The Ottoman city of Istanbul grew to have two faces. The first was the face of the Empire, a world empire steeped in Islam and tradition-home of Islamic institutions, pious charities, and traditional Turkish life. The second face was one that increasingly turned towards the west. This was the Istanbul of its non-Moslem minorities, Levantines of Jewish and European backgrounds, people who spoke Italian, French, Greek, Armenian, Ladino, Bulgarian, or any number of other languages.
The center of this “other” Istanbul was the district of Pera, today’s Beyoglu, the area that stretches from Taksim down to the Golden Horn and radiates off its main thoroughfare, Istiklal Avenue, the former Grand Rue du Pera. This is the district with a skyline dotted with church spires and synagogues rather than minarets. Western-style bankers and businessmen settled in Pera and soon Pera became the commercial center of the city.
Pera was lined with rows of foreign embassies, huge and ornamental buildings set in large gardens. The foreigners of the area soon also built their own schools and hospitals, and even their own jails. Grand apartment buildings reflected the Art Nouveau style that was imported from France (along with much of the construction materials themselves.) The foreign influx (and the building of the Orient Express) soon resulted in the construction of hotels to meet the needs of the western visitors. The Pera Palace and the Buyuk Londra Hotel still lodge visitors who are grateful for the nostalgic glimpse these buildings provide into a time that has disappeared.
Times changed. The Ottoman Empire was replaced by the Modern Turkish Republic. The quarter of Pera began to sink into a slow decline. Chic Ottoman ladies and gentlemen in high hats and tails were no longer seen on the Avenue. The luxurious cinemas and theaters turned into porno venues and the grand homes of the quarter into hotels of disrepute or sweatshops. Levantines were replaced by poor Turks and then by those from a shadowy underworld.
Happily enough, the last fifteen years has seen a new renaissance in the district. Pera has once again sprung to life. And Pera now is livelier than ever. Beyoglu is seemingly packed with bars, cafes and restaurants, with music spilling out of doorways and streets full of people of all ages, cultures, and backgrounds. Artists have poured into the quarter from around the world and the lower end of Istiklal (Tunel) is full of artists’ studios and galleries. Major firms and institutions have raced to establish cultural centers. Old hotels have been refurbished and new hotels built. Pera once again is beckoning those who crave a glimpse into what is surely one of the world’s most exciting urban districts.