The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s Directorate of Cemeteries noted on its public website (2013) that sixty-five of the 333 burial grounds under its authority were gayri Muslim, or “non-Muslim” (for Christians of various denominations and Jews).1 These cemeteries passed to its control in the Republican period, after legislation was ratified in the 1930s that authorized municipalities to assume responsibility for burial grounds within their boundaries and to take possession of those that lacked specific ownership titles or were derelict. Formerly, from 1453 to the end of Ottoman rule, Istanbul’s non-Muslim cemeteries were owned and operated by their respective religious communities and affiliated bodies, which had obtained them by imperial decree (ferman) or through purchase. The affairs and upkeep of some are still administered separately. For instance, the “English Cemetery” in the Haydarpaşa neighborhood of Üsküdar, which contains the graves of British and Commonwealth soldiers, as well as some civilians, is administered by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC),2 and the Protestant burial ground in Feriköy, essentially an international cemetery, is supervised by the consuls general of Germany, the United Kingdom, the USA, the Netherlands, Sweden, Hungary, and Switzerland, who exchange the task of management biennially.
Istanbul’s non-Muslim cemeteries are fewer today than in the Ottoman era. Some historic sites have survived, in whole, in part, or simply in traces, but many have disappeared entirely, lost in the course of urban development, both planned and unplanned. A comprehensive plotting and count of all of Istanbul’s Christian and Jewish burial grounds over time remains to be done, but a recent survey of Istanbul’s Armenian cemeteries (2012) permits speculation about overall figures. This study identified thirty-one Armenian burial grounds alone throughout the city, a third of which are still distinctly cemeteries, the rest altered to other uses or no longer extant.3 Undoubtedly, the total number of all of Istanbul’s non-Muslim burial grounds once well exceeded the sixty-five currently recorded by the Directorate of Cemeteries.
Christian and Jewish burial grounds are located throughout the city, particularly in or near areas of habitation in Ottoman times, including Balıklı and Edirnekapı, outside the old city walls; Üsküdar and Kadıköy on the Asian shore; the Princes’ Islands; and the former villages on either side of the Bosphorus, extending towards the Black Sea (such as Ortaköy, Kuzguncuk, Kandili, Yeniköy, Tarabya, and Büyükdere). Yet, the most important are, or have been, primarily situated north of the Golden Horn, in Galata, Beyoğlu, Hasköy, and Şişli. Considerable numbers of non-Muslims have lived here since the Ottoman period, from the time when Sultan Mehmed II allowed the Genoese to remain in Galata after the conquest of Constantinople (1453) and granted them communal rights similar to those they had enjoyed under the Byzantines. Other Europeans and Greeks, Armenians, and Jews also settled in this area, and they eventually started moving into its environs, especially (in the seventeenth century) to the heights above Galata, known as Pera or Beyoğlu. Further major urban expansion occurred in the 1800s, and new areas of settlement began to emerge north of today’s Taksim Square, in the vicinity of Şişli. Over the centuries, churches, synagogues, and other institutions were built and created in these districts to serve the high concentration of non-Muslim residents, including—as a final necessity—cemeteries for the disposal of their dead.
For roughly a hundred years after the Ottoman conquest, Galata’s Christian populace used spaces in or around their houses of worship, or open ground just outside the limits of their quarter, for interring the dead. The Roman Catholic church of St. Francis (destroyed by fire in 1697) was a primary place of burial for the Genoese, and the churches of Surp Sarkis (built in 1361, but later demolished) and Surp Krikor Lusaraviç (erected in 1391) served the same purpose for Armenians. Circa 1560, when Istanbul was ravaged by a severe epidemic of plague, the customary locations proved inadequate and unsanitary and open fields to the northeast, near today’s Taksim, were used to bury the many thousands struck down by the disease. Subsequently, this area became one of the city’s largest necropolises, known in Turkish as the Büyük Mezarlık and in European sources as the Grand Champs des Morts.
