The Last Sultan

The Life and Times of Ahmet Ertegun

by Robert Greenfield

1 December 2011


The Odd Man Out

Beginning in 1095 when Pope Urban II sent the Crusaders to reclaim the holy city of Jerusalem from the Ottoman Empire, “Europeans came to perceive Turks as the epitome of evil. They were presumed to be not only bent on destroying Christianity but also determined to kill or enslave every man, woman, and child in Christendom.” Five centuries later, Martin Luther, who began the Protestant Reformation, declared, “The Turks are the people of the wrath of God.” In a letter to King Fredrick II of Prussia during the eighteenth century, the famed French essayist Voltaire wrote, “I shall always hate the Turks. What wretched barbarians!”

After the Allies defeated the Ottoman Empire in World War I, the onerous conditions imposed by the Treaty of Sèvres were specifically designed to reduce a once great power to ruins. In large part, Mustafa Kemal’s nationalist movement blossomed because of his refusal to abide by the provisions of the agreement, which soon proved impossible to enforce. His subsequent rise to power eventually forced all parties to the treaty to return to the negotiating table in Lausanne, Switzerland, in 1922.

Mehmet Munir, who served as chief legal adviser and translator for the delegation from the Ottoman Empire during talks that went on for months, was present when the Treaty of Lausanne was signed on July 24, 1923, thereby bringing the modern Turkish republic into being. Seven days later, Ahmet was born, as he would later recall, “in a house on the rocky hills of Sultantepe in Uskudar on the Asiatic side of Istanbul, that grand old decaying city which had once been Byzantium and Constantinople.”

A child of privilege like his older brother Nesuhi, Ahmet spent the first two years of his life in a truly primitive land where nearly everyone was illiterate, life expectancy was short, epidemics commonplace, and medical care virtually nonexistent. In a territory stretching for more than a thousand miles where most men eked out a living as subsistence farmers, there were only a few short stretches of paved road and the most common means of travel was by horse-drawn cart. Most villages did not have a central square or plaza, reinforcing the widely held belief that life was meant to be lived within the family or clan.

While those like Ahmet’s father who had been born and raised in Istanbul enjoyed a far more cosmopolitan existence, nothing in his background could have prepared him for the rapid succession of sweeping social changes that transformed the remnants of the Ottoman Empire into the modern Turkish republic in a relatively short period of time. Born into a family from Uzbekistan in central Asia, Mehmet Munir was the grandson of a Sufi sheik who presided over the Ozbeker Tekkesi, a dervish lodge in Istanbul. His father was a career bureaucrat who spent his life working in the Ministry of Monuments and Antiquities. His mother was one of the first Turkish women to make the pilgrimage to Mecca by camel.

Exempt from military service by imperial decree because he had been born in the city where the Sultan held court, Mehmet Munir graduated from Istanbul University with a degree in law in 1908. He then began working in the imperial chancery, rising to the rank of chief legal adviser eight years later.

After his short-lived first marriage ended when he was in his twenties, his parents, in accordance with the custom at the time, arranged for him to wed Hayrunnisa Rustem. Fourteen years younger than he, she could play any keyboard or stringed instrument by ear, loved to dance and sing, and, as Ahmet would later say, “probably would have become a singing star or musician or performer if she had lived in a time when well-born girls were allowed on the stage. She was an outgoing, fun loving, good looking young girl who had been quite disappointed to find that the husband picked for her was a quiet, scholarly young law and philosophy student who did not share her love of music and dancing.”

Three years after they were married, Mehmet Munir embarked on the journey that would change his life as well as the future of his homeland. On December 5, 1920, as part of a high-powered delegation headed by Salih Pasha and Ahmet Izzet Pasha, two of the Sultan’s most trusted ministers, he traveled about two hundred and fifty kilometers by train from Istanbul to the railway station at Bilicek to help negotiate an agreement to end the civil conflict between the Sultan and the new nationalist government in Ankara headed by Mustafa Kemal.

Unlike the leaders of the delegation and the great war hero they had come to meet, Mehmet Munir had never seen combat on any of the battlefields where the fate of the empire had been contested during the past two decades. Bespectacled, with a thick mustache and a receding hairline, he was then thirty-seven years old, the father of a three-year-old son, and a devout Muslim who prayed five times a day.

