The tanners of Zeytinburnu

Z cover

Following our visit to the Zeytinburnu district of Istanbul [1] to seek the wisdom of a senior Bektashi couple, I’ve been admiring

It’s published in a bilingual edition, lavishly illustrated, with chapters on the Byzantine and Ottoman periods, holy springs and churches, lodges and mosques, the walls, health institutions, economy and demographics, and leisure.

Zeytinburnu map

I find the exemplary diachronic ethnography of the tanneries particularly impressive (cf. the cinematic climax of Jason Goodwin’s novel The Janissary tree), in the chapter on the Kazlıçeşme quarter (pp.100–153). I suppose I’m drawn to it partly by my interest in the changing social role, and technical expertise, of low-status craftsmen in China—including household Daoists, ritual artisans, coffin-bearers and grave-diggers.

In the 15th century, under Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror, 360 tanneries were constructed in Kazlıçeşme. The great 17th-century ethnographer Evliya Çelebi described the scene:
(here and in other citations below I’ve revamped the somewhat unwieldy English translation, attempting—not necessarily reliably—to make it more reader-friendly, while inevitably sacrificing the nuance of the original)

In the Byzantine era, people coming from plague-afflicted regions could not enter Istanbul before staying at Yedikule [Kazlıçeşme] for seven days; this was called nazarta (quarantine). After the conquest, Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror resettled all the tanners and slaughterhouses to this region.

[Kazlıçeşme] is a developed town by the seaside. It has one large and seven small mosques, one inn, one bath, seven fountains, and three lodges. It has three hundred tannery shops, fifty glue workshops, and seventy string workshops. But few of the inhabitants are married; it is a bazaar of bachelors. During wartime, the town can mobilise five thousand strong tanner bachelors who are tough as iron and very courageous.

People who are not used to the foul smell of this town couldn’t tolerate it even for one moment. But for the inhabitants that smell is like musk and ambergris; they don’t like it when people who put on musk approach them. They treat others with respect and honour. They have abundant property. Their spiritual master, the late Ahi Evran, asked a caliph who was passing by with his skirt filled, “What’s that in your skirt?” He replied: “It’s kuruş (piasters, coins).” But he was actually carrying dog faeces—he gave this answer out of shame. Ahi Evran even recited prayers saying, “May Allah bestow blessings on your goods and supplies”. Thanks to such auspicious prayers, the trade of the leather workers has been prosperous, and they are always generous in treating others. Moreover, a leather trader called Hadji Ali had worked with dog faeces for forty years, and the English infidels wanted to buy his supply for forty thousand kuruş but failed to do so. This is a famous story.

A vivid image known beyond the town is the relief of a goose under the arch of a fountain, carved in white marble by a master craftsman. It’s indescribable in words; when people see it they think it’s alive. Hence the name Kazlıçeşme, Goose Fountain.

Goose relief

Source: wiki.

In another account, Evliya Çelebi surveys the trade over the wider city:

Evliya 1

Evliya 2

In that last paragraph, note the reference to the furriers on parade with their own Janissary band!  Among other guild parades that Evliya Çelebi documents are those of sable merchants, falconers, leopard- and lion-keepers, barbers, and acrobats (see e.g. Robert Dankoff and Sooyong Kim, eds, An Ottoman traveller, pp.24–30).

The book goes on:

People who had committed a serious crime sought refuge in one of the tanneries at Kazlıçeşme, working there so as to evade conviction and rid themselves of state prosecution. Since the tanneries faced difficulties in finding workers, they took the risk of providing patronage to criminals. Around the 1720s, this state of affairs passed to kadi registers, and the state took active measures against the brigands who had converged at Kazlıçeşme. The names of the enterprises and the workers operating in the area were recorded in an effort to stop the brigands linking up again.

123

After the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the founding of the Republic, the tanneries were modernised in the 1920s. The chapter gives a list of seventeen factories, as well as a further ninety-six workshops. Besides Muslim Turks, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews were prominent in the trade.

