Chapter Three: From Medrese Student to Young Turk

Chapter Three

From Medrese Student to Young Turk

Arriving in Konstantiniye

Rifat arrived from Kilis in Konstantiniye (Istanbul) in 1894. He was a sixteen year old medrese student from the provinces. How did he even make this long and difficult journey on his own? He was traveling from a far away provincial town to what he perceived to be the center of the world. He was well schooled in the Islamic tradition but the school he aspired to enter was a Western style Military Medical Academy. The majority of medical doctors in the Ottoman Empire had come from the Christian and Jewish population. Now the Sultan encouraged Muslim students to become doctors. Rifat spoke Arabic and Farsi, and a dialect of Turkish spoken in Kilis. He could also speak a little French because he had started learning French back in Kilis against his father’s wishes. He was smart, he was ambitious, he was filled with enthusiasm and a sense of adventure.

Abdullah frères [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Galata Bridge, Old Istanbul. Abdullah Frères [Public domain, Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

After a long sea journey, here he is stepping out on the dock in Galata with tentative steps, feeling slightly dizzy. He is wearing his medrese student outfit, a turban and a cloak. I wanted so badly to be in Konstantiniye and here I am. This is like a dream, he mutters to himself. He is looking around at the crowds, the chaos, the vendors with their colorful wares, clutching a big bag in his hand. The attires are very different here: I don’t see many people dressed like me – do I stand out? Look at that gentleman over there, he is wearing pants, a shirt and vest, and a red fez. Where is the address I was given? I hope I haven’t lost it, oh thank God, it is still here in my pocket. But I don’t know how to get there. Who do I ask? Here are some young people. He walks towards them.

"Constantinople late 19th century" by Uncredited. Postcard c. 1905-1910. Photograph from an earlier date. - online auctions. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons -
“Constantinople late 19th century” by Uncredited. Postcard c. 1905-1910. Photograph from an earlier date. – online auctions. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

They mumble an answer to his question. One of them brushes against him and apologizes as he moves away. Is that the way people here behave? A few minutes as they disappear in the crowds, it dawns on him. Wait, where are my five gold coins? I put them in this pocket, but they are not there. Were they in the other pocket? They are nowhere to be found. Now I am totally lost – here in this strange city, and I lost my money!

Rifat will need to find a place to live in this overwhelming, chaotic, mysterious city. As he is looking around right now, the streets are full of people from different races and different attires. Even though Kilis was mixed, it was nothing like this. No two faces seem to belong to the same race; and no one manner of garb or costume appears to repeat itself – the colors, the vivid greens, the deep blues, the crimsons, pinks and yellows, melted and fused together. There are Turks in loose-fitting coats and scarlet fezes, African women with white veils and Albanians in their blues and gold. Mixed in, there are tattered vendors, carrying their wares to markets.

Anna Bowman Dodd, an American journalist who lived in Konstantiniye at the time comments: “Turk, Greek, Armenian, Kurd, Syrian, Jew, each and all of these races, like the rags that drape them, seemed to have been inextricably mixed”. (Dodd, 2005, p. xxi)  In a 1900 traveler’s guidebook to the Empire, Murray’s Handbook for Travelers in Constantinople, Brusa and the Troad, Lord Bryce points to the city’s cosmopolitan nature:

“Constantinople is a city not of one nation but of many, and hardly more than one, than of another. You cannot talk of Constantinopolitans as you talk of Londoners or Parishioners, for there are none – that is to say, there is no people who can be described par excellence the people of the city, with a common character or habits of language.” (Murray’s Handbook, 1900: 6)

The breakup of this cosmopolitan empire had already begun as Rifat arrived in Constantinople. As the empire faced increasing pressures from ethnically-based nationalist movements, including Armenian, Greek, Bulgarian uprisings, young Muslim intellectuals strove to create their own ideology, their own nationalism, mirroring the nationalisms of others. The rising ‘Türkçülük’ (Turkish nationalism) movement confusingly blended Turkish ethnicity and Islam. Confusing because there were many Muslims in the Empire, such as the Kurds and Arabs, who were not ethnically Turkish. Yet, by the middle of the nineteenth century, “Turk” was already being used by Europeans to refer to Ottomans, a label that also generally meant “Muslim”. It was beginning to be understood as an ethnic designation both in the local newspapers and by foreigners and travel writers – an indication of the heightened awareness of race that accompanied the rising tides of nationalism. The millet system of the Ottoman Empire, now began to signify nationality in the modern sense, and the Christian ‘millets’ of the Ottoman Empire began to demand independence, encouraged by Western Powers. Rifat would soon join the Young Turks at the Military Medical Academy, those at the forefront of fashioning a new ideology to save the Empire.

