Small Sensor Digital Photography

I haven’t posted to this site for more than two years. The substance and rhythm of work and daily concerns had absorbed me as I immersed myself anew into the small wonders and demanding pressures of life in my native New York.  New impressions, discoveries, and rediscoveries defied short-form articulation and political conflicts and issues of social and economic inequality and change diverted my thoughts and emotions.  Then came the all-consuming pandemic, the “lockdown” and economic implosion, and the weeks of protest and upheaval that followed.  What prompted me to resume posting anew — and to begin with this seemingly obscure subject — was the appearance this week of an electronic “reprint” of one of my old posts portraying memorials to two of the vanished synagogues of Vienna.  The “reprint,” posted on the wien: postkolonial blog, is interspersed with commentary by Austrian sociologist Marietta Mayrhofer-Deak, a valued colleague and interlocutor.  Marietta posted the “reprint” in connection with a series of urban walks tracing places and trajectories relevant to the experience and daily lives of the waves of immigrants and refugees who have settled in Vienna in recent decades.  In that context, it is important that the diversity, rise, accomplishments, and murderous denouement of one of Vienna’s most characteristic and influential minority populations be remembered, honored, and learned from, for it is wise to know in whose footprints one treads.


The Humboldttempel, the towering, domed synagogue of the largely working- and middle-class quarter of Favoriten, the 10th District of the city of Vienna, was looted, dynamited, and burnt to embers eighty-one years ago, on the morning of November 10, 1938, during Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, a twenty-four hour orgy of intimidation, violence, and destruction of synagogues, dwellings, and livelihoods of Jews throughout the territory that constituted Germany at the time.


Favoriten is a quarter of Vienna that I came to know well.  Even from afar,  its daily rhythms and the heights and depths of its history, like that of much of Vienna, haunt me.  I wonder how often, if ever, the thoughts of present-day residents of the 10th District –recent Turkish, Balkan, and Middle Eastern immigrants, and working-class descendants of 19th-century Viennese- and provincial-born Austrians and Czechs– turn to the Jewish workers, small-scale merchants, craftsmen, and workshop owners who, long ago, formed a significant part of the quarter’s population, or, for that matter, to the Jewish social activists and politicians who spearheaded the shaping the progressive social ethos, infrastructure, and culture from which today’s Viennese, whatever their origins, still benefit.

The organized Jewish community of Favoriten was founded in the 1870s. The Humboldttempel was constructed in the 1890s and took its name from the tree-filled square on which it was sited: Humboldtplatz.  The main hall of the synagogue was large enough to seat more than 700 attendees.  For decades, the dome of the Humboldttempel was a towering feature of Vienna’s skyline.

The architect of the Humbolttempel, Jakob Gartner, was responsible for three other synagogues in Vienna, as well for as a dozen more in cities and towns across the the former Hapsburg Empire. Gartner died in the 1920s.  Every one of the fifteen synagogues he designed and built was destroyed on November 10, 1938 or in the carnage that Germany — and Austria, as an integral part of Germany during the Nazi years — took with it abroad in its orgy of conquest, looting, destruction, and murder during the six-year-long world war that began less than a year after Kristallnacht.  Indeed, Austrians, as has become clear over the decades, played an out-sized role in the torment and murder of Jews and the destruction of Jewish life throughout most of Europe.

When the Humboldttempel was conceived and built, few would have would have imagined that it would vanish in flames only forty years later, or that its members and community would be deported and murdered. Despite sharp inter-ethnic friction and clerical and popular antisemitism at the turn of the nineteenth century to the twentieth, most Viennese Jews, ten percent of their city’s population, were confident of their places and prospects and of the protection of the state.  Others, however, had well-founded doubts and sensed that Jews would be denied a place in the societies and economies of post-imperial Europe — thus the deep roots of Zionism* in Vienna.


The wonderful glass and concrete memorial monument to the Humboldttempel — pictured in the three photos above — was installed only a few years ago, at the edge of the park and playground that now fills Humboldtplatz, at a site diagonally across from two post-war apartment blocks that stand on what was the footprint of the vanished synagogue.

The memorial is both a three-dimensional architectural model and a near-incorporeal chimera.  Two-dimensional renderings of the exterior of the Humbolttempel are inscribed in black on the thick vertical transparent glass elements of the memorial.  These, combined with a floor plan inscribed on the concrete base of the model and a street plan inscribed on the surrounding asphalt, give an accurate rendering of exterior, interior, and location of the Humbolttempel.   However, with each shift in viewpoint, and with each change in the angle and intensity of sunlight, the three-dimensional recreation of the Humbolttempel seems to dissolve — first into a multiplicity of disconnected planes, and then into abstraction and phantasm.

