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Çelebicihan Remembered: Eyewitness Accounts

Mubeyyin B. Altan

The first and only democratically elected president of Crimean Tatar people, Numan Çelebicihan was brutally murdered by his Bolshevik captors on February 23, 1918. He was assassinated at the prime of his life when he was getting ready to take his nation to new heights. He instantly became a legend among his people when the news of his murder in Akyar (Sevastopol) prison reached Akmescit (Simferopol), the capital of the independent Crimean Republic.

Crimean Tatars continue to mourn his tragic death to this day. They only know him from the few existing photographs. What kind of person was he? What did he look like? The founders of the Crimea Foundation in New York, Fikret Yurter, Mehmet Sevdiyar and Mubeyyin B. Altan, had the opportunity to meet and interview three elderly Crimean Tatars in 1972, who had personally seen Çelebicihan prior to his tragic assassination. This was a brief but historic interview with the late Hamide Bektöre who remembered Çelebicihan's student days in Istanbul; Mustafa Altuner, an elderly Crimean Tatar who had the opportunity to meet Çelebicihan on multiple occasions in Bahçesaray; and Halime Balıç who had seen him briefly right after his election as the President of Crimea in 1917 in Alushta, Crimea.

The following personal memoirs are from the 1972 audio recording (in Turkish), now part of the archives of the Crimea Foundation. Translated into English by the author of this article, they provide rare eyewitness accounts of Numan Çelebicihan by three Crimean Tatars who had seen him before and after his election as the first president of Crimea. His death was an enormous loss for the Crimean Tatar people who desperately needed his leadership to grow as a nation. Nearly ninety years after his death, the ever-suffering Crimean Tatars remain a divided nation, and continue to yearn for his leadership. May Allahís blessings be upon him!

Hamide Bektöreís Description of Numan Çelebicihan

Hamide Bektöre was the wife of Şevki Bektöre, one of the beloved national poets of Crimean Tatars. She was interviewed in her Brooklyn (New York) apartment by the Crimea Foundation members in 1972. The following is a summary of her description of Çelebicihan:

I was sixteen years old when I first saw Numan Çelebicihan in Karagumruk (Istanbul). We used to stay at our relative Mehmet Kahraman agabeyís konak (house) in Karagumruk. I remember as if it was yesterday when I first saw him passing by our relativeís house. Physically he was medium height and athletically built, dark hair with a slight mustache. He always walked with powerful steps (sert adimlarla), always looked serious, and wore a huge bow tie. My sisters Esma and Ayse were older than me and they used to wait for him and watch him from behind the special windows of the house. He was wearing a special bow tie, which stood out and caught the attention of the girls. Whenever Çelebicihan appeared nearby, Ayse ablam used to yell out: "Yel yepelek, yelken kobelek, which likened his bow tie to a butterfly (Kobelek) and sail (yelken)....
    He and his friends used to live in a two-story house in Karagumruk (they lived on the second floor, the first floor was a grocery store) not far from Mehmet Kahraman agabeyís house. I, therefore, used to see him at least 7 to 8 times a week. Unlike his friends, he preferred to walk alone. My relative Mehmet Kahraman agabey was very involved with these Tatar students and frequently invited them to dinner. Unlike his friends, Çelebicihan used to come sometimes, not all the time, and always looked serious, and somewhat in deep thought. Among his friends were Abduselam, Sukuti, Sinasi Halit, Yakup Fevzi and others (Ablakim Hilmi), who addressed him as "Çelebicihan" and always showed him great respect. For example, when they came to dinner at Mehmet Kahraman Agabeyís house, they always let him enter the house first. I could tell that Çelebicihan was not well to do during his student years, because unlike his friends he was wearing the same dark suit all the time. Occasionally he was wearing a lighter trouser with the same suit jacket. I remember him as if it was yesterday.
    Later I went to Crimea with my husband (poet Şevki Bektöre) and heard about the tragic murder of Çelebicihan. People, of course, were talking about how he was murdered and how his body was cut to pieces and thrown into the Black Sea. We were all deeply saddened by his murder; we used to hear about it wherever we went (in the early 1920s). His famous poem "Ant etkemen" (I Pledge) has become our national anthem, and all the meetings and gatherings started with "Ant etkemen." Also "Saglikman Kal Tatarlik (Farewell Tatarhood!), a poem he wrote while in prison in Akyar (Sevastopol) was very popular and often recited. We all were very sad about what happened to him.

How Mustafa Altuner Remembered Numan Çelebicihan

The late Mustafa Altuner, a respected member of the Crimean Tatar community in New York, was one of the fortunate Crimean Tatars who had met Numan Çelebicihan personally several times. The following is a summary of the brief interview the Crimea Foundation had with him in 1972.

