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Istanbul's Vanished City of the Dead: The Grand Champs des Morts
Jan 1, 2005

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. With whatever views they pay these visits, it is certain that the burying-ground is their favorite resort, where they spend many of their spare hours. Whole families, parents and little children, may be seen gathered around a tomb in silence and seriousness, or in animated and joyous converse. All the burying-grounds, Turkish, Jewish, and Christian, are chief places of public resort.17

The Grand Champs des Morts even had a cafe at the crest of the hill overlooking Dolmabahce, where customers could while away the day smoking water pipes, drinking Turkish coffee, and gazing out at the sparkling waters of the Bosphorus in the distance.18 Itinerant vendors also wandered through the cemetery, offering refreshments to visitors. Water sellers usually followed in their wake, carrying huge dripping jars and shouting their distinctive cry buz gibi su! (ice-cold water),19 ready to quench the thirst of those strolling or lounging among the tombs. Yet, perhaps the most fascinating sight for Europeans were the public fairs held in the necropolis. More than just a place for commemoration, quiet contemplation, and repose, the Grand Champs des Morts was also the site of lively festivals and celebrations. On such occasions, the burial grounds—primarily those of the Christians—were transformed into an animated spectacle of gaiety and amusement. Julia Pardoe describes in colorful detail one such fte for the living amongst the monuments of the dead.

I have already spoken elsewhere of the indifference, if not absolute enjoyment with which the inhabitants of the East frequent their burying grounds; but on the occasion of this festival I was more impressed than ever by the extent to which it is carried. The whole of the Christian cemetery had assumed the appearance of a fair. . . 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. 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. . . . Here and there a flat tomb, fancifully covered with gold-embroidered handkerchiefs, was overspread with sweetmeats and preserved fruits; while in the midst of these rival establishments, groups of men were seated in a circle, wherever a little shade could be obtained, smoking their long pipes in silence, with their diminutive coffee-cups resting on the ground beside them. The wooden kiosk overhanging the Bosphorus was crowded; and many a party was snugly niched among the acacias, with their backs resting against the tombs, and the sunshine flickering at their feet.20

Undoubtedly, Europeans were amazed by the merging of the realms of the living and the dead that occurred at Istanbul's Grand Champs des Morts, where, as French embassy member Charles Pertusier remarked, 'those who weep are not disturbed by the lyric songs of joy, and those who laugh pay no attention to those who weep.'21 Visiting—much less taking one's pleasure in—burial grounds would have been almost inconceivable in the West. However, in the first half of the nineteenth century, this had already begun to change with the closing of inner-city churchyards and the creation of cemeteries on the periphery of urban areas in Europe. Planted with a rich variety of trees and shrubs, the burial grounds founded in Paris and London during this era constituted a distinctly new style. Essentially funerary gardens, they served both as cemeteries and parklands. Burial grounds such as Pere Lachaise, Montmartre, Kensal Green, and Highgate became renowned for their natural beauty, and were frequented—much like today—both by mourners wishing to commemorate the dead as well as visitors seeking a quiet spot for meditation and repose. Ironically, even as Europeans in the nineteenth century were opening new burial grounds influenced by models from Istanbul, sections of the very cemeteries from which they had derived inspiration (including portions of the Grand Champs des Morts) were being lost in the wake of rapid urban development. During the course of this transformation—spurred on by a desire to rebuild the city in contemporary Western fashion—it was inevitable that many of Istanbul's old burial grounds would lessen in size, or vanish completely from the map. The city was unique in that so many of its immediate environs were taken up by vast necropolises for the dead, a conspicuous feature which left a distinct impression on foreign travelers, such as Stephen Olin, who in 1853 remarked on the loss of the cemeteries in the wake of urban growth.

