The Constantinople spirit

As the Allied troops passed through Constantinople in 1919, the vibrant Greek community of the city still thrived. Here, historian Jim Claven tours the modern-day city and reflects on the Byzantine and Orthodox legacy.

Walking the City of Constantine, the centre of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires, and now the heart – if not the capital – of modern Turkey, I was struck by how the history of the city and its people remains in a thousand ways; sometimes imposing its presence, at others showing only glimpses of its past.

Over 1,000 years as the centre of the Roman World has left its impressive mark on the city – in its architecture, its churches – and its cosmopolitan character begins here. Originally a Greek colony, Greek would become the language of this new Roman capital and the centre of Christianity when the Romans converted to this new religion. The great Agia Sofia – the Church of the Holy Wisdom – would confirm the city’s place as one of the great centres of the Christian religion.

When the Ottomans came in the mid-15th century, a new layer would be added to the richness of the city. They would add to the great architecture of the city and its place as the bridge between east and west would continue in a new form. The Western presence in the city would continue – in its Greek residents, in its Western and Levantine traders and embassies – the cosmopolitanism of the city being reflected in an increasingly Western architecture as 1900 approached.

Coming ‘to the city’ from the Gallipoli Peninsula is moving with the tide of history. When the Allies entered Constantinople in 1919 they were following in the footsteps of the Persians, Alexander the Great, Constantine and the Ottomans. While Gallipoli ended in disaster, the Anzacs who landed at Anzac Cove 98 years ago thought they would soon march on Constantinople. As Colonel John Monash confidently wrote from Lemnos, this would be a victory “which will stir the whole world”.

Three and a half years later, Australian troops would finally enter this great capital. Australian warships sailed up through the Dardanelles and along the Bosphorus, to enter the city and the famed Golden Horn. The sailors of HMAS Parramatta took photographs of the city; the Australian flag flying in the breeze while one of the city’s famed mosques sits on the shoreline in the background. In so doing, Australian sailors were following in the wake of over two thousand years of sailors approaching Constantinople. HMAS Swan, another of the Australian ships to reach the city, would transport a British attaché and two Greek officers to Constantinople following the signing of the Armistice of Mudros in 1918.

Over 160 ships and 50,000 Allied troops – including 800 Greek soldiers – would occupy the city until 1923, making it their home and wandering around the city, taking in its cosmopolitan character and the history that oozes from its stones, the smells, and the vibrance of its people.

Amongst these troops – and Australian sailors – there were at least three Australian soldiers. Ballarat-born Lieutenant Rex McKay and Captain A.L. King came to the city following three years fighting with British units on the Salonika Front. Another Ballarat soldier, Major George Devine Treloar, who had served on the Western Front with distinction, would begin his new career as a refugee worker in Constantinople, caring for the welfare of nearly 146,000 White Russians who arrived there in November 1920.

Another who entered earlier as a prisoner of war was Captain Thomas White, from Hotham in Victoria, a Royal Flying Corps pilot captured in Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq). He wrote later of his arrival:

“Beneath the shady planes and acacias and festoons of coloured lights… we watched the gay and well-dressed heterogeneous throng, pretty unveiled Turkish women, attractive Greeks and Armenians, swaggering German, Turkish and Austrian officers in resplendent uniforms – we lived in a seventh heaven of transient freedom and content.”

Protected by local Greeks while on the run in the city, White felt “sincere and everlasting gratitude” to these “good Samaritans” of Constantinople, without whom he could never have survived or escaped.

Greek troops entered the city on the 5th November 1919, securing the famed Phanar district, welcomed by its Greek residents and the Patriarch. They would be joined by the Greek battleship Averof, the liberator of Lemnos. This Allied presence is made real in the photographs that remain of this time.

The city’s thriving Greek residents totalled over 200,000 in 1919. The richness of their lives here is reflected in the thousands of photographs of weddings and promenades. Many rose to prominence under the Ottomans as administrators, successful businessmen and even politicians. One Greek senator – Alexander Mavroyeni – witnessed with sadness the passing of the Ottoman era.

One of the great avenues of the city was the Grande Rue de Pera – the current Istiklal Avenue – across from the Golden Horn. Pera was the second major Greek residential area of the city. As I walked this famous avenue in April this year, the old photographs were brought to life.

Walking south from Taksim Square – opposite the French Consulate – is the impressive Greek Orthodox Church of Agia Triada, with children playing in its gardens. Further down on the right is the Greek Consulate, now a thriving cultural centre, and a little further is the ornate entrance to the Roumeli Bazaar, with its legends written in Greek letters for all to see and be reminded of the Greek-ness of old Pera.

There are some great examples of late 19th century architecture here. One of the most interesting is an Art Deco apartment block, designed by the Greek architect C.P. Kyriakides. Its doors have ornate brass work and the combination of fine lines and swirling curves well known to lovers of this style. Nearby is the impressive Cite of Pera building, with its statues and columns, inviting you to view its wares.

Here also are many European consulates, many dating from the early 1700s, as Europe vied for trading and diplomatic footings in the capital. The Russian Consulate was once the White Russian government-in-exile in 1920. And there are the reminders of lost Empires too – the once influential Embassy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire bears silent witness to the impermanence of Empire. Captain White had to dodge the attentions of Austro-Hungarian officers in the cafes near this very avenue in 1917 as he made his escape. These cafes remain, selling halva, baklava and ekmek with some traditional coffee to the weary pedestrian.

Sitting in the traditional Imbroz Restaurant – just off the avenue, beneath Art Deco street lighting – with my friends Ozan, Ilias and Yiannis, the smells and music of the avenue flood around us. The fresh fish from the Bosphorus, Turkish feta and mezze satisfy the palate. The Greek and Turkish sounds of Asia Minor coming from the folk musicians nearby tell of the meeting of cultures.

Yet one cannot talk of the city without mentioning its sadness – for many of its Greek and Armenian residents remain only as shades of the past. Waves of emigration, from the 1920s onwards, reduced the city’s Greek community. Over 150,000 would leave in 1923. Orhan Palmuk, the great modern writer of the city, has written of his love of the Phanar before 1955, remembering the exotic sweets of the cake shops of the area.

The avenue ends at the Galata area, with its great Genoan tower, and I find a lovely old bookshop, its copper Art Deco sign of old telling it was once the home of the Librarie de Pera. The view from Galata across to the Golden Horn is magnificent. Allied sailors gazed across here 1919, as the Genoan defenders of the city did in 1452.

Crossing the great Galata Bridge, a light breeze eases the walk amid the local fishermen hopefully casting their rods. Walking on and up the hill, through the Spice Bazaar, I see the Byzantine houses, still in use after over a thousand years. As I emerge into the wide vista that is the former Roman Hippodrome, looking around, one is witness to the passage of time – Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, Justinian’s Basilica Cisterns and the Serpentine Column commemorating the victory at Plataea are all here.

I end at Constantine’s Million column, marking the centre of the Roman Empire and the beginning of the great Roman Road, the Via Egnata. The later makes its way west, to Thessaloniki and beyond. Walked on by St Paul in his journeys spreading the gospel, it would also be the road walked by Australian nurses and soldiers in Thessaloniki as they arrived to help defend and heal the region in the First World War after the end of the Gallipoli campaign. But that is another story waiting to be told.

*Jim Claven is a historian and published author. He is working on developing and leading tourist trails dedicated to the connection between the Anzacs and the Greeks.