History of Beyoğlu: From Pera to Beyoğlu

Time changes everything we see, touch and feel… This is the constant rule of life and it holds for everything. Style changes, people change, attitudes change, words change and tastes […]

Time changes everything we see, touch and feel… This is the constant rule of life and it holds for everything. Style changes, people change, attitudes change, words change and tastes change… Beyond any shadow of a doubt, the Ottoman Empire evolved through time in the same way. So did Constantinople, the capital of the glorious empire, and its European neighbourhood, Pera… 

Those who have read “The Longest Century of the Empire” by Ilber Ortaylı, the most popular modern Turkish historian, would know that the 19th century is literally a milestone century for the Ottomans. The 19th century witnessed astounding historical events such as revolutions, financial developments, new ideologies, and other inventions, and all these events hastened the momentum of change in the world. Ottomans couldn’t adapt themselves to this new change therefore the rise of a new aggressive European imperialist movement brought the Turks to their knees. The Ottoman Empire slipped into a period of stagnation and a state of degradation, which prompted Russia’s Nicholas I to nickname the empire “the sick man of Europe”. This galvanised the Ottoman politicians into action, reforming their government and society by engaging in Westernisation. It has been said that Constantinople formed the centre of all the head-spinning changes, but realistically it was Pera. A European neighbourhood in a Muslim city, Pera, was the best place to start.

According to Ottoman documents, Pera was the area across the old peninsula and beyond the Galata neigbourhood. Today, when we say Beyoğlu, we usually think of the area between Taksim square and Karaköy. However, in the past, there was a sharp distinction between Galata and Pera. Galata comprised the area between the Galata Tower and the Karaköy coast. It was a port in the 13th century, used by Genoese tradesmen, and one of the most important international maritime outposts in the region. Pera did not flourish as fruitfully as Galata, because there was neither enough water nor any means of communication with the other side of the Golden Horn, which was the heart of the city at that time. In a way, Pera was Galata’s summer place, overflowing with vineyards and orchards, and scarcely populated by non-Muslims, save for a few Muslims living around the dervish lodge of the Mevlevi order.

To discover the answer of how Beyoglu evolved as a western neighborhood right in the middle of the Muslim city, we should look back to the 16th century when François I of France, who was the first monarch to establish diplomatic relations with the Ottoman sultans, built the first foreign embassy in Pera in 1581. With that precedent, installing embassies in Pera thus became the order of the day. The relocation of all embassies was completed by the 19th century. This became the most important factor in the development of the area, which also saw the area attaining a European atmosphere.

One serious problem that inhibited population growth in Pera was the lack of potable water. The solution finally arrived in 1732, in the construction of the distribution chamber. This chamber, or “maksem”, distributed water from the Bahçeköy Aqueduct around 20 km away, to fountains in Galata and Pera. When water flowed in abundance, so did the crowds of families and workers.

The construction of the Galata Bridge was another important event that played an essential role in the development of Pera. It was first built in 1845 with the name of “Cisr-i Cedid” and replaced with a wooden design in 1863. The bridge linked the production centre (old city) with the heart of imports and exports (Galata). This connectivity created an economic boom dominating the area between Sultanahmet and Galata, which soon became a hub of activity. This new atmosphere overcrowded the small port of Galata, so it needed to expand towards the open areas of Şişhane and Istiklal Avenue of today’s Taksim. New quarters were created and old ones were reshaped and repopulated by wealthy families.

The treaty of Balta Limanı, the Anglo-Ottoman commercial treaty, and the Tanzimat reform, the Reorderings, were very important events that should definitely be mentioned. The commercial treaty opened up the Ottoman Empire to free trade, and was then dominated by Western powers, which made the Ottoman Empire integrate into the global capitalist system. In addition, the rule of equality of all citizens under law was consolidated in the Tanzimat, a political reform program. These new policies bolstered optimism within the empire and consequently, Constantinople became a magnet attracting European merchants and Western travellers. Nearly 100,000 new foreigners moved to Constantinople within the 50-60 years following these events.

