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Fascinating corner of the Orient: Izmir

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Old November 24th, 2004, 01:52 AM
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Default Fascinating corner of the Orient: Izmir

[More on Izmir see:
http://www.izmirturizm.gov.tr/default.asp?L=EN ]

x0x Fascinating corner of the Orient: Izmir

By M. Rifat Akbulut

The famous German Field Marshal Helmuth von Moltke, who as a young
officer served as military adviser in the Ottoman Empire between 1835
and 1839, described Izmir as 'this fascinating corner of the Orient'
in one of his letters home. In his eagerness to visit Izmir, Moltke
spontaneously leaped on board a steamship bound for Izmir that he saw
at the quay in Istanbul. In the letter which he wrote from the ship on
4 August 1836 he described his first sight of Izmir: 'Early in the
morning we entered the wide Gulf of Izmir surrounded by high mountain
ranges... The mountains were entirely bare, roasted in the sun, but
their shapes were exceedingly beautiful. At their foot all along the
shores was a green band of cultivated soil, with vineyards, olive
groves, mulberry trees and dark cypresses. The villages and houses
were of stone with flat roofs. At the end of the gulf the city of
Smyrna could be seen climbing like an amphitheatre up the mountain

In the lowest part, at the edge of the sea, behind the ships was a
large barracks [Sari Kisla], a gun battery, a kervansaray with many
domes, several mosques, and to the left the town of the Franks with
its stone buildings. On the second level was the Turkish city proper.

If a handful of tiny houses with red roofs, a few mosques and
fountains had fallen from the sky, the plan could not have been more
jumbled than that of the city. One is astonished that streets and
pathways are to be found amongst these heaps of houses. Above all of
these rises the ancient fortress of Smyrna Castle.' The rise of
Izmir's star in the eastern Mediterranean began in the mid-16th
century, when it became an important port in the silk trade. It grew
into a lively, cosmopolitan, and exotic port city, with communities of
Levantines, Muslims and non-Muslims, and within a century had become
one of the most important ports in the Ottoman Empire.

From 1621 France, Venice, Britain and Holland had consuls in Izmir and
and later the number of countries with representatives here rose to
18. The city was the principal gateway for trade between Europe and
Ottoman Turkey. Today Izmir is a modern city dating largely from the
19th and 20th centuries. By the 19th century Izmir had a high
proportion of European and non-Muslim inhabitants, lending it the
dualistic character noted by Moltke. It was fast losing its exotic
oriental character and more closely resembling a colonial trading post
in terms of its economic, social and cultural life as well as its
architecture. This development undoubtedly had its advantages in many
respects, putting the city at the forefront of change. The Ottoman
reforms of 1839 and expanding foreign trade brought modern financial
institutions, shops and offices, and a new harbour was built. It is a
significant indicator of Izmir's importance as a trading centre that
the first Ottoman railway line opened not in Istanbul but in Izmir in
1866, linking the city to Aydin and Kasaba.

Basmane Station was constructed at the railway terminal in the city. A
mains gas network was installed and in 1864 came the first street
lighting. The first municipality was established in 1868, and the
Kordon esplanade and quay were constructed between 1868 and 1872.

Horse-drawn trams were another innovation. Altogether life in
cosmopolitan modern Izmir was sophisticated and elegant. In late
Ottoman times the city was the second richest after Istanbul, with a
per capita income of 1.65 liras, and seventh in terms of public
expenditure at 0.58 liras per capita. Yet Izmir was ravaged during the
War of Independence, and when the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923
it inherited a city large destroyed by a great fire and whose trade
had diminished to a fraction of former levels. That year the exchange
of Turkish and Greek populations took place, and later on Levantines
also left in large numbers, bringing about a sudden and radical change
in the composition of Izmir's population.

The first years of the Turkish Republic were a time of recuperation
for the city. In 1924 a plan was drawn up for those parts of the city
that had been laid waste by fire. As well as the large fairground and
park, numerous buildings in the Turkish revival style (some of which
are still standing) were built at this time. Le Corbusier presented
some planning sketches for Izmir in 1948, but these plans lacked any
notable spark of creativity and were not implemented. Although the
later decades were an era of deterioration in city architecture and
planning, Izmir's cultural legacy and traditional sense of the art of
living enabled it to create an urban environment in the city centre
that was relatively more design-conscious and reflected the joy of
life. But by the end of the 20th century Izmir had become a victim of
its own success.

Due to major advances in the fields of commerce, industry, culture and
tourism, the city had been forced to expand, swallowing up such
traditional summer resorts as Kadifekale, Buca, Bornova and Karsiyaka
and losing many of the characteristics once associated with Izmir in
the proces.

* M. Rifat Akbulut is a lecturer on City and Regional Planning at
Mimar Sinan University.


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