoods nearby, follow the same routes as the streets of 19th-century Smyrna.  I recall once crossing a side road not far from the Alsancak waterfront promenade and realising with some amazement that the man-hole cover before me was labelled in Arabic script. Not far from here, was the Greek consulate, one of few remaining historical buildings on the waterfront. There has been some controversy about the consulate lately, with some media reporting that the Greek government has put it up for sale.

There were also some neighbourhoods of Ottoman-era houses climbing a hill behind the bazaar at Kemeraltı. I would wander there sometimes in the afternoons with a friend.  We would climb the steep, narrow streets spying the architectural accoutrements of an earlier age: wooden shutters, latticed balconies, window grates of wrought iron. Life was lived on the streets here. Women tended basil plants in empty olive-oil tins; aged men sat on doorsteps to watch the streetly goings-on; children giggled and kicked balls down steep flights of steps. Smiling locals would ask us where we were going, and we’d smile back and say we were just wandering, at which point they would decide we were crazy. One bemused child, skipping beside us, asked, “Why do you come here? Everything is dirty and ugly and old.” Everyone offered directions to us, convinced that we could only come that way because we were lost. I wrote in my diary at the time that after almost a year in İzmir I felt that I had finally found the beating heart…

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