Written in 1996 for Boston magazine
Istanbul, perpetually schizophrenic, cannot make up its many minds about anything. Here, eyeing each other across the hurrying Bosphorus, Europe and Asia realize they have little in common save this inspiring city, whose skyline of minarets and floating domes can belong to none other. As the most powerful place in the world for over a thousand years, at one of the planet's crossroads, Istanbul remains energized even as its glories fade.
There are certain Boston echos. Both ex-capitals share a sense of power surrendered; both retain their stature as centers of learning, deriving energy from transient youth. Both carry a financial self-importance which slightly exaggerates the facts, but are of irreplaceable grandeur in each country's idea of itself, with all the historical vibrations of a place where Great Events occurred. Both are, despite an up-to-date veneer of stylishness, deeply old-fashioned and class-conscious. And each city suffers stresses that threaten its core identity.
Istanbul is changing radically. A milion peasants from the Anatolian heartland arrive every year looking for non-existent work, while a city designed for horse cart and trolley is force-fed more cars than it can handle. And even as a fundamentalist movement is on the rise—I saw female joggers swathed in black, head to foot—a Brahmin class, once powerful, is disappearing.
They are called Levantines. Though the term usually means anyone from the eastern Mediterranean, here it refers to a particular class of Istanbullus—Europeans who immigrated in the 19th century, in the waning Ottoman Empire. Most were Italian, French, British; some were Russians fleeing revolution.
The first Levantine I met was actually called Mr. Levante—an old Italian Jew who'd run the Orient Express office here for decades. With his fin-de-siècle gestures and a colonial, almost courtly manner, he was a gentleman through and through. Like many Levantines, while maintaining his foreign nationality he'd been a citizen of the Turkish Republic (begun by Ataturk in 1923) and before that of the Ottoman Empire. Nearly ninety, impeccably tailored and fluent in at least four languages, he still resolutely swam from Europe to Asia several times a year with his chauffeur (a mile across the Bosphorus at the narrowest point), despite the risk of being run down by Russian oil tankers and freighters headed up to the Black Sea.
I remember him waving his hand in exasperation one morning at the jam of belching cars along the Bosphorus up in Bebek, a fancy suburb—home to diplomats, successful businessmen, and the odd Levantine family who'd hung on in style. "Do you believe it?" he asked. "Not long ago the water was clean enough for me to swim here every day, without fail. When I was already an old man there were sheep grazing these hills, and perhaps two cars. Now there are no sheep, only thousands of automobiles."
We were speaking French, though his English was excellent—Mr. Levante's generation of older Levantines had always spoken French among themselves. Still, as worldly as they seemed (for there was no mistaking them for foreign tourists on Istanbul's better streets), they had a stale and provincial if colorful air too. It was as if, knowing they'd never leave, they just didn't get out much anymore. Born here, well-educated before the war either in Europe or a Europeanized Istanbul University, they'd all remained Christian or Jew, and never converted to Islam.
The Levantines were not simply arrivistes and refugees; they had actually impelled the growth of the large Belle Epoque part of the city, known as Beyoglu, where indeed few Muslims ever lived until the 1960s. Across the Golden Horn from Stamboul, the oldest part of the city (once ancient Byzantium, later home to the sultans), for centuries Beyoglu was the modern, purely European third of Constantinople. Architecturally modeled on Paris, it was the natural locale of foreign embassies and fashionable hotels, the commercial and cultural center of the city.
Here an entire society of 19th century European merchants set up shop, bringing a finished, definitive way of life that rapidly seduced the Turkish upper class. As a genteel, vigorous Turkish gentleman of eighty-seven recalled, reliving that patrician city, "In those days we all spoke French, we carried walking sticks, we dressed as elegantly as gentlemen in Paris, not the drab clothes you see today. And the beautiful Constantinople women! Well, that has not changed. But those were more decorous times."
Leap two generations: Turkey, led by the secularist Ataturk, risen for two decades from Ottoman ashes, has managed to stay neutral during WWII. These transplanted Europeans—or their children's children—remain a highly visible, respected class. Nominally Turkish, the Levantines also resolutely keep up the old nationalities of their grandparents and still find the city airy, manageable, and green. Ankara, the newly-built and landlocked capital, lags far behind Constantinople, now renamed Istanbul.
Over the next decades, though, the city changed inexorably. Some Levantines stayed wealthy, through their parents' banks or import and shipping companies. Their children mostly emigrated—either to France after the Istanbul riots against minorities in the 1950s, or else to the States, for English was now becoming the preferred language over French. Poor or affluent, all Levantines were careful the children maintained at least two passports.
And by ten years ago Levantine society was collapsing. As a veteran Turkish journalist pointed out, "Until well after the war the Levantines were happy. 'Sweet-water Europeans' we called them, because they liked the good life. Like fish who can't live in salt water, eh? Then suddenly the Anatolian peasants began to flood the city, and it was like when the Nile floods its banks. When the water recedes nothing is left and you start over. That's what happened to these Levantines. Their city, their whole world, got swept away."
Once the heart of a cosmopolitan city, now they were simply stranded, with fond memories of a more amusing place that had changed irreversibly around them. How could surviving profoundly lonely teas at the French consulate compare to bygone afternoons at the Cafe du Luxembourg or soirees at the Pera Palace ballroom? And where were the spies? Gone forever, with the walking-canes?
There are still survivors. On a sloping lane in Beyoglu, past the abandoned Spanish Embassy, past the Italian Consulate where Casanova spent the summer of 1744 without a conquest, I met a finely-made white-haired man standing in a narrow doorway. In polished French he said, "Come in, come in, sir. I am resting at the moment. I am a furniture maker, you see." His manner seemed more a diplomat's. He ushered me into a grotto of shadows and sun shafts. "Vladimir. And you . . .? I have worked here for thirty-six years."
I asked about his flawless French. "I went to a French lycée here when I was a boy. That of Saint Benoit. I speak Greek also—my wife is Greek, but from Istanbul. I speak Russian too— my parents were both Russes Blancs, they fled here back in 1917. Naturally, since I was born here I also speak Turkish. And because here my neighbors are the Italian government, I speak a practical Italian. I learned it on this street."
To move fluidly from language to language and culture to culture was in his blood.
He presented me to his six cats, pointed out the delicate workmanship of his cabinets, and offered me water for the uphill climb. He seemed much of the history of Beyoglu, in human form.
"Less than one hundred Levantine families left now," an antiquarian bookseller who specialized in liquidating their libraries told me. A few kept the Brahmin profile high: one Levantine daughter married the heir to one of Turkey's largest fortunes last year, and a son went into administrative work for the royal family of Jordan. Breeding paid—but most Levantines had died off, and their children and grandchildren were long gone. In the antique shops of Beyoglu you could buy up their abandoned furniture and bric-a-brac. "Kids here no longer look to Paris for inspiration," a Frenchwoman at the consulate remarked. "They're transfixed by America, by whatever looks newest." At least in the Grand Bazaar, the shopkeepers—shifting fluently from English to Italian to French to German to Dutch to Polish to Spanish in search of a sale—remember.