Meanwhile, he is in this coveted city, the ‘city of the world’s desire’, and a city ruled by the autocratic Sultan Abdulhamid. Abdulhamid is promoting a pan-Islamic stance in an effort to hold on to the remaining lands of the Empire. At the same time, he is committed to Western style modernization, opening schools, introducing postal services and building railways. The territorial losses that the Ottoman Empire began experiencing and the need for competition with Europe’s obvious military and economic superiority has gradually led the Sultanate towards modernization. The new schools are meant to educate young people (including the bright ones, like Rifat, from outside Istanbul on scholarships), assisting them in acquiring Western knowledge, Western languages and technology and thus creating a new elite group out of Ottoman Muslims to replace the no longer to be trusted mixed Ottoman elite. Importing European style education means, however, that the Great Powers are able to intervene in Ottoman affairs. The adoption of new technologies by the Ottomans require that they import European instructors to teach in their academies. As Toussulis points out, these teachers normally taught in French (and to a lesser extent, in German). This meant that the educated Ottoman classes must learn those languages. Authors like Voltaire, Balzac, Rousseau, and Montesquieu became popular and as a result, Enlightenment ideas enter the Ottoman discourse. (Toussulis, 2010)

Rifat is one of those fortunate boys from the periphery, who will be given the opportunity to attend the prestigious military schools of the Ottoman Empire. But right now, he is almost in tears and trembling with rage for having lost all his gold coins. He has a small piece of paper in his hand with the address of a Kilisli, a distant relative. What does the address say? Sultanahmet? He makes his way to an old, wooden house slowly, asking for directions several times. One man says: yes, go straight and turn right, you will pass by a fountain and a mosque and then turn left, and ask again after you turn left. He is lost. He asks someone else who tells him to turn right instead. Finally, tired and sweaty, he rings a door bell, hopefully the right one. The door opens just a few inches wide, a woman peers out cautiously: What do you want? Rifat hands the letter of introduction his uncle wrote to the woman. It doesn’t take long before she, having quickly glanced at the letter, pulls him inside and shouts to her husband: Come down quick; we have a guest from our hometown, from Kilis!

Westernizing Military Schools

Typical dress of medrese students (Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Abdulhamid Collection)

Rifat settles into life in Istanbul, writes the entrance exam and  wins a scholarship to attend the Soğukçeşme Askeri Rüşdiyesi (Military Middle School). His solid Kilis education and intelligence have helped. But when he appears at his new school in his medrese student outfit for the he first time, he looks around and notices that there is a hush in the school courtyard, followed by snickers and laughs. Several boys start outright ridiculing him:

“What are you doing here, medrese boy? This is a Western school. You don’t fit here – where are you from anyway? Go back to where you came from.”

Rifat is heartbroken and embarrassed but just stands there, watching the boys attentively with an even gaze. Soon, a teacher guides him to a room inside and says: I understand that you are from Kilis; you look like a bright boy. I like the way you handled yourself back there. Let’s get you ready for classes, but first we have to get you a uniform.

Sogukcesme Military School
Sogukcesme Military Middle School. Library of Congress

Two years later, he is ready to continue on to the Kuleli Askeri Idadisi (Kuleli Military High School). It is April 2, 1895, the fourth day of Eid (Muslim holiday). Rifat and a few of his friends who graduated from the Soğukceşme School go to the Kuleli campus on the Asian Side of the Bosphorus, with diplomas in hand, anxious to apply to the Military High School. Rifat’s classmate Tevfik (Sağlam) who was part of this group writes about this incident in his memoir:

Students at Sogukcesme School
Students at Sogukcesme Military School. Library of Congress

“Kuleli Military High School was situated behind the huge building right on the waterfront. We went to the door and asked permission to enter. A guard told us to wait. Hours passed, and we were still waiting. We heard a rumor that we were not going to be admitted. Some of us rebelled; we all got very upset. Finally we decided that we would send a telegram to Sultan Abdulhamid. But where to find a post office? At that time, you couldn’t send a telegram to Yıldız (Yıldız palace where Sultan Abdülhamid resided) from the center of Istanbul; you had to be outside of the city, such as in Bakirkoy, or Çengelköy. Kilisli Rifat, who was the top student in our class, wrote the telegram. And two others, including myself, took it to the post office and sent it. When we returned, we saw that all our friends had been allowed inside, and now we were left out in the cold! Luckily, they didn’t create any further trouble for us. We had to take an exam that day, a relatively easy exam, and they admitted all of us. There were going to be three hundred eleven people in our new class. We returned to our homes, picked up our stuff and went to our new school.” (Sağlam, 2010, p. 37)

From the Kuleli Military High School, the next step is to continue with higher education at the Military Medical Academy. Rifat, having been first in his class throughout his education up to now, is now ready to embark on his dream to become a medical doctor. The first time he wears the uniform of the military medical academy with its adornments, he regards himself proudly in the small mirror on the wall. He can only see parts of it, but he knows he looks good in it and smiles. His outfit consists of a closed collar coat that reaches his knee with a slit in the back and pants that lined with red armor on the sides. His coat’s collar and arm covers are made of red velvet. On the arms are red lines of silk that show the class level. The buttons are made of a gold-colored metal. He dons his sword and leaves the house he shares with an older ‘Kilisli’ friend in Sultanahmet, suitcase in hand. From now on he is going to be a boarder at the school in Demirkapi inside the Palace grounds.

Demirkapi military medical academy
Demirkapi Military Medical Academy: A simultaneous nod to the East and West

Rifat enters the courtyard of his new school and sees a few of his old friends from the Kuleli Military High School.  He feels good that he already knows some of the students. There are about three hundred fifty new students and they come from the military high schools from all over the Ottoman Empire.

