A missing person, property plots, and political violence in Istanbul

The politics-capital-foundation machinery seems to be running smoothly in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul and a tiny six-line notice published on March 7 about a ‘lost’ man named Dimitriyades is an integral part of this vicious mechanism. Beyoğlu has once again become the primary place where one can find the magnificent harmony of destruction at the hands of neo-liberalism and neo-Ottomanism.

A small notice was published in Milliyet daily on March 7, 2021. Istanbul’s 24th Civil Court was asking the public to come forward with any information about the whereabouts of Anatolian Greek (Rum) citizen Viktor Dimitriyades. This was clearly a missing person announcement. A judge was set to decide on the legal status of this person. The issue to be considered was regarding his plot of land in the Ömer Avni Neighborhood of the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul.

Last week, the government announced that ownership of Gezi Park in Beyoğlu was transferred from the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB) to the Sultan Beyazıt Han Foundation. Many saw this transfer as being to the disadvantage of the metropolitan municipality. Public debates erupted. The General Directorate of Foundations came up with an explanation, reminding us of the 30th article of the Law of Foundations No: 5737, which came into effect in 2008. The article states, “Realties that were built as foundation immovables but became property of the Treasury, a municipality and local authority in one way or another, will be transferred to the originally registered foundation.” As a result, 1014 immovable including landmarks including the Galata Tower, Pera Palas Hotel, and Şişli Etfal Hospital have been transferred to foundations.

A public debate has been ongoing regarding property transfers to foundations such as Ensar, Türgev, Tügva, and others, all of which were founded by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

Now, we have come across the so-called “fused foundations.” This is a term used for foundations that were established in the Ottoman and Seljuk times, but now do not have any executives left. Today, the General Directorate of Foundations manages them.

Let’s return to that notice in the newspaper.

The Dimitriyades’ plot of land happens to involve two important projects: The famous Galataport, which a Doğuş Group is building, and the 650-meter long Kabataş Project by the sea.

The İBB has been using this land as a city park for many years. The notice in the paper says that the plot of land was leased from the Mahmut Bedrettin Foundation. The ownership will possibly be transferred to this foundation at the end of the court case. There’s nothing illegal in this process. When we follow similar procedures, we see that a lot of “lost person” cases in recent years involve such immovable property becoming registered to an original foundation.

There is a point of interest is the role of the Mahmut Bedrettin Foundation. There is only one foundation with this name and it is in Kayseri in Central Anatolia. Mahmut Bedrettin served a kadi (Muslim judge) in Kayseri during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent (1494-1566) who ruled the Ottoman Empire between 1520 and 1566. Research indicates that Mahmut Bedrettin’s library was famous at the time and a Kadi Mahmut Foundation Library was established in 2009.

Let’s now start at the small but valuable plot at the Beşiktaş-Karaköy shore line and enlarge the map.

It was 1927. Aman was at the top of a ladder and was removing a name plate that read, “Cadde-i Kebir” (The Big Avenue) from a wall and replacing it with one that read “İstiklal Caddesi” (Liberty Avenue) as people watched him curiously. His name was Osman Nuri Ergin. This person had worked at the Istanbul Municipality for a long time, had written nine volumes on “Municipality Matters in the Code of Civil Law”, and prepared the first Istanbul’s City Guide. He named hundreds of avenues, streets, squares, and regions in the city. That name changing plate was the first symbol of the newly founded Turkish Republic’s (1923) stamp on Istanbul’s properties. Thus, political change was in sync with the structural changes in the city.

In fact, the Beyoğlu Quarter and its environment was the first place where the AKP focused its attention. This party has been working for years with one objective in mind: To remove this old quarter’s name, history, style, and cultural identity and to turn it into a locality for its own party elites. Projects like Galataport, Emek Movie Theater, Atatürk Cultural Center’s renewal, and Taksim Mosque were all stepping stones towards a huge transformation project which they called the “Beyoğlu Cultural Route.”

Unfortunately, unskilled hands and minds can easily damage historic buildings. Apart from this, the issue is the transfer of property. Hotels, residences, luxury real estate, and posh buildings are being built replacing them. Shop owners and small businesses protested the Gezi Park protests. The fate of those properties the owners is unknown.