This vast area served as a place of interment for both Muslims and non-Muslims (except for Jews), which made it unique, with burial grounds for almost all of the city’s diverse communities in close proximity. Beginning at Taksim (roughly on the site where the Atatürk Cultural Center now stands) and extending down the slopes towards Dolmabahçe and Fındıklı lay the graves of Muslims, while the area stretching northward towards Harbiye was divided into separate sections for Christians. On the spot now occupied by Taksim Park was the “Graveyard of the Franks” (Europeans), where both Roman Catholics and Protestants were laid to rest. A little farther on, beginning at the site of today’s Divan Hotel and extending northward to the TRT Istanbul Radio Building, was the Armenian cemetery of Surp Hagop. A Greek Orthodox burial ground also existed, slightly to the south of Taksim Square, around the present-day site of the church of Aya Triada.
From approximately 1560 until the mid-nineteenth century, the Grand Champs des Morts was a major, if not the principal, place of burial for Istanbul’s Christians. One of the first interred there was the Flemish physician Willem Quackelbeen, who served Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor to the court of Süleyman I) and died of plague in 1561. Quackelbeen’s tombstone (currently located in today’s Pangaltı Latin Catholic Cemetery, where it was transferred in the mid-1800s) offers an opening date for the necropolis and, more specifically, for the Graveyard of the Franks. (fig.1)
For roughly three hundred years, Istanbul’s Catholic and Protestant residents were interred in the Frankish section of the Grand Champ des Morts. Moreover, remains were sometimes exhumed and transferred here from earlier burial places in Galata, including the church of St. Francis after its destruction in 1697. The exact layout of the graveyard is unclear, since there are no remaining physical traces (except for a number of tombstones relocated to other cemeteries in the 1800s) or precise plans or other documentary records depicting it. A scattering of references in literary accounts and a few engravings are the main sources that describe the site. Some internal division probably existed between the areas for Catholics and Protestants (apparently, a portion of the ground was purchased by the Levant Company, for Protestant burials in particular, around the time it was formed to regulate Anglo-Ottoman trade in 1592). The Graveyard of the Franks also seems to have been enclosed by a wall at one point, which is illustrated in an engraving portraying the funeral procession (with the cemetery in the background) of Willem Gerrit Dedel, Dutch ambassador to the Ottoman Porte, who died and was buried there in 1768.4
The wall was removed later. Perhaps it was knocked down in the first decade of the nineteenth century, when the Taksim military barracks were built, which might have also intruded on part of the cemetery itself. It did not seem to exist when the Reverend Robert Walsh, chaplain of the British embassy in Istanbul, visited the graveyard in the 1830s and described it in his memoirs.
The Frank Burying-ground stands on a hill over the Bosphorus. Before, and just under it, is the great cemetery of the Turks, and beside it that of the Armenians—the one embossed in cypress, and the others in the resin-yielding terebinth. But that of the Franks is open and denuded, without a tree or shrub to mark it. Yet here the dead of all the European nations repose together, and the tombstones mark the English, French, Dutch, German, etc., scattered through it….5
Walsh’s written account matches the visual record of an engraving rendered in 1835-6 by John Frederic Lewis that depicts a corner of the Frankish cemetery. Atop a slope overlooking the Bosphorus, with the hills of Büyük and Küçük Çamlıca on the Asian shore in the distance, the burial ground appears “open” and lacks much in the way of trees or shrubbery. The phrase Hic jacet, or “Here lies…” (typically found in Latin epitaphs), which is readable on a ledger stone in the foreground, clearly identifies the graves as European. (fig. 2)
In all likelihood, interments at the nearby Armenian cemetery of Surp Hagop, which flanked the Graveyard of the Franks to the north, also began during the outbreak of plague in 1560. By some accounts, the land for the burial ground was given by Sultan Süleyman I (r. 1520-66) to his Armenian cook, Manuk Karaseferyan, as a reward for his loyalty and service, and the archives of the Armenian Patriarchate apparently contain a title deed for the cemetery from 1781. Many leading members of the Armenian community and church were interred here up to the mid-nineteenth century, including the Catholicos Hagop Gatoghikos Chughayetsi (Jacob IV, d. 1680), whose funerary monument, fashioned from marble and enclosed in an elaborate iron grille (mortsafe), stood out conspicuously among the tombs.
