The Science around Alcoholism or How to Banish Alcohol from the Turkish Society

By Elife Biçer-Deveci [1]

Historical analysis of scientific debates on alcohol provides insights into power relations, political tensions, and hidden aspects of the nation-building process. In the case of early twentieth-century Turkey, scientists shaped the narrative of drinking as an alien element of the Turkish nation.

Alcohol consumption is a cultural practice that dates back to prehistoric times. Research into its production, preservation and consumption has provided insights into the cultural life of archaic societies. The social anthropologist David G. Mandelbaum defined alcohol consumption as a cultural act that makes visible membership of a particular class, gender, age, ideology, etc.[2] By studying drinking cultures, we can understand the social practices and symbolic forms that people use to organise and regulate their daily lives and coexistence.

In Muslim societies, too, alcohol was and is available everywhere and has always been a part of everyday life. Alcohol consumption is an everyday phenomenon, even in countries where Sharia law is strictly enforced. In a Muslim context in particular, alcohol consumption can be a powerful catalyst of social and political division. It can reveal solidarities and polarities organised along lines that cannot be reduced to oppositions to religion or to drinking as such.[3]

Milaslı İsmail Hakkı, “İçki beliyyesi ve kurtulmanın Çareleri,” 1917, pp.78-79

Defining alcohol consumption as a deviant behaviour, a danger to social order and individual health, is a phenomenon of the modern age. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, several organisations of doctors and scientists began to address the issue of alcohol from a medical perspective, attempting to understand the negative effects of alcohol consumption on health and to promote an abstinent lifestyle. They shaped medical narratives based on eugenic ideas about alcohol consumption. In the research literature, these activities have been subsumed under the term temperance movement, which was also characterised by protagonists from religious and feminist backgrounds. [4]

The Ottoman Temperance Movement

One might assume that in the Ottoman Empire, alcohol was banned anyway because of Islamic doctrine on drinking, and that any debate on the issue of alcohol was superfluous. There are two points that contradict this assumption. One is that alcohol has a long tradition in the Ottoman Empire and also within Muslim communities.[5] In the nineteenth century, Istanbul witnessed an increase in the number of taverns and clubs serving alcoholic beverages to a population that demanded more and more Western products for consumption and leisure, and also an increase in the number of factories producing beverages to meet this demand.[6] The production and trade of alcoholic beverages was in the hands of local Christians, while Muslim communities were officially forbidden by Sharia law to trade in alcoholic beverages. This does not necessarily mean that Sharia rules were strictly followed and implemented.

The second point is that scientists in the Ottoman Empire were quite concerned about the drinking habits of the population and were active in fighting these drinking habits. It was the European scientists who shaped the temperance movement, both scientifically and politically.

One such influential scientist was the German psychiatrist Emil Kraepelin. Kraepelin was widely known for his research on alcohol and his public work. Together with the Swiss psychiatrist Auguste Forel, he founded the Association of Abstinent Doctors in Frankfurt in 1896 to promote research into alcohol and to conduct “active propaganda” against drinking.[7] His first experiments with simple methods provided the basis for a branch of research known in German literature as “Alkohologie,” a research branch which was primarily based on theories of eugenics.

Milaslı İsmail Hakkı, “İçki beliyyesi ve kurtulmanın Çareleri,” 1917
Milli Kütüphane: 06 Mil EHT A 48949

Kraepelin’s teachings influenced the first generation of psychiatrists in the Ottoman Empire. Raşit Tahsin and Mazhar Osman (Uzman) belonged to this first generation and were inspired by Kraepelin’s scientific austerity. Tahsin was one of the first students sent by the Ottoman state to Germany to study psychiatry and modernise the medical academy in Turkey. Unlike Tahsin, Mazhar Osman financed his research in Germany from his own earnings. On his return, in 1909, he gave a public speech in Dedeağaç about his experiences in Germany. He emphasised the “technological and civilisational superiority”[8] of Germany, one of the reasons why he had gone there.

Osman also mentioned the subject of alcohol. Here he emphasised the civilisational superiority of German society, which he believed to see in its drinking habits, and contrasted it with Ottoman society: he used this reference to criticise Ottoman society as backward and in need of education and enlightenment.

