1870 - Great Fire of Pera (illustration)

The Great Fire of Pera in 1870

On June 5, 1870, a horrendous fire in Pera which is known as “The Great Fire of Pera” today, destroyed a large part of the district. It is also known as “The Great Fire of Constantinople”. Pera, today’s Beyoğlu, located on the European side of Constantinople (now İstanbul), separated from the old city (historic peninsula of Constantinople) by the Golden Horn, was the district of diplomatic residences and European society around 1870. Actually, now, it still is.

The great fire destroyed two-thirds of the quarter, burnt down countless buildings and killed many people – perhaps thousands. Many hotels, night clubs, theaters, and embassies went up in flames. British embassy, which already burnt down once before in the great fire of 1831, also destroyed. Because of the wooden buildings and the strong wind, the fire spread rapidly. According to the Manchester Weekly Times, a weekly newspaper published from 1828 to 1922 in Manchester, England, “…sheets of the flame extended a mile in length”. The fire was put out after thirteen hours. But, even after then, some burned houses continued falling down and killing yet more people. According to Glasgow Daily Herald (founded in 1873, it is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world), cannons were used to bring down such dangerous buildings.

The fire was also covered by the Western newspapers – here is a compilation below.

1870 - Great Fire of Pera (illustration)
View of the ruins after the great fire at constantinople. Illustrated on London News on July 2, 1876. The remnants of the British Embassy can be seen in the background.

Daily Alta California(1), Volume 22, Number 7402, 27 June 1870

THE GREAT FIRE AT CONSTANTINOPLE

“From the London Times, June 7th”(2)

We have to announce a very disastrous event – the destruction of the British Embassy at Pera, together with a large part of the city by fire. Since the great war of 1854(3) so many of our country men have become acquainted with the Frank quarter of Constantinople, the district of diplomatic residences and European society, that the place needs description no more than any other European capital. The steep and narrow street rising from the squalor of the Galata water side, and flanked in its course upwards by buildings in which ordinary meanness is relieved by occasional splendor, has long been one of the regular haunts of the tourist. Very well known, too, in the British Embassy, which dominates the lowly habitations around it, and has always been upheld by our countrymen as the great “lion” of Pera. The telegraph informs us that its splendor is at an end.

A fire, which is described as burning from one o’clock in the day to near midnight, has destroyed the palace of tho great English Elchi(4), and we know not how much of the city. There was a strong wind, the flames spread with rapidity, and besides the British Embassy, there was destroyed the American and Portugese(5) Consulate*, the Naoum Theatre, the palace of the Armenian Patriarch, many churches, mosques, and several thousand houses and shops in the finest part of Pera.

Our first feeling must be sympathy with the multitude ill families who have lout their all. In the imperfect civilisation of the East there are few means of lightening such a blow as has now fallen on the population. Many own the houses in which they lived, and in which they carry on their business; the house and its contents forming often their only fortune. Insurance is comparatively little resorted to, and, indeed, from the frequency and destructiveness of fires, the rates to be paid would be ruinous. Pera, in this matter, is certainly better off than Stamboul, since there is a good deal of stone in its construction; but even in Pera a fire rages as it seldom does in a Western city. It is to be hoped that the Turkish Government, and the hand of private charity, may provide adequate relief tor the poor sufferers.

Looking at the event from a sanitary and artistic point of view, we may take comfort. We cannot say how much of the city his been destroyed; but the quarter where the conflagration chiefly raged contains the most valuable sites and would best repay improvement. And for improvement there is indeed room. A great deal has been done for Pera in the last few years. Gas was introduced in 1858, and the inhabitants are no longer obliged to Dick their way over the tanged stones of the streets by the light of their little paper lanterns. New and spacious houses have been built, and, where land is so valuable, the lower class of buildings must be gradually superseded by more ambitious structures. But like most cities which have been laid out on no regular plan, but have grown up by the simple process of people building their homes as and where it suited them, Pera provokes very unfavorable criticism. If the Grand Rus were swept away altogether, the calamity would be great, but the opening for the architect and the sanitary reformer would not be greater than is needed.