A unique social life revolved around the Armenian burial ground, as well as the other Christian cemeteries of the Grand Champs de Morts, which captured the attention of generations of travelers to Istanbul, who often mentioned the necropolis in their accounts. Besides performing rituals to commemorate the dead, and making visits to maintain links with the departed, the populace of Beyoğlu and elsewhere came to the Grand Champ des Morts simply to relax and rest. Located in the countryside on the fringes of Pera, its various burial grounds provided a salubrious natural environment just outside the city limits. Spacious, fresh, and green, they served as a kind of parkland. There was even a cafe to serve those who came for a stroll, situated at the crest of the hill above Dolmabahçe, between the Armenian and Frankish cemeteries. Whole families, parents and children, could often be observed gathered leisurely around the tombs, with picnics laid out, and using gravestones as tables and chairs.
More fascinating than these commonplace, everyday activities were the festivals held in the Christian burial grounds, which transformed them into places of revelry and amusement. The English traveler and author Julia Pardoe colorfully described one such fête that she witnessed in the Armenian cemetery in 1836. It lasted three days and included all types of games and entertainment, in addition to copious food and drink.
The whole of the Christian cemetery had assumed the appearance of a fair; nor was this all, for the very tombs of the dead were taxed to enhance the comforts of the living; and many was the tent whose centre-table, covered with a fringed cloth, and temptingly spread with biscuits, sweetmeats, and sherbet, was the stately monument of some departed Armenian! Grave-stones steadied the poles which supported the swings—divans, comfortably overlaid with cushions, were but chintz-covered sepulchers—the kibaub merchants had dug hollows to cook their dainties under the shelter of the tombs, and the smoking booths were amply supplied with seats and counters from the same wide waste of death.
On one side, a slender train of priests were committing a body to the earth, and mingling their lugubrious chant with the shrill instruments of a party of dancers; on the other, a patrol of dismounted lancers were threading among the many-coloured tents . . . to maintain… order….
…Every hundred yards that we advanced, the scene became more striking. One long line of diminutive tents formed a temporary street of eating houses; there were kibaubs, pillauf, fritters, pickled vegetables, soups, rolls stuffed with fine herbs, sausages, fried fish, bread of every quality, and cakes of all dimensions….6
Pardoe’s amazement at this scene, where the realms of living and dead merged so vividly, is no surprise, especially considering the dismal, unwholesome state of the urban burial grounds she was certainly familiar with in England, and in other parts of Europe perhaps. Most of London’s churchyards in the early 1800s dated from the Middle Ages and had become little more than densely packed pestilential pits. Thousands of new cadavers yearly were piled on top of each other, where they emitted noxious fumes and contaminated the surrounding neighborhoods with repulsive odors and deadly disease. Visiting, much less taking one’s pleasure in a burial ground would have been almost inconceivable for Pardoe and many other contemporary travelers, until they had the opportunity to wander through the cemeteries in the idyllic knolls at the edge of Pera.
To maintain public hygiene and keep the city’s burial places removed from the habitations of the living, the cemeteries of the Grand Champ des Morts were eventually closed and new sites created in their place in the nineteenth century, when Beyoğlu underwent rapid urban growth. Roughly between 1840 and 1910, the region stretching northward from Taksim to Şişli was transformed from open countryside to densely inhabited residential settlement. Much of the land in this direction was occupied by the non-Muslim burial grounds of the Grand Champ des Morts, with the Frankish section squarely in the main route of expansion. Already, by 1842, the Graveyard of the Franks was being whittled down by development, and in 1853, the Ottoman government decreed that the site was no longer suitable as a burial ground. The authorities allocated land in the northern part of Pangaltı, then the outskirts of the city, as a cemetery for the Catholics and Protestants. However, in 1857, this area was deemed insufficient for both communities, and a separate space nearby was given to the Protestants. In 1863-4, remains from the Graveyard of the Franks were exhumed and transferred along with numerous tombstones to these new burial grounds—today’s Pangaltı Latin Catholic Cemetery and Feriköy Protestant Cemetery. (fig. 3) The land occupied by the former Frankish burial ground was later turned into a public park, Taksim Garden, which opened in 1869.
The 1860s also witnessed the closure of the Grand Champ des Morts’s Armenian and Greek cemeteries. Istanbul was struck by a devastating outbreak of cholera in 1865, and the two burial grounds were closed by imperial command, due to the hazard to public health posed by the huge number of interments necessitated by the disease. Reminiscent of 1560, when the Grand Champ des Morts was created for plague dead, new cemeteries were opened north of the populated areas of Beyoğlu, in Şişli, to accommodate victims of the epidemic: the present-day Greek Orthodox and Armenian cemeteries located between Abide-i Hürriyet and Büyükdere Boulevards. The old Greek burial ground near Taksim soon vanished, and the church of Aya Triada was erected on its site in 1880. The former Armenian cemetery, Surp Hagop, remained non-operational but mostly in place until 1939, as the longest surviving non-Muslim section of the Grand Champ des Morts. The expansive area it once covered is currently occupied by a variety of structures, including the Divan, Hilton, and Hyatt Regency hotels and the TRT Istanbul Radio Building.