106

Some tanneries were still operating in the early 1990s. We read fascinating interviews with elderly workers. Saim Çetintaşoğlu (b.1932) gave a vivid account:

The gate of Kazli’s bath was next to the house where I was born. I used this bath a lot during my childhood, so I recall it very well. Its basins and even floors were covered with marble. At the place where the carpenter Nayır brothers make cupboards for leather tradesmen were the changing room and cooling room. In the boiler room, the water was boiled in a square boiler, using leather remnants and cobs instead of wood or charcoal. There was a heavy odour everywhere. The boiler that opens to the cross street was named Çıkmaz Sokak (blind alley) after this. In 1950s Münir Altıer rented the bath and turned it into a tannery. When he died, the bath passed to metal workers, who have been doing casting work ever since then, such as Kaplan Deri and Kemal Kurban.

Bath-keeper Srap Zehra, the bath employees, and Osman the Cook used to live in this building. Opposite, where the tanneries are located today, lived Artaki, who provided the tanners with egg white, egg yolk, and cattle’s blood for polishing purposes. Kazlıçeşme’s headman, the blacksmith Cezmi Öztemir, lived there too. In the building of Faik Cihanoğlu lived charcoal seller Mustafa and Murat Gökçiğdem, imam of the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa mosque. The two-storey wooden house on the opposite corner was inhabited by Süleyman Effendi, owner of the Safa bar-restaurant at Yedikule.

Sara nightclub occupied an important place in the lives of the Kazli tradesmen. In the evenings, tanners used to go drinking there. Bahçeli restaurant, run by Pehlivan İbrahim, which one reached by climbing down a staircase near the Castle Gate, was famous as a venue frequented by tanners for drinks. Quarrels caused by the drunkards were settled at the gate of the military police to the right of the Castle Gate. Women, drinks, and insults were indispensable passions of tanners. Those who couldn’t help having a drink during working hours in the daytime stopped by Arap Şevket’s Kazliici bar.

At the site of Celil Tanatar, at the entrance to Karakol Street, was the stable of “everyone’s uncle”, the “walking bank” Abdürrahim Gezer, who was the backer of everyone at Kazli. Gezer owned two horses, one black and one white, and a fine phaeton. Originally working in the pumping business, Uncle Gezer was a benevolent Kazli property owner, an exceptional personality who had grown up among Greek rowdies and enjoyed giving money to people in need. Fifty years ago, the carts went about their work and phaetons carried passengers, bringing women to the Kazli baths from Samatya and Bakırköy. Unlike today, the passage through Demirhane Avenue was easy.

Kazlıçeşme, 1986.

Proceeding along Demirhane Avenue, on the site of Bekir Uyguner we come to two-storey wooden terrace houses. I lived on this terrace together with my father. Next door was Kirkor’s repair-house, and next to that was the three-part casting and lathing maintenance house belonging to Kazli’s backer Rami Bey. And on the site of the present Derimko was a two-storey white wooden house belonging to Kumcu (Sand-seller) Mustafa. In the red-brick house on the site of Hayati’s tannery at the beginning of Yeni Tabakhane Street resided Mustafa Ulus, the oldest and the best known machinery manufacturer. Here the houses ended and the stout-leather factory belonging to Kamhis began at the site of Alber Beresi.

Demirhane Avenue used to end at the factory of Alekos Dulos, which extended as far as Genc Osman Avenue. Because the coast road wasn’t yet built, there was no entry to Kazli through Genc Osman. The passage was made via Yedikule Gate, and one approached Demirhane between cemeteries. To the right of Demirhane Avenue was a spinning mill run by the British; in its garden was a large pool, with water channels. There were about twenty workers’ houses in a field full of trees. From this field one could get to the Kazli train station, which was in the form of a shed. At the site of Ümit Soytürk lived Muhittin Aga.

