The story of a community
In many ways the Levantines were another component in the multi-ethnic and multilingual melting pot of major trading centres in the Ottoman Empire. Examining the past of virtually all ports in the Eastern Mediterranean will reveal a European merchant presence of varying sizes. However most were relatively short lived, and were tiny in numbers. It is nevertheless surprising to discover English and other merchants referred to in consular and other papers, established in cities that were not even ports such as Aleppo [Halep], Prussa [Bursa], Adrianople [Edirne] etc. and a study in itself of these dispersed communities probably awaits. However those in Smyrna and Constantinople (with the possible inclusion of Alexandria) were more substantial in numbers and its roots went back in to the middle ages. Living through generations in these cities made them no longer expatriates, intermarriage amongst the various nations weakened the link with the ‘home countries’ and the Ottoman ‘millet’ system allowed these minorities to live in their own orbits. Thus a Levantine culture was born and flourished while the communities flourished. However time was not enough to fully break the link with their national countries, nor fuse the various nationalities truly in to one Levantine culture. So on individual levels some families probably never considered themselves Levantine, while others knew nothing else.
Radical events accompanying the transition of Ottoman Empire to Turkish state could not maintain the state of affairs, added to that was the economically and socially disastrous fire of Smyrna of 1922.
So the question arises if we can talk of a Levantine culture post 1922. In my opinion the numbers on the ground in the now renamed cities of Istanbul and Izmir couldn’t sustain the same culture, but a legacy survives particularly amongst the aging Italian background populations of the two cities. The English and French (and a few other languages) speakers were dispersed both to their home countries, where the Levantine identity would be meaningless, and a minority stayed in the Eastern Mediterranean.
Thus in a way Levantines carried their culture to Greece, Lebanon and Egypt the last of which had for a few generations supported a significant merchant presence. It is subjective whether these people could be called Levantines as the ‘millet’ laws under which considerable concessions were obtained no longer applied. In my opinion we can still refer to these people as Levantines, at least to the generation that was born in Turkey. They showed their enterprise again though this time lacking the concessionary supports of the state, and often having lost all in the Smyrna fire. This is a testament to a highly resilient and hard working community, but in the long term fate would again be against them and in most cases they would have to leave their second adopted countries in a generation’s time.
The first to suffer were the Italians who chose to settle in the 12 islands of the Aegean (particularly Rhodes) as after WWII, Greece reposed these and businesses established by the Levantines appear to have been considered Italian thus confiscated. In 1956 Nasser’s revolution expelled all foreign nationals which included Levantines from Izmir and Istanbul, though it is interesting to note the word Levantine was used as a self designation by some Europeans who did not come from Turkey. The invasion of Cyprus in 1974 caused a mass exodus of Britons living on that island, a minority of which again had Levantine links, and finally the increasingly brutal civil war in Lebanon caused the end of the minor Levantine presence in that country.
However it is premature to talk of the death of Levantine culture and history has shown its resilience. Keeping a low profile has been part of that success and mystery, and this will continue for a few generations yet. The mystery has led to a romanticization of the Levantine heritage, leading to a collectors market in memorabilia in Turkey, particularly photos and postcards of lost generations and lifestyles, albeit conducted in a somewhat unfortunate manner, as this tends to be devoid of any attempt of genealogical or historical research these items deserve.
The young Levantines of Izmir prove the premise of a pre-mature death false with regular social gatherings and this group has prospered since its inception in 2005 and has continued to grow in following till today - photos:
Notes: 1- There is a good web site detailing the policy of one of the chief players, France, in this ‘great game’ of influence and traiding rights in the Levant.
2- A dedicated institution for Ottoman studies in the UK is the Skilliter centre based at the University of Cambridge, and their web site clearly shows how active they are.
3- The island of Chios with its proximity to Smyrna shares a considerable amount of Hellenic (minor Levantine) heritage with families being related. The geneaology of this is examined in considerable depth by Christopher Long.
4- The Ottoman bank archives and research centre has over recent times developed into a significant source of research into banking history (where Levantines played an important part in the early days), and their activities include holding of lectures and seminars covering a wider subject field. The Ottoman bank museum hosted (26 April - 26 August 2005) an exhbition with the theme of Dünden Bugüne Galata [Galata from yesterday to today] that included a ‘culture map’ of the district.
5- On 22-23 December 2005, the municipal council of Karşıyaka in Izmir held a symposium dedicated to culture and history, and some of the lectures given covered subjects closely related to Levantines, such as ‘The republican era through the eyes of Levantines - Aykan Candemir’, ‘Examples of Karşıyaka Levantine houses - Prof. Dr. İnci Kuyulu Ersoy’ and ‘The Old House and Van der Zee family during the Turco-Greek War - Ahmet Mehmetefendioğlu (9 September University)’, the last one based on diary entries of Helen Van der Zee through this period. Some highlights of this last lecture:
Helen van der Zee was the wife of a writer who worked for the famous French Le Figaro newspaper. The family lived till 1950 in Austria, but Helen (when widowed?) returned to Izmir. According to family records, the first Van der Zee came to Smyrna in 1792 and initially settled in the out of town village of Seydikoy (spelt by the community at the time as Seidikeuy, now much expanded and known as Gaziemir). A branch of the family settled in Chanak (Çanakkale on the Dardanelles) and assisted the infamous archaeologist Heinrich Schliemann in his excavations at Troy. They built their house in Karşıyaka in 1902-3, initially single storied, later recieves additions to expand to its current design. At the time the family head was Heindrich van der Zee, and he had 5 children. Some members of the family were buried within the garden of this house. Helen van der Zee, together with Mrs Aliotti, were the first ladies of Smyrna to ride a bike. The household had a German nanny, English nurse and about 15 servants. The winter house of the van der Zee family was near the Pasaport pier in Punta. Helen’s diary makes frequent reference to earthquakes shaking Smyrna. The second Ottoman reformation of 1908 was greeted by the van der Zee family in their home and life was comfortable till the First World War. Since they were active in maritime agency work, they were amongst the founders of the chamber of Smyrna maritime trade. Heinrich van der Zee married in 1915 [?probably turn of the century] and his youngest offspring was murdered in Athens. This individual is possibly one of the memorials still displayed at the St. Helene Karşıyaka church (Valdemar van der Zee, died 1914 Athens).