The public ceremonies and entertainment life in Istanbul during the Republican period are significant indicators of the struggle for socialization for the regime. Entertainment life was not the essence or basis for relations between Turkey and the West; however, there was a discernible characteristic which exposed relations that were directly connected to the struggle for modernization. Istanbul played a significant role in the Westernization efforts in Turkey; not only was it the center for the relationship with the West, it was also a focal point for intellectual and popular development. Public ceremonies and entertainment acted as agents for differentiating relationships and ensuring their continuity over time; in addition, these agents mediated between relationships, helping them to form and spread through the public. The relationships were differentiated not only in the fields of politics, economics and philosophy, but also at the level of the public and private entertainment culture.

During the Republican period, Istanbul was no longer an imperial center; indeed, the heritage of the Ottoman State was rejected. Changes in the identity of society were targeted by the reforms and administered under the new leadership. The socialization of daily life presented a different case, disparate from the past. However, it is not possible to evaluate this as a mass, non-continuous disengagement. Even if Istanbul was not a pioneer in terms of politics, due to its location, it was the center of trade, industry, architecture, publication, fashion and entertainment and the political opposition. Although the Republican period wanted to initiate disengagement, it was an extension of the past in its continued preference for Westernization.

During the last two centuries, Westernization in Turkey has been the single most dominant aspect to define Turkish society and history. In addition to a certain continuity, this orientation also indicates a differentiation process which is dependent upon historical changes in the relation with the West. With the establishment of the Republic, the modern Turkish elite strove to identify itself within the relations of daily modern life as a distinctive domain that differed in its consciousness, education, and profession; gradually this spread to music, dance, cinema, theater, window-shopping, shopping, clothes, special occasions, meetings, sports, vacations, trips, debauchery, eating and drinking, and entertainment. Istanbul occupied a special place in respect to the representation of these relations. Although Ankara was the political center, in this arena Istanbul had superiority. For this reason, while the people who defended the official-radical modernization elevated Istanbul as a place superior in entertainment and modernism, at the same time it was presented as the manifestation of corrupt relationships, debauchery and indulgence. However, these relations were not directly opposed to one another. The official stance attached importance to the changes that occurred in the daily life of society, both to spread this worldview and incorporate all sectors of society into the new regime. The government attempted to assign special importance to certain days for public entertainment rituals through legislation; these were organized in a magnificent manner. While the involvement of all sectors in public festivities was important in terms of representing power, it was also an indication of participation of the people in the order.

The justification for the modernization of Turkey was the belief in the superiority of the West. As this superiority was completed outside the scope of industrial relations and the world domination of the West, Western life style and changes in this direction were seen as legitimate and mandatory. The government, in addition to witnessing the changes in and establishing direct relationships with the West, endeavored to identify itself with its daily life style, without taking on the Western identity. Entertainment was based on thrills that went beyond ordinary daily reality. The Republican regimen sought strength from rituals that symbolized its sovereignty over daily life, thus glorifying individuals, monuments and cultural entities in order to justify its own sovereignty in the eyes of society and to illustrate that it had moved away from the Ottoman State. However, the prestigious monuments and locations of Istanbul that came from the Ottoman State, as well as the forms of entertainment overshadowed activities in Ankara.

1- A demonstration in a national holiday in Istanbul (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

In Ankara, entertainment life that revealed the Western face of the Republic was very limited. Official and non-official celebratory meetings, parties, shows, balls, tea parties and dinners, in fact all kinds of entertainment which local and foreign, men and women and old and new distinguished people attended were, for the most part, in Istanbul. The atmosphere Atatürk tried to create in the Presidential Palace was also limited. Hotels and restaurants that could have brought dynamism to Ankara were of a modest character. Even the Gençlik Parkı (Youth Park), which was to become one of the symbols of Ankara, did not start to operate before 1943. Ankara had no sea, and the few pools in the park were met with enthusiasm. Istanbul was the display case for Western lifestyle and entertainment. Ankara’s activities were official celebrations and occasions in which officials attended.

