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Freemasonry in Turkey

Asia - Vicino Oriente

Freemasonry in Turkey. An Institution that offers a link between Tradition and Progress

Emanuela Locci

The aim of this paper is to describe the origin, development and vicissitudes that made Freemasonry, one of the most important institutions in the Mediterranean Area, beyond the European borders - a topic that has been neglected by traditional historiography. Turkish Ottoman Freemasonry grounds its roots in European Freemasonry. It played a key role in the events that brought to the transformation of the Ottoman Empire, by the time obsolete, into today's Turkey, a modern nation. This institution, often opposed by vested interests, overcame the XXI century and projected itself, as a new institution, toward the future.

The origins

Freemasonry was introduced in the Ottoman Empire almost twenty years after its official creation, that took place in 1717 in England. It was introduced by the Europeans who lived in the Empire, in order to increase European influence. Masonic activities began in a period where the introduction of Western ideas and institutions was opportune. The Ottoman Empire, that earlier had firmly opposed the urgent European presence, was facing a major crisis and a new openness, after a period of very strong isolation which culminated in the so-called “Tulip period” (1717-1730). A new era had begun: on the one hand it determined a deeper knowledge of Europe. On the other it helped detect the symptoms of the decline of the Empire.

Almost ten years after joining the Empire, Freemasonry was opposed by the Ottoman government, on the initiative of Mahmud I (1696-1754). In order to meet the requests of the Roman Catholic Church, he asked the Police to barge in the places where Freemasons gathered and apprehend them.  This mission was not successful: given the frail situation, Freemasons decided to reduce their activities, waiting for better times. The Ottoman rulers considered Freemasonry as an congregation similar to Islamic confraternities and requested the foreign delegations to avoid the introduction of other brotherhoods within the Imperial territories.

Another initiative to oppose Freemasonry was realised in 1826,  on the occasion of the annihilation of the Janissary Military Force. Janissaries were the élite of the Ottoman military system. Most of them were close to Freemasonry and their persecution caused the closing of several lodges[1].

On the contrary, in the second half of the nineteenth century, Freemasonry experienced a significant expansion, thanks to the initiation of some Imperial representatives. It is the case of  Sultan Murad V (1840-1904), who started to rule in 1872, together with his younger brothers Nur-ed-din and Kemaleddin in the Proodos lodge, a lodge depending on the Grand Orient de France[2]. Murad V's kingdom lasted only three months. In fact, he was emasculated because he was declared mentally unstable. He was exiled to life in the Çırağan Palace. This marked the end of the short golden time of Freemasonry. The new Sultan Abdülhamid II (1842-1918) proved to be always hostile, creating contemporaneously a personal secret society, called Lā Ilāh illa ‘llah (There is no god but God), which followed faithfully the structure of the Masonic lodges[3].

The provinces and the foundation of the National Orient

During Abdülhamid II's reign, the activities of the lodges situated in the capital city were drastically reduced. However, most of the lodges were situated in the most populous urban centres of the province, such as Thessaloniki and Izmir. Here Freemasonry could fully express its potentialities, free from the strict surveillance of the Sultan Police. Through the lodges of the multiethnic Thessaloniki, Italian Freemasonry supported the requests of the rebels that, in 1908, organised the first bloodless revolution in the history of the Empire. Italian Freemasonry, represented by Emanuele Carasso[4], embraced the calls of the revolutionary movement members. They began to gather in some places attached to the temple of Macedonia Risorta[5] lodge, taking advantage of the fact that the foreigners and their properties were granted by the Capitulation system[6]. In the meantime, the other Italian-speaking lodges opened their doors to the Young Turks[7] who wanted to join. Most of them were officers of the Ottoman army. In this way, with the help of Italian Freemasonry, the Young Turk movement became stronger and stronger, and it was able to make the revolution a victory.

