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Producing Pera: A Levantine Family and the Remaking of Istanbul

[View of Pera and Galata, circa 1870-1910. Photo by Guillaume Berggren via US Library of Congress] [View of Pera and Galata, circa 1870-1910. Photo by Guillaume Berggren via US Library of Congress]

In recent years, urban space has emerged as a critical point of political contention in Turkey. However, this is by no means a new phenomenon. The politics of urban transformation in Istanbul—Turkey’s largest city and the capital of the former Ottoman Empire—have offered a visible representation of the dominant ideology of the times since the city’s conquest in 1453. As Ottoman sultans and statesmen sought to consciously reorient towards Europe during the nineteenth century, the largely non-Muslim neighborhood of Pera, opposite the historical peninsula on the northern side of the Golden Horn, became a site of particular meaning. During the nineteenth century, this region underwent tremendous growth and rapid architectural transformation, shaping what today has become the center of Istanbul—represented by Taksim Square and the surrounding area.

In conjunction with the launch of Jadaliyya’s Turkey Page, Ottoman History Podcast rereleases Episode 90, entitled “Producing Pera,” featuring the research of Nilay Özlü, who through the study of a Levantine family offers a generational approach to the transformation of Istanbul as an architectural and cultural space. During the late nineteenth century, an Ottoman Levantine named Alexander Vallaury became one of the foremost Ottoman architects of his day, designing many important buildings in modern-day Istanbul, such as the Ottoman Imperial Bank, and lecturing at the newly-established Academy of Fine Arts. His architectural works were part of a larger assertion of a new modern self-identification by the Ottoman elite, which itself was heavily influenced by trends in Europe. This meant that Vallaury played a pivotal role in how modernization was to be displayed in urban space.

The prestige that Vallaury garnered was certainly greater than that of his grandfather, who had come to the Ottoman capital as a pastry chef in the employ of the French embassy. The rise in the Vallaury family’s stock was in part facilitated by a general rise in the influence of the Levantine community, whose links to Europe made them a critical component of what was meant to be a “more European” Istanbul. Alexander Vallaury’s access to a French education offered him the opportunity to participate in the transformation and rise of his native neighborhood of Pera.

This podcast deals with the transformation of Pera through the story of three generations of the Vallaury family. It includes a discussion of the architectural works designed by Alexander Vallaury, many of which can still be found in Istanbul today. Alongside this discussion, there are several historical and contemporary photographs of these buildings available on the Ottoman History Podcast website.

Ottoman History Podcast is a weekly internet radio program, recorded in English and Turkish, that features academic discussion of emerging topics in the study of the Ottoman Empire and the modern Middle East. Guests include scholars and researchers from a number of disciplines who discuss particular topics in a conversational interview format. Ottoman History Podcast can be followed through its blog as well as an active Facebook group that also posts pictures and links of interest for students of history and casual audiences alike.

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