A Day's Journey: Constantinople, December 9, 1919

Article excerpt

And so it goes, then-doing documentary work is a journey, and is a little more, too, a passage across boundaries (disciplines, occupational constraints, definitions, conventions all too influentially closed for traffic), a passage that can become a quest, even a pilgrimage . . .

Eobert Coles

Doing Documentary Work

1. Down the Grand Rue de Fera

We follow the human traffic down Istiklal Caddesi, formerly the Grand Rue de Fera, toward Istanbul's Golden Horn. The tram runs through the center of the street. The shops are cosmopolitan, the soundtrack a mix of Balkan and Near Eastern. Streams of pedestrians flow in two directions. Here in Istanbul's Beyoglu district, the more marginal groups of Turkey's secular nation state move about freely: punks, gays, transvestites, artists, leftists, expatriates from other lands. Just as importantly, Islamicists now populate this thoroughfare, the women wearing headscarves wrapped precisely to formulate a clear statement about the necessity of religion.

Our attention is divided between the contemporary scene and the tenser one that was unfolding during the crucial final years of the Ottoman Empire, which ended in 1922. Those were tumultuous times. In Pera, as Beyoglu was then called, its name signifying a border crossing ("pera" was the Greeks' word for the region pera "beyond" the city's limits), there was a semblance of peace. The tram was running through the center of Pera Avenue. Horse-drawn taxis waited by the roadside. The region's non-Muslim populations-the Armenians, Greeks, Spanish Jews, Moorish refugees, and Levantines who found a place in Pera-were managing successfully businesses in French-style buildings, as streams of people from all over the world flowed up and down the street. Even in Pera, however, Western-style hats had given way to red boru fezzes with short black tassels. Following the successes of nationalists in Anatolia that summer and fall, non-Muslims had put on the fez again to signal their subservience to the Muslim lord. Only foreigners donned felt, bowler, or the very fashionable Panama hats. European women still covered their heads, while "Muslim women of the elite . . . were beginning to appear in the street unveiled, although still with headscarves" (Mansel 400).

With our imagination, we are tracing the path of two American visitors through a single day of their three-week stay in Constantinople. It is Tuesday, December 9, 1919. One visitor is the grizzled, portly Francis W. Kelsey, a distinguished classical scholar and professor of Latin languages at the University of Michigan. The other is the lanky, six-foot-three George Swain, whom Kelsey hired as the photographer, driver, and armed guard for his "Near East Expedition." Kelsey is traveling with grand ideas and bold ambitions, which will eventually produce a significant collection of antiquities rivaling many in Europe and lead to the creation of a museum of archaeology named after him. On paper, Kelsey has stated his intentions of using this trip to purchase valuable ancient manuscripts, survey ancient battlefields, identify archaeological sites for future excavation, and generally record interesting aspects of the eastern Mediterranean's Greek and Roman past. These are the purposes he has expressed in letters to administrators and donors. And he will accomplish much of what he has set out to do. Yet together with Swain he is also feeling the winds of change. With camera, notebooks, permits, and diplomatic passports in hand, and more covert agendas in mind, the two men are about to capture traces of Constantinople just as the Empire is seized by revolution.

The two men set out early that Tuesday, December 9, from their lodgings not far from the American Embassy. They joined the human current headed for Galata Bridge. "Stamboul," the familiar name for Old City on the other side of the bridge, gleamed like gold behind the silhouette of the New Mosque, Yeni Çamii. …