Taksim Square was a symbol of 20th century secular society in Istanbul. Five years after ‘Gezi’, the area and Turkish society have been remodelled for a new century.
Words by Ufuk Inturk, photography by Dave Mitchell.
Mention of the words ‘Gezi Park’ is more likely to conjure images of protest and violence than greenery and trees. The demonstrations that started here 5 years ago were sparked by plans to replace this rare green space in a city of 15 million people and a thousand and one shopping malls, with a reconstruction of a 19th century Ottoman barracks.
This plan upset environmentalists to begin with, as well as secularists who scorned yet another reactionary islamist project. Police heavy-handedness – protesters’ tents were burned down regardless of being occupied or not – brought thousands more people to the park and surrounding Taksim. An occupy-style protest village, populated by students, leftists, environmentalists, trade unionists and dissatisfied secularists, grew into every corner of the park and spilled over in to Taksim Square in the evenings.
International journalists flocked to what seemed (to them) a new front in the Arab-spring, many wearing bullet-proof ‘Press’ jackets and military-style clothing. Unlike in Libya, Egypt or Syria, however, the government would quickly extinguish the protests and continue with its programme undeterred.
Taksim was redeveloped constantly in the 20th century, driven (like Ataturk’s Republic itself) by a desire to modernise – to break from the Ottoman past, to celebrate Turkish nationalism and Republican ideals.
The phrase ‘yeni Turkiye’ (new Turkey) was first used at this time to describe the new regime under Ataturk. The Independence Monument to the Republic’s founders was unveiled in Taksim Square 1928, five years after the departure of the occupying British and allies. Ataturk is shown in military dress on one side, and on the other, hatless (indeed, Fezless), the model of a civilian statesman. The urban development continued until the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939. In the late 1960’s, 30 years after the leader’s death, a modern cultural centre bearing his name (Ataturk Kultur Merkezi, AKM) was added at the opposite end of the square. Taksim belonged to Ataturk and the secular Republic.
The square has long been a place for protest, a rallying point for people armed with flags and banners. Jews, Armenians, Greeks, nationalists, socialists, trade unionists, political activists: all marched here in the 20th century, sometimes with tragic consequences, such as in 1969 and 1977, when lives were lost.
With the rise of the AK Parti and Tayyip Erdogan, the phrase ‘yeni Turkiye’ has again been used to describe societal and civic renovations. During the ‘Gezi’ events of 2013, the park and Taksim Square were the focal points for demonstrations against urban redevelopment and threats to secularist governance. Two weeks of Silent protests, piano recitals, lectures, singing and dancing, all came to an end on June 15th: that day began with a small battle in a far corner of Taksim square, in front of waiting TV cameras but away from the dozing students in the park: half-powered water cannon duelled with uncharacteristically middle-aged male ‘protestors’, armed with actual fake flags and fireworks. The pro-government TV news channels ran the convincing footage of ‘violent protesters clashing with police’ for a few hours, until the signal was given for the park to be cleared. Those fleeing were chased into nearby hotels which offered shelter, where even medical staff were targeted by the police as they attended to the injured.
Five years later people no longer protest against the government in Taksim, or anywhere else. The ruling AKP has spent nearly 20 years fighting the Kemalist, secular establishment that often threatened to ban it, and the last five years fighting former allies in the Gulenist movement (since labelled the Fethullah Gulen Terror Organisation, or FETO). Following the botched coup attempt on July 15 2016, the AKP remains in power, all be it by a thin parliamentary majority (elections take place this June). Turks have since lived under a state of emergency, elected Mayors all over Turkey have been replaced by government appointees, and thousands of people have been arrested. The military, judiciary and media have apparently been purged of any Gulenist or Kemalist elements. Since March 23rd this year, when the Dogan Media Group was sold to more government-friendly owners, newspapers and TV channels present nothing that might offend the President or ruling AK Party.
During this time, the Turkish government has continued to remodel society in line with its conservative religious views, while simultaneously renovating the physical manifestations of that society.
The education syllabus has been updated – evolution will not to be taught in the new Turkey. While generations of Turkish kids have learned about Ataturk and Gallipoli 1915, new generations will learn about President Erdogan and July 2015. Greater emphasis will be placed on Koranic history and victorious Islamic warriors of the Ottoman era. There has been a deliberate blurring of the founding myths of secular Turkey, with the new myths of Yeni Turkiye – equating Gulenism with historical foreign invasion, for example, with the terrorist-in-chief Gulen himself seeking refuge in the United States. A new national holiday was celebrated on July 15 2017 – a ‘Democracy Day’ for all to celebrate victory over the FETO coup attacks the year before. For March 18, traditionally linked to the war of independence 1915-1923, ‘Martyrs Day’ posters proclaimed all martyrs, whether lives were lost in 1915 fighting the British, or in 2015 fighting the Gulenists.
The furniture of Ataturk’s Republic – statues, buildings and squares – are being replaced along with the education curriculum and public holidays. The Bosphorus Bridge was renamed ‘July 15 Martyrs Bridge’; on Camlica hill overlooking that bridge, a new mosque is almost finished, referred to locally as ‘Tayyip’s mosque’ – Erdogan himself chose the location and participated in its neo-ottoman design.
A new mega-airport will open near Istanbul – on Republic Day, October 29 2018, with speculation surrounding the potential name of the airport: Istanbul Erdogan Airport? A new bridge to open in 2022 in Canakkale – an area remembered for victory in 1915 – will physically join Europe with Asia in the West of Anatolia; symbolically it will connect the founding story of old Turkey with that of the new.
Long desired by Turkish islamist groups, a new mosque in Taksim was announced by Tayyip Erdogan at the beginning of the ‘Gezi protests’ in 2013. Five years on, while the park is intact with no sign of an ottoman barracks, the mosque is nearing completion, overlooking old Ataturk’s Independence Monument.
As the Turkish Republic approaches its 100-year anniversary, just 5 years away, the new mosques and bridges are bold symbols of Turkey’s neo-ottoman and islamic self image, one that has been moulded by the Turkish government and by Tayyip Erdogan. Ultimately, Erdogan’s goal for Yeni Turkiye is to mould new Turkish citizens: pious and patriotic sons and daughters of a new Ottoman empire.
With the last democratic hurdle approaching, Erdogan is unlikely to fall with 2023 in sight.