Reconnecting with pre-war friends at Lausanne was not as straightforward as it might seem.
Jonathan Conlin describes an episode of crossed wires
On 16 January 1923 former Ottoman Minister of Finance Cavid Bey telephoned his old friend Calouste Sarkis Gulbenkian from Lausanne, asking for his help in the Mosul Question: the matter of deciding between rival claims to the oil of northern Mesopotamia. Both Kemal (on behalf of Turkey) and Curzon (on behalf of the new Hashemite monarchy of Iraq) claimed Mosul’s oil. Having been belatedly summoned to join the Turkish delegation, Cavid arrived on 14 December and quickly established himself as the delegation’s authority on economic questions. By mid-January his influence was waning, however. His decision to place a call to Gulbenkian at his home in Paris may have been an attempt to restore his authority.
In 1909 Gulbenkian had helped the Young Turks in their struggle for economic sovereignty, founding the National Bank of Turkey. Cavid appointed Gulbenkian conseiller financier to the Ottoman embassies in Paris and London. The war had separated them however, in more ways than one. Having earlier worked together with Boghos Nubar in a last-ditch attempt to solve another “Question” (the Armenian one), in the following years Cavid had done nothing to protect Armenian lives and property from genocide and expropriation. Gulbenkian lost several members of his extended family, as well as a number of hans in Istanbul. This was not going to be an easy conversation.
As Gulbenkian reported the following day to Henry Nichols of the Turkish Petroleum Company (TPC), Cavid asked whether “by granting the concessions to the TPC I thought that Great Britain would give way on the question of the Vilayet of Mossul.” Gulbenkian’s response was cagey. He refused to comment, noting that he was “a very bad politician” – when this was not a question of politics, but of back-room diplomacy, an area where Gulbenkian had proved himself many times. Gulbenkian then did some fishing of his own, asking what terms might be acceptable to Cavid’s superiors. Now it was Cavid’s turn to be evasive, stating only that he, Gulbenkian, already knew what the Turkish government wanted. And that, it seems, was that. A relationship once so close that Cavid considered giving up politics to work for Gulbenkian’s TPC had soured.
But Gulbenkian had not turned his back on Turkey. On the contrary, around 1922 he appears to have dared to dream of returning to the land of his birth. This was a softer Gulbenkian than the young man in a hurry whose behaviour had made Istanbul too hot to hold him back in the 1890s. “Even if all Constantinople were to work itself up into a rage against me my reputation would not suffer,” he had then written, “for it is not in Turkey that I strive to shine.” Now, with the Allies controlling the city, he was on the lookout for an estate on the Bosphorus, a place where “I could sit beneath my big pine trees at lunchtime and gaze at the sea while being caressed by languorous winds from off the sea”. Somewhere he could do a spot of fishing.
In December 1923 Gulbenkian asked Cavid for help. Yet more Gulbenkian properties (including a model farm at Mütevelli, where two Armenian managers had been murdered) had recently been confiscated by the Republic, on the grounds that the family were fugitives. Fugitives!?
Us, who for so long have been very loyal subjects and friends of the country. I assure you that I take this very much to heart, above all on account of my connections and position. You can hardly overlook how I always and at all time sought to revive the fortunes of our country, and I believe I have given many demonstrations of that.
Far from meddling in political matters, he added, Gulbenkian had criticized Near East Relief’s plans to set up schools for Ottoman Armenians in Greece, arguing that Ottoman Armenian refugees should be sent to make new lives far from Anatolia, in Australia and the United States. That, he wrote, was evidence that he had no wish to act “in opposition to” the Republic. “I never participated in political debates, of which I disapprove.”
There would be no homecoming for Gulbenkian.
Jonathan Conlin, “The Amiras and the Ottoman Empire, 1880-1923: The Case of the Gulbenkians”, Turcica 48 (2017): 219-244.
Jonathan Conlin, Mr Five Per Cent: The Many Lives of Calouste Gulbenkian, World’s Richest Man (London: Profile, 2019).
Ugur Ümit Üngör and Mehmet Polatel, Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property (London: Bloomsbury, 2011).
The Calouste Gulbenkian archive, including his personal library and famous art collection, are all freely accessible to scholars via the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon. The archive has been completely catalogued and the archivist can be contacted via: