The secrets of Turkey’s historic fresh capital

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(CNN) – At first glance, Izmir looks a lot like any other modern Turkish metropolis, densely populated with unimposing architecture.

However, it was once Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city, and this historical cachet can still be found hidden among the streets of Izmir.

Turn the clock back more than a century and you’ll find wealthy Levantine, Greek, Turkish and Armenian families strolling the Izmir waterfront in the latest Paris fashions.

They drank beer imported from Munich or cocktails in fancy bars, and sent their children to church-run schools where they were taught French and Latin.

Izmirites were the epitome of sophistication and grace, but their lifestyle came to an abrupt end in 1922 when fierce fires ravaged the streets.

dream city

The modern city stretches around the Gulf of Smyrna, but it began its life in ancient Smyrna, located in the Bayraklı neighborhood. Formerly a village, it is now an archaeological site.

According to legend, Alexander the Great was hunting one day on the slopes of nearby Mount Pagos and stopped to take a nap. Two nemeses appeared in a dream and asked him to build a city where he was.

As was the norm, Alexander consulted the oracle Apollo who, in full real estate agent mode, told him: “The Smyrni who settle on the foothills of Pagos Hill near the Sacred Stream de Meles will be four times happier than before.”

As a result, a new city center was established on top of the mountain in the 4th century BC. Or so they say. Whatever the truth behind the story, Alexander the Great had a huge impact.

The Agora of Smyrna was built under his orders. When finished, it was four stories high, but only the basement remains. Visitors today can see rows of elegant stone arches casting shadows on the ground, highlighting the mechanics of a complex water system.

The foundations of the basilica, a kind of public hall, contain niches decorated with graffiti, as well as engraved and painted images depicting daily Roman life. A short climb to the open ground above offers a great view over the grassy fields that were once bustling with activity and commerce.

The golden age

Shopping under cover: Izmir's Kemeralti bazaar

Shopping under cover: Izmir’s Kemeralti bazaar

idil toffolo/iStock Editorial/Getty Images

Izmir was one of the stops along the Silk Road, but it really began in the 17th century. Several wars made Smyrna Quay the safest port for the transport of silk from Iran, attracting merchants from all over the world.

The Onassis clan traded in tobacco while other Roma (as Greeks born in Turkey were known) made their fortune selling Smyrna’s famous sticky figs. Two Greek-owned department stores sold everything imaginable and international banks had branches in the city.

Levantine families like the Whitalls and Girauds owned factories and mines and the Armenians were admired for their strong work ethic. The Americans established a separate colony, slightly inland, called Paradise, while Jews and Turks lived in neighborhoods adjacent to the water.

Dozens of languages ​​could be heard on the streets at any given time, including English, German and even Hindi.

“With its 8,500-year history, Izmir is one of the oldest settlements in the Levant and Turkey, and has hosted different civilizations throughout history,” says Bülent Senocak, author and historian of Izmir. “It is absolutely necessary to see the historic buildings in the city center that bear the marks of this multicultural climate and the historical Kemeraltı bazaar, which was established before many cities in Europe.”

The bazaar is where it all happened and, as Senocak says, is still worth a visit today. It is made up of a number of different hostels that once provided accommodation and goods storage. They are located in small covered streets that join each other.

An old inn, Kızlarağası Hanı, dates back to 1744 and has since been converted into souvenir shops selling beautiful items such as hand-painted pottery and Ottoman-inspired silver jewelry. It’s a good place to pick up a nazar. These blue and white glass beads are believed to ward off evil and the ones sold in Izmir are made in the aptly named Nazarköy (Evil Eye Village).

The Bakır Bedesteni, or copper bazaar, initially housed the best copper workshops in the city, but later became the place to buy silk. At its peak, dozens of caravans appeared every day. Goods were stored or sold in bazaar shops, animals were kept on the ground floor, and merchants slept in rooms upstairs.

Camel trains no longer come here, but the bazaar area is quite busy. You can take a break in Kahveciler Sokağı, a street where Turkish coffee is traditionally brewed over hot coals in long-handled copper cezve coffee houses.

