The Levantines: the Costantinople Italians

[dropcap]The Levantines,[/dropcap] members of an old community, grounds its roots in the period of the Cruisades and the Maritime Republics, are disappearing today. Origins, apogee and downfall of the Constantinople Italians.


In order to know the Levantines story, or, precisely, the Italian-Levantines, and to retrace the fundamental passages and to understand the story of this old community, we meet with Rinaldo Marmara, doctor of the University of Montpellier III, official historian of the Apostolic Vicariate of Istanbul and author of different books about this topic.


On the 29 may of 1453, the Genoese surrended themselves and the whole of Constantinople[1] to Mohammad II (Mehmet II Faith “The Conqueror”). The Cristian Constantinople becomes Istanbul, the new capital of the Ottoman Empire. The change was followed by a measure (ferman) that assured the freedom of worship to the Galata[2] Cristians and the reintroduction of the Orthodox patriarchy.

Despite this act, many Latins escaped from the city to take shelter in the close island of Chio[3], still under the Genoese domination[4], whereas who decided to stay became Ottoman subject.

Therefore, we have the presence of people who cannot be classified under an exact nationality, but that indeed are defined as “Latins”, subjects of the Ottoman Empire. Latins could not be defined a minority Millet[5] (just for example Armenians, Greeks or Jewish), but were considered as “Taifé” (class, human group).

Many Latins who escaped with the seizing of Constantinople decided then to return later to the city, but according to the laws of that time, they could not stay there more than a year. Who extended their permanence for a period more than a year, could lose their status of stranger and could not leave the country, becoming effectively an Ottoman subject.

Mohammad II, for reasons connected to the development of the commercial activities managed in a prevalent way by Latins, decided to extend the period from 1 to 10 years with the capitulations of the 1535. It is very important to explain how relevant the capitulations in this field were.

In the 1569 ones, there was not mention to the permanence period that the Empire should not exceed.

The capitulations in the Ottoman Empire where contracts made by the Empire and different European powers. They were binding legal acts, by which the Ottoman Sultans granted rights and honours to the Christian States in favour of their subjects, who were present in the Ottoman district, just like a kind of extension of the same rights and honours that the European powers already enjoyed at the time of the Byzantine Empire.

In the following years after the seizing of Constantinople, Genoa first (1453) and Venice and Ancon later, drew up this kind of agreement that promoted the development of the commercial activities.

The Latins return created a particular situation. The members of a same family could have different legal status. Those who decided not to leave the city after the 1453 assault, were considered subject of the Ottoman Empire; those who instead escaped and then came back were considered as a foreigner and thanks to the capitulations had full powers and rights; they were the Levantines.

This word, “from the East Wind”), at the beginning was used by the Venetians, with a negative acceptation indicated those who stayed in East for trade, far away from their homeland, and that often could have economic benefits rapidly, thanks also to the rights of the capitulations.

So with the “levantines” expression, can we indicate a group of foreigners that lived in the Ottoman Empire, but to which group do we want to give this label?

The Apogee

The aim of the reformation policies (the Tanzȋmât), advanced by the Sultans Mahmud II (1808-1839), Abdülmecid I (1839-1861) and Abdülaziz (1861-1876) was to modernize the Empire, contrast the independence aims of the different etnies from which it was formed, and to stop the slow international decline of that which would then become the “Great affliction of Europe”.

The Sultan Abdülmecid I, with the promulgation of the Hatt-ı Hümâyun of Gǘlhâne of November the 3rd, 1839, initiated the Tanzȋmât, sanctioning the equality of all the subjects of the Ottoman Empire, without of religion or nationality difference. The reforms assured, among  other things, “The guarantee of the respect to their life, and their assets” and “A regular way to determine the payment of taxes[6]. The rights granted to the non-Muslim subjects were confirmed and expanded with the imperial rescript of the 1856. It is very important to underline these passages, because thanks to these reforms and the favourable climate, a very significant number of foreigners joined the Ottoman Empire looking for a new job and better life conditions. So from the half of the XIX Century to the beginning of the XX Century, is the period of the apogee of the Latin Community of Constantinople.

Even if we do not know the exact number, we know that the Italian citizens were the most numerous group of the Levantine community (30.000 over 900.000 citizens).

Thanks to the study from the different archives, is possible to establish that families who came from Italy, among these were, the Timons, the Testa, the Chirico, the Franchini, the Giustinianians, the Giudici[7] (just a few names), settle down permanently in Constantinople during that period.

This group, that through the years became a real caste, due to the conveyance from father to son of the position of Dragomanno[8] in the different embassies or European and Ottoman legacies, was generally defined as “Magnificent Pera Community”, due to the name of the neighbourhood were they lived. Thanks to these people, the Italian factor and its language had a great success at a diplomatic level in the Sultan’s lands.

The Italian Community present in Constantinople during the apogee could be divided into three groups. The first one was the those already present in Constantinople, the ones who came from the archipelago and the Jews who escaped from Spain.

The second group, more copious, were those new arrived in the city. The third  was made up by the workers who were looking for a job in the big building sites, where foreign labour was in demand[9].