After making the delegation wait for an entire day at the railway station, Mustafa Kemal finally arrived. Thirty-nine years old, with piercing blue eyes and high Oriental cheekbones, he had the commanding look of a fearless soldier who had already proven himself in battle. Introducing himself as the prime minister of the government in Ankara, Kemal shocked Salih Pasha and Ahmet Izzet Pasha by asking them who they were.

Explaining he could not possibly speak to them as cabinet ministers because he did not recognize the government in Istanbul, Kemal said he was perfectly willing to talk with them as fellow patriots. After a discussion that lasted for hours, Kemal told both men he could not let them return to Istanbul. Instead, they would now accompany him to Ankara so they could get a sense of what life was like under the nationalist government. Knowing they had no choice in the matter, the entire delegation boarded a train heading in the opposite direction from which they had come the day before. Although the word was never used, they were now being held as hostages.

Because the nationalists controlled the army and no one in Istanbul could mount an expedition to free them, the delegation remained in Ankara for the next three months. When Salih Pasha and Ahmet Izzet Pasha realized Kemal’s movement was directed not just against the foreigners occupying their homeland but the Sultan as well, they both made it plain they could never become part of it.

Not so Mehmet Munir. After a period of intensive soul searching, he decided only Kemal and his followers could preserve what little was left of his beloved homeland. Switching sides, he threw in his lot with them. Born with the personality of a true diplomat, Mehmet Munir had a set of unique personal credentials that made him an immediate asset of great value to the new nationalist government.

Having served two years earlier as the chief legal adviser to the Ottoman delegation at the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk that forced Russia to return all the territory it had seized from the empire during World War I, he had already dealt with foreign powers across the bargaining table. Fluent in French, then the language of diplomacy all over the world, he also spoke English.

On February 6, 1921, Salih Pasha and Ahmet Izzet Pasha signed a handwritten document giving Mehmet Munir official permission to attend the international Peace Conference that would begin in London six days later. To ensure his safety as well as their own, the signers made it plain they were being kept in Ankara against their will and that Mehmet Munir had been repeatedly and insistently pressured to attend the conference because of his personal ability and professional knowledge. Serving as an adviser and a translator, he then represented the Ankara government at peace talks in England to which the Sultan also sent his own set of representatives.

In March 1921, Kemal finally decided to allow the rest of the delegation to return to Istanbul on the condition that Salih Pasha and Ahmet Izzet Pasha would not resume their government positions—which they both soon did. When Mehmet Munir’s wife read the morning newspaper only to learn that everyone but her husband had returned safely to Istanbul, she was furious. In every sense, he had now become the odd man out.

Unlike those who had chosen to continue supporting the Sultan, Mehmet Munir had aligned himself with a movement that in time would change the modern world. For him, it had all begun with the decision he made after that fateful meeting in the railway station at Bilicek on December 5, 1920. And while Mustafa Kemal himself once proclaimed, “I have no religion, and at times I wish all religions to the bottom of the sea,” Mehmet Munir steadfastly continued to roll out his carpet to pray five times a day even after he had become one of Kemal’s most trusted aides. In Ahmet’s words, “Although my father was basically a timid man, he had great stubbornness in living out his convictions and defending his beliefs. His sense of morality somehow governed all his actions.”

In 1925, Kemal rewarded Mehmet Munir for his service to the new republic by appointing him the ambassador to Switzerland. As Ahmet would later write, his father “left behind the teeming hodgepodge of the Istanbul that he loved, the shoeless porters, the grimy street kids, the blind beggars, the black-shawled peasant women, the hawking vendors, all of whom hovered below the countless majestic mosques and minarets that formed the skyline of this mysterious city, crossroads of many civilizations; the last stop of the Orient Express, the last capital of the fallen Ottoman Empire, ‘the sublime port,’ the city of my father’s dreams.”

Accompanied by his wife, his two sons, and their newborn daughter, Selma, Mehmet Munir set off to represent his fledgling nation’s diplomatic interests in Bern. Beginning what would become a life of constant travel, Ahmet embarked on the long and highly improbable journey that eventually brought him to the land where he would make his fame and fortune.

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