Matild Manukyan, the queen of Turkish brothels and one of the country's wealthiest women, died of heart failure Saturday in her palatial Istanbul apartment. She was 84.
Descended from an aristocratic Armenian family, Manukyan attended Istanbul's posh Notre Dame de Sion school, run by French nuns, before launching her first career as a haute couture seamstress for the city's Westernized high society. When a customer offered her one of his brothels to settle an unpaid debt, Manukyan found herself in the murky world of prostitution, which is a legal business in Turkey as long as it is carried out in brothels registered with local governments.
A shrewd businesswoman, she proved tougher than her all-male competitors, building up a chain of 32 brothels. During an interview in 1994, she said she prided herself on having "the healthiest, best behaved and most beautiful girls in all Istanbul." So great was her fortune that in the early 1990s she was Istanbul's top taxpayer for five years running.
Her fiscal probity earned her considerable official praise. Framed letters from Turkey's top politicians, including the late President Turgut Ozal, thanking her for her sense of civic duty, adorned the walls of her home.
The onetime beauty was widely hailed for her philanthropy. She donated tens of thousands of dollars from her multimillion-dollar fortune to hospitals and other charities.
Eventually, she became an establishment figure in this predominantly Muslim country. But her vast wealth, which she invested in real estate, made her prey to gangsters operating protection rackets in Istanbul. They are believed to have been responsible for a car bomb attack in 1995 in which Manukyan nearly died. She had to be operated on 12 times and never fully recovered from her injuries.
In 1996, Manukyan fell from public grace when she was detained for employing underage girls in her parlors. That year she also announced she had converted to Islam, and she provoked public furor by seeking permission to build a mosque.
Turkey's government-appointed top cleric, Mehmet Nuri Yilmaz, sided with Manukyan, citing an edict from the prophet Muhammad that anyone who declares himself Muslim is purged of all previous sins. Therefore, he argued, it was all right for her to use her earnings to put up a place of worship.
Manukyan is survived by a son, Kerope Cilingir.