I was mesmerised by the diversity and wealth of the papers’ content.

Ozan Ozavci reflects on meeting the descendants of key figures of early Republican Turkey, and the priceless private papers these families have preserved.

In November 2014, through a common acquaintance, I had the privilege to meet the family of Celal Bayar (1883-1986), the third president of the Republic of Turkey and a member of the Turkish delegation to Lausanne in 1922-3. Back then I was making the final revisions to my book about the times and ideas of the liberal writer and politician Ahmet Ağaoğlu (1869-1939). Since the Bayars and the Ağaoğlus had lived in the same building in Keçiören in the nascent years of the Turkish republic, I was hoping the two families’ proximity might have produced one or two juicy anecdotes that I might include in my book.

Bayar’s daughter Nilüfer Gürsoy and granddaughter Emine Gürsoy-Naskali welcomed me in their house in Erenköy, one of the well-off residential districts in Istanbul. They were both wonderful hosts; courteous, congenial and pleasantly curious. Aged in her mid-nineties at the time of our meeting, Nilüfer Hanım’s sharp memory astonished me throughout our conversation, which lasted more than four hours. Listening to her stories about republican politics, especially the Democrat and Justice Party eras in the 1950s and ‘60s, was an invaluable experience of oral history. Not many historians, she told me, “knock on my door for this.”

“Not many historians” she told me, “knock on my door for this.”  

Just as invaluable was her daughter Emine Hanım’s comment that the private papers of Celal Bayar were kept in one of the rooms opposite the spacious salon in which we sat. The room wasn’t readily available for me to investigate on that first visit. But on my second visit to Erenköy, six months later, I was allowed in. In the dim light of the room I wandered amidst the files, randomly plucking a few out: one held German documents from the mid-1930s, requesting certain profitable economic concessions from the Turkish government.

Much more remained to be found, as the catalogue of the papers (134 pages, single-spaced) suggested: files on Ottoman and republican-era domestic issues ranging from the 31 March Event to the Armenian question, from the Independence Tribunals to Yassıada, and from the Caliphate and Kurdistan issues to the capitulations at the Lausanne Peace Conference.

I was mesmerised by the diversity and wealth of the papers’ content. Of course, my living in another country meant that I’d have only limited access to them. Fortunately the digitisation of the papers could begin in situ, and the family members generously provided access to the materials. Along the way, several meetings were held with fellow historians, including my colleagues at CETOBaC, with digital archivists from Gallica and the Kadıköy History and Art Library and with family members in Istanbul and Paris, to decide on how best to store the materials and make them available to researchers. The documents will be accessible at the Celal Bayar Foundation building in Bursa, after its renovation in 2022-3.

Courtesy of the Bayar family

In the meantime I’ve had the opportunity to meet the families of other key figures of the early Republican Turkey, such as the eponymous grandson of A. Fethi Okyar (1880-1943), the second prime minister of the republic, and his wife, İlkim Buke Okyar, who is a fellow historian. Okyar’s private papers are also kept in the family house in the Princess Islands. Though smaller in size, its contents are equally priceless for the insights they afford into early republican politics and diplomacy, and still await cataloguing for the use of historians.

In our forthcoming edited volume on Lausanne as well as in the pages of this website we intend to draw attention to these and other untapped archives. Who knows, maybe they can place the early twentieth-century global Middle East in a new perspective, and enable us to re-write its histories beyond the confines of memoirs, state and company archives and secondary sources that determine the current state of the art.

Just imagine how much is waiting for us – in the room next door!

Main blog image: Courtesy of the Bayar family.

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