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The Treasured Shell

Since the 1940s time has stood still under the pines and palms of this modest Art Deco villa on Istanbul’s Marmara shore. Berrin Torolsan meets Suna Erbil Demirağ, who has fiercely protected it as a tribute to her pioneering father, who carved out a thousand kilometres of Turkey’s railways before building this much-loved haven. Photographs by Monica Fritz

Click here to read the full illustrated article.

Early this summer we went to visit a villa in a forgotten corner of Caddebostan, a well-to-do district on the Asian shore of the Sea of Marmara. How often we must have driven past without noticing its entrance, hidden as it is in Demirağ Sokak, a rare quiet side street surrounded by an ever-growing jungle of concrete apartment blocks. The house, a modest two-storey villa built in the 1940s, stands in an oasis of huge umbrella pines, cedars and palm trees, with dormant flowerbeds in the rippling shade below.

We were welcomed by the owner, Suna Erbil Demirağ. One of the few remaining old Istanbullus, she is well read and well mannered, with impeccable taste. The house, like its owner, is a relic from the Istanbul of the early Turkish Republic. As we sipped tea from porcelain cups and enjoyed delicious homemade biscuits, she told us in faultless English about her family, her childhood, her parents and the story of her surname, Demirağ.

Her father, Abdurrahman Naci, was born in 1890 in the eastern city of Divriği, famous for its grand medieval mosque and the spectacular gorges of the Upper Euphrates. The second son of an old landowning family, the Mühürdarzade, he was sent to Istanbul to study engineering at the Mühendis Mekteb-i Ali (College of Engineering), which in 1944 would become Istanbul Technical University.

Having completed his studies as an architect and construction engineer, he started working for one of the French railway companies based in Istanbul. Suna Hanım isn’t sure which one, for in those days the Ottoman railways were run by several French firms and a number of multinational companies, British, Belgian and German. Bit by bit the railways were nationalised by the Republic and finally united in 1927 as the TCDD (State Railways of the Turkish Republic).
In the First World War, Naci Bey, a patriotic man, had organised the digging of trenches as a young engineer on the Gallipoli peninsula, for which he received a medal after the subsequent War of Independence. Led by Atatürk, this was a series of campaigns between 1919 and 1923 against the full-scale invasion by Greece and occupation by the victorious Allies, Britain, France and Italy.

When he found out that the French company Régie Générale des Chemins de Fer was to resume building the Samsun-to-Sivas railway, a project they had begun in 1911, Naci Bey and Nuri, his entrepreneurial elder brother, submitted a far more attractive bid. In their favour was the fact that the French bid would have been costly, relying on imported know-how and building materials.

In the dawn of the Republic, founded in 1923, everything was done to encourage national enterprise, but the brothers had to prove themselves by building the first seven kilometres of the line. They gave their new firm the old family name, Mühürdarzade, and completed the trial solely with local materials. In 1924 this won them the contract for the entire line – 370 kilometres across two daunting mountains – which they heroically completed in 1931. Not only had they been forced to blast their way through mountains, but they also had to build factories to supply the rails and sleepers.

So began a phenomenal burst of railway construction for the firm. When surnames became law in 1934, in the light of their success the brothers would be crowned by Atatürk with the surname Demirağ, literally “Iron Web”. The name was well deserved. Today one eighth of Turkey’s 12,500 kilometres of railway – including stations, bridges and tunnels – are the work of the Demirağ brothers.

Both were skilled entrepreneurs, and would eventually pursue different paths. Nuri was the financial brains behind the partnership, and later became an aviation pioneer; by contrast Suna’s father, Naci, was the builder and engineer, never happier than when working out in the field in what was then a very poor country, lacking infrastructure. Naci was the driving force behind sugar factories nationwide, the Sümerbank Merinos textile factory in Bursa (processing wool from newly introduced merino sheep), the water network in Sivas and numerous schools around the country. He also signed off on landmarks in the new capital, such as Ankara Station, the Grand National Assembly and various ministries.

