Ismail Bey Gaspirali (1851-1914)

Inci Bowman

A Crimean Tatar leader, publisher, and educator, Ismail Bey Gaspirali remains a towering figure in the history of the Turkic world. He is remembered for his early realization that Turkic and Islamic communities in Russia were in need of reform and for his persistent calls for action. Gaspirali devised a new method of teaching children how to read effectively in their mother tongue and introduced curricular reforms. Through the newspaper he founded, Tercüman (1883-1918), and other publications, he called for unity and solidarity among the Turkic people, as expressed in his well-known motto, "Unity in language, thought, and action." Following the 1905 Revolution in Russia, Gaspirali participated actively in all the Turkic congresses and was one of the founders of the Union of Muslims (Ittifak-i Müslümanlar) in 1907. Believing that the education of women was a key to bringing the Islamic society into the mainstream of modern life, Gaspirali remained a supporter of women's rights. He initiated a new journal for women, Alem-i Nisvan (World of Women), edited by his daughter Şefika, as well as a publication for children, Alem-i Sibyan. In his later years, he turned his attention to organizing an all-Muslim congress, with the ultimate aim of introducing social and religious reforms in the Islamic world, and increasingly got interested in discussions of Turkist issues. A clever and patient man, Gaspirali tried to steer a careful path in order not to anger his opponents (the Russian authorities and the Islamic establishment), and he had a profound influence on the nationalist awakening among the Turkic people and the implementation of educational reforms.

The Life of Ismail Bey Gaspirali: A Timeline

1851-  Born on 8 March in the village of Avci near Bahçesaray (Bakhchisarai), Crimea. Also known as Ismail Bey Gaspirali, Ismail Bey Gasprinskii or Gasprinsky. His last name was derived from Gaspra (or Gaspira), a village between Yalta and Alupka, where his father Mustafa was born. The family moved to Bahçesaray in 1854, where he received his early education. Later studied at the Gymnasium in Akmescit (Simferopol).

1865-67-  Attended the Military Academy in Moscow, where he became exposed to the ideas of Russian nationalism and Pan-slavism. Reacting to the anti-Turkish sentiments around him, he decided to leave for Ottoman Turkey to join the Turkish forces trying to put down a Greek rebellion on the Island of Crete. But he was arrested by the Russian police for attempting to leave the country without a passport and returned to his family in Bahçesaray.

1868-  Became an instructor of the Russian language at the Zincirli Medrese (a traditional Muslim school) in Bahçesaray.

1869-  Moved to Yalta to teach Russian at a Tatar school in Dereköy.

1871-  Returned to Zincirli Medrese, but had to leave on account of his criticism of the traditional methods of education and his views on the needed reforms in schools.

1872-  Left for Paris to study the French language, where he worked for the Russian author Ivan Turgeniev and was engaged in translation work. Later, he published his observations and impressions of the European civilization in Turkish, Avrupa Medeniyetine bir Nazar-i Muvazene (Istanbul, 1886).

1874-  Arrived in Istanbul, where he applied for admission to the War College. After waiting for a year and doing some travelling in Anatolia, his application was turned down, and he left Istanbul for Crimea.

1878-  Elected Mayor of Bahçesaray, in which position he served until 1882. Some of his reform-oriented proposals such as establishing a hospital and teaching the adults how to read were turned down because of shortage of funds.

1881-  Published Russkoe Musul'manstvo [Russian Islam] in a series of six articles in Tavrida, an Akmescit (Simferopol) newspaper. In this early work, written primarily for the Russian audience, Gaspirali defended the view that it would be in the interest of the state to support educational and social reforms for the Muslim people living in Russia. While trying to get permission to publish a newspaper from the Russian government, he began issuing one or two-page, informative brochures on subjects concerning the Crimean Tatars.

1882-  Married Zühre Hanim, daughter of a wealthy Tatar family from Kazan. She was an educated woman and remained a source of constant support and encouragement. Her dowry helped cover the initial expenses involved in the publication of Tercüman;.

