Chapter Six: Istanbul Under Siege


Chapter Six

Istanbul Under Siege

Rifat and Nazire settled into a comfortable home in the Shishli (Şişli) district in Istanbul. Their two young sons, Galip and Faruk, were giving them much happiness. But the world around them was collapsing. By 1912 the euphoria of the Young Turk revolution had long ended, and the country plunged into chaos. It is estimated that seven to nine million Turkish-Muslim refugees from the lost territories of the Caucasus, Crimea, Balkans and the Mediterranean islands migrated to Anatolia and Eastern Thrace. Bosnia and Herzegovina were annexed by Austria-Hungary in 1908. During the Italian-Turkish War (1911-12), the Ottoman Empire lost Libya, and during the Balkan Wars (1912-13) lost its Balkan territories, except East Thrace and Edirne. Some four hundred thousand Muslims, out of fear of Greek, Serbian or Bulgarian atrocities, left with the retreating Ottoman army. According to Justin McCarthy, during the period from 1821 to 1922 alone, the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Muslims in the Balkans led to the death of several million individuals and the expulsion of a similar number. By 1914 the Ottoman Empire had been driven out of nearly all of Europe and North Africa. It still controlled twenty-eight million people in modern-day Turkey, in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan. Another five million people were under nominal Ottoman rule in the Arabian Peninsula.

The city of Istanbul, as the seat of the Empire, was suffering. A big fire in 1911 had destroyed major sections of the city. Poverty and plagues were everywhere. The campus of the Military Medical Academy had been turned into a hospital to treat injured soldiers. Even the medical students were put to work as assistants to doctors. In 1914, World War I began. The Ittihat ve Terraki (CUP) regime in power joined the war on the side of Germany. The decision to join the war on the side of Germany and Austria was made reluctantly because Britain had rebuffed the Ottoman Empire’s bids to ally itself with the Triple Entente (composed of Britain, France, and Russia). Since Russia still had designs on Ottoman territory, and since the modernized Ottoman army was headed by a German general, the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers despite Britain’s pleas to remain neutral.

In 1915, the enemy forces (Britain, France and the Russian Empire) attacked the Çanakkale (Dardanelles) Straits. Their boats were just six hours away from Istanbul. English and French submarines torpedoed ships in the Marmara Sea. English and French planes were flying over Istanbul and dropping hand grenades and iron nails. Russian ships were patrolling the Black Sea and sinking boats carrying coal to Istanbul. Trams pulled by horses had been replaced by electric trams in Istanbul. Yet, lack of coal meant very limited electricity and thus, electric trams only worked some of the time. Because of war, there were no horse carriages available either. This meant that most people had to resort to walking long distances to get anywhere in the city.

The Empire was heading towards destruction. The Ottoman Army only won in Gallipoli, where British, Australian and New Zealander forces were defeated. Almost everywhere else, Ottoman soldiers were slaughtered. More than three hundred thousand Ottoman soldiers died fighting the Russians in the Caucauses alone, as a result of Enver Pasha’s plan to reconquest the ancient Turkish heartland. On the eve of the Russian revolution, the czar’s forces poised for a final attack on Istanbul. Had Russia stayed in the war and the Bolsheviks not prevailed, Istanbul might today be called by a Russian name, and the Middle East might be a Russian federation. The CUP regime was getting desperate and turned to Armenians, who they accused of siding with the Russians, and of planning a separatist movement. In the spring of 1915 Armenian men, women and children began to be rounded up and deported. The victims were sent on forced marches into the desert where they died of thirst and starvation. Meanwhile, Kurdish bandits (called Hamidiye Alaylari, armed and paid by the Sultan’s government), traditional enemies of the Armenians, attacked them on the forced marches. Almost all of the killing and dying took place in Eastern Anatolia and Syria. Many Turkish officers protested, and a number of them were executed for treason. We don’t know the firm figures of the number of deaths, but there were possibly up to 1.5 million deaths in hardly more than a year. The CUP regime justified this genocide as a defensive maneuver against an internal uprising. This is what I read in history books as I grew up in Turkey. In fact, while there had been an Armenian separatist movement of importance to the Ottoman Empire, it was a minority movement and in no way justified the CUP policy. Most Armenians staunchly supported the imperial state, especially during the war, not least for fear of being accused of disloyalty. The government of Turkey has yet to face up to this crime and offer an apology, even though individuals of Turkish nationality have begun to do so.

