“Şevki Efendi Company is going to present Şükran-ı Nimet, a five act comedy- drama, then kanto, cinematographe, Aşki Efendi’s fasil band [incesaz],” announces the Istanbul daily newspaper İkdam, in its September 18, 1910 edition. For the over 40 thousand readers of Ahmet Cevdet’s newspaper, this must have been a very useful piece of information, as the one or so million inhabitants of that lively, cosmopolitan capital of the Ottoman Empire had to plan their busy social calendar. At least, for the 300.000 or so Orthodox Rums, the largest minority in the city at that time, had to do so they were known to frequent such shows, when, of course they could time from their busy home entertainment.
“The famous “politiki veggera” (from the Italian vegghera meaning social evening gathering – and, of course ‘politiki’ means the city, Polis, that is Istanbul) was a habit that lasted until recently… two or more families used to come together and play cards… they used to serve sweets and tea with night “simit”… during the feast days…they used to dance under the sound of laterna or high pitched [incesaz] instruments, but then the evenings lasted until morning. During the veggheras most arranged marriages were settled,” remembers an old Rum.
As early as the first decade of the 20th century, “cinematographe” or “sinematograf” was already a known attraction for the inhabitants of Istanbul. As Nezih Erdogan, the dean of the Scool of Communications, explained in his lecture to an audience of mainly faculty members and film academics, cinema came to Istanbul from Paris almost immediately after its invention.
It was brought in by a Frenchman, a Monsieur Henri, who organized the first screening in 1897 at the famous beer house, Sponeck in Galata square. If we bear in mind that Lumiere Brothers had their first public screening in Paris in December 1895, we cannot but be amazed at the speed by which a Muslim megalopolis with a large non-Muslim population was ready to import this novelty coming from Europe.
“Regular screenings were launched by another non-muslim expatriate Polish Jew, Sigmund Weinberg. Weinberg became a representative of Pathé and ran a number of movie theatres. He also held an important position in the Military Film Centre which was founded by Enver Pasha , who on his official visit to Germany saw and was excited by the possibilities that cinematography might offer” explains Erdogan.
Şevki Efendi’s Company, almost one century ago, might have been one of the last troupes to perform their “multi-media” marvelous show in the old style, under gas light or candles. Only a few months later, in 1911, electricity came to Constantinople and performances under electrical light started to fill coffee houses, beer houses and saloons, pool and billiard rooms.
The centre of entertainment then as well as now, was Pera, otherwise known as Beyoglu, a predominantly Christian neighborhood just across the narrow water strip of Golden Horn, where the old Ottoman (and before them the Byzantine) centre of power was located. It was in the neighborhood of Beyoglu where most of the Istanbul Greek Orthodox (Rums) community lived together with the rest of the non-Muslim minorities. And it was through there that most of western fashions, habits and inventions were brought to Istanbul, tried, tested and adopted with an amazing speed by non-Muslims and Muslims alike.
“Istanbul, being the home for a number of religious and ethnic communities, was much more cosmopolitan than it is today. Although, the city was taken over by the Muslim forces in 1453, its population consisted mainly of non-Muslims until the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923. Non-Muslim communities, that is Italians, Jews, French and Russians, to name only a few, were involved in a range of professions, from the trading raw film, to acting and singing on stage, managing music halls, manufacturing and tuning musical instruments. Many of them had commercial connections in major European cities; therefore, it comes as no surprise that it was the non-Muslims who introduced cinema as an innovation coming from the West. As is well known, upper class Muslims looked down on commerce and preferred pursuing career in the army or the government,” says Erdogan
Nezih Erdogan’s lecture was based on his on-going project which will be “made accessible over the Internet materials related to any kind of cinema news, article, advert, illustration, announcement, etc. printed between the years 1894 and 1928.”
So far, through this material an exciting picture of a diverse, lively Istanbul. The menu of an Istanbul night’s entertainment for women and men often consists of participating in shows with “storytelling, acting, cinematography and music”.