2- A restaurant in Istanbul (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

Before the Republic, the public and private celebrations of Istanbul were determined by the cultural diversity and wealth of various ethnic and religious groups centered round the integral identity which placed the political authority as the imperial center. Shared cultural life and entertainment forms that came from Anatolia, the Balkans and the Mediterranean basin to meet in Istanbul acted as external evidence of the encompassing imperial identity and civilizational integrity. Entertainment life was a source for a variety of genres from music to literature. There was diversity and discrepancy throughout the territory, but this was not in the manner of dissention, discord or independent groups, or as sub/super-cultures. In keeping with the principles of the Ottoman State, a sense of superiority depended upon religious or ethnic origin, and was not questioned. In order to sustain and develop different life cultures an inclusive public power/law of the political authority was necessary. The powers that be tolerated consumption, entertainment and amusement to the extent that these did not come into conflict with the imperial identity and power. The many-faceted appearance of Istanbul daily life does not prevent us from speaking of a shared Istanbul civilization and cultural lifestyle. One should be careful not to fall into error when speaking of the wide-spread entertainment life in Istanbul and how this originated before the Republic. When referring to the entertainment life of Istanbul that the Republic had inherited from the Ottomans, it is the Istanbul of the Mütareke/ Armistice (1918-1923) that should be understood; the continuity and discontinuity of the appendages of ancient Istanbul, the foreign life, the patched-on Beyoğlu entertainment, which did not represent the whole. It is not possible to identify this culture of entertainment as originating from Ottoman Istanbul or the life style of society, that is, the social structure.

3- A ball in Istanbul (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

The new methods of entertainment that appeared in Istanbul during the Republican era for the most part emerged during the period in which Istanbul was occupied, while other entertainment methods evolved at this time. From this aspect, these methods of entertainment can be stated to not have devolved from the palace entertainment culture. Balls, Western style dances, night-time entertainment, beauty contests and cinema were products of the new period. During the period of the Meşrutiyet, places like theatres, music halls, cafes, patisseries and restaurants, which represented Western lifestyle and entertainment and which were frequented by administrators affiliated with the West, came to the fore; in time, these became spaces of social activity preferred by people from several social strata. However, it is debatable whether this entertainment represented Western identity; indeed, there was no characteristic of a certain social identity being imposed. It was primarily in this sense that a differentiation and diffraction between entertainment in the Ottoman period and the Republican period occurred.

4- A show group in Taksim (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

As the Republican period developed, a new entertainment life, foreign to Ottoman life and culture, went from being at the fringe to dominating Istanbul’s social scene. This period was not a product of the social structure or culture, nor was it an extension or growth of the Western life style that had been adopted by the Ottoman administrative elite. It is for this reason that in the novels of the era the “European snobs” who adopted this life style and form of entertainment were criticized and accused of favoring foreign concepts. From this aspect, there is a problem in depicting the entertainment belonging to the Republican period as one that shares Western identity. The essential problem here is the identification of Western lifestyle with entertainment and the adoption and proliferation of the same.

The layout of Istanbul during the Republican period was much the same as it had been in the Ottoman era; the principal thoroughfares of the city extended through Old City - city walls, Galata-Beyoğlu, Beşiktaş-Bosphorous, and Üsküdar-Kadıköy-Princes’ Islands. Ottoman public spaces formed the spaces that conveyed modern daily life and recreation. As the political weight of the Ottoman State gradually disappeared, the district of Galata-Beyoğlu and entertainment gained importance. These newly-built districts, which were outside the traditional Istanbul axis, but which developed as extensions of the same, were unable to cultivate a new entertainment culture despite their dynamism and modernization. Although officials, intellectuals, young people, workers, tradesmen and artists, women and marginalized people all experienced and incited political and cultural change throughout the Republican period, they failed to make a lasting contribution to daily life or entertainment. The dynamic created by these sectors of society, as they had relationships with the West, was not one of establishing new relationships, but rather as passive participants. This class structure, the roles and weight of which changed according to the relationship with the West and the period, lacked continuity; in addition, they failed to form a certain traditional, rooted, progressive or permanent culture. They were rather consumers or observers of the new life style which ran parallel to the existing order. Not only did they not protect their own cultural values while developing lifestyles in the city; they destroyed what existed and added new relationships. For this reason, entertainment life remained outside of work, meaning and socialization, becoming a momentary, passing hubbub, consisting mainly of night life and fashion trends.