In this occasion, the Italian preeminence was remarkable, if we think that at that time France and England were the cultural and political benchmark for the Empire that was in the doldrums. Until 1909, Ottoman Freemasons were forced to be members of the foreign lodges, because of an Imperial law which prohibited meetings. Nevertheless, that year, when Abdülhamid was no more in charge, they decided to establish their own Grand Orient, which was called Ottoman Grand Orient. This organisation gathered all the lodges that were situated within the Empire, even the lodges with a foreign origin, as long as they had joined the Ottoman initiative[8]. The Grand Orient of Italy[9] and the Grand Orient de France[10], supporting a different idea of Freemasonry, began to compete about their influence on Ottoman Freemasons and their national obedience. On the one hand, Italian masons adopted the rules of traditional Freemasonry. On the other hand, French masons  supported heterodox ideas.  The French prevailed, so the Ottoman Grand Orient, just established, followed the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite[11], adopting the non traditional conception of Freemasonry, which took inspiration by the Grand Orient de France. Anyway, Italian Freemasonry maintained its influence within the Empire, although in a subordinate position with respect to the French one. However, the development of Freemasonry among the Ottoman people was very slow, because they thought it supported Western ideas and interests. In fact, the first Muslim affiliations took place after 1860. Accustomed to the brotherhoods, its members considered Freemasonry in the same way as a Christian brotherhood[12].

The masonic government

Ottoman Freemasonry faced alternating periods of significant expansion, for instance between the foundation until 1935, and periods in which the activities were suspended, such as between 1935 and 1948. The latter is known by Freemasons as “The Sleeping Period”. An interesting phase, in order to understand the dynamics of this institution, is the one which started in 1908 and ended in 1918, when Freemasonry developed exponentially. This sudden development brought to a loss of some of the initial prerogatives. Since 1908 some European Masons denounced the politicization of Freemasonry[13], which welcomed people who ignored its principles. This fact  led the lodges to stop their activities because of internal problems. From 1912 to 1918, Masons occupied key positions in the Ottoman government[14] and their power increased further from 1915, when the Empire was led by the triumvirate composed of Talat Pașa, Enver Bey and Cemal Pașa. The first was a very active member of Freemasonry and in 1909 he was elected first Grand Master of the new born Ottoman Grand Orient. He kept this position until 1912. The second and the third were both members of the Committee of Union and Progress, in constant contact with Freemasonry. This phase, which ended only at the end of the First World War, destabilized the institution making it vulnerable to the attacks by anti-masonic literature. It was criticized not only by public opinion but also by most of its own members: the risk of implosion was high.

After World War I

Between 1920 and 1935, Freemasonry continued its expansion. A lot of masons sided with Mustafa Kemal[15], in the creation of the new Republican Turkey. In 1935 masonic activities were suspended because of the law approved by Atatürk[16], which remained in force until 1948. The relation between the father of the Turkish homeland and Freemasonry has been widely debated inside and outside Freemasonry. To this day there is no evidence that Atatürk was part of the institution. What it is certain is that he suspended the activities because he considered the institution devoid of any objectives. After the intervention in the Revolution of 1908[17], he considered concluded the contribution to the history of Turkey. After 1948 masonic activities gradually started again. Actually, from 1935 to 1948, the activities were suspended only apparently, while the institution continued to work secretly[18]. Through the Supreme Council[19] Freemasonry experienced a new flourishing period. The number of lodges increased within few years and the new organisation was called Turkish Masonic Association. In 1955 it became the Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons of Turkey. In this context, the masonic institution politicized again, after a period of “masonic state”, which took place between 1913 and 1918[20]. In the decade between 1950 and 1960, a lot of masons supported the Democratic Party[21], that ruled until 1960, lessening the despotic policy inaugurated years earlier by Atatürk and innovated by his supporters after his death, in 1938[22].

In the 1950s Freemasonry had to face various attacks and its existence was often jeopardized because several political factions demanded its closing. Particularly important was the request of  Cevat Rïfat Atilhan, a leading anti-Semite figure, who wrote several papers against Freemasonry and the zionism between 1937 and 1954. In 1951 through his Islamic Democratic Party, he demanded the closing of masonic lodges. Once overcome these obstacles, the Supreme Council strengthened more and more and in 1952 it counted thirteen lodges[23]. In 1948 in Izmir, the namesake lodge was founded and in Ankara Uyaniş lodge was created. The next year saw the foundation of the following lodges: Kardeşlik, Hürriyet, Sevgi, Atlas in Istanbul, Doğuş in Ankara. The year 1950 ended with the foundation of three other lodges in Istanbul, Müsavat in Ankara and  Yukseliş  Nur in Izmir. The same year, considering the growing number of lodges, a new organism was created. This organism represented the whole masonic system. With this objective, in January 1951, the Grand Lodge of Turkey[24] was founded. It was irregular and linked to French-like Freemasonry.

