On May 29 thousands gathered on the shores of the Golden Horn in the historic neighborhood of Balat to celebrate the 560th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul. It was the kind of early summer Istanbul evening that gives a slight taste of the thick humidity to come in June and July. The city’s Mayor Kadir Topbas arrived by boat and in his opening address described the conquest as marking the transition from the darkness of Europe’s Middle Age to the Modern Age. “With the conquest, the differences between language, religion, race and sect disappeared”, Topbas said. “With the conquest a message of peace was given to the world.”The atmosphere was festive. Vendors sold Turkish flags, cotton candy, and sunflower seeds. There was a mix of families, couples, young adults and children standing or sitting on temporary wood platforms, looking out towards a stage installed for the evening’s entertainment, which included an extravagant laser show, the premiere of a historical film about the conquest, a performance by an Ottoman period band in full costume and fireworks. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at the opening of an archery lodge in Okmeydani earlier in the day, praised Mehmet the Conqueror’s pledge to defend the lifestyles, beliefs, and freedoms of the city’s residents in the conquest’s aftermath. “In our civilization, conquest is not only the taking of lands, countries, cities; at the same time it is the winning of hearts, the conquering of hearts.” The following morning the city’s police would attempt to conquer the hearts of protestors in nearby Gezi Park with tear gas. But that night as fireworks streaked across the sky a crowd was gathered in Gezi Park, across the Golden Horn and adjacent to Taksim Square; it was the third consecutive night of protests against the demolition of the park in favor of a shopping mall. The assembled were mostly in their twenties and thirties. Some sat on the grass drinking beer and wine; others stood towards the park’s rear entrance by a stage and sang songs in unison. Erdogan had addressed the protestors directly earlier in the day. “Do whatever you like”, he told them. “We’ve made the decision, and we will implement it accordingly. If you have respect for history, research and take a look at what the history of that place called Gezi Park is. We are going to revive history there.” Erdogan was not referring to the Armenian cemetery that once stood nearby, but the Halil Pasha Armory Barracks, built in 1803–06. In 1909 the barracks were the site of a mutiny against the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the ideological predecessors of the nationalists who founded the Republic of Turkey. The CUP had come to power in the name of constitutionalism in 1908 but eventually succumbed to the authoritarian temptation. It used the mutiny to justify the deposition and exile of Abdülhamid II, the last Ottoman Sultan to wield total power. When Istanbul was being redesigned in 1940 according to the plans of French architect Henri Prost, the barracks were leveled and the resulting park was named for Ismet Inönü, Turkey’s second President and Erdogan’s favorite Kemalist punching bag. Actor Devrim Evin, who portrayed Mehmet the Conqueror in last year’s sensationalistic and critically derided blockbuster film Fetih 1453, offered a different reading of history. He was to be the guest of honor at the Golden Horn festivities but declined the invitation, citing the Sultan’s 560-year-old decree to preserve the monuments of Constantinople as a precedent for defending Gezi Park. “That’s who our forefather [ecdadimiz] was”, he said, using one of Erdogan’s favorite words to describe his Ottoman forebears. Days later the peaceful protests would spread from the park across the city, then across the country, with hundreds of thousands participating. Police again would respond with excessive force—tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons—leaving several dead, thousands injured and thousands in police custody, though the numbers remain difficult to verify. Despite the more than five centuries since Mehmet the Conqueror rode into Constantinople, the official celebration of his triumph is a tradition of recent invention, dating to 1953. Honoring the anniversary reflected a shift in the way Turkey, governed by Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’ Democrat Party (DP) following the country’s first free elections in 1950, engaged the Ottoman legacy after two-plus decades of authoritarian single-party rule. Architecture was a significant part of that legacy. In the years straddling the collapse of the empire and the rise of the republic, an architectural style that blended the Ottoman-Islamic past with the Turkish-nationalist present rose to prominence. As architectural historian Sibel Bozdogan writes, it legitimated “the new nationalist regime in the eyes of a traditional population loyal to the religious patrimony of the