History

  • Issue 49 / January - March 2005



    Istanbul's Vanished City of the Dead: The Grand Champs des Morts

    Brian Johnson

    With a rich and varied architecture embodying centuries of history, Istanbul is one of the world’s most celebrated cities. Besides the splendid monuments of its classical, Byzantine, and Ottoman heritage, Istanbul’s cemeteries have also contributed to its renown. Historically, the vast necropolises of Eyup, Uskudar, and the Grand Champs des Morts in Pera have attracted the most notice. While the first two cemeteries still survive, the latter endures only as a memory-described in the pages of travel accounts, depicted on old engravings and maps, and tangibly perceptible in a scattering of funerary monuments that once graced its broad expanse. Yet, just over a hundred and fifty years ago, the Grand Champs des Morts existed as one of the world’s great necropolises. A realm where the living intermingled with the dead, it roused the interest and imagination of visitors to Istanbul, and, even more notably, in an age of reform and change, offered inspiration and a model for contemporary designers of cemeteries in Western Europe.

    Dating back to the sixteenth century,1 the Grand Champs des Morts was unique among Istanbul’s necropolises, with burial grounds for followers of both Islam and Christianity in close proximity. Beginning at Taksim (roughly on the site where the Ataturk Cultural Center now stands) and extending down the slopes of Gumussuyu and Findikli lay the graves of Muslims, while the area stretching northward toward Harbiye was divided into separate sections for the city’s various Christian communities. The English traveler Julia Pardoe describes the site in 1836:

    The first plot of ground, after passing the barrack [the artillery barracks of Selim III at Taksim], is the grave-yard of the Franks; and here you are greeted on all sides with inscriptions in Latin; injunctions to pray for the souls of the departed; flourishes of French sentiment; calembourgs2 graven into the everlasting stone, treating of roses and reine Marguerites; concise English records of births, deaths, ages, and diseases; Italian elaborations of regret and despair; and all the common-places of an ordinary burial-ground.3

    Immediately in a line with the European cemetery, is the burial-ground of the Armenians. It is a thickly-peopled spot; and as you wander beneath the leafy boughs of the scented acacias, and thread your way among the tombs, you are struck by the peculiarity of their inscriptions. The noble Armenian character is graven deeply into the stone; name and date are duly set forth; but that which renders an Armenian slab. . . peculiar and distinctive, is the chiseling upon the tomb the emblem of the trade or profession of the deceased.

    The Turkish cemetery stretches along the slope of the hill behind the barrack, and descends far into the valley. Its thickly-planted cypresses form a dense shade, beneath which the tall head-stones gleam out white and ghastly. The grove is intersected by footpaths, and here and there a green glade lets in the sunshine, to glitter upon many a gilded tomb. Plunge into the thick darkness of the more covered spots, and for a moment you will almost think that you stand amid the ruins of some devastated city. You are surrounded by what appears for an instant to be the myriad fragments of some mighty whole; but the gloom has deceived you-you are in the midst of a Necropolis-a City of the Dead.4


    The vastness and natural beauty of the Grand Champs des Morts captured the attention of foreign residents and visitors to Istanbul alike, and few travel accounts and diaries from the past fail to mention-even if only in passing reference-the cemetery on the outskirts of Pera. The Grand Champs des Morts presented a sharp contrast to the densely packed inner-city churchyards which served as the principal burial grounds in so many of Europe’s cities up to the nineteenth century. Although some chroniclers considered the size of the Pera cemetery, as well as the great necropolises bordering other districts of Istanbul, a hindrance to urban expansion and development,5 the advantage of such a spacious, sylvan tract of land for burial of the dead was also recognized.

    Not far from this [Taksim] we entered upon one of those vast burying-grounds which form one of the most conspicuous features of every Turkish city. . . In a few words. . . I may state that the cemetery. . . covers an area of more than 100 acres, and that a thick forest of cypresses (resembling in shape the poplar, but with a dark green foliage) overspreads it with a solemn shade, extremely appropriate to its ordinary uses. . .6

    Cemetery planners in Western Europe, spurred on by public calls for improvements to the hygiene and appearance of local burial grounds, cited precedents in Istanbul-as well as other areas of the East-in their effort to close inner-city churchyards and replace them with larger, more salubrious cemeteries outside settled areas. This process of reform essentially began in France during the eighteenth century. It was encouraged by authors such as the naturalist Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737–1814), who, in his celebrated atudes de la Nature, praised the Turkish custom of burying the dead in the countryside (a tradition also observed in classical antiquity and contemporary China) and recommended the implementation of similar practices in Paris. He proposed “landscaped lysces as the burial-place of the great and good, and public cemeteries (essentially landscaped gardens where the dead would be buried and, if prosperity allowed, monuments erected). . . Public cemeteries should be created in the vicinity of the city, planted with cypresses, pines, and fruit-trees, and monuments erected in such a setting could only induce profound moral feelings and tender melancholy in those who visited them.”7

    By the late 1700s, new methods for disposing of the dead were of absolute necessity in most of Europe’s major cities, and not simply for esthetic purposes, but for maintaining public health. Toward the end of the eighteenth century, the municipality of Paris took the first steps by closing old burial grounds, such as the ancient Cimetire des Innocents, and establishing new cemeteries, including the famed Pre-Lachaise, Montparnasse, and Montmartre early in the next. A similar course of action occurred somewhat later in London, commencing with the opening of Kensal Green in 1832, the first of seven new private cemeteries founded over the next decade on the outskirts of the city.8 Finally, in 1852, all graveyards inside the city limits were closed with the passage into law of the Metropolitan Burial Act. By that time, London’s churchyards, many dating from the Middle Ages, were in a critical state. One contemporary journal, The Builder, asserted in 1843 that 50,000 bodies yearly were piled one on top of the other in these overcrowded graveyards, where-left to putrefy and rot-they gave out exhalations and darkened the air with vapors. Charles Dickens cynically portrayed the grim situation in the Uncommercial Traveller:

    Such strange churchyards hide in the City of London; churchyards sometimes so entirely pressed upon by houses, so small, so rank, so silent, so forgotten, except by the few people who ever look down into them from their smokey windows. As I stand peeping in through the iron gates and rails, I can peel the rusty metal off, like bark from an old tree. The illegible tombstones are all lopsided, the gravemounds lost their shape in the rains of a hundred years ago, the Lombardy Poplar or Plane-Tree that was once a drysalter’s daughter and several common-councilmen, has withered like those worthies, and its departed leaves are dust beneath it. Contagion of slow ruin overhangs the place . . .9

    Considering the dismal, unwholesome state of burial grounds in their own countries, it is no wonder that Europeans often waxed eloquent about the cemeteries of Istanbul, highlighting the aura of life which they engendered. Julia Pardoe offers a particularly vivid description of the burial grounds in the Ottoman capital, where the present generation readily merged with those of the past.

    [The Turk] looks upon death calmly and without repugnance; he does not connect it with ideas of gloom and horror, as we are too prone to do in Europe,-he spreads his burial places in the sunniest spots-on the crests of the laughing hills, where they are bathed in the light of the blue sky; beside the crowded thoroughfares of the city, where the dead are, as it were, once more mingled with the living,-in the green nooks that stretch down to the Bosphorus, wherein more selfish spirits would have erected a villa, or have planted a vineyard. He identifies himself with the generation which has passed away-he is ready to yield his place to that which is to succeed his own.10

    For the cemetery reformers of Europe, such descriptions offered an ideal in their quest for more wholesome, esthetically appealing burial grounds. Located in the hilly countryside on the fringes of the city, the Grand Champs des Morts and Istanbul’s other great necropolises served as a model for those who strove to create new cemeteries for the sanitary disposal of the dead, as well as provide an idyllic environment for the expression of one’s most tender feelings and deepest sentiments. Contemporary author Samuel Taylor Coleridge even commented on the emotive aspect of Turkish burial grounds.

    Nothing can make amends for the want of the soothing influences of nature, and for the absence of those types of renovation and decay which the fields and woods offer to the notice of the serious and contemplative mind. To feel the force of this sentiment, let a man only compare in imagination, the unsightly manner in which our monuments are crowded together in the busy, noisy, unclean, and almost grassless churchyard of a large town, with the still seclusion of a Turkish cemetery in some remote place, and yet further sanctified by the grove of cypresses in which it is embosomed.11 /

    Specific reference to the Grand Champs des Morts and other Turkish cemeteries as archetypes to imitate in the West also appear in the writings of John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843), one of the most influential cemetery reformers of the nineteenth century. A Scottish landscape gardener, Loudon proposed that burial grounds should be on elevated ground, distant enough from urban centers as not to endanger the health of the populace, yet near enough to lessen the time and expense of funerals and encourage visits by the living to the tombs of the dead. To make the site attractive, he favored a garden-like setting, and suggested the planting of various types of trees and shrubs. Istanbul’s necropolises offered exemplary models of these principles, and Loudon quoted descriptions of them in his works on burial ground planning and design. “The Turkish cemeteries are generally out of the city, on rising ground, planted with cedars, cypresses, and odoriferous shrubs, whose deep verdure and graceful forms bending in every breeze give a melancholy beauty to the place, and excite sentiments very congenial to its destination.”12

    Besides the location of Istanbul’s cemeteries in the midst of nature and removed from the habitations of the living, the local tradition of single interments also impressed European observers. As Julia Pardoe remarked, the remains of the dead were not disturbed once laid to rest, a practice followed in both the Muslim and Christian burial grounds of the Grand Champs des Morts. “There is no burying and reburying on the same spot, as with us. The remains of the departed are sacred.”13 In stark contrast, Europeans-largely due to space restrictions in their heavily populated cities-regularly opened existing graves and filled them with new cadavers, to the point that some churchyards became pestilential pits, seriously endangering public health. By the late eighteenth century these unsanitary conditions had become intolerable. Through the influence of reformers, many of whom took inspiration from the burial practices of the Ottomans, new laws were instituted regulating methods of disposing of the dead. A French decree passed in 1804, for instance, prohibited burial in common graves, where the dead were stacked up one on top of the other.14 Instead, each cadaver was to be buried in its own space, dug to a specific depth and separated from other graves by a set distance, a method of sepulture eventually adopted in other European countries as well.

    More than Ottoman burial practices, however, the unique social life which revolved around Istanbul’s cemeteries, especially in the Grand Champs des Morts, aroused the interest of foreigners. Both Muslim and Christian inhabitants of the city followed distinct rituals for remembering their dead, and families of all religious persuasions made regular visits to their respective burial grounds, maintaining their link with the generations which had preceded them. The pleasant surroundings of the cemeteries (places to avoid in Europe’s municipalities) encouraged this communion with the departed. Moreover, the great necropolises were more than resting places for the dead. “The Champs des Morts,” as Julia Pardoe recounts, “is the promenade of the whole population-Turk, Frank, Greek, and Armenian. . .”15 It was known to the locals as a place of keyif, or an area connected with ease and enjoyment.16 Spacious, fresh, green, and in close proximity to the residential quarters of Pera, the burial ground served as a kind of parkland-an attractive area of rest and relaxation for the populace of Istanbul.

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