The scission

A short time after Turkish Freemasonry re-founding, this institution had to face a problem that had already been experienced by other European obediences. It concerned the choice bewteen the obediences that followed the traditional precepts, which were led by the United Grand Lodge of England[25], or the non-traditional ones, which were led by the Grand Orient de France. This problem, very heart-felt by Turkish masons, surfaced within the Grand Lodge of Turkey in 1950 and was widely debated. It meant a sweeping change, that implied the elimination or modification of many principles that were at the basis of the Grand Lodge. This phase lasted from 1950 to 1965 and in the end, not without ups and downs, the Grand Lodge of Turkey decided to follow traditional Freemasonry.

This implied the introduction of new principles such as the obligation to believe in God or to swear on the Holy Book. This decision also affected the structure, creating a division between the two masonic organisms: the Supreme Council[26] and the Grand Lodge of Turkey. Till then, they had supported together the fate of Turkish Freemasonry, on the basis of an agreement which had been signed to regulate their relations[27].

In 1965 there was the election of the new Grand Master. Some of the candidates stood up for change within the Grand Lodge. Others wanted to safeguard the principles upon which Ottoman Freemasonry was created in 1909. The election of Enver Necdet Egeran meant that the Grand Lodge decided to support change. That is why some followers abandoned the National Obedience, creating the Liberal Grand Lodge of Turkey[28], which is still working today according to the masonic principles of 1909[29].

The latter started its path within the traditional masonic system[30], its first step being its reconsecration by the Grand Lodge of Scotland[31], which took place in 1965[32]. Only at later stage, the Grand Lodge of Turkey was acknowledged by the Mother Lodge of all regular obediences, that is the United Grand Lodge of England[33].

Recent history

From 1970 until now, masonic activities have faced a period of relative calm. There have been only two difficult moments: the first occurred in 1970 and the second in 1980, when the martial law was in force. At the beginning of the 1970s, the Turkish Rite was codified. It was accepted by every lodge of the obedience. In 1975 the masonic museum was founded. It was situated in the main masonic house, which contained several masonic objects, most of which were gifts by the foreign lodges which visited the Grand Lodge of Turkey.

In the 1980s, the Grand Lodge of Turkey began to found lodges outside the national boundaries, in compliance with the national obediences of the countries with whom it had relations. In 1985 it was founded the first Turkish lodge situated outside the country: it was called Nur, and it was created in Israel. Then there was Turkei lodge in Germany, Nur in Washington and Ișık in Romania[34]. Inl 1996 a new committee was created in order to assign scholarships to poor students that wanted to attend university. The Grand Lodge of Turkey has recently had a growing development. Freemasonry has become stronger and stronger and there are daily initiations, especially concerning young people. In order to increase this tendency, Freemasonry is always in contact with young people. In 1909 the lodges were situated only in the main Turkish cities, where there was a greater foreign presence, while today apart from the historical lodges situated in Istanbul[35], Ankara, Izmir, Bursa and Ciorlu (in Thrace), there are lodge in the Aegean Coast, in Bodrum, Marmaris, Antalya, Adana and Mersin[36]. These two hundred and twenty lodges welcome about fifteen thousand active members[37]. Through its international relations, Freemasonry maintains relations with one hundred and forty foreign obediences[38].



[1] Often the Janissaries had a double affiliation: to Freemasonry and to the Bektași brotherhood.

[2] The Grand Orient de France was founded in 1728, but it gained this name in 1773. Nowadays it includes nearly 45000 adherents, working in the 1030 lodges that are situated in France and in the overseas territories. For further analysis, see: Daniel Ligou, Dictionnaire de la Franc-Maçonnerie, Parigi, P.U.F., 1991; Alec Mellor, Dictionnaire de la Franc-Maçonnerie et des Franc-Maçons, Paris, Belford, 1989; Pierre Chevallier, Histoire de la Franc-Maçonnerie Française, Paris, Fayard, 1974.