Although the entertainment life was separate from work, education, social consciousness and reality, and the time left over from these was seen as a means of recreation, relaxation, renewal and distraction, the participation of society in these games was not passive. Official and public ceremonies were the most effective means of participating in the regime and spreading the official ideology. However, the display window for modern daily life was private entertainment. The exciting, participatory, socialization style of entertainment was salvation from work, education and sometimes even from family, society, and functions that did not offer identity; in addition, they were a pleasant way to pass time outside the public sphere. There was no objective of reflecting the identity of the society. Thus, it was possible for this to spread easily through a variety of social sections, and to establish a relationship without identifying it with Western civilization in the modern sense (that is, ordinary, direct and temporary). In contrast to this, official ceremonies and public entertainment were carried out to instill a certain meaning, excitement, consciousness or identity; these events undertook the function of glorifying first the national salvation and then the establishment of the nation, the national identity and the leadership that was responsible for these factors. The first great example of this was the tenth anniversary celebrations of the Republic. With the closure of government institutions and workplaces on these dates, the official holidays offered society an opportunity to sanctify itself and the regime, and thus created a shared excitement. Daily modern places of entertainment, large halls, school gardens, stadiums, squares and streets were transformed with national flags and banners displaying patriotic slogans, becoming places where social consciousness and identity were actively conveyed and shared.

Despite efforts to change social identity, during this period the segregation between public and private recreation continued. First and foremost, women who were not civil servants and families were excluded from public entertainment. As required by the guidelines of public entertainment (in addition to other government agencies), celebrations were in the form of events organized by primary and elementary schools, and attended by children and young people.

The second period of great change in Istanbul’s entertainment world, similar to the changes that occurred during World War I, but which involved large sections of society, occurred after World War II. Although Turkey was not involved in this war, it could not remain unaffected by the changes that happened throughout worldwide. The distinctive feature of this period in terms of Istanbul’s entertainment life was that the United States, which had taken over leadership in the West by developing new relations outside the East-West conflict, had an influence on Turkey. One striking aspect of the shift that occurred in the political and economic structure was the changes appeared in daily life.

During this period in Istanbul, the state undertook the construction of a series of buildings in the expansive area that covered the Maçka Valley, ranging from the Taksim-Harbiye-Maçka hills down to the Bosphorus. These structures were to create a permanent heritage from the modernization period of the Republic. Their spaces and function were determined with great care. The construction of the Atatürk Cultural Centre (Palace), built in Taksim at a location overlooking the Bosphorus, began in 1946 and was completed in 1969. In 1939, the foundation was laid for the İnönü Stadium, built on the land that had housed the royal stables of Dolmabahçe Palace. The building was completed in 1947. Above the İnönü Stadium, the Harbiye Open Air Theater was opened in 1947, and the Sports and Exhibition Center was opened in 1949. The last monumental building constructed in this district of Istanbul, a permanent stamp of the modernization of the Republican period during İnönü’s time, was an embodiment of the relationship with America during the Menderes era. In 1955, Turkey’s first five-star hotel, the Hilton, part of the American chain, was built on the Elmadağ-Harbiye hill. The hotel’s location had the most favorable view of the valley, and was close to Dolmabahçe Palace, overlooking the Bosphorus. What attracts attention here was the complete package of large monumental projects. These buildings were built in Istanbul as a token of the modernization of the Republican period, and were the ultimate representation of a series of entertainment facilities which included a new life style, opera, sports, eating out and drinking, and the performing arts. However, the ultimate change, which ran parallel to these changes that were being carried out by the regime in order to facilitate a new way of social interaction, was the appearance of a new approach to Turkish music and traditional entertainment.

It was no coincidence that the changes in daily life and entertainment occurred in the musical domain, thus echoing closely the former institutionalized approach to music appreciation. Music, as with other forms of art, offers a way to awaken social identity. Characteristics of the new wave in classical Turkish music were indicative of the deterioration of the social identity. In the 1950s, the most significant change in Turkish music was the change in how concerts were organized, with the casino-soloist system becoming dominant. Casinos were spacious halls where Turkish musical performers would appear as a soloist, and Istanbul’s elite families would eat, drink and enjoy live musical performances. Although food and drink were served, the music came to the fore. Daytime family matinees were directed at diverse and large groups. Casinos were places where the nouveau riche and politicians entertained guests who came from outside Istanbul. The casinos contained places known as pavyon/bar, which hosted underground entertainment which had its own unspecified regulations. Different styles of entertainment were on offer, and incommensurable money and alcohol were consumed. Instead of families, men would come here to watch erotic shows at night, drink alcohol with the available hostesses, with whom they could leave if they so desired. With the passage of time the casinos and pavyons became more alike, and the differences became less distinguishable. This Istanbul-based entertainment style was shared with a wide sector via the cinema, tabloids and newspapers. With the casinos, pavyons and night clubs, where the first live orchestras performed, the character of Istanbul night life entirely changed.