Mustafa Ulus and Dokumacılar Inn was the vegetable garden of Hüseyin Aga and Ayşe Hanım, where delicious tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce, and parsley were grown. When her husband died, Ayşe Hanım sold the place to the Çengiçs and bought a four-floor apartment block at Aksaray with the proceeds; the Çengiçs constructed an inn in the garden and rented out rooms to textile workers.

Near the mausoleum of Derya Ali Baba (who endowed all his property to the leather tradesmen and was probably the oldest leather tradesman in Kazlıçeşme) was the Guild Coffee-shop, which passed by inheritance from him down to us. One climbed up to it by two staircases, and people sat on berths around the walls. The administrative room of the association was entered via the coffee-shop, and its affairs were conducted at the back of the mausoleum. Beside the room, under black fig trees was the garden of the association. Later, a cookhouse was opened for the garden workers, run by the late Ahmet Ahmet İşbilen. During the tenure of Cezmi Öztemir the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down and a building was constructed in its place; the first floor was rented to Yapı Kredi Bank, while the upper floor was allocated to the association. In this way, the mausoleum area was invigorated.

Beyond the Guild Coffee-shop were restaurants, the Kazli Bakery, the porters’ coffee-shop, the cartwrights’ coffee-shop, and the restaurant of Cemil the Cook. Next to Mumhane [Wax-house] cul-de-sac were Greengrocer Hüsamettin’s father Hadji Mustafa’s restaurant, Zemci the Butcher, coffee-maker Acem Şaban, and a large recreation area at the back of Kazlıçeşme. Next to that was Acem Süreya’s coffee-shop, with bachelors’ rooms at Taş Han [Stone Inn] above. After becoming Süreya’s son-in-law, Policeman Memduh ran this coffee-shop for many years. Along with Taş Han it was turned into a tannery, with the open space behind the fountain enclosed by a wall. This ancient fountain, which hadn’t failed to supply water to everyone for five centuries, was cast into the middle of the street; still, it hasn’t been offended and continues to function today.

 Opposite Taş Han was a wooden police station, rebuilt before 1950 in stone and brick by the Association of Leather Manufacturers. After the police station were wooden sheds. The Fatih Hotel was constructed much later. Aya Paraskeva on the opposite side faced Müezzin Hasan Street—it wasn’t covered by the Arkadaş Coffee-shop then. No tanneries were yet built in Müezzin Hasan Street. At the entrance of Hadji Mehmet Street was the workplace of Salih Usta the Carpenter, with his house above. Among the habitués of Kazli who were born in this house were Metin and his brother Alaettin, who carried the goods of many Kazli factories to the marketplace. In Hadji Mehmet Pasha Street was a rented property of Mehmet Pasha; when my father and his associate purchased this place, about ten or fifteen families had been lodging there.

The front of the rented property was open, giving access down to the sea from the hill 20 or 30 meters in front of it. The present Salhane Street and Kotra Street had not yet been created in the 1950s. In front of and to the right of the property, beneath oar-level, the seawater was deep blue where people entered the sea. From there, sweet water, like sweetened fruit juice, came to the Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Pasha Mosque. whose fountains supplied drinking water with a gurgling sound.

There was a square on the intersection of Müezzin Hasan ve Mosque Şerif. At the site of the present Sezai and Sabahattin Gülsever brothers was a wooden house, and just on the opposite corner was the fishermen’s coffee-shop. On the hill behind the coffee-shop customs officials worked. People went down to the sea by the side of this hut. Boats were pulled onto the sandy beach. Near Merzifonlu Kara Mustafa Mosque, at the position of the present Rıza Pedük Factory, was a boathouse where boats were repaired and rowing boats could be protected when the sea was turbulent. In the direction of the fountain square of Camii Şerif Street were the stone-made houses of Greeks who earned their livelihood by fishing. Fifty years ago, the shores of Kazli were not yet polluted [really?—SJ]; an abundance of sea bass, mackerel, lobster, and hermit crab was to be caught. Tasula’s children Koço and Lambo used to go fishing early in the morning, putting their catch into willow-branch baskets and bringing it before Patronlar Kahvesi Tevfik to put on sale. When fish became scarce at Kazli, the famous fisherman Karaçivi and his son Panayot came over to our stout leather factory.

