Urban development policies in the port-city of Izmir: between cosmopolitism and economic development 

Being understood as “portals of Globalisation” (Middell and Naumann), port-cities often act as sites of cross-cultural encounter which shaped their image as “cosmopolitan” places ever since. In depictions of Izmir however, the use of the term follows a Eurocentric narrative and local urban policies over time seemed to promote this understanding. GLOCAL student Melanie Thut discusses how different local varieties of cosmopolitism in Izmir are often understudied and what port-cities can learn from this for their future.

Izmir, the Turkish port-city formerly officially known as Smyrna and unofficially as “Little Paris of the Orient”, has long been unreflectively understood as an emblematic example of an early “cosmopolitan” port-city because of its diverse population enabling cross-cultural encounters and its connecting role between West and East (Hazir 2022, 84; Yerli 2021). Having a look at the local government in a historical perspective, especially between 1840 and 1880 when the port-city saw major changes in urban development, reveals a certain tendency. It is noticeable how local urban policies actively favoured the meanwhile established highly influential European city population and the creation of an open business environment for foreign entrepreneurs (Zandi-Sayek 2011). Nonetheless, how did different social groups in the city benefit from these policies and what does this tell us about Izmir’s relationship to cosmopolitanism?

Disentangling the concept of “cosmopolitanism”, its vague and changing character over time becomes evident. Greek etymologically, ” cosmopolitan” places are places that harbour a “world citizenry”. They are associated with attributes such as openness or hospitality in comparison to “other” places which creates artificial social strains between the two types (Yerli 2021, 21-22). As in the case of Eurocentric interpretations of Izmir as a “cosmopolitan port city” by contemporary reporters as well as scholars to this day, the people, places and habits denoted as “cosmopolitan” in Izmir are mostly European in character themselves like western coffee houses, entertainment and education venues or the Western-oriented architectural style. In contrast, “other” Muslim- or Jewish-majority parts of the city and the people in them are usually characterized as backward, dirty or second-rate (Jackson 2019, 338). While this created Eurocentric “cosmopolitan” identity of Izmir was long taken for granted, the numerous factors that make the use of the word problematic, such as associated elite power structures, social frictions or possible rejections of Western values by the local population are rarely considered (Driessen 2012, 137). Nevertheless, these observations in the urban society were already visible during Izmir’s history.

Since the 16th century, the local government granted special rights and freedoms to European entrepreneurs for doing business in the port-city of Izmir. In relation to the imperial governmental structure of the Ottoman Empire, Izmir took on a special role with relative independence and free trade status, which made it more agile and flexible in implementing urban policies (Jackson 2012, 340). The local government did not oppose the establishment of foreign trading centres or consulates, and in the 17th century European traders were allowed to settle in special “Frank Houses” directly on the waterfront in the newly emerging “Frank Quarter”. On the other hand, this open attitude led to the emergence of a segregated city with neighbourhoods for different ethnic and religious groups. (Zandi-Sayek 2011, 11-16).

French-language city plan of Smyrna showing the different neighborhoods. Taken from Wikimedia.
French-language city plan of Smyrna showing the different neighborhoods. Taken from Wikimedia.

During the 17th and 18th century, the city developed into one of the most important ports in the Ottoman Empire and attracted merchants and tradesmen from Europe and other parts of the world, including mainly Greeks, Jews, Armenians or “Catholics” (Driessen 2012, 133). Over time, the city government has always been open to entrepreneurs from abroad. Particularly in the 19th century, urban policies seem to have aimed at attracting especially people following this western kind of “cosmopolitan” way of life, bringing economic development to the city (Bugatti 2013, 500-501).

Port of Smyrna in 1883. Taken from Wikimedia.
Port of Smyrna in 1883. Taken from Wikimedia.

After influential merchants demanded the modernisation and renovation of the waterfront from the governor of Izmir in 1865, the local government accepted the project. In addition to better infrastructure and increased competitiveness of the port, the new waterfront was also to offer a special “urban experience” for people from Izmir and guests. Also, it should provide a home for numerous prestigious buildings and cultural establishments directly on the waterfront. The combined private and public undertaking was finally carried out by a French company from 1869-1875. The waterfront properties were commercialised and acquired mainly by wealthy Europeans, who in the meantime enjoyed equivalent civil rights as the local ottomans, for their private use according to their conceptions. At the same time, previous owners refused to make way for new uses or to pay the newly established high taxes on existing properties. In addition, public access to water for the city’s residents was now only possible in few places (Zandi-Sayek 2011, 115-149). As it is the case with many urban port development projects today, the conflict of interests between different urban users was already recognisable at the time with only some groups benefitting from these new opportunities related to a “cosmopolitan” lifestyle. 

Izmir's waterfront today. Taken from wikimedia.
Izmir's waterfront today. Taken from wikimedia.

While the newly established so called “cosmopolitan” European coffee houses, theatres or music venues at the waterfront are promoted as open places of encounter through the lens of today’s view on Izmir, they systematically excluded parts of the urban society from entering and participating. On the one hand social segregation happened because of the physical structure of the city with designated “European” areas in the centre and more outer quarters for other local social groups. On the other side, these places forbid undesirable people access. While the “European” spots should remain closed venues for the entrepreneurial elite of the city, other local groups formed their own cultural venues and social establishments. Oftentimes these were the places where hospitality and openness were more expressed than in the cosmopolitan European venues. Urban music or art centres like the city’s Mevlevi lodge offered cultural education across different religious borders and local communities jointly organized charity events like benefit operas for schools of different ethnic and religious backgrounds (Jackson 2012).

To conclude, we should not only rethink Izmir’s history as a “cosmopolitan” Ottoman port-city questioning the term itself and taking different urban social groups into account. The study of alternative local forms of social interaction, diversity and tolerance besides the prominent western locations at the waterfront can also be insightful and shed light on alternative cosmopolitan experiences in 19th century Izmir. Coming back to the role of the local government in Izmir, its urban policies for the promotion of economic development and the attraction of people with a “cosmopolitan” lifestyle, that remind of current urban policies applied in port-cities like Rotterdam (Jansen et al. 2021) or Marseille (Bullen 2021), should be studied critically with a focus on different social groups and their benefit from these urban development projects. Current urban challenges like gentrification or social segregation can already be studied in a historical perspective, looking at examples like Izmir. While reimagining port-cities, their waterfronts, economic development and urban societies for the future, a critical look at historical examples and their notions of “cosmopolitism” will help design future urban policies from which a variety of different social groups benefit.


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