By 1918, the Ottoman Empire’s holdings in the Arabic heartlands were decimated by the British and French. The British encouraged Pan-Arabist revolts. As Allied Forces (who won World War I) drew closer to Istanbul, a group of liberal parliamentarians and Ottoman royals got together to arrest the CUP leaders, but they escaped to Berlin on German torpedo boats. The new Ottoman sultan, Mehmed VI sued for peace. The British answered by sending a warship and a joint international force that occupied Istanbul and began dismantling ‘the sick man of Europe’. The Sykes-Picot agreements, arrived at in Paris in 1919, secured the break-up of the Ottoman Empire and created a fragmented Middle East, one that was largely ruled by British and French colonialists.

The French, British, Italian and Greek warships anchored in the Bosphorus. There was a great deal of jubilation about this occupation on the part of the Christian populations of Istanbul. Many Greeks and Armenians welcomed the occupying powers with open arms, waving the flags of the occupying forces and dancing on the streets. Streets were filled with refugees from the Ottoman lands lost in war. Fires had destroyed one third of the city. Government workers could not receive their salaries. Women and children were working to make a living as many of the men were either at war, dead or incapacitated.

The allies entered Istanbul in 1919 with three thousand and six hundred soldiers. Even though the Montreux Agreement stipulated that Istanbul would not be occupied, the British, French and Italian troops divided up the city among themselves. The British occupied Beyoğlu, Şişli and Galata districts. Those who remember those days say that the British were perceived as the enemy, the Italians were polite and the French were harmless. The occupying forces brought their own police force, established their own military courts, censored the press, and put their own guards in front of banks, hospitals and prisons. There were many soldiers walking around the city in different uniforms. The officers were settling in the high-class hotels, and in the many houses that were confiscated. (Çalışlar, 2010: p. 164-65) With the occupation, Istanbul underwent a tremendous change. Now Europe meant the occupiers and fear. The occupying soldiers soon started to walk around drunk and to harass women. In fact, according to Çalışlar, many women were afraid to go out of their house. She writes:

Allied forces in Istanbul
Allied Forces in Istanbul (Courtesy of Likourgos Kogevinas, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

“Britain occupied Istanbul. First they disarmed the Turks, then, they armed the Christians. There were guns not just by the waterfront but also on top of the minarets, and all of them pointed at Istanbul. At night, armed military forces patrolled the city. They arrested whomever they pleased. They kicked Turks out of their homes. …” (Çalışlar, 2010: p. 4)

I imagine the British soldiers pounding on Rifat and Nazire’s door in Shishli. As soon as my grandmother opens the door, they barge in, looking around, opening doors to every room, checking every nook and cranny. They are deciding whether to order the family to leave. My grandmother is standing by the door. She starts speaking in English to them. They are startled. She is saying: Don’t occupy our house please, as you see I speak English. Perhaps I can be of service. I can translate for you. But please let us live here. The soldiers glance at her wearily, with a taunting look in their eyes. Then one of them grabs her and hisses under his breath: We won’t occupy your house, but you are coming with us. I heard from a relative that the British abducted my grandmother during Istanbul’s occupation but I could learn nothing else about this episode. What did this mean? Was it just a rumor? Did she get raped? How did she serve the British? I can let my imagination go wild, but in this case, I want to stop right here because it is painful.

Surviving in Istanbul is getting more and more difficult for Dr. Rifat and his family as the foreign occupation continues. My father writes in his memoir that his happy go lucky childhood days in Shishli came to an end with the occupation. Germans, the friends of the Ottoman Empire were leaving, as the victorious British, the French and the Italians took their place. Before the war when Germany was still an ally, Faruk, my father, attended a German school and the family had a live-in German nanny. Galip and Faruk used to play with the Greek and Armenian kids in the neighborhood. The same kids, during the occupation years, were hurling insults at them.

Rifat, Nazire and their children Galip and Faruk circa 1917 Source: Family Archives

My father writes in his memoir:

“A German teacher, Fraulein Kaufmann, proposed to give me and my brother German lessons against board and lodging. This was unbelievable. Because having to communicate with the lady in German, we were swiftly picking up the language. My brother thus was able to enter the German school in 1916 and I followed in his footsteps in 1917. Nearly two years in a good German school worked wonders. This fortune could not last, however. In November 1918, all Germans had to leave Turkey, the school was closed and we had to look elsewhere. The alternative, of course, with the changing of times, was the English High School for Boys. We were both enrolled in this school. Istanbul was under allied occupation. Therefore, all school fees had to be paid in pounds sterling. Since my father could not fulfill this obligation, one of his sons had to be switched to another school. The axe fell, and I was transferred to the French School St. Jeanne d’Arc, not far from where we lived. (Faruk Kardam, unpublished memoir, 1986)

