HOW WAS THE YILDIZ PALACE LOOTED?
As a result of the coup on March 31, 1909, Sultan Abdulhamid II was dethroned on April 27 and exiled to Thessaloniki the following day. His family was also removed from the palace.
On April 25, prior to the dethronement of Sultan Abdulhamid II, the Yıldız Palace was besieged by a group consisting of soldiers, volunteers, and marauders gathered from Macedonia. After the evacuation of the Sultan, the palace was occupied on the evening of April 27. Among the occupiers were Yane Sandanski, Bulgarian Committee Leader and his gang, who were allies of the members of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), also known as the Young Turks.
Not only were the valuable artworks and treasures accumulated in the palace over the years looted, but also the personal wealth of the loyal servants of the palace, which consisted of salaries and gifts. These dedicated individuals were searched one by one, down to their undergarments, and their personal belongings were confiscated as they were expelled from the palace
Record of the Looting
The day after, a committee of six people was formed under the leadership of Ebubekir Hazım Tepeyran, who was the mayor of the city at that time, to assess the remaining items and documents in the palace. In addition, at the request of Commander Mahmud Shevket Pasha of the Hareket Ordusu (Action Army), a delegation was also formed consisting of deputies to oversee the process.
The committee completed its work. The cash and valuable items seized in the palace were counted and taken to the Ministry of War. This wealth included 450,000 gold liras, a valuable rosary worth 74,000 liras consisting of precious large pearls, approximately 90,000 banknote liras whose total amount is not yet known, undisclosed and significant amounts of money found in two safes that have not been counted yet, as well as diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and other gemstones found in a five-drawer cabinet.
The total value of all these items was estimated to be 2 million liras in the currency of that time. Additionally, there was a highly valuable and ornate cane, mouthpieces adorned with diamonds and rubies, estimated to be worth around 120,000 liras, stored in 12 bags. Apart from these, there were 250 riding and carriage horses, as well as unopened chests and crates.
In addition, the books, ceramic sets, swords, and weapons adorned with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds, as well as the gifts presented by rulers, preserved in the palace museum, were worth millions of liras.
The spy reports given to the palace were collected and classified by a separate committee. When it was discovered that some of these spy reports were provided by the Young Turks (CUP), they were all destroyed.
What Is the Meaning of the Nation?
The newspapers, by continually defaming the deposed sultan, used this wealth as a means to criticize him. However, Sultan Abdulhamid II, who reigned for 33 years, had accumulated a great fortune through trade since his days as a prince. It was quite natural for such wealth to accumulate in the palace of an empire's ruler.
In addition to the seizure of the Sultan's movable properties, his immovable assets within the country and bank accounts were also confiscated in the following days. The bank accounts held abroad were also obtained by pressuring him and his family with threats to their lives, ensuring their transfer to the government.
When a member of the parliament inquired about the fate of this wealth, Mahmud Shevket Pasha stated that it would belong to the nation, with "the nation" referring to the members of the Young Turks. These items were taken to Paris and London and sold. Some palace employees later recounted that they had come across certain items from Yıldız Palace in the homes of prominent members of the Young Turks.
After the war was lost and the Young Turks fell from power, their actions began to be openly discussed. Newspapers wrote about them for days. Those Young Turks who remained in the country and couldn't escape denied the allegations. However, there were also those who admitted to the looting. In the April 17, 1919 issue of the İkdam newspaper, the names of those accused of looting and a list of the alleged items they took were published. The list included some very interesting individuals like Enver and Mustafa Kemal Pashas.
For example, General Mustafa Turan, one of the witnesses of the March 31st Incident, stated that the Young Turks organized the incident in order to loot Yıldız Palace. He mentioned that Enver Pasha and his associate Sandanski, had previously planned to participate in the looting of Yıldız Palace as agreed upon (In his book named “Taşkışlada 31 Mart”). Cevher Ağa, who refused to reveal the location of the treasures, was killed, while the second accomplice, Nadir Ağa, was forced to confess out of fear.
Hüsamettin Ertürk, one of the prominent members of the Young Turks and the former head of the Special Organization (Teşkilat-ı Mahsusa), a paramilitary secret service established by CUP, says: "Abdulhamid, during his 33-year reign, meticulously preserved a vast fortune consisting of thousands of jewels, gold and silver sets, diamonds, rubies, emeralds, pearls, and various other dazzling treasures sent to him as gifts from all over. The Young Turks deliberately concealed this immense wealth!" (In his book named “İki Devrin Perde Arkası”)
Even the Young Turk journalist/member of parliament Hüseyin Cahid himself says, "At most, there might have been isolated incidents of ordinary theft attempts. Surely, this would have been limited to a very short period of time." (In his memoirs named “Siyasi Anılar”)
The Old Records
During the Armistice period, the Yıldız Palace looting case also came before the court. Under the government of Damat Ferid Pasha, those considered to be responsible for the act were arrested. Some of the suspects had already died, while others had fled.
