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Turkey: Catching Up with the Last of the Levantines

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Before the 20th century Izmir was mostly populated by European settlers, who came by boat to find new life in the port city.

The Agean coastal city of Izmir these days is Turkey’s third largest metropolitan area with a population of almost 4 million. A hundred years ago, the city was a bustling port with a different name – Smyrna. It was also a cultural hub with a European vibe and splendid colonial architecture. The port was home to a large number of Europeans, who had started to settle in the area in the late 17th century, lured by all the trade possibilities.

These British, French, Italian, Maltese, Greek, and other European migrants played major roles in building railways and other infrastructure, operating banks, launching newspapers, and founding some of Ottoman Turkey’s largest trading companies.

Life for those in Smyrna’s Levantine community changed forever in 1922, when the city became the focal point of the Greco-Turkish conflict, a war that resulted in the establishment of the Turkish Republic. Many European residents chose to leave the city when Turkish forces drove the Greek troops out of Anatolia. Others were forcibly deported. However, a few remained.

A handful of descendants of some of Turkey’s oldest European-Levantine families are still living in Izmir today. In Turkey’s rapidly transforming society, they feel a certain sense of alienation, struggling to identify themselves as either Turks or Europeans. In the words of William Buttigieg, a British national whose ancestors arrived to Smyrna from Malta in early 1800: “Sometimes I am asking myself who I am? The Brits don’t see me as British, and Turks don’t see me as Turkish.”

Rena Effendi is an Azerbaijani freelance photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Cairo.

Turkey: Catching Up with the Last of the Levantines

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