Suna Hanım went on to tell us of her early life. “As soon as I was born, I was delivered to a nanny, like my three siblings. I did not have the chance to be close to my parents,” she says. “But one nanny, Mlle Eliz, was very dear to me. She looked after me for many years and taught me French. She has always been my role model.”

In 1944 Suna was just 10 when her father, by then an MP, died of a heart attack. “He was out riding,” she told me, “which he did every afternoon. When he got back he said he wanted to lie down a little – and he never woke up. Today I appreciate my father’s idealism, his love for his country and his great deeds. I remember him sitting at his desk, working in his room here in the house.” He failed in just one respect. Atatürk had asked him to write his memoirs: “I want people to know someone can get rich without lying and stealing.”

I then asked Suna Hanım about the story of the house. One day, soon after Naci Bey became an MP, his friend the writer Faik Rıfkı Atay told him he had bought a little piece of land on the Marmara near Kadıköy, facing the Princes Islands. Next to it a much larger piece of land was for sale. “You can afford it,” he told Naci Bey. “Please get it and we will become neighbours.”

The family were living in a wooden mansion in Rıdvan Pasha Sokağı, on a hill in nearby Göztepe, where Suna was born. “Soon my father bought the land and built a humble one-storey villa, very much in the style of Ankara New Republic architecture [Bauhaus laced with Art Deco].”

But the gardens overlooking the Marmara were extensive. Trees were planted, parterres laid out, and a long wooden pier installed on the shore – a simple enough project for a father practised in drilling through mountains and building viaducts across river gorges. In 1941, soon after they moved in, her younger brother, Zafer Teoman, would be born here in the new house.

Suna Hanım brought out her old photograph albums with snaps of the villa in its heyday and of happy moments from the past – her parents on holiday, riding camels in Egypt, strolling in Nice, at family gatherings, and Suna herself in the 1960s. There are also photos of the celebrations for the three German fighter planes her father had bought in 1935 to donate to the Turkish Air Force. Later, as the threat of war grew, people donated large sums from their savings towards the supply of aircraft to equip the air force.

Uncle Nuri would lead the way in Turkish aviation. In 1936 he founded the Gök Okulu (Sky School) – attended by the prime minister İsmet İnönü’s two sons – along with the factory where Turkey would build its first plane. Nuri Bey’s death in 1957 interrupted this groundbreaking project. But the foundations of the industry had been laid, and the hangars and workshops at Yeşilköy would become the nucleus for Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport.

Suna Hanım spent her youth in this house, learning to swim here, observing shoals of fish hiding among the rocks, and rowing boats with friends who loved to enjoy the garden. She continued to live here after her marriage and has endless fond memories. When her mother died she exchanged the other properties she inherited for this little house, her treasured shell.

She changed nothing, keeping the old furnishings and the extensive cabinetry ordered by her father from a Hungarian designer. The only alteration she made was when her much-loved younger brother moved in and a second floor was discreetly added. Sadly, he died young, leaving Suna Hanım on her own. Today she lives with her cats and Gofret, her dog. She spends summer downstairs, where both ends of the drawing room open onto lush gardens. In winter she moves upstairs, so that she can look out across the sea. On clear days you can see snow-capped Mount Olympus above Bursa, a view untouched by the 1980s road which cut these idyllic seaside houses – and the Marmara Yacht Club next door – off from the sea. The garden stairs now lead down to a river of slow-moving traffic.

Yet Suna Demirağ Hanım remains optimistic. After all, she is the daughter of an idealist Republican with noble principles. Although she complains about it, she accepts that new roads are indispensable for a booming population. Her only wish is to preserve this oasis and its venerable trees as a corner of tranquillity, now in the middle of the metropolis, and a sanctuary for future generations.

Click here to read the full illustrated article.

To read the full article, purchase Issue 66

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Issue 66, December 2023 Turkey’s Centenary Issue
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Buy the issue
Issue 66, December 2023 Turkey’s Centenary Issue
£15.00 / $19.55 / 647.03 TL
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