The Right Coast

December 27, 2004
Cosmopolitan Echoes in Turkey
By Maimon Schwarzschild

Good column by H.D.S. Greenway on life in Istanbul, Turkey's metropolis, as Turkey now seeks admission to the European Union. As Greenway says, Istanbul used to be a cosmopolitan city, with large and vibrant Greek, Armenian, Jewish, and other minority communities. And Constantinople, as the city was known for 1500 years, was probably the largest, and certainly the most cosmopolitan, city in the world through most of the middle ages. (The name "Istanbul" is just a Turkish version of "Constantinople" of course: the words look completely different, but say them quickly and you will hear the resemblance.)

But the twentieth century brought Istanbul's cosmopolitanism to an abrupt end. Armenians were the victims of massacre in Turkey. Greeks were expelled en masse after the First World War: the same fate befell Turks and Moslems in Greece, in what was euphemistically called a "population transfer". The Istanbul Jewish community, once one of the world's great Jewish communities, is now reduced to a few dozen families. (Turkish Jews to this day speak Ladino, the Spanish they brought with them to the Ottoman lands after the expulsion from Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.)

As Greenway says --
One has to look to London and Paris now for the same diversity that Istanbul once stood for. The end of empire for Europe meant the influx of those over whom the Europeans once ruled. But in Istanbul most of the vibrant minorities went elsewhere. That a few remain at all, however, says something for this city and this country in a region where tolerance is in such short supply.
And of course, even more than in London and Paris -- and far more smoothly, on the whole -- there is the growing cosmopolitanism of the United States.