5- A portable street swing in Istanbul and the children’s entertainment (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

Another important characteristic and exterior actor in the change in Istanbul’s entertainment life were the students who came to the fore as a social power and component of change. After the military coup in 1960, the army, universities, intelligentsia, working class and students emerged as transforming social forces in communal life and entertainment. The entertainment world in Istanbul expanded and gained new characteristics. During the second half of the 1960s, in conjunction with growing political activity in the streets and having a say in the regime, the students’ communal activity grew. The variety of places where students could have fun on their own was an indication of this development.

The transference of entertainment to holiday villages was a trend that began in the 1980s and continued through the 2000s. Holiday villages were opened in Bodrum, Marmaris, Kaş, Ayvalık, Antalya, Alanya, Cyprus, Çeşme, Alacatı and spread along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts. It is possible to see this trend stretching as far as seaside locations in Silivri, Tekirdag, Canakkale and the Saros Gulf. Most of Istanbul’s night time entertainment moves to Turkey’s coastal areas in summer. The youth of the 1960s and 70s, a period that was determinative for Turkey, have retired to these areas. In Turkey, after the 1980s the modern life style was first identified with entertainment, then in an odd way, with night life. This tendency, which began in exclusive areas like Bodrum, became permanent in Istanbul. Intellectuals and artists led the entertainment style they had despised in the past. Taksim Sanat Evi, Papirus, Ece Bar, Zihni Bar, Yeşil Kabare, Çiçek Bar, and Kulis were the best-known establishments. Jazz bars and new night clubs were opened next to the Divan Hotel, Park Hotel, Hilton Hotel and Bebek Hotel and the relevant bars. In the 1990s, in addition to well-established bars, popular new places like Mum Bar, Etiler Şamdan, Çubuklu 29, Susam Bar, Süleyman Nazif, Şaziye, Kemancı, Hayal Kahvesi, She Bar, Roxy, Buz, and Safran emerged. Gradually marginal places like Airport, Discorium, Andromeda, and Clup 2019, venues with giant screens, a large dance floor, and a DJ, based on unlimited entertainment and opening at 24:00, became the latest fashion in nightlife.

6- Entertainment in the prairie in Istanbul (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Kültür A.Ş.)

When the summer night life moved to the Bosphorus shores, the fame of the nightclub Pasha, which started adding firework displays to the entertainment, and was followed by Reina, spread throughout the world. As a result of this, the seaside, selected historical places and civilian residential areas were taken over and converted into places of debauchery, alcohol consumption, music and dance, almost totally excluding other aspects of daily life, like eating, travelling, working, sleeping, or developing awareness. When residential areas like those along the Bosphorus fell into conflict with entertainment places or summer recreational venues, new regulations were drawn up and limitations to opening hours and volume were introduced.

7- Light show in Istanbul (Şehrayin)

Currently, Istanbul is promoted as one of the rare cities, perhaps the first, with entertainment available 24-hours, where all kinds of entertainment can be found, and where the roads are choked with nightlife traffic. As a matter of fact, not only are there open-air concerts organized at Rumeli Hisarı, Cemil Topuzlu, and Yedikule in the summer, stadium concerts have come to the fore, with the most famous international stars and music legends making Istanbul a priority destination on their world tours. After the process that began with musicals by Egemen Bostancı and later with the great productions of Ahmet San which included local and foreign stars, Turkey has become a part of the global entertainment industry.

During this time, grand international hotels have increased in number, opening alongside the old hotels in the city center; these too have become places of private entertainment. Not only are these grand hotels places where magnificent weddings, accompanied by fireworks, or large meetings can be held, they are in demand as exclusive places of entertainment with their bars, restaurants and pools. We can add the transformation of sport into an entertainment industry, with football, basketball and volleyball becoming part of the entertainment-show industry. Stadiums also have become indicators of global entertainment, while shopping centers, in which people partake in mass consumption entertainment, have become integrated into the landscape. The shopping mall, embodied by the cinema, brand-name stores, restaurants, patisseries, fast-food restaurants and fitness centers, are now widespread throughout several districts in Istanbul. It is possible to say that shopping centers introduce a wide range of entertainment, from shopping to cinema, and food and drink, yet they have failed to establish a rooted identity/culture. This instantaneous form of entertainment, based on ambiguity, trivialization and consumption, has not been transformed to a culture/identity; on the contrary, it has helped to degenerate culture. This can be witnessed in other forms of entertainment as well.

