Ottoman Empire’s first brewery to make way for mosque

The Hagia Sofia becomes a mosque. And as if that wasn’t enough to underline the hegemony of Islam in Turkey, Istanbul’s historic Bomonti brewery is now also being demolished. While turquoise carpets are rolled out across the magnificent marble floor at the Hagia Sofia for its grand reopening on July 24, construction workers have begun demolishing the Ottoman Empire’s first brewery. There will, of course, be a mosque in its place.

Images of excavators sinking their teeth into the industrial building with its spire and brick chimney sparked anger and horror among secular Turks. “Another piece of Istanbul’s industrial heritage being sacrificed to the hegemony of political Islam and the love of construction, concrete and tenders,” tweeted urban planner Akif Burak Atlar, who works in the urban planning department of Istanbul Municipality.

The brewery embodies the history of beer in Turkey. It was opened in 1894 by the Swiss brothers Bomonti, who introduced industrial beer production in the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922). At that time, beer was already being drunk: the popularity of Western products, ideas and way of life increased. But it mainly concerned imported brands or brews from Armenian operators of beer gardens in cities such as Istanbul, Izmir and Thessaloniki.

With Bomonti, the Ottoman Empire had its own brand of beer, with the approval of Abdülhamid II, the favorite sultan of current president Erdogan. After the opening of the brewery, the popularity of beer soared. The production of the Bomonti brewery increased rapidly from 7 to 10 million liters per year. Beer gardens were opened all over Istanbul, hosting dance shows, parties and performances. Beer slowly grew into a mass product.

Demolition of heritage

Beer is still the most popular alcoholic drink in Turkey. Yet more than 80 percent of Turks say they do not drink alcohol – although men in conservative-religious parts of the country often secretly drink cans of beer in parks or by the water. Of the Turks who admit to drinking in polls, 63 percent prefer beer. But the frequent tax hikes have turned that into a luxury product. More and more Turks are now brewing their own beer at home.

The Bomonti brand is now owned by Anadolu Efes, Turkey’s largest beer producer. The old brewery, which gave the district its name, has been out of use for a long time. It is empty and in poor condition. There was a legal dispute for years about the destination of the brewery, which has been classified as historical heritage. The demolition comes a year after it was handed over to Diyanet, the state institute for Religious Affairs.

Diyanet is going to build a large Islamic center there with a mosque, a sleeping area and a parking garage. It will be right next to a part of the old Bomonti complex that has been preserved. After extensive renovation, a cultural complex has been established with bars, restaurants, a museum and a concert hall. But the question is whether they will be allowed to serve alcohol there in the future. Because that is officially not allowed near mosques.