At the beginning of the XIX Century, the Italian industrial societies present in the Ottoman area were about 50: among these, the Ansaldo, who built two torpedo boats and repaired and transformed the Ottoman fleet,  the Dapei foundry present since 1835, the brick factory Camondo since 1874, and distilleries, food factories, tailor’s shops. There were also more than 80 trade houses only in Constantinople: insurance agents, bankers, editors, opticians; we can see that the  presence of Italian people in the Ottoman Empire in the economic and cultural area is very important, it is sufficient to see the religious organizations like churches, cloisters, schools, hospitals, orphanages born after the 1867 which authorized the property right.

The life of the community of Italian origin that lived, in the XIX Century, evolved in some associations. In the 1838 the Commercial Artisan Association of Pietà was founded to support the poor artisans.

In 1863, the first branch of the Jewish Universal Ally and the Respectable Italian Lodge in the Eastern Constantinople, was founded with the guidance of the Great East of Turin, and even supported by the Italian Kingdom Ambassador.

The Dante Alighieri society, created in 1895, was an important centre of social and cultural aggregation, with initiatives such as creation of schools, libraries, organization of public conferences and the promotion of the Italian language[10].

The Italian Worker Mutual Benefit Society was founded in 1863, two years later the Italian Kingdom proclamation, seven years before Rome joined the peninsula.

The Italian Worker Society was an association that not only worked to offer mutual support, but also pursued virtues such as ideals and sentimentality.

Each member of the society had to contribute monthly with donations to a fund reserved to the less rich members. Among the papers kept in the “Casa Garibaldi” archives (as the society was renamed), there is the correspondence between the two Presidents, Giuseppe Garibaldi (the effective one) and Giuseppe Mazzini (the honorary one)

Among the most important people who lived in Constantinople we can remember Giuseppe Donizetti, the author of the first National Ottoman Anthem, that in honour of the Sultan Mahmud was entitled Marcia Mahmudiye, Fausto Zonaro, painter, authors of works such as Il reggimento di Ertuğrul sul ponte di Galata, then elected as court painter, Raimondo D’Aronco, one of the most important architects, and member of the liberty world,  Leonardo Di Mango, portrait painter, whose remains are in state of neglect in the Latin cemetery of Feriköy.

The Italian Colony, present also in other cities such as Smirne, in Constantinople settled down mainly among the Pera (or Galata), today  Beyoğlu neighbourhood. Beyoğlu was an elegant neighbourhood rebuilt after the 1870 fire where there were neoclassic, art nouveau and Pangalti style buildings. This area took its name, according some sources, from “hot breads”, “pani caldi” due to the presence of bakeries in the area, but probably the name was due to an Italian, Pancaldi, who moved to Constantinople from Bologna and in the area opened a bar, which was an important meeting centre of many Italians.

This cosmopolite, creative and fluid background, suddenly finished in the early years of the XX Century. In fact, the nationalist string-pulling, that were intensified both from the Italian and the Ottoman – Turkish part, progressively kept the two communities apart, and led them to a final break during the Libya war of 1911-12. Previously, during the Dodecanese war, the Constantinople Italians did not have consequences; in fact, the Ministries Council recommended to the Governors of cities and provinces to guarantee the maximum protection, but with the Libya war, the Sultan and the CUP Government (“Union and Progress Committee”), responded to the Italian invasion of Tripolitania with the expulsion of all the Italians from the Empire, especially from Constantinople.

The Ottoman government set the removal of all the Italian citizens who were resident in Turkey, except the workers who worked in the railway construction sites, widows and the members of the clergy. These acts were destined to 7000 Italian-Levantines from Smirne, and 12000 from Constantinople. In order to avoid the repatriate, a lot of them chose the Ottoman citizenship. The expelled ones, that were the majority, were repatriated in the ports of Ancona, Naples and Bari. This event was the end of the Italian community in Constantinople. Even though a lot of them came back after the end of the war, the community did not have the same splendour of the early years. However, in Istanbul, during the Mussolini’s dictatorship the “Roma’s Circle” and the “House of Italy”, werre founded meeting centres of the local Italians.

The Downfall 

What are the reasons of this downfall?

Today in the community there are about 5/6000 Italians, but only 1500/200 Levantines.

According to Rinaldo “Being Levantines was a spirit, a custom, even if juridically opposed it was only a family, with the same habits and the same way of speaking and thinking. The real Levantine must speak Greek, as the transmitted language of the Europeans who settled down in the Eastern Land, but also French, Italian and Turkish. The evolution of the linguistic relationships between the Levantines is very interesting. In order to fill  the gap of their knowledge of the Greek, the Italians greeked their word enriching the common greek language, the koinè.

Things began to change with the birth of the Turkish Republic, both for a guarantee of rights for the foreigners, and for a religious point of view.

