The secrets of Turkey’s historic capital of cool

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

Yet it was once Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city – and that historic cachet can still be found hidden in the streets of Izmir.

Step back over a century and you’ll find wealthy Levantine, Greek, Turkish and Armenian families strolling along Izmir’s waterfront in the latest Parisian fashions.

They drank beer imported from Munich or cocktails in elegant bars and sent their children to denominational schools to be educated in French and Latin.

The people of Izmir were the epitome of sophistication and grace, but their way of life came to an abrupt end in 1922 when fierce fires tore through the streets.

dream city

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

According to legend, Alexander the Great was one day hunting on the slopes of nearby Mount Pagos and stopped for a siesta. Two enemies 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 estate agent mode, told him: “The Smyrnaeans who settle in the foothills of the hill of Pagos near the holy stream Meles will be four times happier than ‘before.”

As a result, a new city center was established atop the mountain in the 4th century BCE. Or so they say. Whatever the truth behind the story, Alexander the Great had a big impact.

The Agora of Smyrna was built on his orders. At the end it had four floors, but only the basement still exists. Today, visitors 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 illustrating Roman daily life. A short climb to the open ground above gives a wonderful view over the grassy fields that were once teeming with activity and commerce.

Golden age

Sheltered Shopping: Izmir’s Kemeralti Bazaar

Idil Toffolo/iStock Editorial/Getty Images

Izmir was one of the stages of the Silk Road, but it took on its full meaning in the 17th century. Various wars made Smyrna Quay the safest port for transporting silk from Iran, attracting merchants from all over the world.

The Onassis clan traded in tobacco while other Rum (as Greeks of Turkish origin were called) made their fortune selling the famous sticky figs of Smyrna. Two Greek-owned department stores sold everything imaginable, and international banks had branches in town.

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

At any one time, dozens of languages ​​could be heard on the streets, including English, German and even Hindi.

“With its 8,500 years of 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 from Izmir. “A must see are the historical buildings in the city center bearing the traces of this multicultural climate and the historical bazaar of Kemeraltı, 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 han, inns which once provided lodging and storage of goods. They are located in small covered streets that meet.

A former inn, Kızlarağası Hanı, dates back to 1744 and has since been converted into souvenir shops that sell lovely items like hand-painted ceramics and Ottoman-inspired silver jewelry. This is a good place to pick up a nazar. These blue and white glass beads are believed to ward off evil and those 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. Merchandise was stored or sold at bazaar shops, animals were parked on the ground floor, and merchants slept in bedrooms upstairs.

Camel trains no longer arrive here, but the bazaar area is very busy. A break can be taken at Kahveciler Sokağı, a street where Turkish coffee is traditionally brewed over hot coals in long-handled copper cezve pots.

For an extra slice of history, it’s worth seeking out Izmir’s Havra Sokak, or Synagogue Street. There are four synagogues hidden among the clusters of stores. 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 15th century Inquisition.

Some have been in service for over 300 years and a restoration project is currently underway to open more 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 more affluent residents, a whirlwind of lavish picnics, boat parties and extravagant dinners, everything changed in September 1922, when the Independence War of Turkey has arrived at their doorstep.

The orderly entry into the city of the Turkish army was quickly replaced by chaos. Routed Greek soldiers swarmed the city, heading for the waterfront where warships were waiting to take them home.

Turkish-born Greeks from all over Anatolia, fearing reprisals, followed them closely. Within days, thousands of people were stuck on the quay, looking for a way out. A series of fires broke out which burned for days.

When the last flames were extinguished, not much remained of the once vibrant destination known as Smyrna. Many of the buildings that escaped incineration were later demolished, having been left empty and in disrepair due to a population exchange in 1923.

This agreement saw Rums repatriated to Greece and Turkish Greek nationals transferred to Turkey. Many Levantine families with European passports and second homes elsewhere moved. Few returned, radically altering the character of the city.

However Izmir is resilient. Like the phoenix, the city is booming.

Smyrna Quay, where boats once departed laden with exotic goods for sale in Europe, has been reinvented as the Kordon promenade.

Visitors can walk, jog or cycle along the shores of the Gulf of 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 Ataturk, the nation’s founder.

Local legends

According to popular myth, the Konak pier in Izmir was designed by the famous tower Gustave Eiffel in 1890. It is more likely the work of someone from his company, but the steel structure is strongly reminiscent of his hand. What was originally a customs post is now a shopping center with an elegant 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 their origins, the 82-foot structure looks neither Turkish nor French. Péré was influenced by buildings in North Africa and Andalusia, so each of its four levels is a flurry of columns, ornate capitals and horseshoe-shaped arches – perfect for Instagram poses .

A little over a kilometer further south, one of the sons of Izmir has been assigned its own street. Born into a large Jewish family in 1921, David Arugete abandoned his plan to become a cleric after learning the guitar and starting to sing.

Calling himself Darío Moreno, he cut his teeth performing at Jewish festivities before gaining national fame. 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 extremely popular in the 1950s and 1960s with versions published in Arabic, French, Spanish, and several other languages.

Eventually, Moreno bought a house in the city’s most upscale Jewish neighborhood on a street named Asansör Sokak, which takes its name from the Turkish for elevator.

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

During World War I, the structure housed a casino, photo gallery, and cinema. Today there is a café, a bar and a restaurant. Visitors can climb to the top and enjoy the view, before or after visiting the traditional houses turned into brightly painted bars and cafes on Dario Moreno Sokağı, as it is now called Elevator Street.

In time

A day trip to the remains of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, once the trading center of the Mediterranean, should be high on the bucket list for anyone visiting Izmir.

Here they can walk the streets used by the ancient Greeks, climb to the top of the Great Theatre, marvel at the Library of Celsus and pass by the mosaics of what were once ordinary suburban houses when the city was part of the ‘Roman Empire.

Want more? Many statues and artifacts found at the site can be seen at the Archaeological Museum of Ephesus, while in Izmir there is a marble statue of Androklos, the founder of Ephesus, at the Museum of Archeology and ethnology.

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