“Indeed, many men drink beer or a little wine when they’re thirsty, but on the street you do not meet drinkers who shout- at people, attack- or insult them. There are even many who find the age-old drinking habits repulsive. Many do not drink in their entire lives. For us, alcohol is an example of being civilised and progress-; in Europe, non-drinkers boast of these virtues [of abstinence].” [9]

Milaslı İsmail Hakkı, “İçki beliyyesi ve kurtulmanın Çareleri,” 1917, p. 27

The cultural malaise expressed by Osman was a reason for many intellectuals to criticise the backwardness of Ottoman society and argue for the need to modernise. Osman uses the same framework to criticise drinking habits and to perpetuate the idea of the superiority of German culture. At the same time, convinced of eugenic ideas like his German colleagues, he saw alcoholism as the reason for the degeneration of a whole generation of young Turkish men who he believed were needed for the military defence of the country.

Armenian-Swiss Connection in Istanbul

In 1910, Forel began travelling to various countries in south-eastern Europe and North Africa to spread his anti-alcoholism mission. On 28 March and 29 April 1910 he was in Turkey.[10] When he arrived in Istanbul, Dr Hacig Boğosyan, an Armenian psychiatrist, welcomed him and helped him organise conferences. Boğosyan had spent some time as an assistant doctor in Cery-Lausanne (Vaud) before. His earlier correspondences with Forel indicate that he was informed about the anti-alcohol movement in Europe as well as in Istanbul. The psychiatric profession at this time was a small community with transnational networks whose members knew each other. Boğosyan had been head of the psychiatric clinic in Yedikule since 1907 and also worked at La Paix in Şişli. Within the Armenian networks of medicine and psychiatry, there were attempts to fight alcoholism. For example, Dr Garabed Han Paşayan (1864-1915), who was a member of the Ermeni Ettiba Cemiyeti (Armenian Medical Association), an association co-founded by Haçig Boğosyan, founded an anti-alcohol organisation in Tabriz (Iran) in 1903, when he was court physician to the Iranian Shah Muzaferuddin.[11]  At least the links within this network are evidence of earlier anti-alcohol activity and were part of the programme of the Medical and Psychiatric Associations.

Boğosyan prepared the organisation and campaigns for Forel’s lectures before his arrival. His letter from February 1910 shows that Forel, with the help of his friends planned his stay, lectures and visits.[12]

access on 9 January 2024

In 1913, Boğosyan founded an Armenian anti-alcohol organisation, Turkio Hagalkolagan Ingreragtsityun (Union of Anti-Alcoholics in Turkey), and the publication Huys (Hope) to propagate the struggle against alcohol. [13] The title of the first issue featured portraits of Auguste Forel, a reference to Forel’s leading role in the anti-alcohol movement. The organisation and the magazine soon came to an end. In 1915, Boğosyan was conscripted by the state into military service and sent into exile the same year, but was recalled by the Ministry of the Interior to work as a doctor in Aleppo and Damascus. He settled in Aleppo in 1923.

Forel Meets the Ottoman Association for the Prohibition

When Forel arrived in Istanbul, there were attempts to form anti-alcohol organisations in Istanbul. Osmanlı Men-i Müskirat Cemiyeti (The Ottoman Association for the Prohibition of Alcohol) was one of them. The timely coincidence of the work to establish this association with the arrival of Auguste Forel is reflected in the report of the conference published in the Sabah newspaper. It proudly reports that “[Forel] studied the purpose and programme of the Association and appreciated the aims of our Association. He expressed his wish to hold a French conference on ‘Causes and Solutions of the Degeneration of the Young Generation’ today (Friday, 20 April 1910) at seven o’clock in the Fevziye Coffeehouse in Şehzadebaşı.”[14]

The Fevziye Coffeehouse was located in the Anatolian part of Istanbul, which was a centre for cultural activities of the Muslim community and played an important role in the history of Turkish cinema. This coffeehouse presented cultural activities with music and literature. Drinking alcohol was not allowed. In contrast, the cultural activities of the Christian population were mostly held in beer houses. The choice of Forel for the conference was deliberate and the place played an important symbolic role in addressing the Muslim population.

