(CNN) — At first glance, Izmir looks very much like any other modern Turkish metropolis, densely populated with nondescript architecture.
But it was once Turkey’s most cosmopolitan city – and that historic cachet is still hidden among the streets of Izmir.
If you turn back the clock more than a century, you’ll see wealthy Levantine, Greek, Turkish and Armenian families strolling along Izmir’s waterfront in the latest Parisian fashion.
They drank beer from Munich or cocktails in elegant bars, and sent their children to church-run schools to learn French and Latin.
Izmirites were the epitome of sophistication and grace, but their lifestyle came to an abrupt end in 1922 when ferocious fires raged through the streets.
The modern city stretches around the Gulf of Izmir, but started in ancient Smyrna, in the Bayraklı district. Formerly a village, now an archaeological site.
Legend has it that one day Alexander the Great was hunting on the slopes of nearby Mount Pagos and stopped for a nap. Two arch-enemies appeared in a dream and asked him to build a city where he lay.
As was the norm, Alexander conferred with the oracle Apollo, who, in full brokerage mode, told him, “Smyrnians who settle in the foothills of Pagos Hill near the Sacred Meles Stream will be four times happier than before.”
As a result, a new city center was established on the mountain in the 4th century BCE. Or so they say. Whatever the truth behind the story, Alexander the Great had a major impact.
The Agora of Smyrna was built at his command. When completed, it was four stories high, but only the basement remains. Visitors today can see rows of elegant stone arches that cast shadows on the ground and emphasize the mechanics of a complex water system.
A kind of public hall, the basilica’s foundations contain niches decorated with graffiti, as well as engraved and painted images depicting Roman daily life. A short climb to the open ground above gives a beautiful view over lawns that were once bustling with activity and trade.
The Golden age
Indoor Shopping: Izmir’s Kemeralti Bazaar
idil toffolo/iStock Publishing/Getty Images
Izmir was one of the stops along the Silk Road but only really came into its own in the 17th century. Several wars made Smyrna Quay the safest port for the transportation of silk from Iran, attracting merchants from all over the world.
The Onassis clan traded in tobacco, while other Rum (as the Turkish-born Greeks were known) made their fortunes selling Smyrna’s famous gummy figs. Two Greek-owned department stores sold everything you could imagine, and international banks had branches in the city.
Levantine families such as the Whitalls and Girauds owned factories and mines, and the Armenians were admired for their solid work ethic. The Americans founded a separate colony slightly inland called Paradise, while Jews and Turks lived in adjacent waterfront neighborhoods.
At any given time, dozens of languages could be heard on the streets, including English, German and even Hindi.
“With its 8,500-year history, Izmir is one of the oldest settlements in the Levant and Turkey, and has housed several civilizations throughout history,” said Bülent Senocak, an author and historian from Izmir. “It is imperative to see the historic buildings in the city center that bear the traces of this multicultural climate and the historic Kemeraltı Bazaar, which was established for many cities in Europe.”
The bazaar is where everything happened, and as Senocak says, is still worth a visit today. It consists of a number of different han, inns that once provided shelter and storage for goods. They are located in small covered streets that merge into each other.
A former inn, Kızlarağası Hanı, dates back to 1744 and has since been converted into souvenir shops selling fine items such as hand-painted ceramics and Ottoman-inspired silver jewelry. It’s a good place to pick up a nazar. These blue and white glass beads are believed to ward off evil and the beads sold in Izmir are made in the aptly named Nazarköy (Evil Eye Village).
The Bakır Bedesteni, or copper bazaar, initially housed the city’s best copper workshops, but later became the place to buy silk. At its peak, dozens of caravans would appear every day. Goods were stored or sold to shops in the bazaar, animals were housed on the ground floor, and merchants slept in rooms upstairs.
Camel trains don’t arrive here anymore, but the bazaar area gets quite busy. A break can be taken at Kahveciler Sokağı, a street where Turkish coffee is traditionally made over hot coals in long-handled copper cezve coffee pots.