Let us, however, turn our attention for a moment to our own national loss. Whatever may happen in Pera, we doubt whether the British Embassy will be restored if its destruction be complete. We are glad to learn that no one connected with the Embassy is injured, and that, though the members have lost their personal effects, the archives and plate are saved. This building is described as “completely gutted.” The phrase must mean, we fear, that the interior of the building has been totally destroyed, and that nothing remains but the four walls. If these too, are so injured as to be unsafe, there is an end of the edifice altogether. Thus will have perished one of the most pretentious and costly buildings that have ever been erected for the service of the British nation. The Ambassador at Constantinople is a great personage. It has always been thought necessary that at that focus of diplomatic rivalry the British sovereign should have a personal representative entitled to personal interviews with the Ottaman(6) ruler. Not less has it been the tradition that he should be princely in his establishment, alter the fashion which imposes on Orientals, and, to say the truth, on Occidentals likewise. This theory has been carried to the furthest in the palace of the British Ambassador. Many a sovereign has not a grander house over his head. Size, strength, solidity were its aspect, severe and gaunt though this might be. What astonishes us is that it should ever have been burnt. It had a fire-proof look about it that might make one fancy the attaches looking coolly on the conflagration from their windows as if they and their belongings and the “archives” were in a veritable diplomatic safe. No one knows how much it cost, but it was building for years, and though the building did come to an end the repairing never has, as students of the estimates are well aware. It was not beautiful: people were told that it looked well at a distance, but we never found any one who had been far enough off to admire it. But, undoubtedly in cost and ponderous magnificence it was worthy of England, and might be held to embody the national character. These, however, are parsimonious days. Mr. Ayrton is the representative of economy in art, and would be glad to show how little he can lodge a diplomatist. Moreover, the telegraph has made a difference in the position of Ambassadors themselves. When men can and do receive instructions hourly about the smallest details, and, indeed, ask for them as if anxious to escape responsibility, it is easy to conceive that the Foreign Office will not again insist on the Treasury behaving with boundless liberality. We must, therefore, anticipate that, if the Pera Embassy be really no more, future Ambassadors will have to content themselves with a more modest residence. They will be, to our thinking, none the less comfortable, and the influence of England will scarcely suffer even in that capital of extravagant palaces. The Ambassador has also, it must be remembered, an excellent house at Therapia (7), on the Bosphorus, where the Embassy usually goes to reside about this time of the year.

It was in the tremendous conflagration which destroyed the greater part of Pera thirty-nine years ago that the last British Embassy was destroyed. That fire also swept away numbers of the old wooden houses, and made way for the new city of our time. It was on the 21 of August, 1831, that a fire began in a house beyond the Great Buryingground, at a considerable distance from the town. The wind carried the sparks, and the houses, dry as tinder under the summer sun, took fire in every direction. As in the present case, the British Embassy was a building standing by itself, but nothing could resist the force of the flames which were rolled against the palace from the wooden houses around. It was totally destroyed, and then the fire spread into the body of the town. The French, Russian and Prussian Embassies, all first-class houses, were destroyed, and, indeed, every European Mission in Pera except the Austrian. The number of persons who were made homeless was 80,000. The British and Russian Embassies rose from their ashes more magnificent than ever. The latter remains; ours is gone. We must console ourselves if our great rivals now surpass us in the external signs of grandeur and influence.

The Queanbeyan Age(8), August 11, 1870

TERRIFIC FIRE IN PERA

“From the European Mail”(9)

News from Constantinople, dated June 6, states that a fearful fire broke out on the 5th in Pera, which was not got under for many hours. In consequence of a strong wind the flames spread with alarming rapidity, and the English Embassy, and American and Portugueus(10) Consulates, the Naoum Theatre, the Palace of the Armenian Patriarch, churches, mosques, and several houses and shops in the finest part of Pera were completely destroyed. Several persons were killed, and others wounded. The loss was immense. The telegraph wires between Pera and Europe were broken, but communication was soon re-established. The scene in Pera was heartrending, as thousands of families were in the streets homeless. The following telegram, dated June 6, 7:40 a.m., was received at the Foreign Office from her Majesty’s Ambassador at Constantinople: -“The British Embassy house was gutted, but the archives and the plate were saved. Nobody belonging to the Embassy was injured, although they have lost everything.”