The first class is taught by Ibrahim Lütfü Pasha, the geology and mineralogy professor, a soft-spoken, effeminate man with a slight build. His assistant is tall, handsome and elegant. He sits at the desk built a few inches above the floor, and his assistant is down below. Ibrahim Pasha starts showing various stones and explaining what they are. At one point, he seems to be bored and starts chatting with his assistant. Half hour later, he continues his lecture as if nothing had happened. A classmate next to him snickers and says: Look at these lovebirds go!! Next class is taught by Dr. Ismail Ali bey, who wears a monocle. He brings out a carefully ironed, clean white handkerchief from his pocket and wipes his glass for a long time. Finally, he says welcome, efendiler (gentlemen) and starts his lecture on physics – his language is complex and he uses a lot of French words. Fortunately Rifat has already learned enough French at the Kuleli High School to be able to understand him. But he is still quite surprised when Ismail Ali bey, opens a book and starts reading from Voltaire in French in a physics class!

The first evening of the school year, after dinner, the older and more experienced students take over the dormitory where Rifat is assigned to sleep. They crouch on the floor and order the freshmen to get out of their beds. One of them begins a lecture in hushed but nevertheless threatening tones, telling the newbies where they must sit during intermission or in the dining halls, where they may take their baths, and how their job is to listen to and obey their older brothers. Soon he starts talking about the importance of freedom, the necessity to rebel against the absolutism of the Sultan, and the brotherhood among the Academy students. Everything that is talked about here stays here! Never forget that!  Finally he throws a pillow in the air and shouts. Okay, we are done with serious stuff now, let’s have some fun! We are going to put on a Karagöz and Hacivat Show. Read more about Karagoz and Hacivat. If the guy at the door coughs loudly, that means a guard is on his way. Immediately dive into your beds, turn off lights, and start snoring loudly.

The next day, during the intermission, Rifat is already finding out the inside information about the best professors at his new school: Besim Ömer Pasha (Internal Medicine), Cemil Pasha (Surgery), Aristidi Pasha (Bacteriology), Horasanciyan Efendi (Internal Medicine) and Zoeros Pasha. Two German doctors have also joined the faculty upon Sultan Abdulhamid’s request, Dr. Robert Rieder and his assistant Dr. Georg Deycke. Their assignment is to reorganize the military school and establish a hospital for interns, newly graduated doctors, in Gülhane near the Military Academy. (Drawn from memoirs of Topuzlu, 2010 and Sağlam, 2010)

In the late nineteenth century, medicine is not an occupation populated by Turks or Muslims. So Rifat is going to be part of a small newly constituted group of ‘Muslim/Turkish’ doctors. As Cemal Topuzlu points out in his memoir: “Doctors and surgeons were all Christians then. No one trusted Turkish or Muslim doctors. In fact, at the military academy, 90% of the professors were either European or they were Greek, Armenian or Jewish. The ongoing assumption was that one had to know French in order to be a doctor. In short, when someone spoke of  doctors of medicine, what always came to mind were gentlemen with long cylindrical hats, and çatal (long forked) beards.” (Ibid, p. 55)

Rifat has high hopes and dreams for the future but is wondering how he will ever survive with almost no money. He is lucky to have a scholarship but it does not cover his day to day expenses. He has taken a particular liking to one of his professors, Besim Ömer Pasha, who wears his glasses perched on his nose. Besim Ömer has a slightly bow-legged walk and his blue eyes shine like two blue beads. Thankfully, Besim Ömer has also noticed Rifat and one morning he asks Rifat to come to his office. I imagine him welcoming Rifat and pointing to a seat across from his desk:

“You seem to have a good writing ability, Rifat Efendi. I have heard your praise from other professors as well. They say that your level of knowledge is far above your age, that you are familiar with not just Arabic and Persian, but also French, Latin and old Greek. I am editing the volumes of Nefsal-i Afiyet (a medical journal) and I need someone to assist me. I might also need some translation work from French to Ottoman Turkish. If you can help me, I would be grateful. I can also pay you a small stipend for your efforts.”

Rifat is delighted and honored but hesitates. Could he edit articles authored by such a well regarded professor? What if he fails? He decides to give it a try. From that point on, Rifat ends up spending many weekends at Besim Ömer Pasha’s home in Cağaloğlu, helping him with editing and translating. They enjoy each other’s company and became good friends over time. This friendship lasts a lifetime. Besim Ömer and Kilisli Rifat would serve together on the Hilali Ahmer (The Ottoman Red Crescent) Central Committee and later on the new government of Turkey. Rifat is working very hard and is happy that he has begun to earn his living. It occurs to him that perhaps he could work for a newspaper and sure enough, he is soon employed by one of the major newspapers of his time, Ikdam.

Meanwhile, his classes are going very well. In fact, he is appointed ‘başçavuş’ (head sergeant) of his class, as he continues to be the top performer in his class year after year. One night, his classmates decide to have some fun. They quickly move to set up a screen out of a white sheet, to start a Karagöz-Hacivat play. Some are crouching, others are standing and watching the play, glued to the screen. All of a sudden, the door opens and a zabit (guard) appears. A voice rises: Quick, Arap Halil is coming, run away!!  A student quickly turns off the petrol lamp, everything becomes pitch black, and all students disappear into the darkness. Some jump into their beds, others sneak into the bathrooms. The guard can’t decide whether to run after the boys or not and finally turns back and leaves. The next day, a team is established by the administration to investigate what happened. They call in Rifat, the başçavuş of the class and press him to tell them who led last night’s event. Rifat refuses to turn in his friends. The next day he is thrown into jail. Meanwhile, someone finds out who had made the Karagoz-Hacivat figures, and that boy gets ten lashes on his feet. Rifat is let go after a few days. He returns to class and the matter is over.

