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F - 122 : Once Cosmopolitan Istanbul


Balat, Istanbul's old Jewish District, is today a bohemian, chic neighbourhood


Most travel brochures describe Istanbul as a vibrant, cosmopolitan city. Being around the Hagia Sophia, inside Tokapi Palace or walking along the Bosporus with its chic restaurants, it actually feels this way. You hear a lot of Arab, English, French, Italian, Spanish, German and many Slavic languages. The impression is superficial though. Istanbul’s population of maybe 20 millions (nobody can agree on the precise number) is to 78% Turkish, 17% Kurdish, 1% are Zazas (Persian speaking Kurds), 1% are Arabs and 3% are from other places. But it was not always like this. Until the end of the First World War, only half of Istanbul’s population was Turkish, the rest mainly Greek and Armenian.

Istanbul's Demographic Development over the last 100 Years - It is a Turkish Town today


Istanbul has in fact a very cosmopolitan past. When conquered in 1453 by Sultan Mehmet II, Constantinople had barely 40’000 inhabitants, mostly Greeks and Armenians. Being a capital requires far more people. Mehmet II brought many Turkish peasants to his new imperial city. But this did not do the trick. The Ottoman Sultans were military men, used to command troops but had little experience in managing an Empire. They needed administrators, clerks and translator with experience. A new administration had to be set up. The well-educated Armenians and Greeks had the skills and were hired.

The Ottoman Empire was a Multi-Ethnicity Empire - around 40% were Christians


We tend to forget that the early Ottoman Empire had more Christian subjects than Muslims. It only changed in 1512 when the Mamluks were defeated and the Ottoman Sultans gained control over the Levant, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Could not find demographic numbers for 1512. Based on my estimates, the split was now 60% Muslim and 40% Christians. But the Sultans did not care. They were interested in loyalty, not in someone’s religion.


Still in the 1870s, Istanbul was an important Centre of Trade


Last but not least, the new Empire needed craftsmen, traders, shippers and bankers which it recruited from wherever it could. You cannot tax trade unless there is trade. The Ottomans were soldiers and pastoralists. The most prominent immigrant were the Sephardic Jews and Muslim Spaniards evicted in 1492 by the Spanish Crown. They found open doors in Istanbul. The Ottoman rulers welcomed them for their skills and granted religious and commercial freedom. By 1550, less than 100 years after Constantinople’s conquest, 660’000 people lived and worked in the town again. It was not only Europe’s biggest town, it was also its most cosmopolitan city. Wealthy, elegant, luxurious. With every expansion of the Empire, it became more cosmopolitan.

The Greek High School for Boys at the Centre of Fener District - the School is empty now


The various ethnicities did not have to live separated, but over time a Greek, an Armenian and a Jewish neighbourhood developed. Fener, the Greek district on the Golden Horn to the north formed around the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate - to this day the mother church for all Greek Orthodox Christians. The Phanariotes – Greek living in Phanarion (Fener today) – became influential Dragoman (Ottoman translators and administrators) and wealthy business people. Their big houses can still be seen in Fener. There is also a big Greek district in Prinkipos, the Prince’s Island, a 10 min boat ride from the Golden Horn.

The Old Jewish Quarter of Balat is now the Home for many Young Turkish People


Balat just to the east of Fener is the old Jewish Quarter. It is poorer since the Jewish community was less well connected then the Greek and arrived later. They looked after retail trading and finance. Their houses are smaller but also more charming. Many still live there. Being in Turkey during the Second World War protected them from the Holocaust. Their brothers and sisters in Thessaloniki in Greece were less lucky. They were deported by the Nazis to the concentration camps. Almost nobody returned.

The Armenian Church in Samataya - the Sea of Marmaris is to the back


Samataya on the Marmara sea just east of the Theodosian walls was the Armenian district and home for about 100’000 people. It dropped to 50'000 but recovered over the last three decades to around 130'000 again


The end of Istanbul’s cosmopolitan nature came in 1922. The Greek Government’s attempt to create Greater Greece by military means ended in defeat in the mountains of Anatolia. The price for this imperialistic folie was paid by Greeks living in Turkey (see my blog on the Greco-Turkish War in 1922). 1.5 million were evicted. Of the 300’000 Greeks in Istanbul, 250’000 had to go. Entire neighborhoods were depopulated. Kemal Ataturk brought Turkish people from the Black Sea shores to repopulate the town.

Ethnic Cleansing in 1922 called "The Population Exchange"


The number of Greek people living in Istanbul dropped further to maybe 2’000 today with the pogroms in 1955 when a Turkish mob attacked Greek homes, churches and cemeteries. The pogroms were unleashed by Turkish nationalists to pressure Greece and England on Cyprus. We know the story. Innocent people pay the price for nationalist policies.


Most People never heard of the Pogrom in 1955


The story of the Armenians in Istanbul is different but similar. After they became aware of the genocide the Ottoman Regime committed in 1915 in eastern Anatolia, many packed their bags and left forever. They emigrated to the United States where today they form a vibrant diaspora. So many Armenian business people emigrated that Turkey paid a terrible price. It had to wait for 50 years for its recovery. Without tourism and free trade with the EU in the 1970s, it may not have happened either.

The Ottoman Empire forced Armenian Civilians to evacuate Eastern Anatolia in 1915 - on the Death March, 600'000 to 1'500'000 people died from Starvation and Exhaustion. Turkey still denies Responsibility


The deserted Greek and Armenian quarters were for decades the poor areas of Istanbul. The new settlers from Anatolia did not have the money to maintain the buildings and the neighborhoods slowly decayed. As in New York and other cities around the world, young people, students and artists moved in. Rents were cheap, houses could be picked up at a bargain and fixed without interference. A bohemian culture with little galleries, small shops, lots of cafes and bars and the occasional club developed. Today, the Greek and Armenian districts are on every visitor’s list. It feels cosmopolitan again. You do not need to speak Turkish to make friends in these neighborhoods. People welcome foreigners with open arms.

The now Picturesque Scenery lets you forget the Tragedies that happened here


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