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Ottoman Wall Street

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Posted 01 September 2004 - 12:23

The avenue leads down to the Golden Horn.

As you walk down towards the sea from the Galata Tower, your path leads you to Bankalar Caddesi, or The Avenue of Banks. This historic avenue was the Wall Street of the Ottomans. Today, the majority of Istanbul's banks have moved their headquarters to Levent and Maslak, but a number of banks remain. These include the Merkez Bankası or Central Bank and Turkey's oldest bank, Osmalı Bankası or Ottoman Bank, known today as Garanti Bank.

The entrance to the Ottoman Bank.
Gungor, the Genoese electrician
Over the past 20 years, the Turkish economy and banking sector have undergone radical changes. The old-fashioned, 3-4 story banks of Bankalar Caddesi have been replaced by skyscrapers of glass and concrete. Bankalar Caddesi's banks have been incongruously replaced by shops sells lamps and lighting fixtures. A Genoese building dating back to 1314 is now home to 'Gungor Elektrik', a run-of-the-mill electric shop. Still, the neighbourhood boasts a number of churches that are keeping a low profile in these difficult times.
Voyvoda Caddesi
Bankalar Caddesi used to be known as Voyvoda Caddesi, meaning 'Prince's Avenue' in Slavic. It is thought that the region was once a principality. During the second half of the 19th century, Greek, Armenian and Jewish bankers known as the Galata Bankers had a profound influence on the Ottoman economy and politics. This elite group represented Istanbul high society. In the evenings, they would head to Pera to indulge in some shopping or a night at the opera. Before they became bankers, many of these families were engaged in money lending. With credit borrowed from the West, they expanded their businesses until they created a full-fledged, modern banking system. The second generation of Galata's bankers were often educated abroad and had close ties with the Paris and London stock exchanges. In an attempt to recover the enormous cost of the Crimean War, the Ottoman's incurred their first foreign debt in 1854. The Galata Bankers acted as an intermediary between the Ottomans and the European nations that lent them money.
Our saviours
The stunning edifice of the Ottoman Bank dates back to 1863. In 1864, the Galata Bankers created the Galata Stock Exchange. They were hailed as saviours of the Ottoman Empire during the Russo-Ottoman war of 1870s. For 70 years, Galata's bankers were rulers of the Ottoman Empire in all but name. Their Western influence had a profound impact on the city's lifestyle and architecture. This was a time of bohemian parties, luxury hotels and elegant cafes-a time when French was literally the lingua Franca and when people dressed up to go to Istiklal Caddesi.

Money talks
The story of Bankalar Caddesi and the rise of the Galata Bankers is also the story of the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire. As the banking sector played an increasingly powerful role in politics, capitalism became the word of the day.

Bankalar Caddesi may not be as stunning as Beyoğlu or Sultanahmet, but it has it own unique charm. As you wander through its streets lined with chestnut and sandwich vendors, you catch occasional glimpses of the Golden Horn.
No visit to Galata is complete without a tour of the Ottoman Bank Museum. The bank was built around a number of Chatwood's Patent Safes. Today, you can walk around inside these massive steel safes. Ottoman banknotes, shares, bound notebooks and bank records are on display. In addition, you can take a look at the bank's personnel files. Detailed personal information about each employee provides a fascinating glimpse into Turkish history. There are even posed photographs of each individual employee. Most of these are full-length shots taken in professional studios. You can also examine the clients' records. Most of these are in French. High ranking bank officials and management were foreigners while Muslim Turks were relegated to more menial tasks, working as office boys or cleaners.

By The Gate Magazine

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