center for mediterranean urban studies



23-25 October 2014

Mersin, Turkey


Colloquium on Mediterranean Urban Studies

Mersin in its foundation years and its development during 19th century

Mersin is located in the Çukurova Region, known as the Cilicia Region in antiquity, which is one of the most fertile lands along the Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Its foundation dates to the first half of the 19th century when it was a mere village on the shore, after which the Eastern Mediterranean emerged as an area of modernity from the 1830s onwards.

The rapid development of Mersin during the 19th century was dependent upon the flourishing international trade and commercial activity within the Eastern Mediterranean. In the midst of the 19th century, French vessels sailing to Marseille were loaded with sesame seed and wool in Mersin, Arabian vessels transported goods to Syria and Cyprus, Greek boats came to load wheat, and British vessels transported goods to Izmir. Among the goods exported, cotton, wool, wheat, barley, wax, sesame seed and flax seed constituted the majority.

The critical turning point in Mersin’s development as a port city was the American Civil War in the 1860s. Up to that point, American companies had dominated the cotton market; however, after the American Civil War, British interest in cotton brought a rapid increase in cotton production in response to world demand, and by the 1870s, the port of Mersin was surpassing all others in the region in terms of im- port–export rates, supported by the construction of the Mersin– Adana road in 1873 and the railway in 1886.

In parallel to the prospering trade relations and the surge in commercial activity, Mersin developed a cosmopolitan atmosphere due to the presence of Greek and Levantine merchants and foreign consulates, who were engaged in international commercial activities, which were based on maritime trade, banking, importing, exporting and insurance.

Banks, hotels and insurance agencies began to open shop in purpose-built buildings in the city centre, and the passenger dekoville between Customs Pier and the railway station further reinforced Uray Street as a backbone of the city and Customs Square as a key part of the public space system. By the turn of the century, the notable tradesmen, especially non-Muslims and Levantines, had begun to create a bourgeoisie quarter known as Çamlıbel on the western extension of the city.

What differentiated Mersin from other port cities during 19th century was its development from almost nothing. It appeared in the region as a ‘city of modernisation’, with the impacts clearly visible in the shaping of the urban form.

The Transformation of  Mediterranean port cities: 19th and 20th centuries

Because of the liberal economic policies of the new government, which gave priority to the modernisation of agriculture during the 1950s, cities throughout the whole country faced an inflow of people from the rural areas as a result of redundancy. As a consequence, the population of Mersin, which had remained almost constant during the early Republican period at approximately 27,000, witnessed a rapid increase, as was the case with many cities in the Mediterranean region (Catalan et al., 2008) after the 1950s. The city’s population reached 48,000 in 1950 and proceeded to grow to 152,000 in 1980 and to 850,000 in 2010. Apart from the changing economic policies at a macroscale, large-scale investments in Mersin, such as the construction of the international port in the early 1960s, also triggered immigration from the countryside and other cities due to the new labour market and job opportunities.

However, the rapid development of Mersin from ‘a few huts on the shore’ to a metropolitan centre over the two centuries since its establishment has deprived the city of the qualities it possessed during the nineteenth century as a Mediterranean port city.

Since its foundation in the first half of the 19th century until the first decades of the 20th century, Mersin was a city of modernisation on the southern Mediterranean coast of Anatolia that became a distinctive port city in the Eastern Mediterranean due to the growth of international relations with other Mediterranean port cities and the development of commercial activities. During this period, as was the case with other cities in the Mediterranean, Mersin assumed economic, cultural and spatial characteristics common to other port cities. However, from the early Republican period until today, distinctive urban transformations occurred through large-scale incremental interventions into the built environment, including the construction of an international port, rapid population growth as a result of immigration from the countryside and other cities and urban sprawl through new housing forms. These changes transformed Mersin from a coastal village comprising ‘a few huts on the shore’ at the beginning of the 19th century into a metropolitan city with a population of 850,000 people. Today, with its international port Mersin is one of the most important nodes of transportation and trade in the Eastern Mediterranean