Ottoman dynasty.” One of the movement’s champions, Kemalettin Bey, claimed, “Every Turk should protect as his own these monuments of national civilization and create his new civilization by enhancing them.” But this Ottoman revivalism soon fell out of official favor. The Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal looked West while moving East, to the country’s new capital in Ankara in western Anatolia. Nothing captured the government’s attitude better than the first statue of Mustafa Kemal, erected in 1926 on the grounds of Topkapi Palace, its back turned to the former seat of Ottoman power looking across the Bosphorus to the Turkish future in Anatolia. Ankara, publicized as “the heart of the nation”, was also an architectural tabula rasa on which the republicans could project their modernist dreams, and they recruited foreign architects to realize those visions. If the new capital symbolized progress, Istanbul symbolized a corrupt and backwards past, and it paid a severe price in the form of official neglect. Fires tore through neighborhoods of wood houses in the old city. In 1935 there were fears that iconic structures such as the Fatih, Süleymaniye and Sehzade mosques might collapse. After enduring a decade of wars, the city’s population fell from more than 1.1 million at the turn of the century to less than 700,000 in 1927. Halil Edhem, a leading figure in Turkish art, archeology, and architecture circles, called Istanbul “the greatest wasteland of the world.” Istanbul’s Ottoman legacy was not its only problem in the eyes of the country’s new rulers. At the turn of the 20th century the city had a non-Muslim majority, with significant populations of Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Levantines, and was thus insufficiently Turkish. As Celal Nuri said in his capacity as chair of the parliamentary debates over the 1924 Constitution, Turkey’s “real [öz] citizen” was Muslim, Hanefi, and Turkish-speaking. And what of the other citizens? He continued: “There is a Greek, an Armenian, a Jew, all kinds of types. Praise be to God that this is a minority.” It was the minorities, both Muslim and non-Muslim, who suffered the brunt of Turkification policies, not only in Istanbul but also in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast. In Istanbul the Wealth Tax of 1942, which targeted the religious minorities, and a government-backed pogrom in 1955 that devastated the city’s remaining Greeks, as well as other minority groups, contributed to mass emigration out of neighborhoods like Balat, where this May Istanbul’s Mayor was singing the praises of Ottoman-Turkish tolerance. Revelers did not have to look hard for evidence of Istanbul’s multi-confessional past. Bordering the park grounds is the Balat Private Hospital, opened in 1887 as Or Ahayim (Light of Life) by Jewish doctors and philanthropists to serve their needy co-religionists who lived in the heavily Jewish neighborhood. When the Ottomans took the city in 1453, a major center of Jewish life in Istanbul was actually down the Golden Horn in Eminönü, but following a massive fire in 1660 the Sultan’s mother expelled the Jews from the neighborhood to make way for the still-standing Yeni Cami (The New Mosque). In the 1950s poor migrants from the Anatolian countryside began moving into many of these neighborhoods, replacing one marginalized group with another. Today those migrants’ descendants, in neighborhoods like Tarlabasi, are being squeezed out by development projects and gentrification. Some of these areas have become sources of nostalgia for Istanbul’s cosmopolitan past, promoting a romanticization of history rather than a critical engagement with it. There is much to admire in the Ottoman approach to some minorities, particularly in comparison to contemporary European approaches. But as anthropologist Jenny White writes in her recent book, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks (2012), the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) official narrative of tolerance is largely ahistorical, “with no acknowledgment of inequalities between the Turkish center and non-Turkish peripheries and between Muslim and non-Muslim populations in Ottoman or present-day Turkey.” The Municipality of Istanbul’s invitation of Henri Prost to develop an urban plan for the city in 1935—which included an unrealized massive green space spilling down towards the Bosphorus from the Taksim area—rekindled the debate over the city’s Ottoman architectural legacy. One of the scions of Ottoman revivalism and a student of Kemalettin Bey, Sedat Çetintas, criticized Prost for neglecting Ottoman structures in favor of their Byzantine counterparts. In 1939 Çetintas organized a commission of intellectuals under the slogan “Turkish Istanbul” to raise awareness about preserving Ottoman monuments as the 1453 conquest’s millennial anniversary approached. As Turkish scholar Nur Altinyildiz argues, “Çetintas’s highlighting of Ottoman classicism