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

The Fountain Magazine, NJ
Dec 31 2004

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


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 Eyüp, Üsküdar, 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 Atatürk Cultural
Center now stands) and extending down the slopes of Gümüþsuyu and
Fýndýklý 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

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 Études
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 Élysées 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
Cimetière des Innocents, and establishing new cemeteries, including
the famed Père-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

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 Dolmabahçe, 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 fête 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

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

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 ½iþli 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
Pangaltý. 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 Feriköy – created by order of Sultan Abdülmecit 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-Cimetière
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 Gümüþsuyu and Fýndýklý 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


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 Feriköy, 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 Cimetières et Traditions
Funéraires dans le Monde Islamique (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu
Basýmevi, 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)
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 Feriköy Protestant Cemetery, no. 331-343,
1863, Governing Board of the Feriköy Protestant Cemetery, Istanbul,
25 Zeynep Çelik, The Remaking of Istanbul, Seattle and London:
University of Washington Press, 1986, 69.
26 For a copy of this image, see Çelik Gülersoy, Taksim: Bir Meydanýn
Hikayesi (Istanbul: ‹stanbul Kitaplýý, 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 Feriköy district, where they were transferred after the
old burial ground closed in the mid-1800s.


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