One of his school friends later comments on this event:

“Kilisli Rifat, the guy who had to go to jail for a few days because of the raid during the Karagoz Hacivat Show, stood out at the Academy. He had come from Kilis a short time ago with his turban and cloak and had been the butt of jokes by his Western oriented school mates. But he was able to gain everybody’s respect and affection through his calm, even tempered nature, sense of humor, and his wide knowledge. He knew Arabic, Persian, as well as Latin, French and old Greek. He was a good public speaker. Because of all these abilities, professors had sought his assistance from the day he arrived at the school, and he was able to earn his living by translating from foreign languages, and editing the works of his teachers.” (Behmoaras, 2001: pp. 50-51)

The Military Academy was called ‘Şahane‘ which means magnificent, but it wasn’t magnificent at all. For instance, there were just two microscopes available for the entire student body until 1908. Everybody would rush to use them all at once, of course, then no one would be able to see anything. According to Cemil Topuzlu (who was both a student and later professor at this school), the professors could only show them the red blood cells under the microscope because that’s all they knew. There were no labarotories for chemistry, physiology such that most instruction remained theoretical rather than practical. Topuzlu claims that the lack of discipline and lack of resources at the school meant that some students received a diploma with scant knowledge of medicine while others, with their own endless efforts, learned what they needed and did become good doctors. (Topuzlu, 2010 pp. 52-53) A popular saying went: “The Military Academy graduated bureaucrats, professors, writers, journalists, poets, and once in a while medical doctors”.

Below is Rifat’s poignant essay about his observations at an anatomy class at the Medical Academy: (İstanbul Şeririyatı, (June 1336/1920): pp.67-68)

At the Anatomy Lab

by Kilisli Rifat

Dedicated to Hasan Mazhar Pasha 

In a forgotten and forlorn corner of Sarayburnu is an old, decrepit building assigned to anatomy classes. The students are young, enthusiastic and aching to learn something new and meaningful. The classroom can be reached by climbing a set of creaky, worn out stone stairs about to fall apart. After months and months of waiting, of desolate days, this building ıs conquered almost like taking over a castle step by step, by unending furious attacks.

For months and months the brains of the young and ambitious have been haphazardly filled with crumbs of theory in the dark, hollow hellholes and amidst myriad troubles and woes. Or they have been inevitably burdened with copying and repeating the information in books, page after page. They are filled with chronic boredom. There might finally be a chance to compare those ideas rushing around in their brains like planets out of orbit, passing as truth against concrete facts and experiments.

What an unforgettable sight this is!  When the students see the two bored, disinterested servants carrying an old, long piece of wood crate up the stairs, they would race along, pushing each other away in order to grab a place where they could see what is going on. The crate is placed on an ugly and dirty marble table and when it is opened, there appears a human corpse, which constitute a valuable and unusual sample, a work of art, which would soon be the object of very close investigation. It would be skinned, cut into pieces, and every part of it examined. This corpse would be laid out on the table with its dull eyes, open mouth, stretched out and frozen arms, as if s/he was objectifying death.

Everyone at the edge of this filthy table would be listening to the professor’s lecture sounding like an obituary as he stands across this silent statue. The professor would glance at the corpse with the knowledge of an expert who knows every inch of the body and with a slight indifference. I, on the other hand, am seeing a corpse for the first time and I can’t keep my thoughts and eyes off this lifeless body. Every once in a while I try to follow a geometric cut of a sharp knife on the body. I am badly shaken as I ponder the metamorphosis of this man into this compilation of meat and bones. Yet he was probably eating, drinking, sleeping and thinking yesterday, just like the rest of us!

His stomach is cut open. Everything inside is being explained one by one. Then an expert hand swings a sharp knife that separates meat from bone, and starts to isolate and present the skin, the nerves, the veins and the muscles. After watching this whole scene for hours, at one point, gathering all my strength, I extend my hand towards the corpse. But the touch of his unfortunate body swimming in black clotted blood causes a cold sweat, a fierce electric shock and jarred nerves. My eyes film over. I feel dizzy. My whole body shakes with fear and protest.

While I agonize over this terrifying contact with death, our professor, his long and white coat covered with blood stains here and there, is pounding on the skull with a hammer, cutting the bones with a dull saw and, when he feels a bit tired, is murmuring a cheerful song just like always!

A classmate’s description of his experience at the Anatomy Lab complements Rifat’s: 

“There were many of us who would get sick and faint. We would be unable to eat for weeks (after a session at the Anatomy Lab). Mazhar (Osman) had to immediately run outside the first time he saw a cadaver. Then he came back with a handkerchief dipped in lavender water held to his nose and never gave up his space in the first row. Since the first row of chairs was always occupied by the top students, the rest of us would spend the whole year never seeing anything and ended up just relying on the professor’s lectures and books. Mazhar Pasha would not even know that most of the students were absent. He would continue puffing on his pipe, probably hoping that the stench would be somewhat covered by the pipe smoke and keep talking at times singing as he cut up the cadaver covered with flies.” (Behmoaras, 2001: 54)


Abdulhamid’s Spies

In the evenings Rifat takes the roll. This is one of his duties as the Başçavuş of the class. All students have to line up on opposite sides of the courtyard. Then the trumpet signals the time for each class başçavuş to return the roll to the guard. Once they return to their places, the trumpet this time signals the salute to the Ottoman Sultan. All students then shout: Long Live Padishah, Long Live Padishah, Long Live Padishah! When Rifat finds out for the first time that some students are heartily shouting ‘Down with the Padishah’ instead, he is so embarrassed that he wishes to disappear. But later he gets used to this routine. Even though his rebellion doesn’t go as far as shouting ‘Down with the Padishah’, many times he just makes the motions of opening and closing his mouth without saying anything.