Imagine that you are a European merchant coming to an Islamic city. You come to the city, because you enjoy many economical privileges for trade. You are not as adventurous as Pierre Loti, so you don’t live in a Muslim neighbourhood. You still want a lifestyle similar to the one you had in your hometown. Where do you go? This is more or less the situation European merchants found themselves in during the 19th century. In Istanbul the one place where non-Muslims lived and drank alcohol was in Galata, the epicentre of non-Muslim life. However, Galata was not equipped to absorb all the new arrivals and needed to expand towards the open areas beyond its walls.

The fact that Levantines and non-Muslim minorities were financially in better shape than the rest of the population helped them construct majestic mansions in Pera while setting up their businesses, offices and bureaus in Galata. In doing so, they also brought many urban qualities and the lifestyle of Western Europe to Pera. That was the reason why Pera evolved as a European aristocratic settlement, while Galata remained a cosmopolitan area where the mood was more laid-back.

As European influence increased in the city, more Westernisation policies came into being. In 1857, Istanbul was divided into 14 municipal circles. The sixth circle, which consisted of Galata and Pera, was chosen as a pilot zone for European urban design. In 1858, the Sixth Municipal District Office, modelled after the Municipality of Paris, was established to operate from Beyoğlu. As per their 1860 plan, the walls of Galata were demolished to make commuting between Beyoğlu and Galata easier. Other projects prepared by the office included street cleaning, road widening, the repair, security and illumination of streets, the provision of public transportation, building maintenance, and the beautification of the area.

In June of 1870, Pera suffered one of its largest fire disasters. The fire killed hundreds of people, destroyed thousands of buildings from Taksim to Tarlabaşı, the Fish Bazaar, Galatasaray, Parmakkapı and a great part of Cihangir. The scale of the disaster created an opportunity to overhaul the design of the district. The Sixth Municipal District Office and its wealthy families played a key role in shaping Beyoğlu’s urban feel.

After the fire, Pera changed radically. Instead of wood, the main building materials came from stone and brick. A right to purchase property was given to foreigners in 1865 and this led the Levantenes to build a variety of buildings such as monumental structures, apartments, schools, sanctuaries, hotels, warehouses, and passages on the Grand Rue de Pera, today’s Istiklal Avenue. These buildings show a range of architectural styles from classical to Neo-Gothic, Neo-Ottoman to Art Nouveau. The famous shopping arcades such as the Halep Passage, the Hacapulo Passage (Hazzapulo), the El-Hamra Passage, and the Rumelian Passage are still present today. Istiklal’s most outstanding buildings, such as the Doğan Apartment Building, the St. Antuan Catholic Church, the Flower Passage, Narmanlı Han, the Pera Palace, the Egypt Apartment, the Swedish and French Palaces, the Botter Apartment, and Hagia Triada were all constructed during this period.

As the 19th century came to its end, Beyoğlu assumed the look of a European neighbourhood and became Istanbul’s center of finance, culture, and entertainment. It was easy to find posh cafes, stores selling luxury products from Europe, restaurants, and nightclubs that couldn’t be located anywhere else in the city. There were large and splendid theatres where famous European plays, operas, and concerts showed nightly. You could also find foreign enterprises such as foreign mail services, institutes, schools, and offices of professionals such as bankers, lawyers, doctors and pharmacies in the district. For the first time, Istanbulites got acquainted with “urban richness”, in the form of coiffures, beauty parlors, wigmaker shops, dry cleaner stores, bookstores, glassware shops, delicatessen shops and travel agencies. In short, Beyoglu was a Western neighbourhood in the middle of a Muslim city, where all languages of the world converged.

Beyoğlu retained its multicultural, multi-faith, and multi-national social structure for over a century. At one point, the population became more homegeneous due to certain social and political events, four of which stand out. First was the Wealth Tax (1942-43), which made non-Muslims pay an extraordinary tax on nearly everything. This was the first policy attempting to disadvantage the non-Muslims of Istanbul as a form of economic genocide.

The second important event was the founding of Israel in 1948. A Jewish population had always been present in Istanbul and was integral to Istanbul’s multicultural society. Soon, however, the vast majority of Turkish Jews immigrated to Israel for economic reasons, severely diminishing Istanbul’s Jewish population. In three years, between 1948 and 1951, Istanbul lost half of its Jewish population.