[3] Vico Mantegazza, La Turchia liberale e le questioni balcaniche, Treves, Milano, 1908.

[4] Emanuele Carasso, son of Uziel  and Sumbula Assach was born in Thessaloniki in 1863 . He graduated law school and very soon he became a famous criminal lawyer. He was initiated into Freemasonry in 1902. Two years later, according to the matriculation registers, he became venerable of the lodge. For further information see: Emanuela Locci, La figura di Emanuele Carasso nei rapporti tra Italia e Turchia, in «Hiram», n. 4/2011, pp. 83-96, Roma.

[5] The lodge called Macedonia Risorta was founded in 1902 on the remains of the previous lodge called Macedonia, which had been founded in 1864 by a Jewish person with Italian origins, Han Barouh Cohen.

[6] Capitulations were a a series of international agreements stipulated among the European powers and the Ottoman Empire. They regulated both the position of the foreigners who lived in the Imperial territories, and the questions concerning commercial trades. According to this system, foreign people had to follow the laws of their country of origin. Capitulations also affected customs costs, which were completely eliminated. Their effect ended in  1914.

[7] The Young Turks started their activity in 1889. They were members of a revolutionary movement that can be seen as the heir of the Young Ottoman movement, although the social and cultural origin of the members of the two movements was very heterogeneous. The members of the movement were students that attended different military schools. The group was organized in cells, by the same token as the Carbonari model. After its mediocre beginning, the movement developed throughout the Empire, extending abroad, among the Ottoman political exiled people. In a short time, other centres were created in Egypt, Romania, England and namely in France and Switzerland. Actually, the movement has never been homogeneous, because it was formed by a mass of people that gathered around a personality or a newspaper. Initially, the most important leaders were Ahmed Riza and Mizancı Murad.  In 1897 the Sultan Abdülhamid II repressed the opposition giving rewards and assignments, but two years later the opposition revitalized and the few Young Turks that remained at the forefront, were helped by Damad Mahmud Paşa and his two sons. In 1902 the first Congress of the movement was announced, with the intent of unifying the various spirits of the movement. It actually set forth its division, and two factions were created: the first, led by Ahmed Riza, the second, guided by Prince Sabaheddin. The group that was situated in Thessaloniki took things in hand and in 1907 started the activities that triggered the Revolution of 1908.

[8] The Ottoman Grand Orient was created with the participation of the following Italian lodges: Bisanzio Risorta, Macedonia Risorta and Italia Risorta, the Spanish lodges Veritas and Costitution, the French lodge La Renaissance and the Egyptian lodges Resne, Uhavvet-i osmaniye, Muhibban-i, Vatan, Veta and Şafak. Historical archive of the Grand Lodge of Turkey (by Fazilet lodge), 1909’dan 1935 yilina (uyku devresine) kadar türkiye’de kurulan localar, Istanbul, 1990.

[9] The Grand Orient of Italy was founded in 1805 in Milan. This first experience lasted until 1859. The rebirth of Italian Freemasonry occurred with the foundation of the Ausonia lodge, situated in Turin and with the creation of the Grand Orient of Italy. Italian Freemasonry faced, throughout the course of its life, several ordeals, among which we can find the papal excommunications, the Fascist regime and the internal schism. Nevertheless it is still active today and it is considered the most important obedience working in Italy.

[10] The Grand Orient de France was founded in 1728. Today it counts nearly 45.000 adherents working in about a thousand lodges situated in France or in the overseas territories. Daniel Ligou, Dictionnaire de la Franc-Maçonnerie, Parigi, PUF, 1991.

[11] The structure of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite is pyramidal. It develops with a sequence of thirty degrees, plus the three initial degrees, called symbolic. In all there are thirty-three degrees.

[12] Among the various brotherhoods, the closest to the masonic conception is Bektași. This lodge is the most focused on symbology and on the relation between master-disciple.

[13] Thierry Zarcone, Mystiques, Philosophes, et Franc-Maçons en Islam, I.F.d’E’.A.I., Parigi.

[14] Historical Archive of the Grand Lodge of Turkey (HAGLT) Ana hatlariyla turk mason tarihi, 2010, Istanbul, p. 15.

