Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir
Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir occupies a special place in the sweet history of confections in Turkey. As far as can be determined, it is the oldest confectionery still in existence in the country; indeed, according to many economic historians, it is the oldest firm currently active in Turkey. The story of an entrepreneur named Bekir who came to İstanbul from the county of Araç in the province of Kastamonu and established a candy store in the neighborhood of Bahçekapı in 1777 became a delicious epic journey that has spanned Ottoman and Republican history. After going on pilgrimage during the years 1817-1820, his confections and his shop became one with his name and came to be known as Hacı Bekir. During the first three of four decades of his professional life, Hacı Bekir pioneered several innovations in his domain. In particular, he began to use refined sugar known as kelle şekeri as a sweetener instead of the traditional honey and molasses, and switched from water and flour as a binding agent to starch. In this manner, he created the delicious tastes that have been so popular for better than two centuries.
Hacı Bekir began his career in the confectionery business as an apprentice. By the time he mastered his trade, he had achieved an unprecedented taste in the sweetmeat known as lokum and also developed rose, cinnamon, mastic, orange, and lemon flavored akide şekeri (hard candy). These efforts gained him significant fame in the early nineteenth century, so that he became a supplier to the court of Sultan Mahmud II and was awarded the title of Şekercibaşı (Head Confectioner). A British traveler shopping at his store qualified the lokum he had bought there as “Turkish delight,” and the term caught on. It is generally held that the confectioner in the watercolor of the same name by the Maltese painter Amedeo Preziosi is Hacı Bekir himself, although Mehmet Ali Akbay has qualified that belief as no more than a quaint supposition. Hacı Bekir’s tombstone gives the date of his death as 1866, but many other sources quote the date as 1865.
For many years, the Ottoman palace remained a customer of “Hacı Bekir Agha,” as the documents name him. One such archival document dated 1853 concerns the “settlement of Kapı Kethüdası (intermediary to the outside world) Aziz’s debt to the shop of the confectioner Hacı Bekir Agha.” Two important issues presented themselves after Hacı Bekir’s death: what would become of the firm’s relationship with the palace, and, as importantly, who would be the next Head Confectioner. As it happened, Sultan Abdülaziz was also partial to the confectioners from Araç, and so the title passed from father to son, from Hacı Bekir Agha to Mehmed Muhiddin.5 Although it is generally believed that this latter was the sole driving force behind the business over the decades that followed, in fact his brother Ahmed Şevki’s son Hüseyin also participated for a while. Indeed, in 1886, Hüseyin Efendi applied to the palace for permission to hang a sign at the store saying “Head Confectioner.” Until the 1900s, however, the shop was known by no name other than “Hacı Bekir.” Commercial yearbooks listed the confectioner Hacı Bekir Agha at Nos. 14 and 16 in Bahçekapı for many years. Meanwhile Mehmed Muhiddin Efendi took the business far beyond a candy store beloved by the people and the palace: Hacı Bekir was awarded silver medals at the 1873 Vienna Fair and the 1888 Köln Fair, and a gold medal at the 1897 Brussels Fair. These medals were eventually made part of the company logo.
Having taken over the business from Hacı Bekir Agha and carried it into the new century, Mehmed Muhiddin Efendi died in 1901. Following his death, the firm was listed in the Annuaire Oriental of 1902 as “Hadji Bekir Zade Mouhhieddin Effendi.” Both the business and the title of Head Confectioner were then taken over by his son, Ali Muhiddin. This latter participated in a variety of causes with the title he had inherited as a family heirloom. For example, he contributed in 1904 to a campaign organized by the newspaper Servet to benefit the soldiers in Rumeli (eastern Balkans), and appeared among the donors as follows: “The Honorable Ali Muhiddin Efendi, son of Hacı Bekir, Head Confectioner of His Imperial Majesty.” During the War of Liberation, Ali Muhiddin Efendi appeared among the contributors to Hilâl-i Ahmer Cemiyeti (the Red Crescent Society) and was rewarded for his support with the organization’s bronze medal in 1921.
Under his leadership, the firm continued to represent the Ottoman Empire at international events. When Hacı Bekir was awarded a gold medal at the 1906 Nice Fair in France, Sultan Abdülhamid II rewarded the family with the Osmanlı Nişanı (Ottoman Medal), first class. However, that year Ali Muhiddin Efendi ran into some trouble with the Ottoman bureaucracy when the 150,000 kuruş rent he paid for the store (part of the Hamidiye charitable complex in Bahçekapı) was suddenly doubled. It turned out that this had been done in error, but it took a very long time and much correspondence with the Council of State for the mistake to be rectified.
In her memoirs of palace life and exile, Şadiye Osmanoğlu, the daughter of Sultan Abdülhamid II, wrote of visits paid to members of the harem by their distant relatives; at the end of the visits, she recalled, the visitors would be driven home in carriages where they would find “candy from Hacı Bekir in fancy decorated boxes.” The author Dorina Lady Neave, who lived in İstanbul at the time as the daughter of a British consular official, also mentioned the historical confectioner and his humble workshop among places to be seen in the city.