as the singular site of Turkish identity was a nationalist reaction to the modernist break with the Ottoman and Islamic past in the early republican period.” In Çetintas’s words, “The constructions of the Republic should rely on national traditions” and draw inspiration from “beauties other than those of the West.” When the Gezi Park sit-in transformed into citywide protests with tens of thousands of participants, Erdogan took the opportunity to criticize the long-dead Prost, emphasizing his foreignness, and his disregard for the Ottoman legacy. The inaugural celebration of the conquest stretched from May 29 to June 7, 1953, including a ceremony in Topkapi, where an Ottoman Janissary named Ulubatli Hasan, whom many historians now believe to have been the creation of a Greek chronicler writing in the 16th century, allegedly planted the first Ottoman banner on the Byzantine walls. In 1953 the flag in question was usually shown as Turkish. “Five hundred years ago on the morning of May 29, the sun, shining down on the city walls, announced the opening of a new age”, the governor and mayor of Istanbul Fahrettin Kerim Gökay told the crowd. “This epochal transformation announced to the new world the Turkish embrace of freedom of conscience and religion, freedom of ideas, [and] people embracing one another with mutual feelings of respect and love.” The Ottoman triumph became a Turkish triumph, and Gökay linked the military heroism of the soldiers of 1453 to the Turkish soldiers then fighting in the Korean War. At some ceremonies men in period costumes marched side-by-side with active-duty Turkish troops. In addition to Gökay, the Minister of Education, parliamentarians representing Istanbul, military officers, and Greek Patriarch Athenagoras attended, though President Celal Bayar, Prime Minister Menderes, and Foreign Minister Mehmet Fuad Köprülü declined to participate to avoid irritating their new Greek NATO ally. Special commemorative “Conquest” cigarettes were produced for the occasion. New York-based Turks toasted the conquest with raki, which the New York Times described as their “national drink”, a title Erdogan recently ascribed to the non-alcoholic and yogurt-based ayran. This newly stylish Ottoman nostalgia also found expression in the Democrat Party’s plans to re-develop Istanbul in 1956, one year after government-backed riots targeting Greeks and other religious minorities struck yet another blow against the city’s multi-confessional fabric. Menderes described the re-development as a plan “to conquer Istanbul once again.” Though perhaps calling it a plan is too generous. “A plan is a good thing, but for that you need time and money”, the Prime Minister reportedly told a journalist. Historic buildings were altered, moved and permanently damaged; more than 7,000 were demolished entirely. The gate where Mehmet the Conqueror was believed to have entered the city in 1453 was destroyed in favor of a road. Restoration efforts aimed not to return structures to their original form but to create a sanitized and romanticized image of an Ottoman past divorced from historical and spatial context. The emphasis on wide avenues reflected an imitation of 19th-century Paris rather than fealty to Istanbul’s past. Altinyildiz concludes that, “In urban topography, the asserted aim of reconnecting with the Ottoman heritage resulted in disrupting continuity with the past more drastically than ever before.” The charge is an eerily accurate indictment of the Erdogan government’s transformation of the city in the name of economic growth, with no consideration of opposing viewpoints, nearly sixty years later. As the 1950s progressed the high hopes for multiparty democracy faded; Menderes and the DP became increasingly authoritarian. In 1960 restrictions on the opposition and the press grew, sparking student riots that government restrictions prevented the press from covering. Though Menderes remained popular outside of the major cities, a highly controversial government investigation of opposition activities provided the immediate pretext for a military coup on May 27, and following their trial in a kangaroo court, the deposed Prime Minister and two ministers were hanged. Last week, 53 years and one day after that coup, Erdogan told AKP parliamentarians that one of Menderes’s first decisions as Prime Minister was approving the celebration of the conquest and that one of the military government’s first acts was outlawing it. Erdogan has positioned himself as a latter-day Menderes, which in this narrative makes the peaceful Gezi Park protestors—and others in the streets across Istanbul and the country—the heirs to the oppressive and reactionary forces of Turkish history: coup plotting military officers and the opposition CHP. In December 2011, 34 Turkish-Kurdish smugglers, mostly teenagers apparently mistaken for PKK militants, died in a Turkish airstrike near the border with Iraq in southeastern Turkey. Some in Turkey refer