Editor’s note: Istanbul is the Metropolis of the Month for September. This the third entry in the series. You can read additional entries as they are published, linked at the conclusion of this post.
By Evren Altinkas
Ever since the ideals of nationalism, democracy, and freedom spread from Europe to the Ottoman world, Istanbul has been a city of secret meetings and intrigue. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, with the rise of a new intellectual class, coffeehouses and the mansions of rich businessmen were the hotspots of intellectual development. When the Parliament was suspended by Abdul Hamid II in 1877 and when the Sultan organized a system of surveillance to control any potential resistance and criticism, secret societies were formed among the students and military officers. One of these societies, Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), which was part of the Young Turk movement, initiated the Second Constitutional Era in 1908 by igniting a revolution in the European territory of the Ottomans. The secret societies that were established during this era drove political change and revolution, and they also helped to construct the economic and political networks of an independent Turkey after the War of Independence.
During this era, Istanbul reigned as the metropolis of conspiracy and collusion. After the dominance of the CUP in domestic politics following 1908, a network was established by CUP leaders in the city in order to prevent any uprisings and to control the economic and social classes of Istanbul. When World War I erupted, the CUP sided with Germany and the Central Powers. At the war’s conclusion, as a result of the Mudros Armistice, the Ottoman State was occupied by the Allies, and the leaders of the CUP fled the country. The Allies occupied Istanbul in November 1918. Allied occupation collided with a rising nationalist sensibility among the former Young Turks and the broader population. In May 1919 the Turkish War of Independence began, with Turkish forces under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.
Imagine September 1919. Since November of 1918 the capital city of Istanbul, the metropolis of the washed-out Ottoman Empire in World War I, has been under a “de-facto” invasion. British soldiers, Italian officers, and troops from the French colonies all roam the streets.
The story begins in Eminönü, one of Istanbul’s liveliest hotspots, and where the Huseyin Husnu Pharmacy, which has been a gathering site for Turks against the Allied Occupation, is located. Lieutenant Neşet, the aide-de-camp of the Ottoman Sultan, locks the pharmacy door from within. Inside the pharmacy is a large cabinet standing against a wall. Neşet Bey drags it forward with one swift move. He climbs the hidden stairs behind it to reach Radio Lieutenant İhsan Bey. “We are ready,” Neşet Bey tells him.
Radio Lieutenant İhsan Bey nods, and sends a telegram to Mustafa Kemal Paşa. Paşa had organized and paved the way for the resistance against the invasion. When he crossed into Anatolia in May 1919, Istanbul’s government and the Sultan declared him a “rebel.” Now, Paşa was in central Anatolia, hiding out in the city of Sivas. After a brief wait the two men receive a reply. In the telegram Paşa lists the weapons he wants sent to Anatolia and the names of some officers who remain stuck in position in Istanbul.
Lieutenant Neşet departs from the pharmacy following his conversation and travels through the Grand Bazaar. He finds the porters waiting right behind the Çemberlitaş Bath and whispers the “code word.” He heads back to Eminönü, rents a boat, and sets off for Beşiktaş.
In Beşiktaş, Lieutenant Neşet sits down in front of a coffee shop. The Steward of Boatmen, Osman Bey, arrives at the same coffee shop and sits down at another table. Neşet passes a note that reads “Maçka Armory at midnight” to a local boy selling newspapers. “Evening edition,” the boy says as he puts the paper with Neşet’s note in front of Osman Bey.
In the dead of night, a horse carriage approaches the back door of the Maçka Armory. Armory guards load the weapons and ammunition requested by Mustafa Kemal Paşa into the carriage. The carriage takes them to the pier, where the porters swiftly load the heavy crates onto the boats. Lieutenant Neşet, who knows that the weapons and ammunition will soon be in Anatolia, can now return home with peace of mind.
During the armed conflict in Anatolia, the intelligence organizations established by Turks in Istanbul played a very important role in gathering information about the British, French, Italian, and Greek forces and in smuggling weapons, ammunition, and people. Before leaving the country, the leaders of the CUP ordered Kara Kemal, who served as the party’s minister of supplies, to continue his management of the now-leaderless CUP through a secret organization, which enacted a special code word to acknowledge members. Kara Kemal, along with Kara Vasıf Bey, consequently established the “Karakol Organization” in late October/early November 1918, utilizing “Kara” from both of their names for the title.