The following are further details of the great fire in this city. The conflagration commenced in the Valide Ischesme Street(11), at the corner of Dzambar Street, and destroyed the whole quarter comprised within the following boundaries: Valide Ischesme Street, Kavasse Pashi Street, Tatavola Gardens, Kissini Basha’s Gardens, Hamali Ischesme Street, the English Embassy, Hamal Bashi Street(12), High Street(13), Pera and Taksim Street. This quarter, which was about one square mile in extent, contained nearly 20,000 houses, one-tenth of which were built of stone, the rest being of wood and plaster. About 50 stone houses leading from the High Street, Pera, to the left were burnt, the spread of flames being facilitated by the strong north wind. Taksim Street and Hakkiar, Misk, Imam, Sekye, and Agatch Streets, and others were almost all inhabited by rich Armenians, who that day were celebrating the fete of the constitution, and had formed large pleasure parties and gone into the country. Many other inhabitants were also absent in the country, the day being Sunday. Almost the whole of the Italian working class inhabited one of the quarters destroyed, and have greatly suffered. Among the superior class of residents the English and Armenian are the greatest sufferers, though it is impossible to state with certainty the amount of their losses. Dead bodies are being found every moment, 250 having been discovered up to the present. Detachments of soldiers are in the streets to stop the passage in several places, in consequence of the falling walls, as several persons have already been killed in this manner. Since Sunday the flames reappeared at the back of the French Hospital, but were extinguished by the commander and crew of the Messageries Impériales(14) steamer. The Government has erected tents, and provisions are served out to all applicants. All precautions were taken at the English Embassy one hour before the fire approached, but it was impossible to prevent the destruction of the edifice. The flames darted upon the roof from a distance of sixty paces, and several men were seriously burnt. Sir Henry Elliott(15) was so absorbed in his efforts to save the building that he took no care of his personal effects, which were in consequence all destroyed. Lady Elliott left the Embassy only just in time, as she was nearly suffocated. The archives and documents of the Embassy were saved. The statements of the number of dead bodies found are very conflicting. The Turquie says, according to the police account the number is 104(?). The Courier says 903, the Levant Times 1,800, the Herald more than 800, while the Italian Minister has stated the number at 900. The number of bodies hitherto actually interred in the Latin, Greek, Armenian and Protestant cemeteries is 122, and of these twenty-two were Protestants. No Jews or Mahomedans are included in this number. It is impossible to ascertain the exact number of dead with certainly, in consequence of the way the human bones are deposited in the variety cemeteries. The Turkish authorities are displaying great forethought and humanity. Covering and household utensils are furnished to the sufferers. Nearly 1,000 houses in the Turkish quarter have been opened to the Christians. Considerable sums of money have already been received from high personages and several capitalists for the relief of the suffers by the fire, and it is stated that subscription lists will be opened in most of the European capitals. The Empress of the French has sent 10,000f to Constantinople, and the Duc de Gramont 5,000f.

The Sacramento Union(16), Volume 39, Number 6009, 1 July 1870

Additional Particulars of the Great Conflagration at Constantinople

The English papers contain the following particulars of the disastrous fire in Constantinople:

The hospital and the residence of the German Charitable Society were destroyed, and the invalids were rescued by tho gallantry of some of the Germans, two of whom died from the injuries received. The Armenian Church of the Immaculate Conception was seriously damaged, but the copy of the Transfiguration, worked in Gobelin tapestry, and presented by the Empress Eugenie, was saved. A Committee has been formed for the relief of the sufferers, and a large amount has been subscribed. All the foreign Ambassadors have distributed relief to their countrymen. The Levant Herald announces that, according to a communication of the police, 7,900 houses have been destroyed, and the total loss is estimated at £5,000,000.

(The American paper then repeats the text published on The Queanbeyan Age above)

The Press(17), Volume XVII, Issue 2258, 19 July 1870

GREAT FIRE AT CONSTANTINOPLE

CONSTANTINOPLE, June 6 – About one o’clock yesterday afternoon a fire broke out which spread with alarming rapidity through the richest quarters of the city. The flames were first discovered in an old building on the north side of the Golden Horn(18). A strong wind was blowing at the time, and the fire quickly communicated to the adjoining buildings. The efforts of the firemen and citizens to stop its progress were of no avail, and in a few hours the residences of the English, American and Portuguese Ambassadors, Consulates, the Naomi Theatre, many churches, and thousands of houses, and the richest stores and shops in the city, were reduced to ashes. The loss of life by the falling walls is fearful. It is estimated that at least 30 people were killed or injured by this cause alone. The loss of property is incalculable. The fire at this hour is still burning furiously, and the excitement of the people beggars description.

CONSTANTINOPLE, June 9 – The great fire in the Pera district is subdued. Over seven thousand buildings of all sorts were destroyed, many of the best in the city. The loss of life greatly exceeded the estimate. Some days ago the remains of one hundred and fifty human beings were found; it is supposed that this number represents one-half the actual loss. The total pecuniary loss is computed at twenty-five million pounds sterling. The English Underwriters suffer heavy losses. The archives of the British Embassy were saved.

The American Church of the Immaculate Conception was on fire several times, and considerably damaged, but the Gobelin tapestry, the gift of the Empress Eugenie, with which the church was decorated, was saved uninjured.