The Military Academy is at the center of opposition to Abdulhamid’s despotic rule and its students represent the quest for freedom, human rights, and the desire for progress. In fact, the opposition that eventually toppled the Sultan started at this school. The regime of terror does not discourage the students. Just the opposite, they become even more resolute. The professors and students are partners, while the administrators are the people that the Sultan has appointed. The administrators look for any opportunity to discipline the students. The students may not bring in any outside book or reading material. They cannot leave the school during the week, cannot even go walking in the botanical garden just outside its walls. By the time Rifat enrolls in the Academy, Sultan Abdulhamid has decided that it is the hotbed of potential rebellion against him and is appointing soldiers rather than doctors to head and administer it. The Sultan is literally afraid of the students of this military academy and therefore is resolved to keep them under tight control. Most of the administrators are known to be “journalci” (spies) for the Palace. Luckily the majority of the faculty does get along with the Administration but any member of faculty who is known to be close to the Yildiz Palace (where the Sultan resides) is looked askance, and is not popular. Overall, the faculty try to protect their students from Abdulhamid’s wrath and give them moral support, as well as instruction in particular fields.

There are good reasons for Abdulhamid to be afraid of the Military Academy and tries to keep it under strict surveillance. This school is the very first Western style institution, established in 1827 by Sultan II. Mahmut. One could say that this school is the Empire’s first window to the West. Therefore, both the military academy students and their professors are possibly the most aware of the gulf between the East and West and of the decline of the Ottoman Empire. They also constitute the core of a new kind of patriotism, those who want freedom and progress. They want to overcome ignorance and to reach a high level of civilization. In fact, Ittihat ve Terraki Association (Committee of Union and Progress), later came to be known as ‘Young Turks’, which deposed the Sultan and reintroduced the Constitution, is established at this very school in 1889. The goal of the Young Turks is to depose the Sultan. But when their plot is discovered, some of its leaders go abroad to reinforce Ottoman exiles in Paris, Geneva, and Cairo. They help prepare the ground for a revolution by developing a comprehensive critique of the Hamidian system.

Rifat is a leader in his class, promoting the ideas of the Young Turks. He is also a columnist for a newspaper supporting the Young Turk movement called “Ikdam”. His poem below expresses his agony as a Young Turk: (Mehmet Emin Bilgen’s biography of Dr. Kilisli Rifat, unpublished manuscript]


The Meaning of Our Struggle

by Kilisli Rifat


Once we fall into this eddy of troubled life

We flutter about inside the waves of desolation

Desires are empty and meaningless; hope is a valueless crumb

What is this constant rush, this need, this empty life? 

Every position we take ends up in distress

Our poor ideas are for naught in the face of dominance 

Tomorrow, the pain of new events will be revealed

We will become the tide bearer of empty consolation

Misery is life, a piece of earth is our end

Darkness has covered everything, struggles have withered

Everywhere I look there is doubt, everywhere treachery 

Fluttering youth, this is the hope of the future

This is what occupies a few orphans still

This is the incomparable struggle

That you claim to be the lover of your conscience.

Becoming a student leader is not without its risks. Rifat is singled out by the spies at the Academy and is followed. But his professors hold him in high regard and try to protect him. If any student in the class seems to be a potential spy for the Palace, no one speaks with him. He is segregated and his life turned into hell. As Tevfik Sağlam, Rifat’s classmate writes in his memoir:

“There wasn’t even one spy for Abdulhamid’s regime in our class. Even the people whose families were close to the Sultan had been affected by the general atmosphere of resistance. Therefore, we were not afraid to speak openly and were without fear among ourselves. If there were any doubts about any of our classmates, we would immediately push him out. Nobody would ever talk to them, and their lives at school would turn into hell. We had heard that there had been a suspected spy in one of the upper classes, and he died of tuberculosis. In short, there was a strong passive resistance to Abdulhamid’s regime at the school.” (Sağlam, 2010: p. 57)

Meanwhile, being a spy for Abdulhamid has turned into a full time, profitable job. In fact, there are a few hundred spies around each high level bureaucrat. Furthermore, these spies employ their own spies. Süleyman Tevfik provides a detailed account of this process in his memoirs:

“Kağıthaneli Rifat Bey had told me that most of the ‘journals’ given to the Sultan were fake. Everyday the Palace received more than 1,500 journals. These pieces of ‘information’ were first deposited in special small baskets and studied. Then they were brought to the Sultan who opened each one of them and read them one by one. He passed the ones that he thought were important to one of his trusted men. None of these journals were destroyed. They were all preserved carefully in packages.”(Tevfik, 2011: p. 150)