The Ottoman Empire guaranteed a kind of worship freedom, maybe more important than in the other yet laical countries such as France[11] ; in fact, through the Constantinople streets were very frequent religious processions. In 29 October 1929 the Great National Assembly, thanks to the approval of some amendments to the organic law of 1921, declared the instauration of the Turkish Republic, electing as President Kemal Ataturk. This one, has to be considered both the Founding Father of the  Türkiye Cumhuriyeti on the political and ideological side. Kemal promoted an essential nucleus of values which aimed to remodel the Turkish society of that time, transforming it in an emancipated and progressed Nation. In this perspective of an “Occidental” way modernization of the Nation, the whole ideology of the kemalist elite was made of six well-known points, as known as “the Kemalism arrows”: republicanism, nationalism, populism, secularism, statism, reformism. The secularity Turkish process was called “laikik”, abstractly referred to the hard separation between State and Church, which belonged to an “assertive” secularism model, or “militant” of French origin.

The downfall begun with the birth of the Republic transformed itself with the “Istanbul disorders” of 6-7 September 1955, during the conflicts between Turkey and Greece, which proceeded since the end of the First World War.

The excuse was the fake new of the fire set to the native house of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and headquarter of the Turkish consulate in Salonicco, Greece, reported by the afternoon edition of the local daily Istanbul Express, which printed more than 200k issues for the occasion. This fact increased the lie and started a series of violence that since 5 pm started to invade Istanbul.

A Pogrom, a premeditated devastation, but tolerated by the authorities, especially toward the greek community, but also the Armenian and the Jewish one.

The struggles caused 16  people dead (13 Greeks, 2 ortodox priests and an Armenian one), there were rapes and forced circumcisions, and more than 5000 commercial activities were damaged. The sad images of the devastation were photographed by a young Ara Guler, the famous Armenian-Turkish photographer, one of the founding fathers of the 900 Photography.

Fear and insecurity pushed away from the country[12] thousands of people who belonged to the Turkey minority, such as a lot of Levantines and Romei[13].

Another social reason of the Levantines downfall, more than the demographic one, was, according to Rinaldo, the opening toward the Turkish society with the mixed marriages. With the mixed marriages the “way of thinking” proper of the minorities ended, which were able to give the same answers to the outer questions; maybe this way of thinking was not close to the truth, but was a system of defense based on the cohesion of the community.

Feriköy Cemetery

Surely the already mentioned Catholic Feriköy Cemetery in the Pancalti neighbor well describes more than all the other ones the Istanbul Levantine Community downfall.

If you visit this place you can feel directly the Levantine presence in Istanbul, the sepulchral monument of the numerous Italian families, (but also French, Polish, Hellenic), which show their evolution, presence and integration. The presence of military monuments remind us the sacrifice of many Italian boys for the birth of Italy in Crimea war and for the homeland in the First World War.

The cemetery archives show us how the number of the young buried after the 1923 was drastically reduced, due to the fact that only old people stayed in the land where they were born, while the younger went away.

We can read the sadness in Rinaldo’s eyes when we talk about who will keep this latin and Italian memory in the next future.

The new dealers do not belong anymore to the Latin ritual, but are part of the Syrian catholics, caldei.

On the old graves, marked from the time, often abandoned, where not even the strictest relatives or heirs come to visit them, whom grant rights are over, are now raised new monuments, with stranger names to the latin consonance. Some communities, such as the Polish one, has a major support from its authorities. This does not happen in Italy, so the Italian businesspersons who work in Turkey and benefit from the italianity image, are not interested in multi-centuries-old history of Italian presence in East.

Maybe there won’t be any Levantine; this is the time to write this rich and beautiful history of Italian presence in Turkey, as a due of gratitude toward our compatriots who laid the bases of the “Italianity”, today still appreciated.


[1] Before 1923, Constantinople, after then, Istanbul.

[2] Galata, today Beyoglu, is the place of the old Genoese settlement. In the city there is the old tower where is still affixed the  

[3] In ancient times Scio, this is an island located in the North- East Egeo. Genova’s Republic domination ended in 1566, after a long and bloody siege made by the Ottoman empire. In that year in the island there were 12.000 Ortodox Greeks adn more than 2600 Genoese Catholics  (1/5 of the total population was “latin”), and the language spoken was a colional genoese dialect (the Chiotic).

[4] Under George Gennadio Scolario II of Costantinople control


[6] A.Ubicini e Courteille, Etat présent de l’Empire Ottoman, Parigi 1876.

[7] The Giudici family is present since the Ninfeo Treaty signed by Byzantium and Genoa in the 1261

[8] European title of the interpreters between the European People and the close East ones, that worked in the embassies and the consulates, during the politic and commercial missions, in the ports and in the customs, in the European Courts and among the eastern Kings.

[9] Just for example, for the building of the railway service Damasco – Medina, or in the Zonduldak Port on the Black Sea


[11] Referring to the separation act between State and Church of 1905, this is an act used by the Republican – Socialist representative Aristide Briand, who supported the no excesses secularism, even if this caused the getaway of French priests through the Ottoman Empire.


[13] With the word Romei, we mean in the modern historiography the  greek language romans, who lived in the Eastern Roman Empire (395-1453).

Traduzione a cura di Francesco di Marzo.

[trx_button type=”square” style=”default” size=”large” icon=”icon-file-pdf” align=”center” link=”” popup=”no” top=”inherit” bottom=”inherit” left=”inherit” right=”inherit” animation=”bounceIn”]PDF[/trx_button]