CONSTANTINOPLE, June 9 – The loss of the life by the conflagration is frightful; some families were hemmed in by the flames and perished in full view of the spectators. The panic among the people was terrible; many lost all presence of mind and were unable to save themselves; others, in despair, made no effort to fly; some Turks shut themselves in burning houses, refused assistance, and met their fate without a murmur. Two hundred and fifty persons were burned to death or killed by falling walls; many more are missing.

Notes

  1. The Alta California or Daily Alta California (often miswritten Alta Californian or Daily Alta Californian) was a 19th-century San Francisco newspaper. It is principally famous for its relation to Mark Twain.
  2. It was actually published on the London Times on June 7th, 1870.
  3. Crimean War, a military conflict fought from October 1853 to February 1856 in which the Russian Empire lost to an alliance of the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain and Sardinia.
  4. Elchi (elçi): a Turkish word for “ambassador”.
  5. There is a typo in the original text, “Portuguese” written as “Portugese”.
  6. There is a typo in the original text, “Ottoman” written as “Ottaman”.
  7. Therapia: today “Tarabya”, a neighbourhood in the Sarıyer district of Istanbul, at the European side, near Bosphorus. The mentioned place, the British Embassy’s summer house was burnt to the ground in 1911 and was never re-built.

    British Embassy's summer house in Tarabya, Istanbul
    A 1903 postcard view of the British summer embassy at Therapia (Tarabya), that burnt down in 1911 and was never re-built. Image: levantineheritage.com
  8. The Queanbeyan Age is a weekly newspaper based in Queanbeyan, New South Wales, Australia. It has had a number of title changes throughout its publication history. First published on 15 September 1860 by the Australian newspaper proprietor, lay preacher and politician John Gale (17 April 1831 – 15 July 1929) and his brother, Peter Francis Gale, The Golden Age, as it was known at the time, was the first newspaper of the small township on the banks of the Queanbeyan River. It was named due to the short-lived Kiandra goldrush, which generated large amounts of gold-based traffic through the region.
  9. It was actually published on the European Mail.
  10. There is a typo in the original text, “Portuguese” written as “Portugueus”.
  11. Valide Ischesme Street: probably today’s Valideçeşme.
  12. Hamal Bashi Street: Hamalbaşı Street (Turkish: Hamalbaşı caddesi). “Hamal” means “Carrier”, so the name can be translated as “The head (leader) of the carriers street”.
  13. High Street: Yüksek Kaldırım Caddesi.
  14. Messageries maritimes. It was a French merchant shipping company. It was originally created in 1851 as Messageries nationales, later called Messageries impériales, and from 1871, Compagnie des messageries maritimes, casually known as “MesMar” or by its initials “MM”.
  15. It must be Henry Elliot (30 June 1817 – 30 March 1907), the British diplomat. He was most noted for his period as ambassador at Constantinople (appointed in 1867), and his participation in the 1876-77 Constantinople Conference. Elliot took a pro-Turkish line despite the ‘Bulgarian atrocities’.

    Henry Elliot
    Sir Henry Elliot, as depicted by “Spy” (Leslie Ward) in the UK magazine Vanity Fair, March 1877.
    Sir Leslie Matthew Ward (21 November 1851 – 15 May 1922 London) was a British portrait artist and caricaturist who over four decades painted 1,325 portraits which were regularly published by Vanity Fair, under the pseudonyms “Spy” and “Drawl”. Image: wikipedia
  16. The Sacramento Union was a daily newspaper founded in 1851 in Sacramento, California. It was the oldest daily newspaper west of the Mississippi River before it closed its doors after 143 years in January 1994. Famous American writer, humorist, entrepreneur, publisher, and lecturer Samuel Langhorne Clemens (November 30, 1835 – April 21, 1910), better known by his pen name Mark Twain, is remembered most for his contributions to The Union.
  17. The Press is a daily broadsheet newspaper published in Christchurch, New Zealand. It is owned by Fairfax Media, one of the largest media companies in Australia and New Zealand.
  18. The Golden Horn (Turkish: Altın Boynuz; Ancient Greek: Χρυσόκερας, Chrysókeras; Latin: Sinus Ceratinus) is a major urban waterway and the primary inlet of the Bosphorus in Istanbul, Turkey. Its modern Turkish name is “Haliç” (means little bay).

    Haliç (Golden Horn), Istanbul, 1890s
    The Golden Horn as seen from the hills of Eyüp in the 1890s, looking toward Sütlüce in the foreground, and the Old City in the distance.

Sources

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