1883-  After trying for four years and making a number of trips to St. Petersburg, Gaspirali succeeded in getting permission to publish a newspaper in Turkic and Russian, Tercüman/Perevodchik. The first issue went off the press in April, on the 100th anniversary of the annexation of the Crimea by Russia. After 1905 it was published in Turkic (close to spoken Ottoman Turkish with Crimean Tatar words) only.

1884-  With the assistance a local Crimean Tatar teacher, Gaspirali established the first school in Bahçesarary that operated according to the principles of his new method. In the next two decades, schools based on Gaspirali's method continued to grow in popularity in Muslim communities throughout Russia, the number reaching about 5,000 by 1914. Hoca-i Sibyan (Teacher of Children), a primer used in many of these schools was published.

1885-  Tercüman reached a circulation of 1,000. It would eventually be distributed over a wide area, including Ottoman Turkey, Caucasus, the Volga Region (Kazan, Ufa, and Orenburg), Central Asia, Siberia, Iran, and Egypt.

1893-  On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Tercüman, Gaspirali gave a party and invited local and out-of-town guests. This was a clever move, for the occasion served as the first meeting of leaders from various Turkic/Muslim communities in Russia. Otherwise, it would have been impossible to convene such a meeting officially. Upon the invitation of the Emir of Bukhara, Gaspirali travelled to Bukhara with the hopes of establishing a school based on his new method but such a school did not open until 1908.

1903-  The 20th anniversary party of Tercüman, postponed because of the death of Gaspirali's wife Zühre, was held in May and once again served as an unofficial meeting of various Turkic leaders.

1905-  The First Congress of the Union of Russian Muslims met on August 15 during the state fair in Nizhni Novgorod. Convened unofficially on a rented party boat, this historic meeting is also known as "The Congress on Water." Gaspirali actively participated in subsequent meetings held locally in Bahçesaray and Akmescit to discuss whether the Crimean Tatars should join a Russian political party.

1906-  Once again, Gaspirali was active in the Second Congress which met unofficially in St. Petersburg in January and the Third Congress in August in Nizhni Novgorod. The delegates drew up a program to establish a political party, Union of Muslims (Ittifak-i Müslümanlar). He launched a series of new publications: Alem-i Nisvan (World of Women), Alem-i Sibyan (World of Children), and Kha Kha Kha (a journal of humor).

1907-  Hopes raised with the election of Muslim/Turkic delegates to the Second Russian State Duma diminished shortly, when an Imperial decree dismissed the Second Duma in June. Gaspirali turned his attention to organizing an all-Muslim congress and travelled to Cairo in October.

1908- In March, he published a newspaper in Arabic in Cairo, Al Nahdah [The Renaissance], but it failed to survive beyond three issues. In May, the 25th anniversary of Tercüman was celebrated not only in Bahçesaray, with the attendance of many representatives from various Turkic groups, but also in other Turkic communities elsewhere. The occasion was regarded as a national holiday by many. Believing that social, cultural, and religious reforms were needed in the Islamic world, Gaspirali made a number of trips to Istanbul and Cairo in the next several years to plan for a Muslim congress, but his plans did not materialize.

1911-  Gaspirali's famous motto, "Unity in language, thought, and action," began appearing as part of Tercüman's masthead. He maintained close contact with the Turkist groups in Istanbul and submitted articles to a Turkist publication, Türk Yurdu, published by Yusuf Akçura, a relative of his by marriage.

1912-  Gaspirali travelled to India via Istanbul and Cairo to demonstrate the effectiveness of his new method of teaching. He was well received by the representatives of the Islamic community, and Gaspirali considered the trip a success.

1914- In February, he attended a private meeting of Turkic leaders who met in St. Petersburg. Representatives from the Volga region, the Caucasus and Crimea discussed the viability of reviving the Union of Russian Muslims. Upon his return to Bahçesaray, Gaspirali's health began to deteriorate and he was unable to go to the Fourth Congress that convened in St. Petersburg in June. He died on 11 September in Bahçesaray and was buried, as he wished, near the tomb of Mengli Giray Han. His funeral was attended by many supporters who had come to pay their last respects to the great man. The news of his death produced grief and mourning among the Turkic and Islamic communities in Russia and elsewhere.


| Home Page | Credits| Bibliography | Gaspirali Site (in Turkish) |