I first met Numan Çelebicihan in Bahçesaray in 1912. He had just returned to Crimea from Istanbul after graduating from law school and stayed at Ismail Gaspiraliís house. He attended a popular play "Olacakka Çare Olmaz" (What Will happen Will Happen) by Seyit Abdullah Ozenbasli and I first saw him at that play. He was there with his friends and he impressed me as a very confident, articulate and respectful person.
    I met him second time again in 1912, three days after I first saw him, at the meeting of Cemiyet-i Hayriye (Society of Charity). He was there with his friends, Cafer Ablaev, Seit Celil Hattatof, Settar Efendi Misxorlu, Yakup Kemal, Seit Umer Tarakci, Ahmet Rasit and Seyh Refi. About 150 people attended this meeting where he delivered a powerful speech that affected everyone. After hearing Çelebicihanís speech one of the attendees, Ismail Aga Dervis, a wealthy citizens of Bahçesaray asked to speak. He told the audience that he was immediately donating his Han (a guest house) and his coffeehouse to Cemiyet-i Hayriye. This was a huge donation for Cemiyet-i Hayriye, an organization well known for sponsoring the education of talented poor students in many fields by sending them outside of Crimea. For example, Dr. Ahmet Ozenbasli (a well known psychiatrist who became famous for his book on Crimean Tatar emigrations), Abdulla Kurkcu and many others, including doctors, lawyers and teachers, were assisted by this popular organization.
    I again met Çelebicihan in 1914 at Ismail Gaspiraliís funeral. I personally heard his powerful speech about Gaspiraliís famous newspaper Tercüman. He talked about the strong influence of Tercüman in the Turkic-Islamic world. After the funeral, I saw him at Gaspiraliís print shop where Tercüman was printed. He was of medium built, with dark hair and mustache. He was not wearing a bow tie, but was wearing a scarf.
    In 1917 an election was held to select 76 deputies to the Crimean Tatar Kurultay (Parliament). On December 9, 1917, all these delegates gathered at Hansaray (Palace of Khans) in Bahçesaray. Cafer Seydamet delivered a speech there. After his speech Divan-i Ali (Executive Committee) was formed and the oldest deputy from Kapsixor Haci Ali Efendi (author's great grandfather) was selected as the first chairman of Kurultay. I was one of the four young ushers during these sessions of the Kurultay. Çelebicihan personally instructed us what our duties were going to be and I witnessed Numan Çelebicihanís election as the first president of Crimea. He was wearing a dark blue suit, tie and a black kalpak (traditional Crimean Tatar hat). In fact, Çelebicihan and his friend Cafer Seydamet (who was elected as Foreign Minister and Minister of War) wearing a long, black kalpak called Moskofski.
    After December 14, 1917, Çelebicihan and his cabinet went to Akmescit (Simferopol) to take care of governmental affairs. On January 8, 1918, an emergency was declared calling all Muslims who had any weapons to gather near Arankoy. The Crimean Tatar Army consisted of 140 professional soldiers with some artillery. They were to stop 6 to 7,000 Bolshevik Black Sea Sailors coming from Akyar (Sevastopol.)*... We heard that Akmescit (Simferopol) was captured by the Bolsheviks on January 14 (January 27), 1918. Çelebicihan was taken prisoner on January 16 (January 29), 1918 and taken to an Akyar (Sevastopol) prison. On February 23, the news of Çelebicihanís murder and how his body was cut to pieces and thrown into the Black Sea reached Akmescit (Simferopol). Yes, this is how great a man he was.

Halime Balıç Remembered Numan Çelebicihan

Halime Balıç was an elderly member of the Crimean Tatar community in New York. She was interviewed in Queens, New York, in 1972. She did not have detailed information, but her brief description of Çelebicihan confirmed the above two descriptions.

I was born in Korbek, Crimea. My fatherís name was Ablakim and motherís name was Sefika. After my marriage we moved to Akmescit (Simferopol) where most of my life was spent. I personally saw Numan Çelebicihan only once in Alushta, Crimea. I was a young middle school student there. Çelebicihan had come to Alushta after his election as President of Crimea to meet the people and express his thanks. I remember that there was a huge crowd that had come to greet him and among them were teachers from all the towns of Yaliboyu (Littoral of Crimea). I saw him arriving with his wife and some of his friends such as Habibullah Odabas, Bekir Odabas and others. He had delivered a thank you speech but it was so long ago that I donít remember the details of his speech. I remember him as a medium built, dark-haired man. I also remember his partvel (brief case), made of dark leather with silver ornaments. We were told that he was going to a meeting at the Livadya Palace.

* Translator's note: Historical sources indicate that about 3,000 Crimean Tatar cavalrymen were also engaged in the battle with the Bolshevik forces. Because the event took place a long time ago, the interviewee likely had forgotten the details of this military conflict.

Posted: 18 February 2005

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