Beyoğlu is the primary place where we can find the magnificent harmony of such destruction at the hands of neo-liberalism and neo-Ottomanism.
Parallel to Galataport, five more projects that cost billions of dollars are also under construction. The oldest one of these is Çalık Holding’s Taksim 360 project in Tarlabaşı which is a part of Beyoğlu. Others are Polat Holding’s Piyalepaşa transformation project, Ege Yapı’s complex that covers 14 thousand square meters on the Golden Horn shore, Polimeks Holding’s project with villas, hotels, a mall and a yacht port that will replace the hundreds-of-years-old Golden Horn Shipyard, and the less well known Benesta Beyoğlu Project.

Benesta is being built by the Esta Group. The Group’s founder Bahattin Demirbilek was 22-years-old when he went to Russia as the marketing director of Duru soaps and Arko shaving creams. He is now the 129th biggest contractor in the world. Demirbilek established Esta Construction in 2005 and started to sign massive state contracts from the Putin administration. He won the hotel and stadium tenders of the Sochi Olympics which was the summit of his career. Then, he was back in Istanbul with four projects. The most valuable of them will be the ultra-luxurious “life center” that will be a single block with 9 floors on an area of 7 thousand square meters. It will go up on the Taksim end of the Piyalepaşa boulevard that Polat Holding is transforming. The 6 projects cited above are collectively called the BIG Project, namely the “Beyoğlu Investors Group,” which was founded by the Beyoğlu Municipality where the AKP rules.

Let us focus on another detail of the map.

In January, the Beyoğlu Municipality appealed in front of parliament asking to restore and rent the 7-story Ferah Apartment Building at the entrance of Mis Street in Taksim. This street is almost an island with its identity, culture, locals, and visitors. The building’s original name is Martin Apartment which was built by Aram and İshak Karakaş at the beginning of the 20th century. Architects and art historians regard it as a rare example of “Art Nouveau” with the flower and plant motifs on its façade.

The Ferah Apartment became the property of Aksan Ak Construction in 2007 and then the property of Akasya Stucco and Metal Production Inc. in 2017. Both companies belonged to Ali Katırcıoğlu, one of the founders of Kaynak Holding. Ali Katırcıoğlu was a very close associate and follower of Fethullah Gülen, the self-exiled preacher living in Pennsylvania, U.S., and who is on the AKP’s terrorist list. This edifice was first used as the FEM University Preparatory Course building and then as a private high school before the failed coup on July 15, 2016. After the coup attempt, the AKP assigned a trustee to Kaynak Holding.

Last week, the court ruled in favor of the confiscation of all property belonging to this holding. A member of the Beyoğlu City Council, Süleyman Solmaz of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), claimed that a restoration of the Ferah Apartment would mean a disruption to the social fiber of Mis Street.

From Armenian proprietors to the Republic, then to the Gülen community and finally to the AKP, this story allows one to easily trace the fight for property and political power. But who is the behind all these changes?

Ahmet Misbah Demircan, who was the mayor of the Beyoğlu Municipality for two consecutive terms and who was a founder of BIG, was recently appointed as deputy to the Minister of Culture and Tourism by President Erdoğan. Burhan Ersoy, a civil servant at the Ministry of Public Works, was appointed to the General Directorate of Foundations in January 2020.

Hayrullah Çelebi, who used to be the director of AKP’s Ensar Foundation’s Beşiktaş branch office, became an executive at the General Directorate of Foundations. All of these names are linked to the Okçular Foundation of the president’s son, Bilal Erdoğan. This means that the Okçular Foundation is currently ruling the Beyoğlu Municipality.

In short, the politics-capital-foundation machinery is running smoothly in the Beyoğlu District of Istanbul.

The tiny six-line notice published on March 7 about the lost Dimitriyades is an integral part of this vicious mechanism. Beyoğlu is a place where each new political power buries everything which came before it. Beyoğlu is a ripe and juicy fruit of the property forest of Istanbul.

Thus, the properties in Beyoğlu and political violence have always been intertwined.

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