In 1911, the international presence and fame of Hacı Bekir’s lokoum was taken a notch higher with the opening of two new stores in Cairo and Alexandria. As a result, Hacı Bekir zade Ali Muhiddin was now the Head Confectioner not only of the Ottoman Sultan but also of the Egyptian Khedive. In 1911, at a time when many newspaper advertisements described addressed in relation to the Hacı Bekir store, Ali Muhiddin Efendi opened several new branches including Beyoğlu, Parmakkapı, and Kadıköy. Thus, in the year 1913, Hacı Bekir confections were being sold at No. 45 in Tepebaşı; in 1921, still at Nos. 14 and 16 in Bahçekapı, as well as at No. 16 on Haseki Hamamı Avenue, No. 177 in Beyoğlu, and No. 9 in Karaköy. The firm’s special relationship with the Ottoman state led to the addition of a new confection to its product line. According to Gökhan Akçura, the ruling Committee of Union and Progress government asked Ali Muhiddin Efendi in 1910 to support its national economy program by producing halva so that it would maintain its identity as a Turkish confection. In time the firm’s expertise grew to such an extent that when a dispute erupted between the United Kingdom and the Netherlands over halva-like products during the 1950s, Ali Muhiddin Efendi was invited to Britain in order to arbitrate.
In 1918, Ali Muhiddin Efendi registered at İstanbul’s Chamber of Industry and Commerce as No. 154, but a new crisis was looming. The war years had exhausted the city’s reserves of sugar, a disastrous situation for a candy-maker. Thereupon Mıgırdiç Fesciyan was dispatched as a purchasing agent to Bulgaria, and the government issued a special permit to facilitate customs procedures. A few years later, in 1924, the shop rented by Ali Muhiddin Efendi as well as other neighboring buildings were torn down in accordance with a new city plan.
Hacı Bekir’s products continued to be popular after the proclamation of the Republic, and the business continued to prosper. Among visitors to the store in Bahçekapı was Mustafa Kemal, who said he had always been a fan of Hacı Bekir’s lokoum and candy. During the mid-1920s, commercial records refered to the firm as Hacı Bekir Zade Muhiddin Efendi but that changed towards the end of the decade and became “Hacı Bekir Zade Ali Muhiddin.” In this manner, Ali Efendi brought together the names of three generations of family members who had been involved in the business. When the Surnames Act was adopted in 1934, it became his and the company’s name: “Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir.”
Newspaper advertisements for Hacı Bekir, by then a classic taste and brand in Turkey, appeared frequently during the 1930s and 40s. An advertisement on the eve of a religious holiday in 1936 qualified Hacı Bekir’s products as “famous worlwide for their delicious taste” and listed them as follows: hard candy and plain lokum, 60 kuruş per kilogram; rose and mastic flavored lokum 70, elvan (assorted lokoum and candies) 80, hazelnut 90, and pistachio 120 kuruş. In addition to protecting the secret of these delicious and beloved tastes, the 1940s brought another challenge: protecting the firm’s name. Shops were popping up all over the country, claiming to be branches of the famous confectioner. Ali Muhiddin Efendi countered their efforts with newspaper advertisements, stating, for instance, that “Our establishment does not have a branch in Ankara.” In fact, efforts to protect the brand had been ongoing for a long time. One of the first attempts along these lines was made in 1913, when Ali Muhiddin Efendi entered his name and packaging in the Alâmet-i Farika Defterleri (Trademark Registers) as “Bonbon Turc.” Likewise, two packages labeled “Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir” and “Hacı Bekir Şekercisi” were registered in 1930 in the Marka İlmühaberi (Trademark Certificate).
Having worked in the confectionery business for more than half a century, Ali Muhiddin Efendi had become well known and well respected. When a shortage of sugar threatened, people would wait for a declaration by the head of the Confectioners’ Association, none other than Ali Muhiddin Efendi. When a soccer game approached, pitting against each other the eternal rivals Galatasaray and Fenerbahçe, all eyes would turn to the famous confectioner, a Fenerbahçe fan, and the owners of the Konya Lezzet restaurant, who rooted for Galatasaray. Until his death in 1974, Ali Muhiddin Bey gave many interviews in which he reminisced about his childhood, apprenticeship, and mastership; with his many contributions to the Turkish confectionery business, he was always the focus of attention.
After more than two centuries in business, the firm Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir has become a Turkish classic, but especially a classic of İstanbul. Many narratives about İstanbul mention the store; thus, for example, Haluk Dursun urged those who wish to live İstanbul to its fullest to go to Hacı Bekir in the Spring and drink tamarind sherbet.34 Other well-known authors like Sermet Muhtar Alus, Kudret Emiroğlu, and İlhan Eksen invited those who miss traditional religious holidays in İstanbul to visit Hacı Bekir.
Following the death of Ali Muhiddin Efendi, his son-in-law Doğan Şahin took over the firm as a member of the family’s fourth generation. He kept the name of the historical establishment, which brought together three generations of his predecessors, and founded two joint-stock companies named “Hacı Bekir Lokum ve Şekerli Mamuller Sanayii AŞ.” and “Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir Şekercilik Ticaret A.Ş.” He continued to manage the two stores in Bahçekapı as well as the branches in Beyoğlu, Karaköy, Parmakkapı, and Kadıköy with the help of his spouse Aliye Hanım, until she passed away in 1987. In 1986 Pendik factory started the production and Doğan Şahin turned over the business to his daughters Nazlı İmre and Emine Hande Celalyan, representatives of the fifth generation in 2015. The family fully intends to continue the tradition and is currently grooming Hande Hanım’s children, Leyla and Şahan Celalyan, as the next in line to lead the firm. Like their predecessors, the current management at Ali Muhiddin Hacı Bekir continues to represent Turkish confectionery at international fairs and with many hundred tons of exports each year, and to sweeten the palates of those with a sweet tooth.
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