So far as I gather, the Humboldttempel memorial is the work of an artist named Barbara Asimus. I have yet to track down her.  If anyone reading this post is acquainted with her, please convey my appreciation and admiration or, if you happen to know how I can reach her, please put me in touch.  I am also curious about what led the authorities of the 10th district to commission and place the monument when they did, the process involved, and, not least, in the reactions of people in the district.  As to the Humbolttempel itself, I would welcome information on the demographics of its former membership, as well as on the long-ago Jewish population of Favoriten.

For anyone planning a walk through Favorieten, I would recommend pausing for a moment of silence in front of 106 Favoritenstrasse, the one-time site of  Ansche Emes (People of Truth) prayer house (i.e. a small apartment or storefront synagogue, a “Shtiebl” in Yiddish) and at 22 Rothenhofstrasse, the one-time site of Newe Schalom (Well of Peace) prayer house, both looted and destroyed on Kristallnacht.  Nothing remains of either but, maybe, if one lingers in front of either address, whether on a quiet Friday night or a busy Saturday morning, one might imagine or even sense a distant echo of  sounds of prayer and celebration that once emanated from them.

A word of caution: It is not enough not to obey

One thing bothers me about the monument, however.  The inscription on its base is an oft-cited quotation from Hannah Arendt: “Niemand hat das Recht zu Gehorchen” (“Nobody has the right to obey”).  This is a powerful and indeed worthy admonition but, when applied to Kristallnacht, it obscures matters and provides far too easy a way out.  Ultimately, Nazism was a grassroots movement — a legally sanctioned criminal pyramid-scheme of theft, extortion, corruption, and divvying-up and handouts of the proceeds** — and Kristallnacht was as much or more of a bottom-up affair than a top-down one.  Whatever impetus from the top may have sparked it, Kristallnacht was a popular act of hatred, jealousy, sadism, and self-aggrandizement that individuals chose to participate in — or didn’t — of their own free will.  Yes, we should not obey evil, but we must also curb the evil within ourselves and part from the crowd whenever evil reigns.  Better yet, we should cultivate the integrity and the courage to rise up and actively intervene, whether injustice is in the offing, underway, or embedded in the world around us.

* Although not necessarily in the same political form that emerged in the aftermath of World War II or as pursued by right-of-center Israeli governments from the 1970s on.  See, for example, this recent essay by Peter Beinart in Jewish Currents.

** See, for example, Götz Aly, Hitler’s Beneficiaries, 2005-2006, Frankfurt and New York

(Note: The three photos above were taken in December, 2018; the text is based on a draft written in November, 2019.)



Mineral bath structure, village of Zhelyaznitsa, vicinity of Sofia, Bulgaria, 2016. Fuji X100 with +1.4x tele-converter. Click on image to enlarge.

Further to “Past Glory,” a weblog entry from 2014, the photos above and below show the present states of two mineral bath structures in the vicinity of Sofia, Bulgaria.


A rough-hewn stone structure set at a hillside mineral water source a few kilometers outside of the village of Zhelyaznitsa at the foot of Mt. Vitosha, not far from the Bulgarian capital, Sofia. The structure contains two bath chambers, one derelict and the second functioning. In an unabashedly Balkan manner, the functioning chamber remains the province of men; the derelict chamber, in principle, is reserved for women.


The ornate former entranceway to the abandoned bathing pavilion at Gorna Banya, a one-time spa resort just outside of Sofia.  Today, Gorna Banya is a quiet residential village but in the first decades of the 20th-century, it was sufficiently popular as a resort and suburban residential locale to merit being the terminus of one of Sofia’s first electric trolley-bus routes.  In the early years of the last century, Gorna Banya had the added panache of being the site of Bulgaria’s military cavalry school and later, less romantically, of an armored tank battalion.

As to the style of the entranceway, if the decision was left to me, I’d label it “Balkan-Neo-Secessionist-Neo-Ottoman” — a combination of the characteristic styles of two vanished empires but built of a  Balkan provincial mix of brick, plaster, and ceramic roof tiles.  Any other suggestions as to stylistic labels, or any information about the history and prospects of the bath pavilion and its surroundings, are most welcome.