Tevfik further comments that after Abdulhamid’s demise, fifty chests full of these journals were brought to the Ministry of War’s quarters. Even though some officials wanted these to be reexamined and catalogued, later this idea was given up:

“There are some men who always land on their feet every new political period. Some of these ‘spies’ for Abdulhamid later took important positions in the new Ittihat ve Terakki (Committee on Union and Progress) government, the very government that brought the Sultan down. Probably those are the ones who prevented these journals to be reexamined.”(Tevfik, 2011: p. 151)


Finding Solace in Evliya Çelebi (Chelebi)

While Rifat is working for the Ikdam newspaper, the owner of the newspaper, Ahmet Cevdet, decides to publish ten volumes of Evliya Chelebi’s Seyahatname (Travelogue). Evliya Chelebi lived in the fifteenth century. He was a revered Sufi, world traveler and writer. But he was largely forgotten as Westernization efforts took over. (Evliya Chelebi’s travelogues were finally published in their entirety in 2011. His works have acquired worldwide readership and reputation and a team of academics has even traced his steps on horseback. Read about Travelers who follow Evliya Chelebi’s path.

Rifat describes below how he got the job of copying the first two volumes of Evliya Chelebi’ work (Dergah, Vol. 15:20, 1921).  The Editorial Board of Dergah provides the following introduction to his article:

“Kilisli Doktor Rifat Bey has embellished this issue of Dergah, as excellent as it is, with his article that attracts the attention of all readers. This well-known Turkish scholar was the best editor of publications in Istanbul twenty years ago, but decided to dedicate his life to the profession of medicine. He copied the manuscript of Evliya Chelebi’s Seyahatname, the work that is now circulating and has aroused such interest, while he was still a student of medicine.

Evliya Chelebi
Cover of Evliya Çelebi, eds. Nuran Tezcan, Semih Tezcan and Robert Dankoff, Republic of Turkey Ministry of Culture and Tourism, 2012,

Rifat describes this process in this article:

“It is not entirely a coincidence that I ended up copying the Evliya Chelebi Seyahatnamesi and preparing it for publication. My teacher and fellow countryman, Kilisli Necip Asim Bey, had published an important article in Ikdam, mentioning the necessity of such an initiative for both the success of Ikdam, and as a contribution to the knowledge base of our national history. Ahmet Mithad Efendi also joined this discussion. Together with Necip Asim bey, he wrote several more articles on this topic.

These articles attracted the attention and curiosity of the public. Hence, Ahmet Cevdet bey decided to publish this work, volume by volume. The original of this work was at the Pertev Pasha Library (in Üsküdar, Istanbul. A soldier interested in geography had already started copying it. However, for whatever reason, it had become clear that this person could not finish what he started. Thus, Necip Asim bey offered me the job. I went to the Pertev Pasha Library every Friday when I had permission to leave the military academy and copied the volumes for publication. 

I worked on this job together with another young student and countryman, Kilisli Abdullah Nasuh Efendi. We completed this difficult process in six years, by working every Friday, and finished the first six volumes. We started this process in 1896. The first initiative to publish the Evliya Chelebi Seyahatnamesi had taken place in the 1840s. The Sultan gave his approval for it to be published. However, unfortunately, what was published was just a small set of stories selected from the first volume for their supernatural, fairy tale like content. This book succeeded in making Evliya Chelebi very popular but it had a negative effect as well. It covered up the real value of Evliya Chelebi’s work , and created doubts about the authenticity of his words.”

Rifat discusses his meeting with Evliya Chelebi’s work for the first time:

“Until I met Evliya Chelebi’s work, the only information I had about his work was from a 150 page book based on superstitions and myths drawn from the Byzantine period and Taberi, called Muntehabati Evliya Chelebi (selected stories of Evliya Chelebi). I wonder what cruel man had chosen those miserable pages just to satisfy the demand of the times. In fact, when Ahmet Cevdet Bey, the owner of Ikdam, wanted to publish the 10 volume travelogue of Evliya Chelebi, each of which is a work of literary value, he still had to face doubts and criticisms based on this early publication.”

Rifat sacrificed each Friday, the one day of the week when he could take one day of rest from his grueling medical education to undertake this work. Why? He explains his attraction to Evliya Chelebi’s work below:

“Sometimes I imagine Evliya Chelebi running from one city to another, one castle to another, from adventure to adventure in the lands of the Ottoman Empire, spread across three continents. After being highly educated at the palace of Sultan Murad IV, he attracted the attention and affections of many high level bureaucrats and government dignitaries, and thus was able to complete his travels in comfort and splendor. His writings have illuminated many of the events that would have otherwise remained in the dark, our wars with other nations, the progress of our civilization to its minute details. He has done all of this sincerely and in a colorful language. Unfortunately, his value has not been yet understood. We cannot evaluate him based on some contemporary writers’ criticisms, drawn from incomplete and misinterpreted versions of his writings.

I am convinced that Evliya Chelebi is unique in his education and upbringing, in his original and prolific style. He knew much about history, music and understood the intricacies of Sufis. His heart was pure and he cared a great deal for his nation.  

