his past 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 current mayor, Kad?r Topba?, 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”, Topba? 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 toward a stage installed for the evening’s entertainment. The main event 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 a fireworks display.
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaking at the opening of an archery lodge in Okmeydan? earlier in the day, praised Mehmet the Conqueror’s pledge to defend the cultural autonomy, 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.”
That night, as fireworks streaked across the sky, a crowd had gathered in Gezi Park, across the Golden Horn and adjacent to Taksim Square. People were there for the third consecutive night of protests against the proposed destruction of the park in favor of a faux-Ottoman military barracks-cum-shopping mall. The assembled were mostly in their twenties and thirties. Some sat on the grass drinking beer and wine; others stood toward the park’s rear entrance by a stage and sang songs. Erdogan had addressed the protesters earlier that 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.
As the protesters revived themselves from sleep the next morning, the city’s police attempted to conquer their hearts with tear gas. And that’s when the trouble began. The largely peaceful protests then spread from the park across the city, then to 79 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, with more than two million people participating. Police again responded with excessive force—tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons—leaving five dead and thousands injured, including several critically, and hundreds detained.
hen Erdogan spoke of reviving history, he was not referring to the Armenian cemetery that once stood near Gezi Park, but the Halil Pasha Artillery 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 meaningful 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 ?smet ?nönü, Turkey’s second President and Erdogan’s favorite Kemalist punching bag, who in his youth had helped suppress the aforementioned mutiny.
Actor Devrim Evin, who portrayed Mehmet the Conqueror in last year’s sensationalist and critically derided blockbuster film Fetih 1453, offered his own 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 [ecdadmz] was”, he said, using one of Erdogan’s favorite words to describe his Ottoman forebears.
Amid all the recent nostalgia for Mehmet’s conquest more than five centuries ago, it’s easy to forget that the official celebration of his triumph is a tradition of recent invention, dating only to 1953. Honoring the anniversary reflected a shift in the way Turkey, then governed by Prime Minister Adnan Menderes’s Democrat Party (DP) following the country’s first free elections in 1950, engaged the Ottoman legacy after more than two 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.”1 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.”2
But this Ottoman revivalism soon fell out of official favor. Turkish nationalists led by Mustafa Kemal looked West while moving east some 350 kilometers to the country’s new capital in Ankara, out in the Anatolian plateau. Nothing captured the government’s attitude better than the first statue of Mustafa Kemal, erected in 1926 on the grounds of Topkap? Palace, its back turned to the former seat of Ottoman power and 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 to these nationalists a corrupt and backward 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 ?ehzade mosques might collapse. After enduring a decade of wars from 1914 to 1924, 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.”3
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. For the new government, the city was 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 targeted religious minorities, and a government-backed pogrom in 1955 devastated the city’s remaining Greeks, as well as Armenians and Jews.4 This in turn contributed to mass emigration out of neighborhoods like Balat, where this May Istanbul’s Mayor sang the praises of Ottoman-Turkish tolerance.
Revelers did not have to look hard for evidence of Istanbul’s more multiconfessional past. Bordering the park grounds is the Balat Private Hospital, opened in 1887 as Or Ha-hayim (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, the major center of Jewish life in Istanbul was 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 Tarlaba, are in turn 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 many contemporary European approaches. But as anthropologist Jenny White writes in her recent book, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks, the Justice and Development Party’s official narrative of Ottoman 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.”
he Municipality of Istanbul’s invitation of Henri Prost to develop an urban plan for the city in 1936—which included an unrealized massive green space spilling down toward the Bosphorus from the Taksim area—rekindled the debate over the city’s Ottoman architectural legacy. Sedat Çetinta?, one of the scions of Ottoman revivalism and a student of Kemalettin Bey, criticized Prost for neglecting Ottoman structures in favor of their Byzantine counterparts. In 1939 Çetinta? organized a commission of intellectuals under the slogan “Turkish Istanbul” to raise awareness about preserving Ottoman monuments as the 1453 conquest’s 500th anniversary approached. As Turkish scholar Nur Alt?ny?ld?z argues, “Çetinta?’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.”5 In Çetinta?’s words, “The constructions of the Republic should rely on national traditions” and draw inspiration from “beauties other than those of the West.” Similarly, when the Gezi Park sit-in morphed 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, which was back in vogue sixty years ago.
The inaugural celebration of the conquest stretched from May 29 to June 7, 1953, including a ceremony in Topkap?, where an Ottoman Janissary named Ulubatl? 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 then-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 as 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 military 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 the 1953 fte, though President Celâl 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 rak?, which the New York Times described as the Turkish “national drink”, a title Erdogan recently ascribed, in a sign of changing times, to the non-alcoholic, yogurt-based ayran.