The members of the Ottoman Association for the Prohibition of Alcohol were from clubs of the Committee of Union and Progress.[15] The president was the lawyer and director of the Regi, Mustafa Bahaeeddin, and the vice president Mahmud Avni Bey, who was doctor at the Toptaşı hospital. One of the programs was forming sections in various agglomerations in Istanbul. An important goal was the compile a large volume of literature on anti-alcohol movement existing in the different countries. The association has planned to contact anti-alcohol organizations in Western countries to benefit from their experiences. [16]

Forel has given a total of 17 lectures on the anti-alcohol movement, mostly in French and occasionally in translation.  He founded several lodges of the Independent Order of Good Templars in Istanbul and Smyrna to combat alcoholism in Christian communities.[17]  Forel justified his efforts to found lodges in Turkey: “In the Orient, drinking habits are spreading more and more, and they must be combated in good time by preventive measures.”[18]

In his articles “Perspectives on Turkey,” Forel also described his view of Ottoman society, which was Orientalist and similar to the auto-orientalist critics of Mazhar Osman. His impressions of Turkish drinking habits are similar to those of many reformist intellectuals in Turkey, who accused society of imitating “Western” vices but not the scientific and technological progress:

“Reformist Turks have adopted our vices faster than our virtues. Today, the only people who abstain are farmers and transporters, and they are few and far between. The educated Turks often drink wine and sect and openly confess it. Yes, the Turks are the most drunken people in the Orient, like the Germans and the Greeks. Inwardly, they don’t believe in the Koran anymore.” [19]

The Christian “Enemy” and the Prohibition

In the years between 1910 and 1920, several books and articles were published in journals by intellectuals and doctors against alcohol consumption as a “Western” element that must be eliminated as the Islamic religion commands.[20] To understand whether religion was also an important point of reference for Christian anti-alcohol groups in the Ottoman Empire, it is necessary to compare its contents with those of the Armenian anti-alcohol journal Huys.

In 1920, religious authorities in Istanbul and a number of medical practitioners and doctors founded the Green Crescent Association (Hilal-ı Ahdar Cemiyeti, later known as Yeşilay Cemiyeti) with the aim of actively propagating against drinking. Under the umbrella of the Green Crescent, various publications and campaigns were carried out with the aim of educating the public about the dangers of drinking for individual health and for the Turkish “race.” Neither the Green Crescent’s publications nor leaders within the association, such as Mazhar Osman and Fahreddin Kerim Gökay, mention any campaigns or collaborations with Armenian communities. This deliberate forgetting is due to the increased tensions between different ethnic and religious groups in the face of nationalist movements and the violence that occurred during the war years. The concept of the Christian enemy became a powerful element in the anti-alcohol debates in Turkey. For example, the speech of the doctor Milaslı İsmail Hakkı at the founding of the Green Crescent illustrates the leverage of this concept for the Green Crescent and how Christian doctors are blamed: “In short, it is the lack of respect for religion of those who introduced alcohol among Muslims and also the intention of some doctors, especially Greek doctors, who spread the idea of healing through alcohol.” [21]

It is also an example of the instrumentalisation of the concept of the Christian enemy to enforce certain normative rules in everyday life, in this case the alcohol ban. By using the concept of the Christian enemy, Milaslı anticipated one of the arguments for the alcohol prohibition law in the Turkish National Assembly in 1920. The parliamentarian Ali Şükrü, who was the initiator of the alcohol prohibition law, with hostility against the Armenian community: 

“120 million kilograms of alcoholic beverages are consumed in the country, 120 million kilograms that put money in the pockets of Greeks and Armenians… I think you have seen what the sons of (Ibranos) [22] borrowed for Armenia. The money borrowed for Greece is also our money. So that the Ministry of Finance can earn a million, at least ten million liras go into the pockets of Christians who openly treat us as enemies, at the cost of many people being disgraced.” [23]

In 1926, after six years of prohibition, the prohibition law was lifted and the state monopoly on the alcohol trade was introduced. Soon after, advertisements for Turkish alcoholic beverages began to appear in the press and in public places. Although the Green Crescent Association has maintained its position on alcohol prohibition to this day, it has contributed to dispossessing Christians, who dominated the alcohol trade in the Ottoman Empire, and handing over the alcohol market to the Turkish state, representing Muslim Turkish society.


Medical narratives about alcohol consumption reflect power dynamics within the specific context of each society. This article demonstrates that these narratives had overlapping meanings: first, they were used to define the healthy body and its opposite, the “degenerate,” commonly associated with a drinker. Physicians and psychiatrists who believed in eugenics and theories of social degeneration sought to engage with society through social initiatives, such as establishing clubs and associations, delivering public speeches and widely publishing about their perspectives.

