Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

A Ramble on Architecture, History and the Spirit of a Place

What makes a city loveable? Is it the physical trappings, e.g., beautiful buildings, cleanliness, fashionable shops, 'quaint' bits? Or is it something less tangible, perhaps simply a capacity to surprise again and again? One of the things that fascinated me about Turkey from the beginning was its contradictions. Straddling Europe and Asia, it is a nation at once leaning East and West, longing to be part of the European club while holding on to a distinctly Oriental, fatalistic view of the universe. Witness the love affair of the latter Ottoman sultans with things European (particularly French), and, in the early days of the Republic, Ataturk's at times brutal efforts to forcefully drag his countrymen into a European present. He dictated the abandonment of the fez in favor of European headwear (refusal to do so resulted, in at least a few cases, in death), urged his people to stop carrying loads on their backs, and introduced the Roman alphabet. The Turkish language is loaded with French words and phrases. Interestingly, in today's atmosphere of heightened Christian - Muslim tensions, Turks still admire things American, and those I've met invariably seem pleased to find out that I come from there. And yet there is a quiet, quite un-Western sense of fatalism that pervades Turkish life. Superstition is rampant, and proverbs pepper daily speech. A guiding principle is inshallah, god willing, as if personal effort and initiative is futile, because God will decide. This results in a kind of passivity which can be infuriating to the westerner, who tends to think in terms of the betterment of his / her lot in life through hard work and ambition. Turks work hard, but often seem to give little thought to making improvements in quality or efficiency. Whether this has to do more with a fatalistic world view or with their heritage as make-do nomads is debatable. Whichever it may be, the result is that in the country's larger metropoli (Izmir being the country's third largest) one encounters an intriguing mix of 'progressive', European-izing tendencies, and ways of living that, except superficially, haven't really changed for thousands of years.

The once-lovely city of Smyrna (long known by the Turks as 'Beautiful Izmir') was tragically burnt to the ground during the ousting of the Greeks at the end of the Turkish Independence War in 1922. Sensing an opportunity for a land grab whilst the Ottoman empire was in its death throes, Greeks had turned against Turks in an ambitious attempt to establish 'greater Greece'. After a long and brutal war, the Greeks ultimately found themselves on the losing side and were ousted. The post-war rebuilding of the city seems to have been driven by either urgent necessity or greed...or both. Where once stood lovely high-windowed, balconied wooden houses now stand block after block of concrete boxes. They are often small-windowed, low-ceilinged, shoddily constructed; few attempts have been made to restore the old buildings or even to reference the old styles in new buildings. Perhaps beyond greed and necessity, these post-war building styles also reflect a collective, post-war psychic depression. The country's people had just survived two brutal wars, back to back. Old ways of life were gone forever. Where once Turks and Greeks had lived relatively peacefully together, suddenly there was a tremendous cultural vacuum. The Greeks having turned foe, it is hardly to be wondered at that the local Turks did not rush to emulate Greek architectural styles. And in light of what the country had suffered for years, it is understandable if there was little enthusiasm for architecture in the post-war era.

Today, when contemplating 'Beautiful Izmir', I am struck by two things. One is that in some sense it isn't beautiful at all, between the unspectacular architecture and the often reckless disregard for the environment. Exhaust-belching buses prowl the streets, garbage gathers in run-off canals, torn-up sidewalks and streets trip the unwary pedestrian at every turn, and dumpsters overflow onto streets. And is beautiful. The city's natural setting, for one -- a magnificent bay surrounded by rows of mountains that, at sunset, cloak themselves in different shades of purple. The soft sea breeze that keeps you from stifling in the summer; the haunting call to prayer from the local mosque; the couples and families lounging on the grass, in the parks, picknicking in the shade of the trees. The liveliness in the streets, at all hours of the night. The lazy, contented street dogs, well-fed and perpetually napping. The melodies of the street-vendors' chants; the constant flow of people and activity. The unexpected sights -- horses grazing in a roundabout, someone hauling a bed on a bicycle. Is Izmir beautiful? By some standards, she might not be considered so...and yet I find again and again that I love her for her spirit and for, rather than in spite of, her imperfections.


Post a Comment

<< Home