The third event killed Istanbul’s spirit, history, and whatever was left from Constantinople. The 6-7 September Istanbul Pogrom was a Turkish riot against Istanbul’s Greek community, meant to expunge them from the city. On the evening of September 5th, Istanbul received the news that a bomb attack had taken place in Atatürk’s birthplace in Thessaloniki. The Istanbul Express’s headline the following day read “Our father Atatürk’s house has been bombed”, inciting a riot which began with the attack on the Haylayf pasty shop in Pangaltı. The chaos then spread all over the city. The damage, both material and immaterial, was immeasurable. Following the events that September, many of the Greeks in Istanbul left their homes and businesses behind and emigrated from Turkey.

Next, the event that left Beyoğlu at its all-time low was the 1964 expulsion of the remaining Greeks in Istanbul. Due to the strained tensions between Greece and Turkey from the Cyprus problem, the Turkish government made the decision to expel nearly 40,000 Greeks from Istanbul on March 16th, 1964. This fateful decision proved to be a turning point in terms of Turkey’s homogenisation process. In addition to these four crucial historical events, the 1974 Cyprus Peace Operation, the ‘Citizen, Speak Turkish’ campaign, repeated military coups, a mass migration from Anatolia to Istanbul, and an unplanned urbanisation all contributed to the cultural devastation of Beyoğlu.

After the 1950s, the population of Beyoğlu decreased with the departure of non-Muslims. With the rapid industrialisation of the 1950s and 1960s, Istanbul became a magnet for migrant groups from rural areas of the country and Beyoğlu began to answer the need of cheap residences for rural people, who had been illegally occupying the buildings abandoned by non-Muslim residents. The district was gradually “Turkified”, which introduced some important changes to the social structure of the district. Beyoglu became home to numerous marginalised groups including sex workers, transvestites, Roma gypsies, Kurdishes, and many more. Brothels were opened and drug dealers took over the streets. Beyoglu became a hotbed of crime where people were afraid to walk on its streets even during broad daylight.

By the beginning of 1980s, Beyoğlu was completely run down. It was a hotbed of crime where people were afraid to walk on its streets even during broad daylight. It was no longer a Western neighborhood, nor a center of entertainment or culture. The arabesque culture began touching Beyoğlu’s spirit deeply. The cinemas, theaters, cafes, restaurants and bars had shut down one after another, and pavyons and gazinos began to take their place. During this era, Beyoğlu by night was strictly a male-dominated space!

Bedrettin Dalan, the first mayor of Greater Istanbul, took on the transformation of worn-out Istanbul to a global city. For him, Beyoğlu, was a place that needed rehabilitation from prostitution and drug trafficking, especially because it was one of the most prominent and historically dense part of the city. As a result, urban renewal projects were brought to the agenda with Beyoğlu as the focal point.

Various measures were taken to revive Beyoğlu, such as the establishment of the Association of Beautification and Preservation of Beyoğlu, the widening of Tarlabaşı Avenue and the pedestrianisation of Istiklal Avenue in 1990. In fervent pursuit of his goal, the mayor took on the liberty to demolish a large number of 19th century buildings and to relocate the thousands of people living in them. Thus the newly sanitised Beyoğlu became a haven for cafes, restaurants, hotels, cultural buildings, art galleries, bookstores, theatres, taverns and bars. Other activities and festivals have also played an effective role in the revitalisation process. Together, these essential developments then spilled over to the surroundings neighbourhoods such as Cihangir, Galata, Şişhane and Tophane, and a new impulse was given to the entire area.

Since the 1990s, the nostalgia could be experienced once again. Beyoğlu has regained its value and became the most favourable district in all of Istanbul. Beyoğlu is probably the only place that can be home to more than 15 million Istanbulities and it is not possible for tourists to skip Beyoğlu when they come to Istanbul. Presently, you can find a seedy side, with prostitutes and drug dealers, and a new cosmopolitan area that can be considered to be the centre of commerce, entertainment and culture as it was in its glory days. It is known that all aspects of culture and art in Istanbul originate from Beyoğlu, from the past to the present. It is teeming with cinemas, theatres, operas, art galleries, bookshops, festivals and biennial lovers; Beyoğlu is an important place to almost everyone. Today, Beyoğlu is the ambassador of Istanbul, embodying the city’s energy.

1 comment

  1. Avatar photo
    Héctor Vielva Diego

    Excellent job!

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