Occupation of Istanbul (Courtesy of NA (Milliyet) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Red Crescent (Hilal-i Ahmer)

What remained unoccupied out of the vast Ottoman Empire was now several hundred kilometers of land in the hinterland of Anatolia. Mustafa Kemal, an Ottoman General, requested the Sultan’s permission to go to Samsun, a city on the Black Sea, to help protect Christian populations living in that area. But his real purpose was to find supporters to fight against the occupying forces. Once in Anatolia, he started a civil war which would lead to the birth of an independent, post-Ottoman Turkish state, the Republic of Turkey. Hilali Ahmer (The Red Crescent) an Ottoman civil society organization secretly supported Mustafa Kemal.

Hilali Ahmer” (or Kizilay in modern Turkish, and Red Crescent in English) was founded to assist Ottoman soldiers who were wounded in war. Its original name, when it was founded in 1868, was ‘Osmanlı Yaralı ve Hasta Askerlere Yardım Cemiyeti’ (Association for the Assistance to Sick and Wounded Soldiers). It was the Muslim counterpart to the Red Cross, founded in Europe in the nineteenth century as the world’s first humanitarian organization. Sultan Abdulhamid’s government had mostly ignored this association, but the Red Crescent was restructured and became active after Constitutional Rule as part of the democratization process. Even though it was technically a ‘non-governmental organization’, it survived and became an effective organization under the tutelage of the Ottoman government. It functioned under the control of the Ministries of War or Navy. Its honorary head was ‘veliaht’ (Crown Prince) Yusuf Izzettin Efendi. Its efficient assistance during the Aksaray (Istanbul) fire of 1911 sealed its importance.

Hilali Ahmer was founded by the elite bureaucrats, intellectuals and doctors of the Ottoman Empire who took upon themselves to assist the sick and wounded soldiers and provide relief during all kinds of catastrophes. Dr. Kilisli Rifat was one of its founding members. The British knew that the Red Crescent members were secretly supporting Mustafa Kemal and raided the organization’s headquarters several times. In fact, the Allies got increasingly worried about the threat of a nationalist siege. They poured more troops into guarding Istanbul. Entering and exiting the city was subject to their permission. The British convinced the Sultan, in his role as caliph of all Muslims, to issue a fatwa against Mustafa Kemal.

Hilali Ahmer had formed teams of doctors ostensibly to assist with the health issues of local population. The doctors received permission from the occupying forces to leave Istanbul and arrived in Anatolia with permits written in French and Ottoman. What they were really doing was assisting Mustafa Kemal to save what remained of the Ottoman Empire. Dr. Rifat was one of those people who assisted the transportation of doctors to Anatolia under Hilali Ahmer auspices.

Dr RIFAT Bey 2014-03-13 15.15.31
Kizilay Archives:


kilisli 2014-03-13 20.46.43
Kizilay Archives:

In the above documents, Dr. Kilisli Rifat is requesting that two doctors be sent to Anatolia, Dr. Ömer Şükrü Bey in 1337 (1921) and Dr. Fahrettin Bey, Assistant to Dr. Mazhar Bey in 1338 (1922).

During Istanbul’s occupation, Dr. Rifat was not just working for the Quarantine Service but was also looking after the sick and wounded for free and spending the rest of his day at the Hilali Ahmer (Red Crescent) offices. He was almost never home.

hilali ahmer heyeti2
Hilali Ahmer Council Dr. Kilisli Rifat standing on upper left, circa 1911; courtesy of Dr. Burhan Akgün

He must have devoted himself to Hilali Ahmer so extensively that he received a gold medal and a war medal for his services. As the social fabric of the Ottoman Empire disintegrated along with the ‘vakifs‘ (foundations) which took care of the poor and the government coffers emptied, the Red Crescent began to assume many of their duties. Women began to be trained as nurses and participated in the Red Crescent activities. But voluntarism went only so far. Dr. Rifat published articles in the Hilali Ahmer (The Red Crescent) Journal, suggesting ways to promote greater civil society activism. Below are two of his articles.

 How to Make the Red Crescent Sustainable over the Long Term

By Dr. Kilisli Rifat

For a civilized country, it is a national and social imperative to sustain the Red Crescent. Red Crescent is effective and efficient. It works very well as a voluntary organization and has always responded immediately to this country’s needs in war and peace. Our country had initiated one of the best welfare organizations in society in the past, yet now we are unable to remain free of catastrophes and we can’t keep up with modern developments. In the West, the Red Cross organizations have done a tremendous job in rescuing those in need. For us, our Red Crescent is the only organization with experience in assisting refugees, those who have ended up homeless as a result of fires, and those who have suffered through four different wars. The Red Crescent’s value has become clear to most people in the last decade. However, it cannot live without money, investment, supplies and equipment. During the war years, we have received donations from a variety of other countries but those donations have now dwindled. If we don’t have any capital, we might have to close the doors of this very important organization. Are we willing to do that?

