Izmir is simply one of the most beautiful cities in the Aegean and Mediterranean. Its history stems back several thousand years, detailing stories of how great empires conquered the city; everyone from the Greeks and Romans, to the Byzantines and Ottomans (many in between too). By the early 1900s, Izmir was comparable to a mini-New York, with several different groups of people and classes co-existing with one another. Ottoman Turks, Greeks, Armenians, Jews, French, Italians, Levantines; each group of people with a different language and religion, but as one-Smyrnean. It was this era that still leaves an imprint on Izmir’s cultural landscape today, and why other places should take notice.
In a time of renewal, going from the industrial age to the information age, most cities are rushing to redo their landscapes with high-rise apartment buildings and corporate offices. Even in Istanbul, new buildings are going up at monthly pace, making even environmentalists concerned about the changing rate to its landscape. However, the most amazing thing about Izmir is that it still preserves many of its historical foundations and influences from the 1800s and early 1900s, despite a civil war that burned down much of the great city!
Walk through the area of Konak, and you will stumble upon several neighborhoods that make it distinctly unique from the other. Within it lies Kemeralti district, a neighborhood thriving as a bustling center for shopping and trade. The sounds of boys shouting “Buyurun!”(Come in!) fill the air, and the smells of leather overwhelm your nose. Look above the shops and you’ll notice an endless line of French and Venetian style homes, each with ornate window and door frames dating back over 100 years. The colors of each house (blue, red, pink, orange), vibrant and different from the other, give the landscape a vibrancy and life that make it very Aegean. Walk into Kizlaragasi Han (caravanseray), filled with endless shops selling fabrics, jewelry, carpets, souvenirs, and a multitude of trinkets. With a glance over at the Hisar Mosque, and you’ll swear you’ve stepped into a time machine back to the Ottoman era.
Step over to Alsancak, and again, it’s another world. It was historically a place where the Greeks and Levantines lived, a wealthier class at the time before their exile from the city. However, even with their absence, their mark still lives on. Several large churches still proudly stand, ranging from Greek Orthodox to Catholic and Anglican. The modern era brings in a multitude of Western high-end shops and clothing stores like the GAP, United Colors of Benetton, Marks & Spencer, etc.
Along the water, cafes and bars line the esplanade, giving it that very Mediterranean feel. Stop by Sakiz Adasi café and relax sipping a Frappé speaking Turklish while Greek songs play in the background. Afterwards, walk along the strip of other establishments and notice posters for events ranging from ‘Salsa Nights’ to rock concerts. The culture lines never cease to cross in this city. Most interestingly, they do without a second thought to the locals. It is the culture that still vibrantly lives on.
In a time where New York City contractors and developers are gentrifying historical urban areas of Harlem, the Lower East Side, and Queens, completely wiping a away the city’s history and character, Izmir is a city that has maintained its buildings and landscapes, thriving on it’s architectural influences of the past 150 years. One would hope that new developers would learn a lesson and realize that “cleaning up” their city doesn’t mean doing away with the past, but appreciating and preserving it to enhance our future as a global community.