As the late afternoon sun casts a shadow over the picturesque harbour of Çesme, a small town in the western Turkish district of Izmir, young women in bikinis dive off the pier into the sea as the call to prayer rings out from a nearby mosque.
Snaking around Turkey’s west coast, Izmir faces out to the Aegean Sea and beyond. The district’s city, which has the same name, was once a cosmopolitan capital of the Ottoman Empire, a trading port that became Turkey’s gateway to the world and the West’s entry point to Asia. In the early 1900s, residents called it the “pearl of Europe” or “le petit Paris”. There were theatres, opera houses and department stores selling the latest French fashions.
The city was shaped by European families who moved there in the 18th and 19th centuries. Greek and Armenian, French and British, Italian and Spanish all arrived. Between them they were responsible for building the region’s first railways and street lights as well as establishing the first banks and newspapers. They were the families who imported the best the world had to offer and exported Turkey’s finest raw materials to Europe. “The city was a great mixture of different races,” says Reggie Gallia, a sprightly 86-year-old whose family came from Corfu in the 1800s.
“The Europeans”, as their descendents still call themselves, benefited from the “capitulations”, deals struck between western governments and the Ottoman Empire which allowed foreigners to trade freely in Izmir. “It gave an unfair advantage to foreign traders,” says Brian Giraud, the current head of two of Izmir’s oldest (and inter-married) families: the Girauds, French aristocrats who moved to Izmir after the 1789 revolution; and the Whittalls, from the UK, who became Turkey’s largest traders by the end of the 19th century.
Up until the start of the 20th century, Izmir – which was then known as Smyrna – remained a city dominated by Levantines. Everything changed in 1922. In the aftermath of the First World War, Greece invaded Turkey aiming to restore a Christian empire. They were defeated by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s army and the Turkish general proceeded to march on Smyrna, the last bastion of European influence. The city burned for four days. Some 100,000 people were killed and almost one million forced from their homes. The capitulations came to an end and large swathes of prime property were expropriated by Ataturk’s newly independent Turkish government.
“Many of the Europeans left,” says Giraud. “The advantages they held before all disappeared.” Some of the families, including the Girauds, stayed and adapted. A few years after the destruction of the city, Anthony Micaleff, whose Maltese family arrived in 1850, set up Kristal, an olive oil business that is run today by his son, Noel. Now 75, Noel has no children, but hopes one day to hand over to his nephew, Christopher, who is the sales director.
Reggie Gallia’s father took advantage of the mountains of scrap metal piled up around the city and began exporting it. Reggie, who took over the company in 1944 when he was 20, turned it into one of Turkey’s largest import companies, securing contracts for oil firm BP, Dunlop tyres and Austin motors.
One of Reggie’s biggest rivals was Enrico Aliberti, an Italian whose father came from Saluzzo, near Turin. Aliberti won the contract to import Fiats and his son, Ricardo Enrico, has expanded the business by importing Volkswagens too. And now a third generation of Aliberti car dealers is primed to take over: Andrea, 26, began working at the family firm in January.
Unlike many of the European families, the Alibertis are all Turkish citizens. For those who are not, business opportunities are harder to come by. The rules, which once made life easier for the foreigners than the locals, have now shifted very much in favour of Turkish citizens.
The question of identity hangs over the families. Until the 1980s, Turkish law did not allow dual nationality, so most European families opted to keep their British, French or Italian citizenship.
“Sometimes, I’m asking myself who I am,” William Buttigieg muses. His ancestors arrived from Malta in 1830 when the island was a British protectorate. Butti-gieg, 59, not only retains his British nationality, he has also spent the past 20 years as the British Consul. Sat beneath a portrait of a young Queen Elizabeth II in his office at the British Consulate, he says: “A lot of Brits don’t see me as British, a lot of Turks don’t see me as Turkish.”
Before 1922, Smyrna residents considered themselves citizens of the Ottoman Empire, says Gallia. “Now, I’m a local among strangers.” His son, Anthony, also struggles to define himself. “I feel neither. I’m more Turkish when I’m in Britain and vice versa.”
Micaleff’s view is different. “We always considered ourselves Maltese,” he says. It’s not the same for the younger generations, though. His nephew, Christopher, identifies more with the city of his birth than the country. “I say I’m from Izmir, not Turkey.” Christopher’s Catholicism – and his first name – raise eyebrows elsewhere in the country. “At the airport in Istanbul last month the woman checking my passport said I wasn’t Turkish because of my name. That doesn’t happen in Izmir.”
Despite all the changes, the city remains separate from the rest of Turkey. At a recent referendum on the constitution, which was overwhelmingly passed, Izmir was the only district to vote “no”. While the constitutional changes were widely seen as strengthening the country’s democracy, some secularists argued it handed more power to the mildly Islamist ruling party. Izmir is still a cosmopolitan metropolis, a city where Christopher’s Ecuadoran wife, Diana, feels at ease because “lots of people speak English and French”.
For some of the European families, though, the changes are too much. The new Izmir is engulfing them. Tall concrete apartment buildings block out the sun in their gardens. A city that just 40 years ago had a population of 250,000 is now home to more than three million, many of them Turkish migrants from the east who have moved to Izmir in search of jobs. The remaining Europeans worry about what the future holds.
“I hope everything will go fine for the new generation,” says Rosemary Dologh, Christopher’s mother. “We were luckier when we were young. All the world is a bit upside down now.” The referendum, and Prime Minister Recep Erdogan’s more pronounced Muslim identity, has put some Europeans on edge. “Turkey is very Muslim now,” says one. “What will it be like for my children?” Another adds: “A lot of people are very frightened. When something happens it’s the minorities that suffer.”
While the influence of the old Levantine families is waning, the youngest generations are doing their best to ensure the stories are not forgotten. Mark Giraud, Brian’s 19-year-old son, corrects his father’s sometimes hazy family history and enthusiastically recounts tales of 19th-century business successes.
Andrew Simes, 28, another descendant of Levantines, spent two years recording his grandfather’s stories and cataloguing his photos. They are some stories. Alfred, who is now 101, met both Hitler and Stalin, and once dated Miss Universe 1932. During the First World War, Lawrence of Arabia stayed at the Simes family house and Alfred proudly shows the tie-pin that Lawrence presented to him.
“What was he like?” Monocle asks. Simes grins. “Just like me.”
Andrew and his father, 66-year-old Rodney, are taking Alfred out for dinner to celebrate his 101st birthday. As Rodney gently leads him to the taxi, he smiles sadly and says, “We are a dying breed.”