The translated text of Ekrem Demirtaş for the opening session of the Levantine Symposium held on 3rd November, 2010, Izmir
Distinguished guests, consuls, speakers, our Levantine friends from Izmir and the Izmirlis, welcome to you all. A short while ago, while I was entering this hall the governor rang his representative telling him ‘I am in Ankara, I would have loved to be at this meeting and this is a very important meeting for Izmir’. I personally didn’t think it would be this important for Izmir, but he informed us he definitely wants to see the final communiqués and I promised him that. In addition the degree of participation is very encouraging. When I started this process with Mr Alex I wasn’t expecting such a result. Welcome again all of you. There are guests here from outside Izmir and as has been mentioned by our committee head, we are very happy to be your hosts.
When Alex suggested such a meeting we the committee immediately accepted the proposal and by chance this symposium coincides with the 125th anniversary of the foundation of our chamber of commerce. When the chamber was established in 1885 Levantines had a major role in its inception, thus this meeting also serves to acknowledge their memory.
In the past these Levantine families were very influential and no doubt they were the most important factor in helping Izmir create its culture we take pride in, one based on tolerance, modernity and western orientation.
Distinguished guests; the history of Levantines in Izmir goes back to the 1200s with the concessions given to the city states of Venice and Genoa, the first Frank quarter is established. But of greater significance with the trade agreements reached with the countries of France, Holland and England between the years of 1539 and 1612, the city’s Levantine population begins to increase steadily. With this development Izmir begins to grow as well and quickly becomes a centre of trade. The Frank quarters begin to develop in the location corresponding to today’s Gümrük bus stops and the centre portion of the Mimar Kemalettin Boulevard. In the second half of the 1800s with the spread of the Frank quarter to the sea, the entire coastal section of Izmir becomes a Levantine neighbourhood. On the first floor of our Chamber there is a museum dedicated to the commercial history of our city. If you go there you will see a model of the city as it appeared in the 1800s. At the time the area that is today the Kemeraltı Boulevard was the coast, and there was an inner harbour like a lagoon. In time this was in-filled and the area known as Hissar, the former castle, was on this shoreline, but of course today it is set back from the sea. So today you can still see traces of this former Izmir.
Since our esteemed historian guests are going to talk about the history of Levantines I don’t want to go into this subject too much, the information I have given you are the notes given to me by our Chamber’s historical consultant. The Izmir Chamber of Commerce is a trade association that not only acknowledges its past but aims to offer its vision to the future. And for this reason we do conduct research on this history under the guidance of Fikret Yılmazsoy.
Distinguished guests, 100 years ago Levantine merchants were instrumental in providing a direction and strength to this city’s trade, allowed for the accumulation of capital in Izmir and developed the city into a trade centre. In all the principal industries trade such as the port, the Aydin Railway or the bay ferries, Levantine were always in prominence. In the outlying areas such as Buca and Bornova, they built their mansions, many of which still stand and some have been restored. These regions thus represent the foundations of the city architectural style but unfortunately this manner of construction was later abandoned to give way to high rise buildings. We can still see the Victorian and Crimean War period architectural styles in Buca and Bornova. The introductions from the West always came courtesy of the Levantines, such as cinema, theatre, sports clubs, the first jockey club, which still functions today, carrying the Levantine heritage till today.
The city was multicultural with Christians, Moslems, Jews living as neighbours and Levantines be they Italian, English or French they worked together. This multi-ethnic style of living, of tolerance spread to the streets of Izmir and was engraved in the minds of Izmirlis in a way that would never be erased.
Distinguished guests, once the Levantine population of the city was around 15,000 and today alas it is around 1,000. Unfortunately many left Izmir, often not wishing to do so. What they felt? Perhaps today we will hear from the speakers who no doubt will bring along memories of their elders. And we know wherever they went they carried in their heart memories of Izmir. However we would also like these Diaspora Levantines to return to our city. We would like them to join us to re-establish their roots and even invest here.
The Levantines in Izmir who lived here for centuries have contributed much to the city and amongst these families I can include the likes of Arcas, Dutilh, Aliberti, Giraud, Baltazzi, Sponza. These families I mentioned didn’t want to move to Europe or even Istanbul, and still live here. Some became tax champions. Despite the fact that their numbers have dwindled, Levantines are still are an integral part of the social life of our city. The late Marika Corsini, whose memory we treasure, was a symbol not only of this social scene but of generosity, and Levantines include Maria Rita Epik who have added colour to our cultural life – and she is in this room now.
Distinguished guests, we see Levantines not as others but as one of us. I know personally many Levantines whose roots have been here for centuries, so they are as much Izmirli as I am or even more so. So I see Levantines not as nostalgic details but I see them as one of the most important communities in Izmir in contributing to the character of the city of today. We wish to establish lasting links with this émigré community. I hope this symposium will aid this wish. I would like to thank Alex Baltazzi for his major effort in organizing this symposium, the Italian and French Cultural Centres, the visitors here and the speakers. With this level of interest I foresee this to be repeated once every two years or so. This was the first, but will not be the last. I would also like to thank our mayor for attending. I would like to apologise to you all as I will be departing at 11 o’clock for South Cyprus, so like our district governor I will be informed of the symposium with the final reports, I thank you again and wish you pleasant days.