I met this man twenty-five years ago, in a corner of Üsküdar, at a damp, dusty library stuck between the Karacaahmet Cemetery’s black cypress trees and the frothy waves of the Marmara Sea, across from the tombstones of a dilapidated silent tekke (sufi lodge). The pay for this work was not even worth mentioning and did not meet my needs. I want to clarify that this was not at all the reason why I spent all my spare time trying to decipher difficult and intricate writing for ten hours each day, used up my vacation days and the only day of rest I had in the midst of a taxing medical education. On the one hand, I faced the material needs of a difficult education by myself. On the other hand, I felt that I had to make a small contribution to our national history by contributing to the dissemination of this Great Turk’s work, work that was produced with great persistence and came straight from the heart.” (in Tezcan, Tezcan and Dankoff, 2011: p 89))

The first six volumes of Evliya Chelebi’s work were published between 1896 and 1902. This was a time of strict censorship by the Sultan and therefore these volumes were auto censored by Ikdam Newspaper and went through Abdulhamid’s censoring process. As a result, a lot of passages were left out.  Rifat witnessed this strict censorship and expressed his pain:

“..the publication of such a magnificent work that sheds light on so many dark corridors of our history gave the treacherous Hamidian agents an inauspicious opportunity to inform against it.  Spy reports arrived one after the other at the palace suggesting that this work was harmful and its publication should not be allowed to continue.  At times we would see the revisions that were made before the volumes were published. Even though the censor officers showed great interest in the work of Evliya Chelebi, they still took out many of the events related to government policies and the dynasty described by the author. They would alter words and change many of the sentences. Ahmet Cevdet Bey, then, would keep the sections taken out by the censor officers in a big pile, place them in a separate cupboard in the hopes that the complete work might be published when there was more freedom. 

Abdulhamid’s period maintained this abhorrent attitude whereby there would be strict tyranny over and attack at even historical events. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why the Evliya Chelebi Seyahatnamesi must be republished. Many of the important and terrifying events that Evliya personally saw and recorded, including those in the Sultan Ibrahim and Mehmet IV periods, were left out. Thus, the work had to be published, lacking what made it both useful and attractive. This is why, in a circumstance where many letters, words, expressions were trimmed under doubts and the desire to control, what did get published unfortunately ended up being incomplete and deficient.

Meanwhile, the six volumes that were published still acquired wide readership and attracted interest. But once Ikdam newspaper started to advertise the Evliya Chelebi volumes, Abdulhamid’s spies moved into action. They started advising the Sultan that they are harmful and should not be published and distributed. In fact, Ahmet Cevdet Bey and his team were already mercilessly auto censoring the volumes so as not to be caught by censor officers. For example, all the description of torture instruments used in the Palaces of Iran were erased; any similar information was cut out, ruining the book. This situation so saddened Ahmet Cevdet Bey that at one point, he thought about completely canceling its publication. But then he was afraid that this decision might be misunderstood and continued with it. Finally, what they were afraid of happened. One day the police raided the Ikdam Press, transferred all the copies of the Evliya Chelebi volumes that were published to the Palace and prohibited its continued publication.” (in Tezcan, Tezcan and Dankoff, 2011: pp. 89-90)

Rifat article in EC
From the original article “Evliya Çelebi Seyahatnamesine Dair” (Regarding the Evliya Çelebi Travelogues) Dergah  2.15, 36-38. Photo of Rifat lower right in Tezcan, Tezcan and Dankoff, 2012.

Rifat concluded :

“This ten-volume work – a mirror of Ottoman institutions and of the surrounding countries at that time, written by a very distinguished, capable, and sincere traveler and historian who witnessed and recorded the successive days of both disorder and grandeur of our great nation, and drew lessons from them, and whose sharpness of intellect brought his powers of description to bear on the most delicate and profound points – ought not be left as food for vermin and insects in the recesses of libraries…While foreigners and Orientalists have shown an interest in this work – a virtual encyclopedia of the history and geography of the Ottoman Empire in the ninth and tenth centuries of the hijra (Muslim calendar)- we have been indifferent to it and have forgotten it, which shows a very deplorable lack of appreciation.” (in Tezcan, Tezcan and Dankoff, 2011: p. 90)

The Westernization efforts of the late Ottoman Empire had led to an unfortunate devaluation of its own culture, religion and its characteristics that had made it so great. As Rifat pointed out, this led to a blind appreciation on the part of Ottoman elites of anything connected with the West, while denigrating the Ottoman culture.

What Next?

Rifat graduated as a lieutenant doctor from the Military Medical Academy in 1903 at the top of his class. After graduation, he completed a two-year internship at the Gülhane Hospital in Istanbul. At the end of the two years, a lottery was held by the Ministry of Defense to determine where new military doctors would serve. This could be anywhere in the vast territories of the Ottoman Empire. It was well known that without the right connections, one could be appointed to serve in far away areas, with no hope of ever returning to Istanbul. Rifat’s luck was to serve as the doctor of a small company of soldiers stationed in the village of Cemcemal near Baghdad. He was devastated. He knew this would spell the end of his ambitions at the very beginning of his career.

