Istanbul is the most beautiful city in the world. God took his time in sculpting it within many natural elements: the sea surrounding the seven hills, the invigorating ozone and oxygen-rich air, the sunrises and sunsets over the Bosphorus. This strait, separating Europe and Asia, is a stage for some of the world’s most complex and graceful maritime choreography and a marvel to observe. Istanbul is purely a natural miracle married to some of the most beautiful constructions and cultures that humankind has ever made. I am a lucky man, indeed, to have been born and raised there.
In painting this city I came to comprehend that I cannot paint the culture that made this city unique, colorful, and cosmopolitan. The process that took millennia to bring forth, is now disappearing. And, alas, it cannot be recreated. I was very lucky to live there during the best years of Istanbul. The “golden period” that I experienced started after World Wars I and II, when people were able to restart their normal lives.
Istanbul is a cradle of civilization. Over time it has been the Greek city Byzantium, founded in 660 A.D, and next Constantinople in the first half of the fourth century A.D.. Constantine the Great, who was Emperor of the Eastern and Western Holy Roman Empire, named the city after himself! An Ottoman sultanate claimed the area in 1453 when Mehmet II conquered the city, unofficially renaming it “Istanbul.” For six centuries it was the base of the Ottoman Empire.
After World War I the Ottoman caliphate collapsed, and the new Turkey, established in 1923, crowned it officially “Istanbul.” Wanting to forget our city’s complicated past and embrace fully the sovereignty of modern Turkey, people of my generation were all very sensitive to call the city “Istanbul,” its Turkish proper name. Yet one should be proud of the entirety of such a sweeping inheritance. What a past that has held three empires and now a republic! Istanbul, in all its monumental incarnations, has been and is glorious, historic, enigmatic, and grandiose. It should be remembered with pride and honored always.
Now Istanbul is overwhelmingly Muslim, but this was not always the situation. During my time there in the twentieth century the people who lived in Istanbul were a unique amalgamation—diverse humans who added rich color to the natural beauty of the city. There was a significant number of Jews, mostly Sephardic, who were deported from Spain during the Inquisition. The wise Ottoman sultan of the time gave them residence in his empire. They brought their own culture and Latin-based language, blending well with other cultures in Istanbul. There was a significant number of Armenians, who found Istanbul’s cosmopolitan atmosphere to be more secure than the genocidal conditions they suffered in Anatolia in 1915. In general, these talented people were craftsmen (masons, tailors, jewelers, cobblers, carpenters, architects, and builders). Greeks, descendants from the Byzantine era, were well-educated, avant-guarde small business entrepreneurs, and the best nightclub, pub, and restaurant operators in the city. If you wanted fun, you went to a Greek taverna! In smaller numbers there were Tsarist White Russians. The Levantines or Latin Christians (mostly French and Italians) brought European manners, style, fashion, art, science, and technology to Istanbul.
Of course, Turks were the majority, but the fact that there was a significant and multi-cultured minority—around twenty per cent—gave Istanbul its cosmopolitan Euro-Turkish flavor and singularity. Istanbul of those days was surely a melting pot, a constantly cooking culture that had a unique aroma, look, and taste. All our habits, likes, dislikes, synchronicities, and idiosyncrasies combined to make us “Istanbul’lu”! Christians, Muslims, and Jews, all respected each other and celebrated each religious holiday.
The founder and first president of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, honored this multicultural population. However, after Ataturk’s death in 1938, this beautiful mosaic of coexistence was first shaken in 1942 when the new government initiated a special “Varlik Vergisi” (a so-called wealth tax that took into account every kind of asset). The political atmosphere had changed. Packaged to the public as a defense fund in the face of World War II, the underlying reason for the tax was to reduce the influence of the non-Turkish minority in the country’s affairs and cripple their powerful status in the economy. Armenian families felt this impact acutely.
Many minority families could not pay this unjust and enormous tax, so they lost everything for which they had worked very hard. Fathers were drafted into a special army unit with an unknown future and sent to Askale in eastern Turkey. Thus, this first wave of minorities left the soil of their life and loves. This essentially forced relocation created a void that was hard to fill. The second and biggest minority exodus happened on September 6-7, 1955 when a horde of Turkish extremists, imported and organized by the government, destroyed all of the non- Muslim stores in Istanbul, Izmir and Ankara. This atrocity prompted another exit of most of the remaining Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Levantines, and other minorities.
The natural and historic charm of Istanbul still exists, but to my eyes and heart it has lost its soul. That “golden age” of Istanbul will not return. Try as I might, and I have tried, that’s the painting of Istanbul that I cannot complete. What a shame to lose such an exquisite era, that exists now only in the memories of people, such as I, in their late seventies.