Among the cartwrights of Kazlıçeşme there were famous figures such as the theatre actors Naşit Ziya and Dümbüllü Halil, as well as İsmail Efendi, who made his fortune as a coachman. So that his stout leather wouldn’t get damaged, Fettah Koşar had his items carried in a coach until his death—how can one forget Fettah’s cart, drawn by white horses?

Also with roots in Kazli, our colleagues the leather tradesmen İsmail Ilgaz and Selahattin Ilgaz were born in houses next to the Kara Mustafa Mosque. Towards the fountain at Mosque Şerif, there were Greek houses on the site of the inn of Nusret Canayakın, Zeki Özzengin and Bakkalbasi. Right at the end, on the intersection of Öcal Street, we come to coffee-shop keeper Tevfik’s place, where tradesmen used to gather after the Guild Coffee-shop was shut down. In a sense it became the marketplace (stock exchange) of the leather tradesmen, where raw hides and stout leather were bought and sold. Fettah Koşar used to open the market and dictate the prices of stout leather, and lesser tradesmen would wait for his sales before adjusting their own prices. After business was completed in the mornings, backgammon parties and card-playing contests were held in the afternoons.

At the site of the gas station, opposite Tevfik’s, was the coffee-shop of Acem Dervisih, with tables and chairs placed around, surrounded by half-walls, with people drinking tea and coffee. This was the main stopover for workers and masters. At the back of the coffee-shop, opposite the police station, where Ergun Çelikoğlu now lives, resided Hüseyin the Charcoal Seller. Next to him lived Artin Usta the Cook, while Lambo the Fisherman lived above. Next to them was Koco Usta, the carpenter who made the best cupboards in Kazlıçeşme. Right next door was the workshop of Hasan Usta, then the best lathing master at Kazlıçeşme. Hasan Usta always shaved his head with a razor, walking the streets bald-headed; he had weird ideas, but he was a good master. Bachelor workers used to inhabit the three-storey wooden house on the site of the present premises of Türkiye İs Bank.

At the site of the Eren Depot, reached by following Demirhane Avenue up from Kazli cemetery, was a vegetable garden with a wood. At the site of the present leather tradesman Nezir or Caglar’ın yerinde was the pickaxe- and spade-factory belonging to Hanris. What remains from this factory is a stone wall, stretching all the way along. Further on, in Semsiye Street, were summerhouses and houses overlooking the sea. Kazli’s backer Rahmi Bey and İsmail Efendi the Grocer used to live in this street. The area from here up to Gemalmaz Street, and the places opposite it where Derby Lastik, Kadir Safak ve Hayriş dye-houses are found, were just empty fields belonging to Kör Sıddık the Coachman. Kör Sıddık used to live at the house at the beginning of Gemalmaz Street. Ali Rıza Efendi the Butcher, father of yogurt-maker Halik Efendi, the father of Ergun Celikoğlu, is said to have resided further on. Our colleague Celikoğlu was also born at Kazlıçeşme—his mother still lives here.

The editors supplement this fascinating account with further notes on the locations and characters listed.

127

The oldest tanner the researchers found was Nurettin Keskiniz, whose rather more technical account describes the transformation of the business:

I was born in Yugoslavia in about 1900. Both my grandfather Musa Usta, whom I remember, and my father Ahmet Usta were tanners as well. My grandfather migrated from Leskovca to Kumanovo during [the 18]93 war and practiced tannery there. After the Balkan War they became emigrants for a second time and moved to Skopje. When I was 8 years old, while I was attending the district school, I was going to the tannery. During my holiday periods, I was doing tannery work. This means I’ve been going to the tannery for seventy-six years now; that’s how long I’ve been inhaling the smell. It’s a blessing for us. To some extent, my tanner guests and friends, who’ve been visiting over the last decade since I’ve had problems with my legs and feet, bring me that smell. All tanners carry it with them and exude it.