Istanbul’s Jewish cemeteries north of the Golden Horn followed a pattern of development similar to that of the Christian burial grounds in the same region, but in slightly different localities. Rather than to the northeast, the Jewish cemeteries emerged to the northwest of Galata. Soon after the conquest of Constantinople, Mehmed II granted the Jews land for a burial ground in Kasımpaşa, which was uninhabited at the time, and it served as a place of interment for about a hundred years. However, this quarter was settled by the late sixteenth century, and houses eventually occupied the area around, and even inside, the cemetery. In 1582, Istanbul’s Jewish community petitioned Sultan Murad III (r. 1574-95) to provide a place for a new burial ground. Although it appears that encroachment by Kasımpaşa’s Muslim residents on the old site prompted their appeal, other critical concerns might have played a role. The city had been struck by another plague epidemic in 1581, and the existing cemetery presumably lacked the capacity to accommodate large numbers of dead. For the sake of space and hygiene, it was probably necessary to establish a burial ground outside the inhabited quarter of Kasımpaşa.
The sultan accepted the request and granted land farther north, in Hasköy, on the city’s periphery, which was covered with gardens, orchards, and natural forest. The cemetery created here served as a principal place of interment for Istanbul’s Jews for the next three centuries, and the total area of the site once exceeded 200,000 square meters. Unlike the Grand Champs des Morts, it was devoid of much greenery and barren, except for a great multitude of stark white gravestones scattered across the hillsides. The early nineteenth-century author Charles White, who described a number of Istanbul’s cemeteries in his book about the city, highlighted the contrast between the rather bleak setting of the Hasköy burial ground and the more verdant landscapes of other cemeteries.
Among the most remarkable… is the vast cemetery of the Jews upon the heights above Khass Kuoy, a prolongation of the Ok Maïdan. This desolate abode of death is distinguished from all others, by being denuded of trees, and by the pentagonal form of the coffin-shaped sarcophagi, placed upon the horizontal grave stones. These marble sarcophagi, as well as the subjacent slabs, are ornamented with sculptured flowers and inscriptions, the work of Hebrew artists.
The aspect of this wilderness produces more solemn and imposing effects than the cypress-shaded groves of the Bosphorus… The stern repose of these countless blocks of recumbent marble, impresses the mind with awe and disposes to meditation. Seen from a distance, this wide-spreading Golgotha appears like the relics of some noble city laid prostrate by Almighty dispensation. Even upon nearer approach, it seems as if earth, agitated by convulsive throes, had cast forth the biers, and left them and their contents blanched and petrified, to await the eternal summons.7
In the late 1800s, as the city expanded and increasing numbers of Jews settled in the new neighborhoods of Beyoğlu and its environs, additional burial grounds were needed for their dead. The European Jewish community requested a place of its own in 1865, and the imperial government granted space in Şişli for the so-called “Italian” Jewish Cemetery, directly bordering the recently established Armenian and Greek burial grounds. In the early 1900s, two more cemeteries were opened to the east, in Ulus, one for Sephardim, the other for Ashkenazim. Currently, they are Istanbul’s most popular Jewish cemeteries. The Hasköy burial ground still operates, too, but is has been greatly altered since the Ottoman period, most drastically during highway construction in the 1970s, which destroyed part of the burial ground and sliced the rest into three sections.
Fewer today than in the Ottoman era, Istanbul’s non-Muslim cemeteries are a rich heritage to be preserved.8 The historical evidence that can be extracted from their tombs not only offers a wealth of detail about the generations of Christians and Jews who once lived in the city but crucial information to better understand overall social and economic life as well. The burial grounds are also unique open-air museums, which provide an unparalleled opportunity to observe and trace the distinctive, changing funerary practices, art, and symbolism of many diverse communities over a span of centuries. No other city in the world possesses such an exceptional resource. Often endangered by vandalism, illegal construction, or even planned urban growth, these tangible, surviving witnesses to the past are an irreplaceable legacy to be valued and preserved.