Indeed, so vast a space has been devoted to the dead around Istanbul, that it is no longer possible to respect the sanctity of their abode without interfering greatly with the convenience of the living, and even the entire sacrifice of public convenience. Immense as the city is, I am quite sure that much more ground is occupied by tombs and graves than by the habitations of the living. The whole country about Constantinople, Scutari, and Pera is occupied in this way, and a vast number of tombs and burying grounds are enclosed within the walls. In forming roads, streets, and in building, it is no longer possible to spare them, and one often treads upon causeways or pavements made of sculptured grave-stones and monuments.22

Between 1840 and 1910, the area of Istanbul stretching northward from Taksim to li was transformed from open countryside to densely inhabited residential settlement. Early nineteenth-century maps of Istanbul show much of the area in this direction taken up by the non-Muslim burial grounds of the Grand Champs des Morts, with the Frankish section directly in the path of the main route of expansion. Already, by 1842, this burial ground was being whittled down, as a contemporary account by Reverend William Goodell attests. One of the founders of the American Board mission to the Armenians at Istanbul, Goodell had lost his nine-year-old son, Constantine Washington, to gastric typhoid in 1841 and buried him in the Frankish section of the Grand Champs des Morts.

February 18, 1842. On account of the encroachments. . . on the Frank burying ground, I had to remove the body of our beloved boy. The grave . . . had been dug deep, and the coffin was scarcely damp. Every thing was sweet and still. The new grave which we have prepared a few rods distant was also deep and dry; and there we laid the body, to rest in its quiet bed till the resurrection morning. Beloved child, farewell!23

However, little Constantine's tranquility lasted far less than expected, disturbed again by a flurry of construction in the early 1860s, including the widening of the main road running from Taksim to Pangalti. In July 1863, the remains of more than a dozen Americans, including those of Constantine Washington Goodell, were exhumed from the old Frankish burial ground in the Grand Champs des Morts. They were transferred, along with their grave markers, to a new Protestant cemetery in Ferikiy—created by order of Sultan Abdulmecit I in the 1850s—for re-interment.24 The land occupied by the former burial ground was turned into a public park (in a modern Western sense), a project finally completed six years later with the opening of Taksim Garden in 1869.25 As the urban environment around Taksim expanded in succeeding decades, the other burial grounds of the Grand Champs des Morts also disappeared. The Armenian cemetery, which lay to the north of the Frankish burial ground, was still delineated on the 1925—26 Pervititch insurance maps of Istanbul, but labeled as 'ex-Cimetire Armenien,' apparently indicating that it had ceased to be an active place of interment. Most of the Muslim burial grounds which had covered the slopes of Gumussuyu and Findikli had already vanished by the First World War; an aerial photograph taken from a balloon at that time shows a small portion—evident as a thick patch of cypresses—still straddling the side of the hill between the Taksim barracks an the military hospital in Gumussuyu.26

The scant remains of the once great necropolis would cease to exist by the mid-twentieth century.27 All the while, as the great cemetery shrank—sacrificed for the sake of public convenience—reformers in Europe were transforming the spatial relationship of the living and dead in the West. The nineteenth century witnessed an innovative concept in European burial ground design, with the introduction of expansive, magnificently landscaped cemeteries. Serene and picturesque, they served as additional public parks in many towns and cities. Whereas the small, noxious churchyards of previous ages had been shunned, the new necropolises were considered an ideal place for a relaxing stroll or family outing, not to mention a site of regular pilgrimage to pay respects to the well-loved dead. This shift in custom and attitude was the culmination of several decades of reform, which—to no small extent—was inspired by the traditions of sepulture in other lands, including the Ottoman empire. Remarkably, at a time when the Ottomans were actively borrowing ideas and institutions from Europe in an effort to modernize the empire, their centuries-old customs of burial and commemoration of the dead helped fuel a vital social advance in the very countries they looked to for guidance. At the same time, urban development in the Ottoman capital, influenced by Western models, led to the closure of the Grand Champs des Morts—Istanbul's 'City of the Dead,' a world-renowned necropolis which had provided inspiration, as well as an ideal, for the cemetery reformers of Europe.