In the early 19’/00s cinema, the novelty of the time freshly imported from Paris quickly found its way among the other types of entertainment:
“Between two musical numbers, a film screening is inserted. No title given, no reference to the content made; sinematoğraf alone was good enough for attraction,” explained Erdogan.
However cinema quickly found its own place as a unique form of visual narrative and only a few years later around the ’/20s, Erdogan discovered a press advertisement for a film serial, “Red Glove/Kırmızı Eldiven,” a cine-novel of which the early episodes are rich in detail’.
The rapid expansion of cinema as another form of entertainment was a proof of the liveliness and energy of Istanbul at the start of the last century
By May 1921 there were 32 permanent and 12 temporary movie theatres owned generally by foreigners in Istanbul. Until the 19’/30s women and men were going separately to the cinema. An advertisement from 1910 shown by Erdogan announces:
“Sound Cinematographe. In Balat, adjacent to İskelebaşı, this Tuesday, at 7 pm for women only. As of today, every Tuesday and Friday, screenings for women only. Saturday and Sunday nights for men only.”
The interesting element of this valuable advertisement is not the gender separation but the fact that the women of Istanbul of that period were able to go to an evening cinema performance on their own!
But cinema also brought other types of changes in the life of the Muslim inhabitants of Istanbul. As Erdogan explains:
“In the Muslim world, the tradition is structured around praying 5 times a day. The day starts with the morning prayer and ends with the night time prayer. Ramadan involves fasting for one month; from the cracking of the morning until the last seconds of the daytime. Now, along with the other forms of entertainment cinema is bringing its own time. The structure of the tradition has to be reconciled with the cinema’s screening times. Thus the concept program comes to the fore. The film program does not simply inform us about screening hours; it also programs us, imposing upon us the structure of what we would prefer to call modernity.”
Cinema also became a catalyst of modernization by bringing images from abroad and thus fuelled the desire for becoming like the Europeans.
“The audience of Istanbul was provided with a point of identification that went beyond mere identification with the camera first and then with the film characters. The Istanbul audience identified also with the audiences of other cities,” says Erdogan.
An Istanbul ad found by Erdogan dated from 1924 announces a film “illustrating today’s life in a subtle comedy-drama and promises the audiences the most recent toilets (evening gowns) from Paris.”
“The film audience in İstanbul began to feel as a part of a larger community, belonging in a space expanding onto other modern cities. Same time, same place, same experience. Paradoxically this is what makes the audience of Istanbul different than its Western counterparts,” believes Nezih Erdogan.
Some Turkish intellectuals like Yahya Kemal in the first decades of last century may have mourned over the traditions and values of old İstanbul being lost through modern ways of life and negative influence of inventions like the cinema.
“In the old times of Istanbul, even in my childhood, rich and poor, each class entertained together. Moonlight pleasure trips, Kağıthane parties, Çamlıca excursions, Boğaz picnics, all ensured the city’s living together. This was a tradition inherited from the Middle Ages. However, it survived until recently with the help of the common taste (…) Çamlıca was replaced by Büyükada and the Sunday picnics add little to the city and common entertainment style. We live in an age which cinema governs our pleasure from outside. We gather in the dark. (…) we listen to ridiculous howlings, we admire the woman’s toilet, the acrobatics of the man, in short we admire a lot of idiocy,” mourns the famous Turkish novelists Ahmet Hamdi Tanpınar (1901-1962)
The presentation of Erdogan was an eye opener. Questions like the definition of modernity and westernisation in the case of Istanbul just before Kemal’s era, the characteristics of the society and the role of the non-Muslim minorities are obvious areas to be further discussed.
“In the history of cinema in Turkey, there are still areas in the dark waiting to be explored,” says Erdogan whose project is continuing to recreate the life of old Istanbul through its reflections on one of the city’s most popular forms of western entertainment.