War and Peace

Istanbul: the Transformation of a City

“Now Istanbul is always a historiographical problem because it distorts our vision. There is an idea that Istanbul is not just the centre of the empire; it is a model for the empire, in that whatever’s happening in Istanbul, is also happening in the rest [of the empire]. This is not true. Istanbul is big, Istanbul is at the centre, Istanbul was a showcase of Ottoman power ever since the fifteenth century; but it is not the empire. In many ways it’s an exception compared to what characterises the empire. You cannot understand the Arab provinces on the basis of Istanbul. Now, in the nineteenth century of course things start to change. First of all because Istanbul grew very rapidly. Istanbul is a city that by the end of the nineteenth century reached probably a million. So it was becoming a metropolis.

It was attracting all sorts of elements of modernity from the West; from inside it became a melting-pot of experiences. So living in Istanbul was therefore already something that distinguished you from the rest of the empire. It was not a very rosy, pinky kind of cosmopolitanism; it was more business as usual than anything else. And of course what war does, is that it brings enormous stress to that state of affairs.

The Ottomans have never lost control over Istanbul, except in 1918 at the end of the World War I, when the Ottomans were forced in to signing the Armistice. The Allies, the Entente Powers, occupied Istanbul, and Istanbul was under a joint occupation of the French, the British and the Italians.

In 1923 the authority over the city was given back – not given back to the Ottoman powers but to the new power that had emerged in Ankara, the future Turkish Republic.

Istanbul was too heavily stained with the mix of cosmopolitanism, of this non-national, Ottoman identity, to be a legitimate capital for a young Turkish Republic. So in that sense Istanbul was one of the big losers of the war because it would lose population; it would lose its diversity in the long run. I mean, the Greek population would remain, I mean the exchange covers non-Istanbul [people], but in about four or five decades until the 1950s and 1960s, Istanbul would lose most of its Greek and its Jewish population and the Armenian population was already reduced. It was politically and culturally so repressed that you don’t even feel it.

So it loses what used to make its identity, which was that mix of an empire that defines itself in plurality.”



Edhem Eldem ©  Anemon Productions
Edhem Eldem
Professor Edhem Eldem is a renowned Turkish historian who teaches in the Department of History at Boğaziçi University in Istanbul. In 2011-2012 he was a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin. His research focus lies on late Ottoman social and economic history, intellectual biographies and the history of archaeology.