In the 2000s, places that had an identity that bore characteristics of every type, like the rock bar, türkü bar, and Turkish bar, places which held a clear place in Istanbul entertainment, were opened. Gender-segregated hotels and pools for the conservative-religious sectors, which can also be placed under the umbrella of Istanbul entertainment, were added to these new establishments. In this respect, there was differentiation and variety, but the regulars at these locales were different and had different styles allowing these places to survive. Gradually, extreme, marginal, yet international styles of entertainment became the norm. The idiosyncrasies of night-time entertainment opened in spacious and prominent places in Kuruçeşme, in elite places, or in small places in Asmalımescit that overflowed the streets with alcohol, music and sexuality – overt or covert. This style of entertainment, which cannot be separated from one another and which can take the place of one another also provide services to the 15 million tourists that come to Istanbul every year. The diversity in entertainment possibilities makes it impossible to identify a single entertainment culture. The transformation of Beyoğlu into one of the largest open-air entertainment centers in the world has blurred its historical identity.

Another new change that has occurred in parallel to the changes in this final stage is in the realm of public entertainment. Gradually, authorized public entertainment has ceased to go beyond the struggle to represent national identity, and has rather transformed into celebrations related to local identity, like the cherry, watermelon, anchovy and apricot festivals. As forms of public entertainment and rituals on public holidays change, it is interesting that these celebrations have become more widespread. Public holidays are no longer days when children and students parade or demonstrate in stadiums or on streets; now they have taken on the form of nightlife, gaining currency from the hotels and squares. With the changes in the characteristics of public holidays and entertainment, global, international celebrations, like New Year’s Eve, International Women’s Day and May Day, have become an extension of the general changes. Taksim, Nişantaşı and Ortaköy Squares are set up for these public holidays.

Styles of authorized and public entertainment have become closer one another and have lost their value by having a certain identity/meaning removed from them. In contrast to this devaluing in ideology in public entertainment, personal celebrations have come to the fore, such as commemorating birthdays and wedding anniversaries with the purchase of gifts. The popularization of such entertainments based on personal occasions has emerged, particularly within sports with the celebration of championships and achievements won by national teams or clubs. In this new period, public entertainment has been transformed into an expression of instantaneous pleasure; mass entertainment no longer carries a certain identity. Public concerts organized at Gülhane Park with mass participation are the first examples of this phenomenon. Large theme parks that have been opened by city councils or with public support indicate that public entertainment is being shaped in accordance with purely instant pleasure; there is now a direct sense of entertainment without attribution to certain days. In other words, no clear meaning or ideology is attached to public entertainment now. Manor houses renovated as restaurants in historical woods like Çamlıca Hill, Yıldız, or Emirgan, or in places like Maçka and Fenerbahçe Parks and other newly-opened establishments are all imbued with these characteristics. Theme parks like Miniaturk or Formula-1 Istanbul are an extension of this concept. Private and state museums, expositions, art galleries, booksellers, old universities and libraries have all moved away from their utilitarian functions and have become mass travel-recreational locations, with restaurants, cafes, exhibitions and selling spaces. The central campus of Bilgi University, Pera and Sabancı Museums, and Istanbul Modern, Panaroma 1453 Fetih Museum are all representatives of this new trend.

More refined examples of spaces with a defined function are being opened under names like game-center, game-land, aqua-park, or aerobic center. As the society becomes blurred over its destiny, or as the existing world hegemony skyrockets, power and identity and the relevant world view will cease to be viable. It is not possible to establish such unconscious styles of entertainment in work, production, education or social culture. As the social forces in Istanbul move away from controlling various areas of daily life, the center of relations with the West stays in line with modern globalization; the perspective of the tourist is the deciding force. While the unity of daily life styles, such as work, occupation, education and the conveyance of consciousness and entertainment become indistinct and insignificant; anti-cultural, instantaneous, rootless, fashionable, postmodern entertainment styles prevail.


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This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.