Voluntary organizations like the Red Crescent can only survive if most of the people in a society assist it on a regular basis. In the past that’s how welfare organizations were maintained. The Ottoman Empire set up foundations that provided regular income to mosques, medreses, and other welfare organizations. We are now observing the destruction of such foundations but no one is considering how to establish new ones. The best and strongest foundations are those that receive constant support from the people. For example, if the political and religious administration of a district required a small amount from each family to be devoted to Red Crescent activities, it would be very helpful. A small amount would not be a burden to people and I am sure they would gladly contribute in return for Red Crescent activities from which they will benefit. If the Red Crescent has a constant and dependable income, its operations would become much more effective. The Red Crescent is necessary not just in wartime but also in peace. Its operations assist people with tuberculosis or syphilis, helps people during fires, and helps refugees and orphans.

Even 100 para a month donated by the Turkish and Muslim population is very useful and is more important and meaningful than a big donation every once in a while. A donation of 5,000 or 10,000 Lira made at the spur of a moment, can be spent very quickly and can leave the organization without funds over the long run. In short, the Red Crescent needs funds sustain itself over the long term. This can only be done by people themselves. I am asking that the Imam and Muhtar of each district should take the responsibility to collect donations for the Red Crescent. Let’s not forget: “Damlaya damlaya göl olur.” (A lake is formed drop by drop) (Dr. Kilisli Rifat, August 16, 1921: p. 3)

Assistance to the Red Crescent by Workers and Merchants

By Dr. Kilisli Rifat

Evliya Chelebi, in his writings, mentions how well the merchants and artisans in Istanbul were organized during his lifetime. At that time there were countless artisans guilds. They are still visible in many districts and streets of Istanbul and other cities. These people are in general, religious, compassionate, hard working and nationalistic. If any kind of sacrifice is required of them, they are ready to come forward. The Red Crescent is also known for its compassion and efficient operations. It is now time for the Red Crescent to request assistance from these merchants and tradesmen.

The merchants of Istanbul and other cities should be interested in partnering with the Red Crescent during disasters, wars, or any other difficult periods. We know that the merchants and tradesmen are not organized like their Western counterparts. They don’t have their own unions, hospitals or other means to protect their sick and needy members. The Red Crescent could provide assistance to them and is already doing that. We know that our tradesmen and workers are respectful of their elders, take care of their young, and they are respected members of society. If they were to donate a small amount to the Red Crescent every month, then the Red Crescent could respond by taking care them when they are sick or suffer through a disaster. Why couldn’t small business owners, tradesmen, artisans, collect five or ten para per person every month? In return, the Red Crescent would take care of their sick in their dispensaries. Isn’t this social responsibility?

This is your obligation and your honor. If the Red Crescent closed its doors to the needy for lack of funds, everyone, and especially business owners like yourselves, will suffer and will have to take on this responsibility. Please be aware that when the light of compassion gets dim in a country, peace and happiness will also suffer. Therefore I invite you business owners and merchants, those of you who believe in Islam and who have compassion to take action!  (Dr. Kilisli Rifat, August 17, 1921, p. 3) 

Divided Loyalties, Redefined Identities

It is 1919. Cenap Shahabettin, Rifat’s brother in law, is sitting across from him in their living room and is excitedly telling him the news that the Greeks have occupied Izmir and are moving towards Ankara. Soon the entire Aegean region might be Greek territory. He is almost shouting with glee: Why should we be upset? We should be happy. This is for our own good. The Greeks will rid us of those bandits! That Mustafa Kemal is nothing but a thug. How dare he rebel against our Sultan!

Rifat just listens and nods absentmindedly. What could he say? He has just returned from the Red Crescent headquarters where he has organize a team of doctors to be sent to Anatolia to participate in Mustafa Kemal’s mission to fight the occupying Greek army. This is a pretty delicate situation as the British are keeping a strict eye on their operations. A wrong move could lead to great danger. The other evening, British soldiers raided the Red Crescent headquarters, pillaged everything, turning the place outside down, looking for hidden weapon stockpiles. It is painful to be on the opposing sides with his brother in law and good friend. 