While the bath pavilion molders, a couple of hundred meters away from it, on the other side of the village green, a nondescript commercial structure is being converted into an impromptu gambling casino, a usage, it seems, still  in accord with the developmental ethos and preferences of Sofia’s private sector and decision-makers .

Abandoned mineral bath pavillion, village of Gorna Banya, outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria. 2016. Canon G10. Click on image to enlarge.

Former entranceway, abandoned mineral bath pavilion, village of Gorna Banya, outskirts of Sofia, Bulgaria. 2016. Canon G10. Click on image to enlarge.

Dusk, Galata, Istanbul, 2013. Panasonic LX3. Click to enlarge.

Dusk, Galata, Istanbul, 2013. Panasonic LX3. Click to enlarge.

Neglected Field Camera

There is (or there used to be) a saying in Dutch that all that comes from afar is tastier (“Wat je veer vandaan halt is lekkerde” … or some-such).  At first hearing, this might sound clever but its implications are unfortunate.  Expecting greater satisfaction from afar can blind one to the satisfactions of all that is familiar and ready-to-hand.  The scene portrayed in the photo above was a recurring vista along my routine trajectories during frequent stays in Istanbul over the last decades.  Thus, in the spirit of the odd perspective of the Dutch saying, I neglected to photograph it with the attention it deserved.  Many times, especially at dusk, when wending my way through crowds and passing by in a rush, I made notes to myself that I should return someday with a field camera, tripod, and roll or sheet film  — reminders that I consistently ignored or postponed.

Pleasingly Flawed Pocket Camera

One late afternoon, however, I did happen to have a camera in my bag while walking by — a small-sensor, pocket-sized Panasonic LX3, a camera that by current standards and tastes should be retired to the shelf.  However, despite its limitations and flaws — miniscule sensor with attendant poor light sensitivity, digital noise, smearing, lack of sharpness, etc. —  on the rare occasions when I still take the LX3 with me I find it capable of surprisingly pleasing results, including the old-fashioned-picture-postcard-like “feel” of the photo above.

Architectural Palimpsest

The photo above portrays Galata from Eminönu, just at that time of day when the sky turns orange and pink and its colors are reflected on the silvery-blue surface of currents converging at the mouth of the Golden Horn.  It shows Galata at its most monumental and most prosaic.  At the top of the rise is the Galata Tower, a gargantuan remnant — rebuilt several times over the centuries and extensively remodeled during the 1960s — of former defensive walls and originally dating to pre-Ottoman Byzantium (1389) when Galata was a self-governing Genoese trading enclave.

Juxtaposed against the tower is the thin spire of the one-time British Sailors’ Hospital (1855).  Just below and slightly to the left are the upper floors of the massive rear facade of a symmetrical dual structure originally built (1890) to house the headquarters of the Ottoman Bank and state tobacco monopoly. Designed to resemble an Ottoman-period wooden waterside mansion, the side of the building facing the Golden Horn and the hills of the old city of Istanbul on the opposite bank was conceived as counterweight of tradition to balance out the building’s self-consciously neoclassical and western-appearing street-side facade and main entrance-way.

Other buildings comprising the pointillist-like day-end physiognomy of Galata include late-19th- and early-20th-century commercial and residential structures and stark concrete structures built in the mid-20th-century on the footprints of past generations of buildings.  At the water-side level are the warren of decrepit buildings, open spaces, and narrow streets comprising the Perşembe Pazar (Thursday Market), a ships’-chandler and metal-working market that has functioned since Byzantine times but that is now under threat of proposed redevelopment into an upscale tourist and “cool” restaurant, coffeehouse, and nightspot zone — necessary “progress,” perhaps, but “progress” that erases historical continuity, legacy trades, and economic functions that are tradition passageways to socio-economic mobility.

Afterword: Subjective Mapping

The photo also indicates places prominent in my own subjective mapping of Istanbul.  It was on the bridge partially visible at the very far right of the photo that I was once involved in an accident that propelled me out of the world of work and income for a year but that also — despite surgery, pain, and other inconveniences — delivered me into an alternate world of reading, resting, exercising, and self-renewal.  A miniscule protrusion slightly to the right of the Galata Tower appears to be the very tip of the pillow-like, orientalist-fantasy dome of the Ashkenazic Synagogue — opened in 1900 as the synagogue of the former Austro-Hungarian Jewish community of Istanbul and designed by architect Gabriel Tadeschi, also the architect of the Or-Ahayim Hospital in Balat — a place that I have visited on-and-off over the decade since my first work assignment in Istanbul in the late-1970s.  Amongst the many worthy edifices — churches, office buildings, early apartment houses, synagogues, mosques, hans, and fountains — obscured by surrounding buildings and thus not visible in the photo is the late-19th-cenury neo-gothic Italian Synagogue, the Kal de los Frankos (Congregation of the Franks), where I enjoyed many pleasant Saturday mornings these past years and met a number of worthy friends and acquaintances .

