I don’t spend a lot of time in Starbucks. It’s not that I have any major philosophical objection to them. Their website tells me it is their “mission to inspire and nurture the human spirit,” and I applaud that. It also asserts that they are “passionate about ethically sourcing the finest coffee beans, roasting them with great care, and improving the lives of people who grow them.” No exploitation of labour in the developing world either. I can sip my latté with a clear conscience.
So there I was, the other day, in Altıyol Starbucks, Kadıköy, sitting high above the intersection where six roads intersect and the antique tram turns right into Bahariye Avenue pedestrian mall. With a few minutes to spare and nothing much else to attract my attention, I found myself reading the text of an informative mural on the back wall, purporting to tell the history of the Kadıköy Bull.
Altıyol is a popular meeting point for locals heading for an evening out in the district’s multitude of bars, cafés and restaurants. It’s an easy location to find, even for those unfamiliar with the area, because right there, on an island in the middle of the intersection, is a very realistic life-sized bronze statue of a well-endowed bull, head lowered, vicious-looking horns ready to gore and maim. Say, “I’ll meet you at The Bull”, and everyone will know where you mean. Ask for directions to ‘The Bull’ and anyone will point you the way.
Nevertheless I was curious to learn how, when and why the taurine beast had come to be in that location. Republican Turkey is replete with statues of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, mounted on a rampant stallion, at a blackboard instructing children on the use of his new Latin alphabet, or merely standing presidentially dignified in a well-cut suit gazing pensively into the future. Graeco-Roman Constantinople was, I understand, well supplied with imperial statuary mounted on pedestals in squares and fora around the ancient city. Ottoman Istanbul, however, a Muslim city, did not go in for idolatrous representations of the human form (or animal for that matter). So the Kadıköy Bull is a beast of a different nature.
So I read with interest the information on the back wall of the Altıyol Starbucks. ‘The Bull’, it informed me, was created by the French sculptor Isidore Bonheur in 1864 and erected, so to speak, in a square in the then French territory of Alsace-Lorraine. I say ‘then’ because that region has long been disputed. Lorraine is undoubtedly French – but German Shepherd dogs are alternatively known as Alsatians, a fact which hints at the problem. So it was that when Prince Otto von Bismarck was aggressively uniting Germany, his Prussian army humiliated the French and seized the disputed borderlands, acquiring, in 1871, as an incidental spoil of war, the bull in question. In Germany it remained, the Starbucks wall tells me, until Kaiser Wilhelm gifted it to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet V in 1917.
All well and good – but I couldn’t resist googling that French sculptor, Isidore Bonheur. Sure enough, there was such a gentleman (1827-1901), and he did indeed specialize in animals, his bulls being apparently of particular note, one even having found its way to Venezuela . . . but not to Turkey, according to a definitive list of his oeuvres.
So I did a little more googling, and found varying stories on several websites. According to Milliyet newspaper archives, the statue was actually commissioned in 1864 from another French sculptor, Pierre Louis Rouillard (1820-1881) by Sultan Abdülaziz. It seems that sultan was quite a fan, and ordered a number of other pieces at the same time – which I now intend to keep an eye out for. A list of Rouillard’s works, however, states that The Bull was still in France for the Paris Exposition of 1878, and that M. Bonheur did in fact have a hand in its construction.
Another Turkish site, Finans Caddesi, concurs in attributing The Bull to the combined efforts of Rouillard and Bonheur, but returns to the Starbucks date of 1917. Originally, they tell us, he was set up in the grounds of the Beylerbeyi Palace - admittedly constructed as a summer getaway by said Abdülaziz in the 1860s, which may account for some of the confusion. This source, however, maintains that our bovine beast was actually a present from Kaiser Wilhelm to Enver Pasha, Ottoman Minister of War and leading member of the Young Turk triumvirate which more or less ruled the empire during the First World War. The Pasha was Number One OttoMAN at that time, but his star lost its glitter when his country was defeated. Sacked by the sultan, he and his two buddies Talat and Cemal fled into exile, presciently anticipating the Court-Martial that found them guilty in absentia of war crimes (including the infamous deportation of Armenians) and condemned them to death.
Enver, it seems, attempted to stay involved in the affairs of his country after the foundation of the Republic, but was not much loved by the founding president, Mustafa Kemal, which pretty much sealed his fate. According to biographers, deprived of a role in the new Turkey, Enver Pasha turned to meddling in the affairs of another new state, Soviet Russia, and was killed in a skirmish while fighting for his vision of a Pan-Turkic union in Central Asia. Originally buried where he fell in Tajikstan, his remains were apparently brought back to Turkey in 1996 and reinterred in the Istanbul district of Şişli.
But getting back to our Bull . . . according to Finans Caddesi, he was moved to the grounds of the new Hilton, opened in 1955 as Istanbul’s first modern five-star hotel. From there, for some reason, in 1969 he was relocated to Kadıköy, to the garden of the old local government building on the waterfront, whence it was a short rampage up the hill to his present site at Altıyol. Whatever the actual route taken, our beast, despite his seemingly immovable bronze bulk, has apparently made quite a tour of the city.