  1. By some accounts, the earliest interments at the Grand Champs des Morts date to c. 1560, when Istanbul was struck with a severe epidemic of plague, and the open fields around Taksim were used to bury the great numbers of dead; see Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, s.v. 'Ermeni Mezarliklari.' The tombstone of a Dutch physician, Willem Quackelbeen, who died of the disease in 1561, offers physical evidence of this conjecture. It is currently located in the Roman Catholic cemetery at Ferikiy, where it was most likely transferred when the Frankish section of the Grand Champs des Morts closed in the mid-1800s, see A.H. de Groot, Old Dutch Graves at Istanbul, Archivum Ottomanicum 5 (1973): 6. Robert Walsh, chaplain to the British Embassy at Istanbul in the 1830s, recounted in his memoirs that the earliest grave-marker in the Frankish burial ground was that of Ludovicus Chizzolo, a Jesuit who succumbed to the plague in 1585, see R. Walsh, A Residence at Constantinople, vol. 2 (London: Richard Bentley, 1838), 441.
  2. Calembourg: a pun, or play on words.
  3. Julia Pardoe, The City of the Sultan, 4th ed. (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1854), 51.
  4. Ibid., 53—54.
  5. For instance, Lady Mary Wortley Montague, writing in 1717, commented: 'The burying fields about it (i.e., Istanbul) are certainly much larger than the whole city. 'Tis surprising what a vast deal of land is lost this way in Turkey. Sometimes I have seen burying places of several miles, belonging to very inconsiderable villages. . . .' See Hans-Peter Laqueur, 'Cemeteries in Orient and Occident: The Historical Development,' in Cimetires et Traditions Funcraires dans le Monde Islamique (Ankara: Turk Tarih Kurumu Basimevi, 1996), 2: 3.
  6. An American, Sketches of Turkey in 1831 and 1832 (New York: J. & J. Harper, 1833), 158.
  7. James Stevens Curl, The Victorian Celebration of Death (Stroud, Gloucestershire: Sutton Publishing Ltd.), 17.
  8. These included West Norwood (1837); Highgate (1839); Brompton, Nunhead, and Abney Park (1840); and Tower Hamlets (1841).
  9. Charles Dickens, The Uncommercial Traveller (London: Oxford, 1860) 233.
  10. Pardoe, The City of the Sultan, 36.
  11. John Claudius Loudon, 'On the Laying Out, Planting, and Managing of Cemeteries and on the Improvement of Churchyards.' The Gardener's Magazine, 1843, p. 100.
  12. Ibid., 405.
  13. Pardoe, The City of the Sultan, 50.
  14. Thomas A. Kselman, Death and the Afterlife in Modern France, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993, 169—70.
  15. Pardoe, The City of the Sultan, 50.
  16. Charles White, Domestic Manners of the Turks in 1844, vol. 1 (London: Henry Colburn, 1846), 15-16.
  17. Stephen Olin, Greece and the Golden Horn (New York: Carlton & Philips, 1854), 249.
  18. Pardoe, The City of the Sultan, 51.
  19. White, Domestic Manners of the Turks in 1844, 1: 15—16.
  20. Pardoe, The City of the Sultan, 134—35.
  21. Petusier further states: 'To form a correct idea of these heterogeneous scenes, we must be on the spot, for no description can do justice to them; and even when we see them, for the first time, it appears such a complete illusion, that we can scarsely conceive its reality.' See Charles Petusier, Picturesque Promenades in and near Constantinople and on the Waters of the Bosphorus (London: Sir Richard Phillips and Co., 1820), 96.
  22. Olin, Greece and the Golden Horn, 219.
  23. E.D.G. Prime, Memoirs of Rev. William Goodell, D.D. (Robert Carter and Brothers, 1876), 275.
  24. Burial Registry of the Ferikiy Protestant Cemetery, no. 331—343, 1863, Governing Board of the Ferikiy Protestant Cemetery, Istanbul, Turkey.
  25. Zeynep Celik, The Remaking of Istanbul, Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1986, 69.
  26. For a copy of this image, see Celik Gulersoy, Taksim: Bir Meydanin Hikayesi (Istanbul: Istanbul Kitapligi, 1986), 37.
  27. Some tombstones from the Frankish section of the Grand Champs des Morts still survive in the Protestant and Catholic cemeteries in Istanbul's Ferikay district, where they were transferred after the old burial ground closed in the mid-1800s.