Street View, Kurtuluş, Istanbul, 2012.  Fuji X100. Click to enlarge

Street View, Kurtuluş, Istanbul, 2012. Fuji X100. Click to enlarge

Three photos of three structures linked by geography and revealing facets of the dynamics that have shaped Istanbul: The row of apartment houses shown above stands on the crest of a ridge; the church and the construction site portrayed in the images below are set in the deep valleys that wrap around its lower reaches.


The apartment house row is located in Tatavla (present-day Kurtuluş) near the quarter of Bomonti, neighborhoods once largely Greek and still, in part, populated by Armenians and Jews.  Tatavla was  redeveloped at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century when “minorities” of modest income began to move out of cramped housing in the Galata and Pera and the slopes below them and resettle in newly built dwellings in the heights beyond Taksim. The uniformly narrow frontal widths of building plots were determined by fire laws of the time in combination the economics of low cost housing.  Building facades have been refurbished over and again as the decades passed, creating a stark geometry of plasterwork and stone.  The streets are as prim and as quiet as they are treeless.


Facade, Evangalikos (Panagias Evangelista) Church, Dolapdere, Istanbul, 2012. Fuji X100. Click to enlarge.


The church facade above is that of the Greek Orthodox Church of the Evangelikos (Panagia Evangelista), a huge eclectic structure combining a domed cruciform neo-Byzantine sanctuary with a neo-Gothic facade, a combination perhaps symbolic of the self-styled Byzantine roots and European aspirations  of the community that built it nearly a century and a quarter ago.  The Church of the Evangelikos stands in the valley of Dolapdere, one block from what is now a major traffic thoroughfare.  Until recently, Dolapdere Boulevard was a rough and tumble street, by day home to automobile repair shops and ateliers producing window display mannequins and by night seemingly deserted and legendarily nefarious.  Pedestrian traffic on Dolapdere is light but motor traffic is heavy and fast, and the church, half obscured by shabby storefronts fronting on the boulevard, is usually seen only in a mere flash from the windows of passing cars.

My guess is that the location of the Church of the Evangelikos was determined by two factors.  First, like many Eastern Orthodox church locations, it was built adjacent to an ayazma, a sacred natural spring.  Such streams have been holy to pagans and to Christians and to heterodox Muslims and dervishes as well, and have determined the sites of many other churches and one-time dervish monasteries throughout Istanbul.  The second locational factor may have been more mundane but no less universal — cost.  In inland parts of Istanbul, real estate prices traditionally are higher atop breezy crests and the upper reaches of slopes than in the less-well-ventilated, vista-less confines of valleys and former riverbeds .(Note: this rule is reversed at in the city’s coastal locations, where sea breezes and waterfront access and vistas have long commanded premium prices.)


Construction site preparation, Bomonti / Piyale Paşa, Istanbul, 2013.  Panasonic LX3. Click on image to enlarge.

Bomonti to Piyale Paşa below

The construction site pictured in the last of the three photos links back to a story I posted a year ago reflecting on development in Istanbul and the politics and values of hillside locations and views.  At the time, the newly built middle-class dwellings in the upper reaches of the photo enjoyed views unobstructed by the shanty town below.  In the present photo (taken in 2013), the shanty-town dwellings have vanished and site preparation materials for new blocks of flatsare laid out in artful cascading swirls.  By 2014, the new flats were in place, leaving windows and balconies of the blue block shrouded in perpetual shadow, their views limited to the rear walls and windows of the newer buildings in front of them, from which they are now separated by a street of only medievally narrow width.  In urban contexts, views and vistas are ephemeral and limited in time and reach, this is even more so the more modest one’s means and apartment.

Lateral view of abandoned early-20th-century mineral bath pavilion, Ovche Kupel quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014.  Canon G10 pocket camera.  Click on image to enlarge.

