Haydarpaşa Cemetery: A Cemetery with Something to Say

As a long-time lover of cemeteries, I’m often telling people about my trip to this or that burial ground. Most have one question: “why?” In short, cemeteries are places where you can hear yourself think. And in big cities, particularly Istanbul, they are a refuge from the constant whirl of traffic, street vendors, and agonizingly slow pedestrians. This is reason enough for a handful of enthusiasts.

Haydarpaşa Cemetery in Üsküdar has far more than these traditional virtues. Without a doubt the most significant collection of English graves in Istanbul, its grounds stretch between Haydarpaşa Eğitim Hastanesi and the old grain elevator – an oddly bucolic strip of green in this rusting industrial district. This position on the fringe of Üsküdar and Kadıköy hints at the cemetery’s place on the edge of the Istanbul’s modern memory.

Sultans dating back to Suleiman once had waterfront estates in this depopulated area. Since transformed into the terminus of all Anatolia, it is now epitomized by the seven brownstone stories of Haydarpaşa train station. Now, despite a recent announcement, the station and even the nearby industrial port are more or less defunct. Also somewhat forgotten is the area’s history, where Florence Nightingale made her reputation as a nurse in the Selimiye barracks. Dying by the thousands of their wounds and disease, many of the British soldiers she tended are buried just a few meters away, within sight of the ferries which pass by daily to ports across Istanbul.

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The noise of Burhan Felek Caddesi fades into the background as you walk through an Italianesque alleyway to the cemetery’s wrought-iron gate. At this time of year, white five-petal flowers dot the grass in between winding rows of ornate memorials. The clean, white stones shine in the sunlight which is frequently broken up by the shadows of passing crows, pigeons, and parrots.

With its old trees and sea breezes the cemetery is a model of the Arcadian style. But the beauty of the place is only a prelude to its more fascinating history. Founded in 1855 to serve the Crimean war dead, the cemetery was used for the same purpose during WWI, WWII, and the periods in between. Soldiers’ bodies and ashes have been gathered up from battlefields, hospitals, and camps across the region.

The cemetery was later opened to the greater English-speaking community. Roughly half of the deceased are civilians. They are often from well-established families, most notably La Fontaine, Maltass, and Whittall, whose intermarriages can be read in lines between the stones.

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The cemetery is a history of the hopes, disappointments, and moods of these people stretching back to the mid-1800’s. Some saw their gravestones as a last record of their lives and spared no expense, quite literally, to make themselves known.

Consider Julius van Milligen who travelled from Scotland to fight for Greek independence with Lord Byron. While serving as a military physician against the Ottomans in Greece, he was captured by the famous Ibrahim Pasha. Eventually freed, he made the rather odd decision to settle in Istanbul. He was court physician to five sultans. Marrying into the La Fontaine family, his son became a Byzantine Archaeologist who lived and died in the adopted city of his father.

An even less pedestrian figure is Edmund Moubray Lyons, esquire. Son of the commander of the British Black Sea fleet, he “achieved a series of brilliant and most important successes” aboard the H.M.S. Miranda during the Crimean War. He was wounded while attacking Sebastopol and died at Terabya in June of 1855. His is one of many memorials purchased by fellow soldiers on behalf of admirals, officers, quarter masters, and common soldiers.

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A notable woman, Jane Walsh, curated a school which had been set up by the famous Stratford Canning, two-time ambassador to the Ottoman court. “The great object for which she sacrificed her ease and native home, was to offer means of liberal education to young girls without distinction of race, creed, or rank,” reads her long-winded marker.

The diversity of the cemetery, however, is just as impressive as its dead Englishmen. Tombstones were carved and shipped from London, Greece, and Galata. Their owners are English, Scottish, Irish, Greek, Hungarian, Russian, German, French, and Canadian. An entire section has been set aside for Indian nationals who served in the British military. The oldest graves are from the Crimean War, 1854-1856. The most recent, 2010. There are doctors, lawyers, translators, secretaries, hotel clerks, ambassadors, soldiers, and even English teachers who died of wounds, disease, drowning, and old age.

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Those civilians and soldiers of special importance are too numerous to number. In any case, their stories are best left a surprise to the visitor. But even those graves which list only a name and a date are an invaluable connection to the past, one which the dead often themselves imagined. As reads this delightfully moralizing epitaph:
“Stay people as you pass by,
As you are now so once was I,
And as I am now so will you be.
Prepare for death and follow me.”

Long before the first, second, and third bridges announced the city’s rise to a truly intercontinental megalopolis, there was a community of foreigners in Istanbul. Though their daily lives remain somewhat opaque, the modern yabancı will find something in common with his or her predecessors in Haydarpaşa cemetery. Now as 150 years ago, this city makes an impression on us all and has left us, in life or in death, with something to say.

All images courtesy of Will Gregg.

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Will Gregg
Growing up in the sun burnt pancake commonly known as the American Midwest, Will developed an attraction to Ancient History and hopped the first train out of Dodge. He studied Classics at university in Walla Walla, Washington. He then worked for a year as a waiter in Denver, Colorado before moving to Istanbul. Will enjoys learning about the history of the city as well as its cast of characters, ancient and modern. You can find him most days wherever there are two good trees to swing a hammock from.

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