Belin, François Alphonse, Histoire de la latinité de Constantinople, Paris : A. Picard, 1894, pp. 506-531.
Dallegio d’Alessio, Eugène, “Le inscriptions latines funéraires de Constantinople au moyen âge”, Échos d’Orient, vol. 166 (1932), pp. 188-206.
Groot, A. H. De,“Old Dutch Graves at Istanbul”, Archivum Ottomanicum, vol. 5 (1973), pp. 5–16.
Johnson, Brian, “Istanbul’s Vanished City of the Dead. The Grand Champs des Morts”, Myth to Modernity: Istanbul Selected Themes, ed. Nezih Başgelen and Brian Johnson, Istanbul: Arkeoloji ve Sanat Yayınları, 2002, pp. 93-104.
Johnson, Brian, “Batılıların Gözüyle Büyük Mezarlık”, tr. Handan Cingi, Tarih ve Toplum, 2003, vol. 39, no. 233, pp. 290-297.
Johnson, Brian, “Ölüler Şehrinde Bir Yıl”, Toplumsal Tarih, no. 147 (2006), pp. 72-77
Marmara, Rinaldo, “Comptes rendus du cimetière latin de Constantinople. Une source inconnue pour l’histoire de la latinité”, Journal Asiatique, vol. 291 (2003), no. 1-2, pp. 221-247.
Marmara, Rinaldo, Pancaldi. Quartier Levantin du XIXe siècle, Istanbul: Isis, 2004, pp. 167-197.
Miroğlu, Armaveni, “Pangaltı Ermeni Mezarlığı (Surp Hagop Mezarlığı)”, Toplumsal Tarih, no. 187 (2009), pp. 34-38.
Ovadya, Silvyo, “Yahudi Mezarlıkları”, DBİst.A, vol. 7, pp. 400-401.
Pamukciyan, Kevork, İstanbul Yazıları, Istanbul: Aras Yayıncılık, 2002.
Polatel, Mehmet et al., 2012 Beyannamesi. İstanbul Ermeni Vakıflarının El Konan Mülkleri, Istanbul: Hrant Dink Vakfı, 2012.
Rozen, Minna, “A survey of Jewish Cemeteries in Western Turkey”, The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 83, no. 1-2 (1992), pp. 71-125.
Rozen, Minna, Hasköy Cemetery. Typology of Stones, Tel Aviv: Diaspora Research Institute Tel Aviv University, 1994.
Şarlak, Evangelına, İstanbul’daki Hıristiyan Mezarlıklarında Mimarlık ve Sanat, İstanbul: Derin Yayınları, 2005.
Tuğlacı, Pars, İstanbul Ermeni Kiliseleri, İstanbul: Pars Yayın, 1991, pp. 211-258.
1 “İstanbul Mezarlıkları,” Mezarlıklar Müdürlüğü, accessed May 10, 2013, http://www.ibb.gov.tr/tr-tr/kurumsal/birimler/mezarliklarmd/documents/website/Htmls/mezarliktanitim.html (a detailed list of the non-Muslim burial grounds obtained from the Directorate, which gave their names and locations, only noted 54 sites).
2 The Ottoman government granted the site to Great Britain in 1855 for Crimean War dead, and the British government managed the cemetery directly until 1925, when administrative responsibility passed to the CWGC. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923), the final agreement that concluded World War I between Turkey and the Allied Powers, guarantees the maintenance of this and other foreign military burial grounds on Turkish soil.
3 Polatel et al., 2012 Beyannamesi, p. 189.
4 See Marlies Hoenkamp-Mazgon, Palais de Hollande in Istanbul, Amsterdam: Boom, 2002, p. 67.
5 Robert Walsh, A Residence at Constantinople, London: F. Westley & A.H. Davis,1838, pp. 440-441.
6 Julia Pardoe, The City of the Sultan, London: Routledge, 1854, pp. 134-135.
7 Charles White, Three Years in Constantinople, London: H. Colburn, 1846, vol. 3, p. 343.
8 Indeed, the Treaty of Lausanne stipulates their protection (Article 42). It should be noted, too, that Istanbul’s Muslim cemeteries have suffered even greater loss than the city’s non-Muslim burial grounds since Ottoman times.