Lateral view of an abandoned early-20th-century mineral bath pavilion, Ovcha Kupel quarter, Sofia, Bulgaria, 2014. Canon G10 pocket camera. Click on image to enlarge.

Ovcha Kupel, a suburb at the very edge of Sofia, Bulgaria.  For centuries, natural mineral water springs made Ovcha Kupel an ideal place for the washing of sheep prior to shearing — and thus its name in Bulgarian.  It the late-19th and early-20th centuries, as Bulgarian’s self-consciously attempted to adopt a central-European rather than “oriental” identity, Ovcha Kupel became a spa location and later, as until today, a center for rehabilitation medicine.  The old spa pavilion at Ovcha Kupel is derelict and crumbling, an irony as Sofia attempts to market itself as a “European Capital of Culture.”  But — and please don’t spread the word too far! — one of “my” places in Sofia is a walled-in plazh (“beach”) adjacent to Ovcha Kupel’s rehabilitation hospital.  Behind the wall of the plazh: mineral water showers (five plastic spigots actually), a mineral-water-filled pool big enough for a score of people to paddle and wade in, a “beach” of raked sand somewhat admixed with sin-bleached cigarette-butts and paper scraps, and a shaded lunch counter offering quite passable salads and delightfully cold beer.  New York’s Hamptons, the French and Turkish rivieras, and the island archipelagos of Greece are fine for those who can afford them.  For now, I settle for Ovcha Kupel.

Photographic Footnote

The photo above was taken with a Canon G10, a camera that I’ve relegated to the shelf but still occasionally blow the dust off of and take for a walk.  I still like the color palette that RAW files from the G10 renders but the poor dynamic range of the camera’s tiny sensor cameras can be seen in the blown-out sunlit areas at the right of the photo, which I’ve either enhanced or compromised further through a couple of quick attempts at remedial adjustment in Lightroom.

Sofia, Bulgaria.  Demonstrators gathering on a recent weekday evening in front of the National Assembly Building, a "Stalinist Wedding Cake" style edifice that during the years of the Soviet Bloc housed the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party.  Out of frame to the left: The offices the Bulgarian Council of Ministers.  Out of frame to the right: The offices of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria. The National Assembly Building, by the way, stands at the very epicenter of Sofia, at the convergence of three ages-old roadways around which the city rose, at the remains of the east gate of the Roman city of Serdica, and at the foot of a rise upon which, during Ottoman times, stood the clock tower that regulated the city's pace.  (Canon G10) (Click to enlarge.)

Sofia, Bulgaria. Demonstrators gathering on a recent weekday evening in front of the National Assembly building, a “Stalinist Wedding Cake” style edifice that during the years of the Soviet Bloc housed the headquarters of the Bulgarian Communist Party. Out of frame to the left: The offices the Bulgarian Council of Ministers. Out of frame to the right: The offices of the President of the Republic of Bulgaria. The National Assembly building, by the way, stands at the very epicenter of Sofia: at the intersection of three ages-old roadways around which the city first arose; at the remains of the east gate of the Roman city of Serdica, the precursor to what is now Sofia; and at the foot of the rise upon which, during late-Ottoman times, stood the clock tower that once regulated the city’s pace. (Canon G10) (Click to enlarge.)

In Bulgaria, I have learned, nothing is what is seems to be at first glance, and words, no matter how clear, often refer to alternate realities (click here for my long-ago online discourse on the wisdom and convenience of the oft-heard Bulgarian-language phrase po printsip, tr. “in principle”).

A Government Resigns

During my last visit to the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, back in February and early-March of this year, demonstrators poured into the center of the city to join marches protesting over-inflated energy charges, these resulting from a cynical game of arbitrage and manipulation of subsidies by insiders.  The demonstrations differed from the norm in that, this time, the majority of the marchers were from the Soviet-bloc-era housing developments at the fringes of Sofia — low income people, thus, caught in a squeeze between minimal incomes, lack of savings, and the soaring prices of inelastic monthly expenses.

The February and March demonstrations led to the cavalier resignation of the right-of-center government of Prime Minister Boyko Borisov, a Communist-era  one-time state security heavy and a recent mayor of Sofia whose shaved skull, protruding jaw, and characteristic bombast are reminiscent of Mussolini.  “Brother Boyko,” as he sometimes is called, simply threw up his hands and called for elections, thus, in effect, abandoning the country and dumping the entire mess into someone else’s lap.

