Many are the places that symbolize the presence of Europeans in the old Ottoman capital: European banks, schools and embassies that are still standing can be seen in the myriad neighbourhoods of Istanbul. It might surprise the German tourist to see a Deutsche Bank, on the top of a store piled with Hamam towels for sale in the Eminönü markets, or an Italian to spy several catholic churches while strolling along Istiklal avenue. These images or buildings hark back to a time when Istanbul, as a meeting point of great ambassadors, was one of the main centres of European diplomacy.
The British were some of the first Europeans to cooperate with the Ottoman Sultan, as we can trace back the presence of English merchants to the middle of the 16th century. What is now the British consulate, that you have surely passed on your way to a rooftop bar, is just one of the several signs of their presence in the city.
In 1580, William Harbourne, an official ambassador, was sent to Istanbul and founded the first British embassy by the sea in Tophane. However, the British soon had to move up the hill towards Pera where other European embassies stood, as the inhabitants of the neighbourhood judged the merchants and diplomats too raucous. In an overall Muslim-dominated neighbourhood, there were regular complaints about the parties, and in particular the consumption of alcohol, taking place in the British building. It was a bit like having a Backpacker’s Youth Hostel in Fatih, the most conservative neighbourhood of modern day Istanbul.
The British then remained in Pera, very close to their rivals the French and Venetians, from where they developed a network of merchants sailing all across the Eastern Mediterranean, mainly buying grapes in the Island of Chios. These raisins could either be used for wine, or, once dried, to make one of the still favourite deserts in Britain: pudding. During the 17th and 18th century, life in Pera was known for its regular official dinners, visits to the sultan, hosting of travellers and orientalists, with British diplomats endlessly comparing themselves to their Catholic and Dutch rivals. Developing prestige gave the ambassadors a better chance to improve or renew friendly relations with the Sultan and the embassy was the main symbol for their presence in the city. In the 19th century, with the modernization of Istanbul, what used to be the Pera countryside quickly became urban landscape, transforming the ambassador’s neighbourhood into just another part of the city. This also meant that the diplomats’ house was even more subject to the famous Istanbul urban fires. As one can probably notice by looking at what is left of the old ottoman houses, they were made out of wood and built on two or three stories, which made it easy for a fire to expand quickly.
It was after a major fire in 1831 that British diplomats decided to raise a monumental Embassy in Pera, inspired by neo-Renaissance architecture and built out of solid stone, that proved resistant to more fires that occurred in the following years. It has proven its resistance until today: as the large, fluttering flag shows on top of the building, it is still the British Consulate and thus legally British property. Also in the XIXth century, the English decided to acquire property down in Galata where they could deal with consular affairs. With their own court and a jail in the premises, the British could judge illegal practices, which were quite common in the maritime trading world. The prison of the time has now been converted into a chic restaurant (established in 1999), probably too pricy for the meagre ERASMUS financial assistance exchange students receive.
Other signs of British presence include military cemeteries and Anglican churches spread out mainly around modern-day Beyoğlu as well as Üsküdar and Pangaltı. The British Consulate is still however the most visible of these buildings. Despite seeming irremovable, this building is actually the sign of a constant search for prestige in a city where ambassadors were supposed to “live like Kings”.