Economic forces helped to determine Kara Kemal’s selection. Kemal led the CUP’s “subsistence group,” which controlled trade in Istanbul during World War I and was responsible for registering the differences between the cost of the goods produced or sold and the sales revenue. The subsistence group thus established an “economic foundation” based on trade revenue and used this information to develop economic and financial entities known as the National Textiles (Milli Mensucat), National Weightage (Milli Kantariye), and the National Economy (Milli İktisat). Kara Kemal’s control over these institutions marked him for leadership in this area. Artisans also factored into the economic equation, as Kara Kemal organized forces of bakers, porters, and boatmen, promoted and developed them, and used the entities mentioned above in the service of national resistance.
The occupying forces were never able to fully control this network of relationships. Smuggling to Anatolia by associations of porters, food traders, and boatmen was common, especially due to Karakol’s endorsement of such activities, which included the shipping of arms. For example, Karakol used the stewards of boatmen, the brothers Salih and Osman, and a few thousand porters to smuggle weapons and ammunition.
In addition, the Karakol Society developed close relations with two religious institutions in Istanbul, namely the Bektashi Lodge (Merdivenköy) and the Özbekler Lodge (Sultan Hill) and ensured that those who secretly travelled to Anatolia stayed in these lodges. Halide Edip Adıvar escaped via Özbekler Lodge to Anatolia and gave a detailed account of the escape route:
It was at this particular time (February-March 1920) that I asked Major Kemaleddin Sami about our plan of escape in case of a sudden surprise. He said: “Our plan of escape in case of emergency is the old lodge in Sultan Tepe, that of the Uzbeks. The password is ‘Jesus has sent us’.” A little window opened from above and I recognized the round face of young sheikh: -Who is there? – Jesus has sent us.
Özbekler Lodge also served as a post office and hospital for Turkish nationalists who were injured while fighting against invaders or gangs. In the lodge, which had an organization that transferred not only people but also arms, such exchanges occurred as follows: the weapons destined for Anatolia were secretly brought to the lodge; from there they were taken to the farm of Dr. Esat Pasha by the bouncers of the Karakol society; and then they were transported at the appropriate time under the cars loaded with spring water to the secret headquarters of the national forces in Alemdağ. Every dervish in the Lodge was armed. If the occupation forces (mostly the British) stormed the lodge on a report, everyone in the lodge immediately would begin to perform the prayers, with those who were to be taken to Anatolia in front, and while the British waited in the garden, those in front slipped out the back door.
As we can see, the network of artisans and the religious organizations which have deep roots and historical significance in Istanbul were wisely used by the Nationalists and their collaborators in the city during the Turkish War of Independence. When the war ended in 1922, Mustafa Kemal and his envoys in Istanbul had benefited from these networks by using them to organize the national economy in their establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923.
Additional posts on Istanbul
- City of Empire: An Overview and Bibliography of Istanbul
- Counterinsurgency and Insurgent Safety in Istanbul
- Visibility and Power: The Changing Nature of Public Space in the Beyoğlu District of Istanbul
- Once Upon a Time in Istanbul: The City of Melancholy as Remembered by Orhan Pamuk
- For Whom the Clock Ticks? Cannon Balls, Cruise Ships, and Capital Accumulation on the Bosphorus
Evren Altinkas received postgraduate degrees from King’s College London in 2000 and from Dokuz Eylul University in 2003. He obtained his doctoral degree from Dokuz Eylul University in 2011 based on his dissertation comparing the development of the concept of intellectuals in Europe and in Ottoman State/Turkey. Since July 2018, Altinkas has taught at the University of Guelph, Canada. His research areas are the History of the Middle East, Turkish History, Intellectual History, and the Transformation from Ottoman Empire to Modern Middle East and Turkey. He received the Chevening Scholarship for the academic year of 1999-2000, and was a MESA Global Academy Fellow for the academic years 2020-2021 and 2021-2022. Altinkas is also the editor of H-TURK. Dr. Altinkas has several academic articles and book chapters published.
Featured image (at top): Kara-Keui (Galata) bridge, Constantinople, Turkey (ca. 1890-1900). Print shows a bird’s-eye view of many pedestrians and a horse-drawn carriage on the Galata Bridge, which spans the Golden Horn at Eminönü, Istanbul, Turkey, with minarets and mosques visible in the background. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
 Erik Jan Zürcher, The Unionist Factor, (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1984), 81.
 Halide Edip Adıvar, The Turkish Ordeal, (London: John Murray, 1928), 64
 Cengiz Bektaş, “Özbekler Tekkesi-II”, Tarih ve Toplum Dergisi, no. 9, (1984), 41.