Second, medical narratives about alcohol played a role in defining the Ottoman Empire’s standing in the “civilisational” hierarchy. Drinking was characterised as a “Western” vice, a narrative endorsed not only by European scientists like Auguste Forel but also by Ottoman psychiatrists. This narrative positioned the Ottomans within Western civilisation, emphasising their need for European-style technological and scientific progress. Building upon this narrative, Mazhar Osman, Milaslı İsmail Hakkı and other psychiatrists advocated for the reform of Ottoman society through eugenic measures.

Thirdly, the narrative shaped by German and Swiss psychiatrists was also instrumental in delineating the ideal Turkish society, juxtaposed with Ottoman Christians as its antithesis. This narrative emerged as a powerful political tool to introduce a total ban on alcohol, serving to dispossess Christian merchants in the country. The parliamentarian Ali Şükrü, who initiated this ban, is still revered by the Green Crescent Association as the martyr of the anti-alcohol movement, despite his death in 1923 being unrelated to his political activism for the alcohol ban. 

Overall, the idea of banishing alcohol from the Turkish society was not primarily linked to religious beliefs. Rather, it was the result of a process of exchange between European and Turkish psychiatrists and of the intertwining of medical narratives with power dynamics and socio-political agendas.


[1] The content of this essay is mostly based on Elife Biçer-Deveci (2022). “Medicalizing the ‚Alcohol Problem‘ in the Ottoman Empire: Expert Networks and Exchanges between Istanbul, Munich, and Zurich.” In: Comparativ. Zeitschrift für Globalgeschichte und vergleichende Sozialforschung, 32, pp. 378-394; Elife Biçer-Deveci (2021). Turkey’s Prohibition in 1920: Modernising an Islamic Law. In: Alcohol in the Maghreb and the Middle East since the Nineteenth Century. Disputes, Politics, and Practices. Edited by Elife Biçer-Deveci, Philippe Bourmaud. Palgrave Macmillan St. Antony’s Series. Cham. The research has been funded by Swiss National Science Foundation.

[2] David. G. Mandelbaum (1980): Alcohol and culture. In: Mac Marshall (ed.). Beliefs, behaviors, and alcoholic beverages. A cross-cultural survey. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, p. 281.

[3] Elife Biçer-Deveci, Philippe Bourmaud (2021). Alcohol, public debate, and the inescapability of Islamic references. In: (same authors, eds.). Alcohol in the Maghreb and in the Middle East since the nineteenth century: Disputes, politics, and practices. Palgrave Macmillan St. Antony‘s Series, pp. 1-20.

[4] Ian Tyrrell (2010). Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[5] François Georgeon (2020). Au pays du raki. Une histoire du vin et del’alcool de l’Empire Ottoman à la Turquie

d’Erdogan (XIVe-XXe siècles). Paris: CNRS Editions.

[6] Malte Fuhrmann (2014). “Beer, the Drink of a Changing World: Beer Consumption and Production on the Shores of the Aegean in the 19th Century,” Turcica 45 (2014), pp. 79-123.

[7] G. Keferstein (1905). “Die Arbeit des Vereins abstinenter Aerzte,” Internationale Monatsschrift Erforschung Alkoholismus 15 (1905), pp. 23-26, p. 23.

[8]  Mazhar Osman Uzman (1940). Konferanslarım (Medikal, Paramedikal) İstanbul: Kader Basımevi, p. 109.

[9] Ibid., pp. 120-121, translated by Biçer-Deveci (2022). Medicalizing, p. 384.

[10] Auguste Forel (2010). Rückblicke auf mein Leben, Zürich, p. 303.

[11] Şeref Etker (2017), İkinci Meşrutiyetin Tabip Örgütleri, Istanbul, Libra yay., pp. 254, 269;  Rudi Mathee (2005), The Pursuit of Pleasure: Drugs and Stimulants in Iranian History, 1500-1900, Princeton University Press, p. 187, 200.

[12] T Boghossian an Auguste Forel,Constantinople, le 2 II 910. Archiv für Medizingeschichte Universität Zürich Signatur PN 31.02.380 ; Biçer-Deveci (2022), Medicalizing, p. 388.