Mustafa Kemal and his followers proclaim the Republic of Turkey and establish a Parliament in Ankara in 1923. The last Sultan leaves Istanbul on a British ship never to return and the Sultanate is abolished. Once Mustafa Kemal wins, Cenap Shahabettin would find himself on the wrong side, and would be fired from his position as professor at the Military Medical Academy and would spend the rest of his life in seclusion. The people who live in this land are no longer called Ottomans. Their identity has changed almost overnight. They are now called Turks, citizens of the Republic of Turkey. ‘Turk’ is now considered the all-inclusive identity for all the different ethnic groups inhabiting Anatolia, including Kurds, Circassians, Armenians, Turkmens and more. 

With the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the Kurdish population is promised independence. Mustafa Kemal entices Kurdish leaders to join him in the war against occupying powers and promises them some autonomy in return for their cooperation. But this is not meant to happen. In 1925, there is an uprising in the largely Kurdish areas in the east and southeast of Turkey. These uprisings are brutally suppressed, and the result is that even mentioning the word “Kurd” becomes suspect. In the new country, Kurds who assimilate are treated well, just like in the Ottoman Empire, but those who want to speak their own language, give children Kurdish names and demand political autonomy are rejected as traitors. My grandmother’s mother, Sariye, the granddaughter of Mir Bedirhan, used to sing lullabies to Nazire in Kurdish when she was a little girl. But Nazire has to forget all of that.  She keeps quiet. She is tired. She wants the best for her family, for her boys.

The extended family: Cenap Şahabettin upper left, my grandmother Nazire in the middle, and Dr. Rifat next to her. Seated: Sister Naciye, Ali Galip and Sariye, front row left, Galip, Dr. Rifat’s older son in the mid 1920s. Source: Family Archives.

The family includes a girl named Rahime who is not in the above picture. My cousin Ahmet found out about her in the Nufus (Family) Registry. Rifat and Nazire had two sons, but this registry, to our great surprise, indicates that they also had a daughter, Rahime. According to the registry, Rahime’s birth date and place is 1910, Erzurum. Even though she is listed as Rifat and Nazire’s daughter, she does not have the family’s last name. Who is she? Why is she listed as Rifat and Nazire’s daughter? I imagine that she must have been adopted.

I remember that my mother talked about a young woman named Rahime who came to live with her and her husband when they were newly married. Rahime allegedly taught my mother how to cook. She told me that Rahime always accompanid her whenever she went out and suspected that this was on the orders of her husband and mother in law. There was no love lost between the two young women.  

Rahime. Photo courtesy of Salahattin Anaz

Rahime is no longer alive, but I located her son Salahattin and contacted him. Selahattin was almost in tears when I told him who I was. He said that even though he thought he was part of our family while he was growing up and called Nazire ‘grandmother’, no one besides her had treated him like family. When he was a kid, he did not understand why he couldn’t call my father and his brother Galip, his uncles. He wasn’t permitted to do so by his mother. I know that my father clearly did not regard her as a sister, but more like a house servant. Selahattin kept prodding his mother: Where do we come from? Who are we? Why aren’t we treated like family? Her response was sharp: Stop asking questions. We don’t talk about those things.

I wonder if Rahime was an Armenian child left behind by her family as Armenians were forced to leave their homes on a death march. I will probably never know. Her birth year 1910 and place, Erzurum, makes this a strong possibility. So many Armenians were forcefully taken from their homes all across Anatolia to be resettled in northern Syria. Rahime’s birth town Erzurum in Eastern Anatolia was populated by Armenians. Some Armenian parents left their babies and young children with Turkish families who hid them, as they were forced to leave. They hoped to come back and get them later, but unfortunately this rarely happened. Today, there is growing interest on the part of Armenians in finding out the truth and reclaiming lost identities. See, for example, Turkey and the Armenian Ghost,  Stories My Father Never Finished Telling Me,  A Century of Silence.

(c) Nükhet Kardam 2015

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References and Credits

Çalışlar, Ipek, Halide Edip: Biyografisine Sığmayan Kadın, (Halide Edip, A Woman Larger Than Her Autobigraphy)ö Istanbul: Everest, 2010.

Kilisli Dr. Rıfat, “Hilal-i Ahmer’i Yaşatmak İçin…” , (How to make Hilali Ahmer Sustainable), Hilal-i Ahmer Journal, August 16, 1921,   1337/1921,  no: 35, p.3..

Kilisli Dr. Rifat, “Assistance to the Red Crescent by Workers and Merchants), Hilal-i Ahmer Journal, August 17  1337/1921, no:38, p.3

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