This newly stylish Ottoman nostalgia also found expression in the DP’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 multiconfessional fabric. Menderes described the re-development as a plan “to conquer Istanbul once again.” Calling it a “plan” was perhaps too generous, as Menderes himself allowed. “A plan is a good thing, but for that you need time and money”, the Prime Minister reportedly told a journalist, implying that the government was short on both.
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. Alt?ny?ld?z concludes, “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 more recent 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 media 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. Following their trial in a kangaroo court, the deposed Prime Minister and two ministers were hanged in September 1961.
This past May, 53 years and one day after that coup, Erdogan told AKP parliamentarians that one of Menderes’s first decisions as Prime Minister was to approve the celebration of the conquest and that one of the military government’s first acts was to outlaw it. Clearly, Erdogan has positioned himself as a latter-day Menderes, which in this narrative would make the largely peaceful Gezi Park protesters—and others in the streets across Istanbul and the country—heirs to the oppressive and reactionary forces of Turkish history. That would be ?smet ?nönü and the Kemalists of yesteryear, coup-plotting military officers, and today’s opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP).
n 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 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 morning hours of June 3, 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 and nation above all else, especially above 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.”6 University professors are thus 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 Gezi Park protesters will long be debated, but religious conservatives did not turn out in large numbers. There were 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 the protests have not been a religious-secular struggle, however convenient such a dichotomy is for lazy analysis. The denizens of Gezi Park were a heterogeneous bunch, and unrepresentative of Turkey as a whole. Though I met leftists who boasted of their veteran status in the protest movement, it was the many who describe themselves as apolitical, having never before taken to the streets, that have made this movement unprecedented. They were protesting the political exclusion that less fortunate members of Turkish society, like the Kurdish relatives of Cevat and Hüseyin Encü, have long known.
The protesters frequently called 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. Even during the park’s most crowded days, beyond the barricades at its rear city buses were running, though the routes were abbreviated. The tourist center of Sultan Ahmet was bustling throughout June, though there were reports of widespread tourist cancellations. Many of the Turks outside the Gezi Park movement I have spoken with have been dismissive of the protesters, albeit also critical of the police response. A friend living in a strongly AKP province in northeastern Turkey said most people there describe the protesters as provocateurs. Turkish television’s near-total failure to cover the protests early on did not help matters.
This movement has not seemed to be about Turkey’s next election or even electoral politics. It is not a culture war either, although the AKP’s efforts to frame it that way are to its benefit. And it’s not really about 75-year-old trees. As one sign in Gezi Park read, “This is a struggle of rights.” It is a challenge to the belief that democracy resides in the ballot box and nowhere else, 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 a rejection of a patriarchal model of citizenship that prioritizes duties over rights, the nation over the individual—a model that dates back much further than the AKP’s rise to power in 2002.
The protesters’ energy and persistence has surprised nearly everyone, most of all Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his ministers, who have blamed foreign actors, the international media, social media, and the “interest rate lobby” for their troubles. Beltway champions of the so-called “Turkish model” are also among the blindsided. Much like comparisons of Taksim to Tahrir, the notion that the AKP would light the path for Islamist parties in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere always betrayed an ignorance of Turkey, its neighbors, or both. History did not begin anew in 2002. The AKP is itself very much a product of the Republic of Turkey—its majoritarian democratic tradition, its nationalism, its laicism, its military coups, and its ties to the European Union and NATO.
n the short term Gezi Park will not much affect the U.S.-Turkey bilateral relationship, which has never been about the quality of Turkish democracy anyway. Turkey’s aspirations for regional leadership require a good relationship with the United States. Washington sees in Ankara a valuable partner in the Middle East, if at times an overly ambitious one, particularly when it comes to Iran.
That continuity is no excuse, however, for downplaying or underestimating the significance of what is happening in Turkey. With Gezi forcibly emptied and the government cracking down on organizers, whether or not the diverse protesters can articulate an alternative vision of Turkish democracy that appeals to a sizeable portion of the electorate remains to be seen. Their own political experience, Erdogan’s unrelenting efforts to marginalize them for opposing the “national will”, a cowed media and the absence of a credible opposition party will only make it harder. Yet their success could shape a more democratic future, which would offer Turkey something far greater than a romanticized past, be it Kemalist or Ottoman, ever could.
1Bozdogan, Modernism and Nation-Building: Turkish Architectural Culture in the Early Republic (University of Washington Press, 2001).
2Quoted in Nur Alt?ny?ld?z, “The Architectural Heritage of Istanbul and the Ideology of Preservation”, Muqarnas (Volume 24, 2007), p. 286.
3Alt?ny?ld?z, p. 289.
4See Sean R. Singer, “Lost in Translation: James Bond’s Istanbul”, The American Interest (January/February 2013).
5Alt?ny?ld?z, p. 294.
6White, Muslim Nationalism and the New Turks (Princeton University Press, 2012).