The Divan-ı Harbî-i Örfî (Military Tribunal) issued its final verdict on September 7, 1920, stating that the looting at Yıldız Palace was legally proven. Among those considered responsible for the act, Hüseyin Hüsnü, Shevket Turgut, Galip, Hasan Rıza, Hasan İzzet Pasha, and Selahattin Adil Bey were sentenced to 10 years of hard labor each, which was equivalent to a death sentence. The other culprits received sentences of 5 and 3 years of hard labor. They were also expelled from the military.
Due to being sentenced to death in absentia, no specific punishment was determined for Enver, who was a fugitive at the time. Similarly, since Cavid Bey had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor, no additional penalty was imposed on him. Some individuals were acquitted, and the cases against those who had passed away were dropped.
The convicts argued that the crime had exceeded the statute of limitations and, furthermore, since it was considered an ordinary crime, the Military Tribunal had no jurisdiction over the case. The government reduced the sentences in response to these claims.
When Tevfik Pasha assumed power instead of Ferid Pasha, he neglected the execution of the sentences. As a result, the convicts appealed to the Meclis-i Temyiz-i Askerî (Military Court of Appeals). The court ruled that due to the political amnesty granted in 1912 and the expiration of the statute of limitations for ordinary crimes, the cases should be dropped.
The Military Tribunal indeed acquitted the defendants on January 6, 1921, resulting in the closure of the looting case. It appears that those responsible for the crime escaped punishment, leading to a sense of impunity for the perpetrators.
Nevpesend Hanım, the sister-in-law of Sultan Hamid, recounts: "Shortly after our master left the palace, the doors were opened (28 April 1909). It was said that soldiers were entering the harem. In fear, we moved to the Sultan's quarters. Fortunately, I had locked the nurse's quarters. The soldiers looted everything, carrying away whatever they could on their backs, as we watched from the window. Apart from the soldiers, the public had also entered the palace. They looted everything, even the curtains. All the members of the harem were expelled from the palace. The soldiers brought their wives into the palace. Each of us was taken to a separate salon, where these women examined us even in the most intimate areas. They took my emerald ring, given to me by our Master, my ruby earrings, and the delicate silver necklace gifted by my father. We were expelled from the palace without even being allowed to take our personal belongings." (Similar accounts can be found in the memoirs of Sultan Hamid's daughters, Şadiye and Ayşe Sultan, his daughter-in-law Mislimelek Hanım, his wife Behice Hanım, and the treasurer Leyla Açba.)
Who the Heck Are You!
Sultan Abdulhamid II was very fond of books. The unique books in the palace library were gathered. When the bandits came to plunder the library, they were confronted by the librarian Kalkandelenli Sabri Bey, who claimed his fellow countrymanship and spoke in Albanian, preventing the looting of the books. The books he saved from the plunder are now in the Istanbul University Library. (Sedat Kumbaracılar, Yıldız Yağması)
Sultan Hamid characterized romantic novels as "bathroom literature" and had an interest in detective novels. The presence of two translated novels, Piège Mortel (Death Trap) and Le Dernier Jour d'un Condamné (The Last Day of a Condemned), in the palace, which are now being used as supposed evidence of the Sultan's alleged cruelty, can indeed be seen as both tragic and comical.
Long Live the Sultan!
Sultan Abdulhamid II was fond of animals. There were a large number of animals in Yıldız Palace. They were sold through auction for 3-5 piastres. Newspapers celebrated this by saying, "There can't be a more tormenting punishment for a dethroned ruler than witnessing the sale of his belongings."
Canaries and Ankara cats were sold for insignificant amounts like 2-3 liras. One citizen bought a pair of parrots for 40 liras. One of them would sing the Hamidiye Marşı (March of Hamidia), while the other constantly shouted, "Long live the Sultan!" Bird cages, each worth 50 liras, were also sold for 5-10 liras each.
Delicacy and Sensitivity Specific to Turks
After the looting, Yıldız Palace was opened to the public as a lesson for everyone. In 1909, Anna Grosser Rilke, a member of the German colony in Istanbul, describes her experience: "After the overthrow of Sultan Abdulhamid, the famous Yıldız Palace, where the Sultan resided, was opened to the public. This fairy-tale palace, with its mysterious beauty, was now there to delight the eyes of the people. However, we were greatly disappointed as we explored the palace. Everything was neglected. Even in the area where the Sultan resided, there was nothing noteworthy to be seen. But what was astonishing were the visitors. Apart from foreigners, there were a multitude of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, while the number of Turks could be counted on fingers. Was this due to the inherent delicacy and sensitivity specific to Turks? I must admit, I was also saddened. Despite the disappointment of not being able to see magnificent things, I felt a sense of the degrading and belittlement of the deposed Sultan." (Nie Werwehte Klänge)
Is Looting a Customary Practice?
After Sultan Abdulaziz was deposed in 1876, his family and relatives were hastily removed from Dolmabahçe Palace. During this time, the surrounding soldiers looted a portion of the jewelry. When the coup leaders Rüştü, Avni, and Mithat Pashas arrived at the palace, they discovered jewelry worth 20 million dollars by today's standards, which they handed over to a Greek jeweler named Hristaki to be sold. The man fled to Europe with the jewelry and was never seen again. Additionally, cash amounting to 2 million dollars by today's standards was also looted.
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