In 1935, when we immigrated here, Turkey was a poor country, where the rate of unemployment was very high. Production of vileda at Kazlıçeşme was too backward , and there were [only] five or six factories producing it. Because we had come from Yugoslavia as free immigrants, we had brought high-quality vileda and rubber heels with us. I had the chance of selling even these high-quality items. Mahmut Bey had not yet immigrated. Worried about the market conditions of the period, I wrote to him, “Do not disrupt your system. Things are not moving smoothly here. I will return as soon as possible.” He replied, “Assume that I have not read your letter. Drop your plans of returning here. Continue to work at all costs.” Mahmut Bey was a very experienced and far-sighted man who managed to serve as a member of parliament in Yugoslavia. He was older than me. After less than a year, he also migrated with his family to lend me a helping hand. This letter incident was instructive. A few years later, there was a coup in Yugoslavia and the Communist regime was established there.

When we arrived in Turkey, the first thing we did was to rent a shop at Kapalıçarşı, Perdahçılar Avenue. We tried to create capital by selling the goods we brought from Yugoslavia. One year later, we started to dye the tanned leather that we obtained from Anatolia, on the second floor of an inn in the Kapalıçarşı Örücüler (Weavers) Market. At one point we returned to tanning and the business went well. In the meantime, I had been going to Kazlıçeşme, the centre of the leather industry. There I talked with the tanners and did some shopping. I saw that in order to continue in the tannery business, it would be necessary to settle there.

We first rented and then bought the factory building in Çapraz Street from Rahmi Gezer, who was regarded as the mobile bank of Kazlıçeşme and who extended interest-free financial assistance to tanners. When I came to Kazlıçeşme in 1937, there was a small number of Turkish tanneries here: Rasim Gürel, Ahmet İşbilen, the Çengiç brothers, Saraç Hüseyin, Fettah Koşar, Mustafa Kantarlı, İhsan Sarı’s father. Except for the Çengiçs, all of them processed raw leather. They didn’t know about chromium tanning. But we had learned how to do it while in Yugoslavia. We had been producing chromium undercoating material and chromium Moroccan leather. In a sense, we may be regarded as one of the first appliers of chromium tanning in Turkey. Afterwards, the late Tahir Öztemir, father of Cezmi Öztemir, started to process chromium vileda together with Spitzer, one of the German masters. State Railways put out to tender a project for removing fabric-covered train seats and covering them with leather, which was more durable and clean. Luckily, we won the tender and were given the work of covering all the train seats with red and green chromium Moroccan leather.

We thus proved our talents in chromium tanning. In 1944, patent leather was in demand, but only Alecos Dulo’s firm had been processing it. Because we had been processing chromium leather, we transferred Panayot Sani, the master at Alecos Dulo, and began to process patent leather. For us, the most enjoyable years in tanning were the ones spent with the sale of patent leather. In order to buy one reel, the customers used to make a deposit and form queues to buy the goods. Panayot Sani came over and made things difficult for us. In the meantime, Hasan Yelmen began practicing tanning as a chemical engineer. Patent leather was prepared by boiling linseed oil. The first thing we asked Hasan Yelmen to teach us was how to bake patent leather, to rid us of the hegemony of Panayot Sani; after a short while, we succeeded and freed ourselves from him.

Over the following years, production of stout leather increased rapidly and the golden age began. Along with this increase, the number of tanners at Kazlıçeşme went up too. I don’t know who should come first, but I wish to commemorate my friends with this list, most of whom have passed away: [24 names]. These friends of mine used to deal with stout leather production. Among those who used to work in chromium tanning were: [19 names]. These characters sum up the Kazlıçeşme of the 1940s.