to the incident as the Roboski Massacre, using the Kurdish name of the district. As the one-year anniversary of the massacre approached late last year and a stalled investigation had yet to resolve how the Turkish military managed to kill dozens of its own citizens—whose relatives continue to seek justice—Erdogan directed Kurdish AKP deputies to refer to the area in question by Uludere, its Turkish name, to support the “National Unity and Brotherhood Project.” Walking through Gezi Park in the early hours of Monday morning, I saw signs affixed to trees displaying the names of the victims—names like Cevat Encü, Hüseyin Encü—with ROBOSKI written below. It was a simple but powerful rebuke of both the AKP and its Kemalist predecessors, the emphasis on unity, on the nation above all else, especially individual and minority rights. There have been important reforms under the AKP, including the assertion of civilian control over the military and an unprecedented outreach to Turkey’s Kurdish citizens, which includes an ongoing peace process. But there are also plenty of continuities with Turkish history. As the political analyst Soli Özel told White: “The Welfare Party [the Islamist predecessor of the AKP] was a Kemalist party in green, not red. AKP is as well. It’s not questioning certain dogmas: The sanctity of sovereignty, borders, inbredness.” University professors are expected to “raise” students, the end product being young adults loyal to the nation. Journalists have a similar patriotic duty to fulfill, and vaguely worded terror-laws or publishers’ fears of government intervention, or lost contracts in other sectors of the economy, often leave those who cross the government out of work or worse. Abortion is rejected because women’s bodies should serve the nation by bearing at least three children. The composition of the protestors will long be debated, but it seems fair to say that thus far religious conservatives have not turned out in large numbers, though that could change. There are some nationalists, a minority to be sure, chanting, “We are Mustafa Kemal’s soldiers”, wittingly or unwittingly nostalgic for a regime that left someone else, including the religious, on the outside looking in. But this is not a religious-secular struggle, however convenient such a dichotomy is for lazy analysis. The denizens of Gezi Park are a heterogeneous bunch, even if unrepresentative of Turkey as a whole. I’ve met leftists who have boasted of their veteran status in the protest movement. The countless who describe themselves as apolitical, having never taken to the streets in their life, have helped make this movement unprecedented. They are protesting the political exclusion that less fortunate members of Turkish society, like the Kurdish relatives of Cevat and Hüseyin Encü, have long known. The protestors frequently call on the Prime Minister to resign, but only the most romantic could think such an outcome possible. Turkey is a democracy, if a flawed one, and Erdogan is its elected leader with wide support outside the protest movement. Walk past the barricades at the rear of Gezi Park and city busses are running, though the routes are abbreviated. On Sunday the touristic center of Sultan Ahmet was bustling. Many of the Turks outside the protest movement I have spoken with have been dismissive of the movement, albeit also critical of the police response. A friend who lives in a strongly AKP province in northeastern Turkey said most people there describe the protestors as provocateurs. Turkish television’s near-total failure to cover the protests early on hasn’t helped matters. This movement does not seem to be about Turkey’s next election or even electoral politics. It is not a culture war either, although framing it that way is to the AKP’s benefit. And it’s not really about 75-year-old trees. As one sign in Gezi Park reads, “This is a struggle of rights.” It is a challenge to the belief that democracy is the ballot box and nothing more, a claim Erdogan repeated in a direct rebuke to President Abdullah Gül’s efforts to ease tensions on June 3. It is a rejection of a democratic majoritarianism that treats the opposition as disloyal and of a patriarchal model of citizenship that prioritizes duties over rights, the nation over the individual. This model dates back much further than the AKP’s rise to power in 2002. The protestors I have interacted with don’t seem particularly interested in Henri Prost, Adnan Menderes, or Mehmet the Conqueror. For the moment it seems to be a fight for a more democratic present and future, which has much more to offer Turkey than a romanticized past, be it Kemalist or Ottoman.
This is your free article this month. A quality publication is not cheap to produce.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Subscribe today and support The American Interest—only $2.99/month! Already a subscriber? Log in to make this banner go away.
Published on: June 6, 2013The Struggle for Istanbul