For a little more history, Izmir’s Havra Sokak, or Synagogue Street, is worth seeking out. There are four synagogues hidden among the clusters of shops. Originally there were nine inside the bazaar, out of a total of 34 in the city. The oldest were built by Sephardic Jews, expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the Inquisition of the 15th century.

Some have been in service for over 300 years and a restoration project is currently underway to open more as museums.

End of an era

Izmir Clock Tower in Konak Square.

Izmir Clock Tower in Konak Square.

souhail/Adobe Stock

While life in early 20th century Izmir was, for the more affluent residents, a whirlwind of lavish picnics, boat parties and extravagant dinners, everything changed in September 1922, when the Turkish War of Independence came at their doors.

The orderly entry into the city of the Turkish army was quickly replaced by chaos. Enroute Greek soldiers flooded the city, making their way to the waterfront where naval ships waited to transport them home.

Turkish-born Greeks throughout Anatolia, fearing retribution, followed closely behind. Within days thousands of people were stuck on the docks, looking for a way out. A series of fires broke out and burned for days.

When the last of the flames died down, little remained of the once vibrant destination known as Smyrna. Many buildings that escaped incineration were later demolished, after they became vacant and fell into disrepair due to a population exchange in 1923.

This agreement involved the repatriation of Roma people to Greece and the relocation of Greek Turkish nationals to Turkey. Many Levantine families with European passports and second residences elsewhere moved. Few returned, radically altering the character of the city.

However, Izmir is resilient. Like the phoenix, the city is on the rise.

Smyrna Quay, where ships loaded with exotic goods left for sale in Europe, has been reinvented as Kordon Promenade.

Visitors can walk, run or cycle along the shores of the gulf from Alsancak to Konak Meydanı, a large square. There are plenty of restaurants to try along the way and several different museums to visit, including one dedicated to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the nation’s founder.

Local legends

Popular myth says that Izmir’s Konak Pier was designed by Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame, in 1890. It is more likely that it was the work of someone from his company, but the steel structure very reminiscent of his hand. What started as a customs house is now a shopping center with a stylish restaurant overlooking the water.

The ornate Abdul Hamid II Clock Tower takes center stage in Konak Square. Built in 1901 for an Ottoman Sultan, it was designed by French architect Raymond Charles Péré.

Despite its background, the 82-foot structure looks neither Turkish nor French. Péré was influenced by North African and Andalusian buildings, so each of its four levels is a flurry of columns, ornate capitals and horseshoe arches, perfect for Instagram poses.

A little over a mile further south, one of Smyrna’s sons has been given its own street. Born into a large Jewish family in 1921, David Arugete abandoned his goal of becoming a legal secretary after learning the guitar and taking up singing.

Calling himself Darío Moreno, he cut his teeth performing at Jewish festivals before gaining fame across the country. He is best known for his 1962 recording of “Ya Mustafa”, a song written by Egyptian composer Mohamed Fawzi.

The ancient city of Ephesus.

The ancient city of Ephesus.

pixbull/Adobe Stock

It was very popular during the 1950s and 1960s with versions published in Arabic, French, Spanish and other languages.

Eventually, Moreno bought a house in the city’s most exclusive Jewish quarter on a street called Asansör Sokak, which took its name from the Turkish word for elevator.

The street has a real elevator, built in 1907 by a Jewish merchant, which connects it to an upper part of the neighborhood.

During World War I, the structure housed a casino, a picture gallery and a movie theater. Today there is a cafe, bar and restaurant. Visitors can climb to the top and enjoy the view, before or after seeing traditional houses converted into colorfully painted bars and cafes on Dario Moreno Sokağı, as Elevator Street is now called.

Back in time

A day trip to the remains of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, once the trading center of the Mediterranean, should be a top choice for anyone visiting Izmir.

Here they can walk the streets used by the ancient Greeks, climb to the top of the great theater, marvel at the library of Celsus and wander through the mosaics of what were once common suburban houses when the city was part of the Roman empire.

Do they want more? Many statues and artefacts found at the site can be seen at the Archaeological Museum of Ephesus, while back in Smyrna, there is a marble statue of Androklos, the founder of Ephesus, at the Museum of Archeology and Ethnology.

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