Well, I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about Enver Pasha – an important figure in Turkey’s march to modernity, despite his tarnished reputation. Then I came across a website, Bir Istanbul Hayali, which took me back to the other claim involving Sultan Abdülaziz’s 1864 order, insisting that the controversial critter had been put to pasture in the garden of the newly constructed Beylerbeyi Palace in 1865. From there, for some reason, he was conveyed to a more rural setting, the so-called Bilezikçi Çiftliği (Farm), whence he subsequently visited a couple of aristocratic manor houses and had a spell in front of the Lütfi Kırdar Sports and Exhibition hall in Harbiye, before eventually finding his way to Kadıköy, first to the old council building on the waterfront and thence to the Altıyol intersection in 1987.
So who do we believe? Another site I visited was insistent that our Bull had been spotted at a Universal Exhibition in Paris. Faded photographs seem to confirm this, though there appears to be confusion over the date – this source sets it in 1867, however there was indeed an exhibition in 1878, and another in 1889 celebrating the centenary of the Storming of the Bastille. It is, of course, possible that there was more than one bull, but then that begs the question – where are the others now?
Isn’t the Internet a fabulous monument to the genius of humanity! Here I am sitting at my desk at home following these leads in a way I couldn’t have imagined not so very long ago. One of my favourite relatively unknown heroes is the guy credited with inventing the ‘www’, an Englishman by the name of Tim Berners-Lee. Well, to be fair, Good Queen Bess II did honour him with a knighthood in 2004, and in 2012 the Sultan of Oman awarded him the Sultan Qaboos Order for Culture, Science and Arts (First Class) – but still, where would Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have been without him? And who made all the money? But thanks to Sir Timothy I have been able to roam through space and time from the Bull in Kadıköy to the estate of a wealthy Ottoman Armenian back in the mid-19th century, and to learn about a talented and unusual musician in 21stcentury Los Angeles.
Names are important, aren’t they? And I liked the sound of that website Bir İstanbul Hayali – ‘An Istanbul Dream’. Maybe that’s why the name of that farm caught my eye – Bilezikçi Çiftliği. There has been much ado in recent months about one of the Turkish Government’s mega-projects, a third bridge across the Bosporus Strait, whose construction requires building approach roads through one of the city’s last extensive sylvan areas, the Belgrade Forest. Well, apparently the so-called Bilezikçi Farm is an extensive estate adjoining that forest, named after the Armenian Bilezikçiyan family who owned it back in Ottoman times.
The first hit in my next Google search turned up a news item from Milliyet newspaper in April 2006 reporting that one of Turkey’s largest companies, Alarko Holding, owned by a Jewish gentleman, İshak Alaton, was upset with the government. Apparently Alarko Holding was/is the current owner of the 400 hectare ‘Bilezikçi’ estate which borders on the Belgrade Forest – and in the interests of free market capitalism, was planning, for the benefit of wealthy foreign residents of Istanbul, a major development incorporating 4,000 luxury villas and sports facilities including basketball and volleyball courts, and a golf course.
According to the report, the government decided to step in and expropriate the estate, with the aim of turning it over for public recreation and forestry research, offering to pay Alarko €6.1 million as compensation. It seems Mr Alaton and his team believed they would get a good deal more from the wealthy foreigners, and were taking their case to the European Court of Human Rights – an interesting interpretation of ‘human rights’, you might think. As far as I can gather, the case has not yet been resolved – although construction on the 3rd Bosporus Bridge is well under way and the government continues to field a good deal of criticism over it.
As for the Bilezikçiyan family, like many of their congregation, they were extremely successful and influential people back in the days of the Ottoman Empire. Another source tells me that, in the 1850s, a certain Agop Bilezikçiyan and several other Armenian businessmen were involved in the establishment of Turkey’s first limited liability company, Şirket-i Hayriye, forerunner of the company that today runs Istanbul’s ferries. In 1910 their large rural estate was sold to a buyer referred to simply as Abraham Pasha, and shortly after, in 1913, passed into the hands of a certain Nimetullah Hanım, wife of that Enver Pasha we spoke of earlier.
What happened to ‘The Bull’ during those lost years? Did it ever, in fact, graze in the pastures of the Bilezikçiyan Farm? And what became of the Bilezikçiyans themselves? I have no idea how common it is or was among people of Armenian descent. I did come across a passing reference to the name in a fascinating paper discussing the activities of Armenian separatist gangs in Anatolia during the First World War. And undoubtedly Enver Pasha was no big supporter of Armenians. On a more peaceful and artistic note, I turned up a contemporary ‘Armenian Los Angeles-based musician and composer’, John Bilzikjian whose music I intend to hunt out.
In future, when I pass that muscular masculine bronze brute posing for photographs at the Altıyol traffic lights, I will perhaps muse a little on the transitory nature of human affairs, the complexities of history and the need we all have for a thread to lead us safely out of the labyrinth.
(This article originally appeared on TurkeyFile and has been republished with permission.)