He desperately sought ways to postpone this appointment. He knew that the plum jobs, the best opportunities for internships in Europe went to those with connections to the Sultan, to the sons of the Pashas. As Güvenç-Salgirli writes, most doctors (of Rifat’s period) were from wealthy families of Istanbul and belonged to the propertied classes in the city. However, being from the wealthy class was not a prerequisite for entering the profession. Some doctors came from lower class backgrounds. She gives ‘Hygienist Dr. Rifat’ as an example:

“When he (Rifat) came to Istanbul for the first time, he was ridiculed by his friends for his ragged clothes. Throughout his studies he had to do more than just schoolwork. Rifat edited his professors’ books, including those of Besim Ömer, and he had to earn a living for himself and his siblings. It was a fact that individuals from lower class backgrounds had to work much harder in contrast to those from better off families and the merit based order fell short when it came to deciding on a branch of specialization. Students who had lower class backgrounds were forced to choose unpopular branches of medicine.” (Güvenç-Salgirli, 2010: p. 7-8)

The job of assistant to Professor Besim Ömer Pasha, Rifat’s mentor, went to a well-known Pasha’s son. What to do?  Having studied geology at the Academy and having a good command of both Arabic and French, Rifat was able to get himself appointed to join a team of prospectors and was sent to Mosul and Kirkuk (in today’s Iraq) with them. These prospectors, working for foreign oil companies were tasked with investigating whether there was oil in that region. After the investigation, their report concluded that there were no prospects for oil in Mosul and Kirkuk, which, of course, was untrue. My father comments in his memoir that with the area in question still under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire, the report was bound to be an unfavorable one:

“I have heard from my father that he had put in an annotation into the Report refuting their verdict. In fact, the area in question was Kirkuk where the British (later) discovered a large oil reserve, after Iraq came under their rule.” (Faruk Kardam, unpublished memoir, 1986)

As Rifat was pondering his next step, an assistant professorship under the Geology Professor Esat Feyzi Bey at the Military Medical Academy became open. Rifat competed successfully for this position and became Esat Feyzi Bey’s assistant in 1906. This was quite unusual as his primary field was not Geology but Public Health. He was elated. He was finally going to join academia, fulfilling his dream to become a professor.

But after about a year into his new position, Dr. Rifat was preparing his letter of resignation. In a letter to one of his beloved professors, Zoeros Pasha, he explained his decision: (Istanbul University, Faculty of Medicine, Department of Medical History Archives, Rifat Kardam folder, translation from French courtesy of Üstün Bilgen Reinart)

“Respected master,

You know well that the valuable Faculty (school) is ill, under endowed, even if I may say, is disappearing. An ill-chosen staff member is ravaging it. His students are oppressed by an atmosphere of laziness and ignorance. The faculty is infected and threatened by ruin. Radical measures have to be taken to disinfect the whole school and eliminate the parasites that might well attack it. This is urgent, but also very difficult.

When I left the classroom, I regretted not being able to stay under that dome. Despite all your efforts and all the goodwill shown, the milieu was filling me with an indescribable apprehension. The jealousies, the back-biting, the blackmailing — all the moral ills that infested that miserable Imperial Faculty — have made me decide to leave the teaching position I have obtained there.” 

(c) Nükhet Kardam 2015

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References and Credits

Behmoaras, Liz, Mazhar Osman: Kapali Kutudaki Firtina, (Storm in a Box) Istanbul, Remzi Kitapevi: 2001.

Dodd, Anna Bowman, In the Palaces of the Sultan, New Jersey: Gorgias Press, 2005.

Güvenç-Salgirli, Sanem, “Eugenics for the Doctors: Medicine and Social Control in 1930s Turkey”, Journal of History of Medicine, Oxford University Press, 2010.

Header Image: Military High School at Kuleli. United States Library of Congress, Abdulhamid Collection.

Kilisli Doktor Rifat, “Evliya Çelebi Seyahatnamesine Dair” (Regarding the Evliya Celebi Travelogues), Dergah, 10 November 1337 /20 October 1920), Vol. 15 No. 20, pp. 36-38. 

Kilisli Doktor Rifat, “Teşrihhanede” (At the Anatomy Lab), İstanbul Şeririyatı (Medical Journal), no:14 (June 1336/1920),  pp. 67-68).

Karadişoğulları Ekrem, Kilisli Dr. Rifat Kardam’ın Evliya Çelebi Seyahatnamesi ile ilgili bir yazısı üzerine, (Regarding Kilisli Dr. Rifat’s article on the Evliya Celebi Travelogues), Atatürk Üniversitesi Türkiyat Araştırmaları Enstitüsü Dergisi, No. 18, Erzurum 2001, 153-62.

Murray, John, Murray’s Handbook Turkey in Asia and in Constantinople, 1871.

Marion-Crawford, Francis, 1890larda Istanbul, (Istanbul in the 1890s)  Istanbul: Türkiye Iş Bankası, Kültür Yayinları, 2009.

Saglam, Tevfik, Nasil Okudum, (How I got educated)  Istanbul: Işaret Yayınlari, 2010.

Tevfik, Süleyman, II. Meşrutiyetten Cumhuriyete – Elli Yıllık Hatıralarım, (From the Second Constitutional Rule to the Republic – A Memoir spanning 50 years)  Istanbul: Dün Bugün Yarın Yayınları, 2011.

Tezcan, Nuran, Semih Tezcan and Robert Dankoff, Evliya Çelebi, Studies and Essays Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of his Birth, Republic of Turkey, Ministry of Culture Tourism Publications, 2012.

Topuzlu, Cemil (eds Hüsrev Hatemi and Aykut Kazancıgil), 80 Yıllık Hatıralarım, (My 80 Year Long Memories) İstanbul: İşaret Yayınları, 2010.

Toussulis, Yannis, The Way of Blame, Quest Books, 2011.

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