[13] Şeref Etker (2020). Dr. Haçig Boğosyan ve Turkio Hagalkolagan Ingeragtsıtyun: [Türkiye Anti-Alkolikler Birliği] [The Union of Antialcoholics in Turkey], Kebikeç: İnsan Bilimleri İçin Kaynak Araştırmaları Dergisi (2020) 49, pp. 221–234, p. 225: HUYS: ՅՈՅՍ / Houyss (Umut) Barperatert aroğçabahagan, kidagan, hagalkolagan (anti-alkolikbilimsel hijyen dergisi), Turkio Hagalkolagan Ingeragtsıtyun (Türkiye Anti-alkolik Birliği) yayın organı. Mesul Müdür: Dr. Haçig Boğosyan, İmtiyaz sahibi: Dt. Vahe M. Hintliyan. İstanbul, Sayı 1, Haziran 1913.

[14] “Osmanlı Men-i Müskirat Cemiyeti’nde Konferans,” Sabah, numero 7387, Cuma 5 Rebiülahir 1328 / 2 Nisan 1326 /15 Nisan efrenci 1910, S. 3, sütun 4-5. “Bilginin Dernek baskani Tirnakizade Baha Bey tarafinden verildigi anlasilmaktadir,” in Etker, kebikeç 49 2020.

[15] Osmanlı Men-i Müskirat Cemiyeti Nizamnamesi, İstanbul, Matbaa-i Hayriye ve Şürekası, 1326/1910, p. 11, Madde-i munzamme 1.

[16] Osmanlı Men-i Müskirat Cemiyeti Nizamnamesi, İstanbul, Matbaa-i Hayriye ve Şürekası, 1326/1910, p. 11, Madde-i munzamme 2 (translated by the author).

[17] Forel (2010), Rückblicke, p. 303.

[18] “Reiseeindrücke aus dem Orient,” Die Umschau, 14. Jahrgang, Nr. 27, 2. Juli 1910, S. 536-538, here p. 537.

[19] Ibid., p. 536. Translated by Elife Biçer-Deveci

[20] See for example B İbrahim, “İşret ve müskiratın vücuda tesiri [I]” (3 Kanunuevvel 1325 (16 December 1909)); İsmail Hakkı Milaslı, İçki Beliyyesi ve Kurtulmanın Çareleri (Hilal Matbaası, 1915); Yunus Nadi [Abalıoğlu], “Müskirat aleyhinde” (8 Nisan 1326 (22 April 1910)) 1 Hikmet 7; Numan, Süleyman, “İnkılâbımız ve alkol” (18 Kanunuevvel 1324 (31 December 1908)) Musavver Muhit 140, pp. 140-142; Osmanlı Men-i Müskirat Cemiyeti, “Meyhâneler Felaket Yatağıdır” (1326 (1910)) 4 (103) Sırat-ı Müstakîm, pp. 423-424.

[21] Milaslı, “Doktor Milaslı İsmail Hakkı Beyefendi’nin Nutku.” Translated by Biçer-Deveci, Turkey’s Prohibition, p. 33.

[22] The name of an Armenian trade company; Gözel Durmaz (2015), “The Distribution of the Armenian Abandoned Properties,” Middle Eastern Studies 51.5, pp. 838-853, p. 843.

[23] TBMM, ZC, 13.9.1336: 117. Translated by Biçer-Deveci (2021), Turkey’s Prohibition, p. 34.

About the author

Elife Biçer-Deveci is a historian with research interests in the history of intoxicants, international regulation, reform movements and the Ottoman Empire/Turkey. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Bern. She has published several articles on alcohol and co-edited the volume Alcohol in the Maghreb and the Middle East since the Nineteenth Century. Disputes, Policies and Practices (Palgrave Macmillan, 2021) and a special issue “The Ottoman Empire and the Germansphere in the Age of Imperialism” of Comparativ, Journal for Global History and Comparative Social Research (2022). She authored a monograph on the Ottoman-Turkish women’s movement and its international relations with Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (2017). Her research has been funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Gerda Henkel Foundation, and she held fellowships at the University of Oxford, Freie Universität Berlin and ETH Zurich. In 2019 and 2020, she was a fellow of EUROPE IN THE MIDDLE EAST – THE MIDDLE EAST IN EUROPE (EUME) at the Forum Transregional Studies Berlin. She is currently an associate researcher at the University of Bern and co-president of the Swiss Association for Middle Eastern and Islamic Cultures.

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Citation: Elife Biçer-Deveci, The Science around Alcoholism or How to Banish Alcohol from the Turkish Society, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.02.2024,

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