Government by “Strange Bedfellows”

As Shakespeare wrote in The Tempest: “ … misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows;” likewise the coupling that comprises the government formed to replace that of Brother Boyko.  Current coalition partners include the BSP (successors to the old Bulgarian Communist Party) plus two small parties that survive by playing the roles of coalition-brokers: the DPS (Movement for Rights and Freedoms, a party originally founded to defend Bulgaria’s million-strong Turkish and Muslim minority against state and social oppression) and ATAKA (an out and out neo-nazi party whose platform and appeal is based on anti-Semitism and hatred and disenfranchisement of Bulgaria’s large populations of Gypsies and Turks).

One of the first acts of the new coalition was inexplicable, even by Bulgarian standards: The appointment of an oligarch with known ties to organized crime as head of the country’s national security agency.   In response, one month ago, crowds took to the streets of Sofia and of cities and towns elsewhere in Bulgaria in daily protest marches.  Within ten days, the appointment was withdrawn just as inexplicably as it been made in the first place.  The demonstrations, however, have continued.

Thinking Balkan

And this brings us back to my opening paragraph above: the Balkan blurring of what is said and what is, and what is and what could or should be.

One of my local interlocutors, a successful medical practitioner, explains that the demonstrations are an uprising of the new middle class.  Another — an energetic and articulate young independent consultant — adds that the demonstrations represent the entry of her generation into the politic arena.  And yet, when I visit the demonstrations, what I notice are embittered folks, in large part pensioners and the seemingly un- or under-employed, as well as a sprinkling of deadbeats swilling from liter bottles of beer or wearing t-shirts decorated with iron crosses or other iconography of the know-nothing right.  The signs I read and slogans I hear at the demonstrations are mostly rants against communism; the communist period, by the way, having ended one year short of a quarter of a century ago.  A sprinkling of English-language signs, featuring liberal use of words such as “motherfuckers” and “bastards,”  reveals the tenor of discourse.

A friend of mine who is a close observer of of local Facebook activity and print and broadcast media offers another take, i.e. that the protests have offered the media-savvy a low-risk opportunity to engage in “reputation management” and profile themselves as a new class of courageous leadership.  She also suggests that the demonstrations are likely to be used by Brother Boyko as a pretense for a magnanimous return to power.  Another friend — a former communist and present-day socialist, who has always had the integrity to speak out against the abuses of both parties — regrets that recriminations and shapeless discontent seem to be the language and output of-the-day of the Sofia protests, rather than a focus on concrete issues or the formation of a sustainable new opposition, this unlike contemporaneous events in Istanbul (see my previous post on issues and aspersions).  A third friend, a woman who has worked in the private sector in Bulgaria from the very first days of post-communist “market” economy, emphasizes that no party directly confronts the core issue of a divorcing government and the economy-at-large from organized crime.

Tomatoes, “Feta,” Schnapps, and Comments

As to me, I’m yet sure what I think — except, of course, not to trust my first impressions.  My next step, thus, will be to get myself back to thinking Balkan.  So, for the coming days at least, I’ll simply continue to enjoy the cool weather and refreshing periodic thunder storms and lose myself in the excellent local tomatoes, “feta,” and schnapps.  While I do so, please feel free to post your comment(s), whether in English or Bulgarian.

Atatürk Cultural Center, Taksim Square, Istanbul, occupied and bedecked with banners of left wing groups, early-June 2013. (Canon G10) (Click on photo for larger image.)

Atatürk Cultural Center, Taksim Square, Istanbul,  bedecked with banners of left wing groups, Gezi Park occupation, early-June 2013. (Canon G10) (Click on photo to enlarge image.)

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).


Atatürk Curlutral Center, the morning after a brutal siege by police a week and a half ago.  Immediately after the siege, the police removed banners hung by left-wing groups and replaced them with a portrait of Atatürk flanked by two Turkish flags.  In an uncharacteristic departure from the usual iconography of of the present regime, a portrait of Prime Minister Erdoğan is conspicuous in its absence. (Fuji X100).  (To magnify image, click on photo)

Atatürk Cultural Center, the morning after a brutal siege by police a week and a half ago. Immediately after the siege, the police removed banners hung by left-wing groups and replaced them with a portrait of Atatürk flanked by two Turkish flags. In an uncharacteristic departure from the usual iconography of of the present regime, a portrait of Prime Minister Erdoğan is conspicuous by its absence. (Fuji X100). (To magnify image, click on photo)

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.

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