[15] The most important personalities were: Tevfik Rüstü Aras (1883-1972) who was elected Representative in 1920 and Foreign Minister from 1923 to 193; Şukrü Kaya (1883-1959), who worked for the government and in 1919 was forced into exile in Malta, because of his role in the Armenian genocide, in 1915. Between 1924 and 1938, once back to Turkey, he was appointed first Minister of Agriculture, then Foreign Minister and finally Minister of the Interior by Mustafa Kemal; Hilmi Uran (1884-1957), who was one of the most influential members of the Republican People's Party. During his career, he obtained several tasks within several governments. From 1943 to 1946 he was Minister of the Interior. After the elections that occurred in 1950, taking cognizance of his defeat, he retired.

[16] The relation between Atatürk and Freemasonry has been widely studied without a univocal conclusion.

[17] HAGLT, ꞌAtatürk masonluğu niçin īlga ettiꞌ: Mimar Sinan, 1959, say 9-10.

[18] In 1939 the lodges called  Ideal, Kültür and Ülkü were founded in Istanbul.

[19] Actually, the Supreme Council, which had overseen the birth of Freemasonry, received a state subvention from Ismet İnönü's government.

[20] The French historian Thierry Zarcone defined “mason state” the government which led the Ottoman Empire from 1913 to 1918, because it was formed mainly by men initiated into Freemasonry.

[21] The Democratic Party was founded in 1946 by Celal Bayar and by Adnan Menderes. Four years after the foundation, during the elections that took place in May 1950 the party won, getting 53.6% of the votes.

[22] Andrew Mango, Ataturk, New York, The Overlook Press, 1999.

[23] HAGLT, Fikret Çeltikçi, ꞌ1948 deyeni “Mason derneği‘’nin kuruluşꞌ: Mimar Sinan, Istanbul, 1998, p. 334.

[24] HAGLT, Koray Özal, Bület Çetiner, ꞌTürk Masonluk Tarihiꞌ,  Istanbul, 1999, p. 22.

[25] The United Grand Lodge of England was founded in London in 1717. It is recognized by over 6 million masons as the Mother Grand Lodge of the world.

[26] Today the two institutions are totally independent one from the other. The Supreme Council deals with Rites. It has its own President and apparatus.

[27] HAGLT, Traité intervenu entre le Grande Loge de Turquie et le Supreme Conseil de Turquie, 20 Kasim 1909.

[28] The Liberal Grand Lodge of Turkey was founded by the masons Mustafa Sakaya, Z. Riza Sahinoğlu, Özcan Onat, Mahmut Yalay, Kemal Umur, Mehmet Gürsel, Orhan Eğinlioğlu, Muvaffak Iyimen, Selahattin Kütükbaşi and Ahmed Akdamar.

[29] Interview to the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Turkey Remzi Sanver, 11 January 2013, Istanbul.

[30] HAGLT, Hur ve kabul edilmis masonlar buyuk locasi, Arsivlerimiz içinde 1965 olaylari, Yenilik basimevi, Istanbul, 1978, p. 110. The traditional precepts imply the prohibition of talking about politics and religion. The Grand Lodge must not express opinions about these topics. That is why the Grand Lodge does not express any opinion about the accession of Turkey to the European Union.

[31] The Grand Lodge of Scotland was founded in 1736 and the first Grand Master was William St. Clair of Roslin. It follows the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite.

[32] Celil Layiktez, ꞌThe Hystory of Freemasonry in Turkeyꞌ: Stones, 2004, p. 7.

[33] In 1964 it demanded the official recognition to the United Grand Lodge of England, which did not accept it. This important recognition only happened in 1970.

[34] The lodge called Turkei was founded in 1993, Nur of Washington was founded in 2000 and Ișık in Romania in 2002.

[35] In the historical capital city, over the years, 144 lodges have been founded.

[36] Interview to the Grand Master of the Grand Lodge of Turkey Remzi Sanver, 11 January 2013, Istanbul.

[37] HAGLT, List of Lodges 2012.

[38] Among the foreign recognized Obediences, eight are situated  in Africa, seventeen in South America, sixty in North America, nine in Central America, six in Asia, Thirty-three in Europe and seven in Australia. 


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