For an extra slice of history, it’s worth visiting Izmir’s Havra Sokak or Synagogue Street. There are four synagogues hidden among the clusters of shops. Originally there were nine in the bazaar, out of a total of 34 in the city. The oldest were built by Sephardi Jews, expelled from the Iberian Peninsula during the 15th-century Inquisition.
Some have been in use for over 300 years and a restoration project is currently underway to open more museums.
End of an era
The Clock Tower of Izmir in Konak Square.
While life in Izmir at the beginning of the 20th century was a whirlwind of lavish picnics, boat parties and extravagant dinners for the more affluent residents, that all changed in September 1922, when the Turkish War of Independence was upon us.
The Turkish army’s orderly entry into the city soon gave way to chaos. Routed Greek soldiers poured into the city, heading for the waterfront where naval ships waited to transport them home.
Turkish-born Greeks from all over Anatolia, fearing retaliation, followed closely behind. Within days, thousands of people were stuck on the quay, looking for a way out. A series of fires broke out that burned for days.
When the last flames were extinguished, little was left of the once-vibrant destination known as Smyrna. Many buildings that escaped burning were later demolished, having been left empty and falling into disrepair through a population exchange in 1923.
This agreement ensured that Rum people were repatriated to Greece and Turkish-Greek nationals moved to Turkey. Many Levantine families with European passports and second homes elsewhere moved. Few returned, which radically changed the character of the city.
However, Izmir is resilient. Like the phoenix, the city is on the rise.
Smyrna Quay, where boats once departed loaded with exotic goods to sell in Europe, has been reinvented as the Kordon promenade.
Visitors can walk, jog or cycle along the banks of the Gulf from Alsancak to Konak Meydanı, a large square. There are plenty of restaurants along the way to try and several museums to visit, including one dedicated to Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country’s founder.
According to a popular myth, Izmir’s Konak Pier was designed in 1890 by Gustave Eiffel, famous for its tower. More likely it was the work of someone in his company, but the steel structure is very reminiscent of his hand. What started as a customs office is now a shopping center with a stylish restaurant overlooking the water.
The highly ornate Abdul Hamid II Clock Tower is central to Konak Square. Built in 1901 for an Ottoman sultan, it was designed by the French architect Raymond Charles Péré.
Despite their background, the 82-foot structure looks neither Turkish nor French. Péré was influenced by buildings in North Africa and Andalusia, so each of the four levels is a flurry of columns, decorated capitals and horseshoe-shaped arches – perfect for Instagram poses.
A little over a mile to the south, one of Izmir’s sons has been given his own street. Born into a large Jewish family in 1921, David Arugete abandoned his goal of becoming a legal clerk after learning the guitar and taking up singing.
Calling himself Darío Moreno, he cut his teeth at Jewish festivities before gaining national fame. He is best known for his 1962 recording of “Ya Mustafa”, a song written by Egyptian composer Mohamed Fawzi.
The ancient city of Ephesus.
It was extremely popular in the 1950s and 1960s with versions released in Arabic, French, Spanish and several other languages.
Eventually, Moreno bought a house in the city’s more upscale Jewish quarter on a street called Asansör Sokak, which took its name from the Turkish word for elevator.
The street houses a real elevator, built in 1907 by a Jewish merchant, that connects it to a higher part of the neighborhood.
During the First World War, the building housed a casino, a photo gallery and a cinema. Today there is a cafe, bar and restaurant. Visitors can drive to the top and enjoy the view, before or after viewing the traditional houses converted into colorfully painted bars and cafes on Dario Moreno Sokağı, as Elevator Street is now called.
Back in time
A day trip to the remains of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus, once the commercial center of the Mediterranean, should be high on the to-do list for anyone visiting Izmir.
Here they can enter the streets used by the ancient Greeks, climb to the top of the great theatre, admire the library of Celsus and walk past mosaics in what were once ordinary suburban houses when the city was part of the Roman Empire .
Want more? Many statues and artifacts found at the site can be seen in the Archaeological Museum of Ephesus, while in Izmir a marble statue of Androklos, the founder of Ephesus, is in the Archeology and Ethnological Museum.