This past Saturday night, police once again ran amok in Taksim Square, Istanbul, using tear gas and high-pressure streams of chemically tainted water to drive away protesters. The attack was minor, however, in comparison with the police’s violent ejection of occupiers and visitors to Gezi Park the Saturday before and their night-long violent siege of Taksim five days earlier.
A Change of Banners
During the two-week-long occupation of Gezi Park, adjacent Taksim Square was a locus of protest for left-wing demonstrators, many of them representatives of fragmented parties driven ideologies more than constituencies. As part of the Gezi occupation, a group of protesters took over the long-abandoned Atatürk Cultural Center building, a 1960s structure fronting on Taksim. The steel-lattice-covered facade of the Atatürk Center made a perfect multistory bulletin-board for the banners of revolutionary sub-sects. The first act of the Police upon clearing the Center of occupiers was to remove their banners and replace them with a triptych of a giant prim portrait of Atatürk flanked by two equally immense Turkish flags. This ensemble conspicuously lacked the immense portrait of Turkey’s Prime Minister that is usually hung alongside that of Atatürk at the his outdoor rallies and as a backdrop to his lengthy television addresses).
Issues Crystallize Discontents
The occupation, demonstrations, vigils, and battles around Gezi Park and Taksim Square this month provided a political and physical rallying point for overall discontent with the authoritarianism and sectarianism of the Erdogan regime and with its aggressive contempt for that half of the Turkish polity who do not support it. Underlying this broader discontent were several sets of concrete issues that kicked-off the protests in the first place, including the relationship of policy-makers and profit-makers in the urban sphere, and the nature, ownership, and future of the urban landscape (more on this in a subsequent post).
Iconography of Urban Space
A subset of these issues involves the iconography of urban space and urban constructs. For decades, Taksim has been destination and site for political marches, celebrations, and (all too often violently repressed) protests. Taksim, thus is a symbol of both the political cohesion and the political and social conflicts of the Turkish Republic. The present plans of the Erdogan government to replace this meaning-charged open space with a full-sized replica of a late-Ottoman-Empire military barracks razed a century ago speaks volumes about the political, social, and cultural attitudes and intents of the present government, as does the government’s plan to demolish the Atatürk Center, once venue for concerts, opera, and theater, and named after the founder of the modern, secular Turkish Republic. The reconstructed barracks, by the way, is slated to be one element of of a giant shopping-center and mosque complex planned to obliterate the footprint of what are now Gezi Park, Taksim Square, and the Atatürk Center.
Preservation, restoration, and the Disney-Land-like construction of replica structures invariably reflect political intents and self-conscious forging of social identity. They are concrete statements of the era, be it real or fantasy real or fantasy, to which a polity or the powers-that-be intend to turn back the political and social clock.
Restoring Ottoman Patrimony
Over the last decade, scores of wonderful restoration projects have been implemented in Istanbul. As examples I’ll mention just two, these chosen only because I knew the restorers: the tile-rich Rustem Pasa Mosque and the long-derelict Hamam of the Beyazit complex, the latter compromised during Istanbul’s epidemic of automobile-friendly road-widening and road-construction projects during the 1960s. Even dozens of minor neighborhood Ottoman fountains that, when I photographed them during the 1990s, were pollution and detritus scarred, have in recent years been cleaned and restored down to the decorative gold paint on their dedicatory inscriptions. Note that all these restoration projects have something in common: invariably they involve monuments from the glory days of the Empire of the Empire and are often religious in nature. The Ataturk Center will not be spared demolition in large part because the ethos and aesthetics of the era it which it was built and its purpose as a locale of music and theater are considered by the current regime to be less iconic.
An Armenian Cemetary
Taksim Square and Gezi Park have had other roles than housing military barracks. Taksim, long the periphery of Istanbul’s traditional European downtown, derives its name from its long-ago role as a major node in the city’s water distribution system. And, for four centuries, part what is now Gezi Park was the site of cemeteries of what are today are called Turkey’s “minorities,” including a large Armenian Christian cemetery cleared away in the late-1930s. If, perish the thought, construction of replicas indeed remains the order of the day in public works, why not construct a replica of a reservoir or a graveyard as part of the redevelopment of Taksim/Gezi? Why chose an architecturally mundane military monument from that days of the Emprie’s last stand?
The Third Bridge
The answer might be found in another project, the controversial Third Bosporus Bridge. This project, ostensibly to augment road-links between the eastern- and western-most extremes of Istanbul’s expanding sprawl, will cut through an important swath of the city’s scarce green-space and watershed. The project is emblematic of the development bubble that is amongst the drivers of Istanbul’s (and Turkey’s) present prosperity. Some time ago, I was a guest at a presentation by Istanbul’s planning authority of the city’s infrastructural development plans. The third bridge project was not even mentioned, despite the fact that it had just been announced. Rather than comprise part of a plan, the bridge project had been driven through by fiat, in no small part as a giant boondoggle for contractors and real estate speculators and developers poised to profit.
The Return of Selim the Grim
The third bridge will be named after early-16th-c. Ottoman Sultan Selim I Yavuz (Selim the Grim). Some outcry has been made over the offense the naming bridge after Selim consitutes to Turkey’s Alevi population (non-Sunni sectarians whose members comprise 25% of the present population of the Turkey). Indeed, Alevis were slaughtered wholesale under the reign of Selim the Grim. However, it is also important to zoom out to a larger historical context. Selim’s slaughter of Alevi’s took place in the context of the Safavid War between the officially-Sunni Ottomans and Shiite Persia. And, oddly absent from present-day commentary), Selim was also the first Ottoman Caliph, self-proclaimed successor to Prophet Muhammed as the head of the (Sunni) Muslim ummah (polity) and the political entities comprising the Muslim world.
It remains to be seen if — as with the planned reconstruction of the late-Ottoman barracks at Taksim — the naming of the major infrastructural project of the present government after a fighting foe of Persia and a self-proclaimed leader of Islam and the Muslim world, speaks for the country’s and it’s leader’s self-image, ambitions, or plans.