Forty years have passed, and we are now in the year 1984. The outlook of Kazlıçeşme has changed almost totally. Some old firms are now represented by their offspring. What I mean by the outlook changing is that there are now more newcomers than seniors. During this transfer, this outlook will be subject to change once more. If God permits us to live longer, I think no-one from the older generation will remain.

117Later we went into partnership with Hasan Yelmen and worked together for thirty years as Nurettin Keskiniz & Hasan Yelmen Co. When Hasan Yelmen stepped in, Panayot Sani, who had been making patent leather, moved back to his place. In those days, we could do chromium baking with the double-bath technique. But Hasan Yelmen managed to obtain better results by applying single-bath chromium baking. After he stepped in, we began to process chromium leather from sheep, designed for jackets. Thus it was we who first launched in Turkey the production of leather for jackets, which is in great demand today and which brings two hundred million USD of foreign earnings to Turkey. This is an important historical account. A Belarusian master tailor named Timochenko began to collect chromium sheepskin from us and sew leather jackets. When making chromium Moroccan leather for the railways, we had been highly skilled in the application of cellulose dye. The jacket material kept people warm, so it was in demand in the winter. Also, thanks to its cellulose finishing, it was water- and rain-proof. After learning how to sew leather jackets while working for Timochenko, Sabri Aykaç and Selahattin Tuncer left the Belarusian tailor. We supported them by providing them with jacket material on credit. Afterwards, Dona da Leon also began to sew leather jackets.

First, drivers and police officers began to wear leather jackets. The centre was established at Karaköy. In particular, the crews of the steamers that docked at the Galata quay were the first serious customers. Later, State Railways awarded the contract for purchasing leather jackets for its staff, and numerous workshops were opened at Karaköy and Mercan for the purpose. Shops were opened at Beyoğlu, where finer leather jackets were sold and this business spread among the people. Then women started wearing leather jackets, coats, and skirts, which constituted the third phase. In the fourth phase we exported leather jackets to foreign countries.

Undoubtedly the most important phase began with the entry of Derimod into leather fashion. Ümit Zaim is part of our family circle because he is the grandson of my partner Mahmut Bey, and the cousin of Hasan Yelmen. I can say that it was we who developed the leather-jacket business, and that Ümit Zaim took it to its peak. I trained many staff, both workmen and masters. Some of those we trained became bosses at Kazlıçeşme: Faik Altıer was one of our masters back in Skopje. After coming to Turkey, Rıza, Halil, Münür Altıer too worked for us. Zekeriya Tabakçı had worked for us in Skopje. Sadettin Toprak and Halil Öztürk were our patent-leather masters. Emin Sez made travels for us. Rıza Pedük worked in the emery-stone trade. I was happy to see all of them becoming bosses.

What a bustling subaltern society these vivid recollections evoke, hinting at the variety of trades centred around the tanning industry—factories, slaughterhouses, glue workshops; carpenters, cartwrights, blacksmiths, charcoal sellers; landlords, rowdies; cooks, fishermen, police posts, steamers, the railways; ambient venues like lodging houses, baths, mosques, coffee-houses, inns, vegetable gardens… 


[1] In recent years, Zeytinburnu has become home to increasing numbers of Uyghurs fleeing persecution in Xinjiang (see e.g. here). Rachel Harris’s studies of the expressive culture of the Uyghurs have expanded to their life in exile there.

One thought on “The tanners of Zeytinburnu

  1. Wonderful to know that DERIMOD emerged from the mentioned Nurettin Keskiniz & Hasan Yelmen Co. Living in Istanbul since three decades we buy our shoes from Derimod!
    Miniature scenes still exist in some parts of Istanbul, little streets in mostly minority neighbourhoods like Balat and the area behind the bazaars, with their bustling traders-of-all-sorts, multiple coffee shops, tea houses, the ezan.

    Great pleasure to read about old Zeytinburnu, stronghold of buzzing life, camaraderie among minority workers. There seems hardly any difference between E. Celebi’s account and the author’s, 400 years later…

    Liked by 2 people

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