For the last two weeks, Taksim, Istanbul’s central public square, has been at the heart of protests that have gripped the country and challenged Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s authority. The protests have now become a channel to express the dissatisfaction and frustration that many Turkish people feel towards what they see as the government’s growing authoritarianism. The protests initially started over the fate of Gezi Park, a small green space, that was to be demolished to make way for a replica of the old Ottoman barracks that once stood at the site.
For much of its recent time in power, one of the central narratives of the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) has been about building infrastructure. It has now become a common joke in Istanbul to suggest that the city is a permanent construction site. The sounds of drilling and engines churning have become as much a part of the fabric of the city as the horns of the ferries that crisscross the Bosporus or of the screeching seagulls that fly overhead.
A large chunk of this building frenzy is the private construction of shopping malls, skyscrapers and ugly housing projects—but there is a close nexus between the political establishment and the construction industry. In addition to the private projects, much of the infrastructure change is led by the government itself, be it the construction of metros and train lines, bridges, airports, mosques or housing developments. Infrastructure issues seem to have dominated the AKP’s third term in power so thoroughly that it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that these developments are indicative of a phenomenally ambitious agenda by the AKP to mold Istanbul according to its vision and leave its stamp on the urban landscape of the city for posterity.
The fact that Taksim has become the flashpoint of protests is perhaps not surprising. The square has always been a political space, and is such an utterly Republican artifact that it was perhaps to be expected that Erdoğan would want to refashion the space in a manner more to his liking. In a way, the whole project of reimagining the neighborhood has been in the works for a while. The Tarlabaşı neighborhood located off one of the main arterial roads leading away from Taksim has already been targeted by a highly contentious gentrification project.
The prime minister’s recent announcements have suggested that Taksim will become a pedestrianized zone. The Topçu barracks will be constructed in place of Gezi Park—since the protests began there has been much to-ing and fro-ing on what the reconstructed barracks will house; initial plans for a shopping mall seem to have been discarded and replaced by a museum. A mosque will be built in the square and the Atatürk Cultural Centre demolished, possibly to make way for a new opera. How Taksim will look in the future is still clouded in uncertainty but the new Taksim could be of an Islamic–cum-neoliberal character that is completely reflective of the AKP’s ideology.
In rebuilding these barracks, Erdoğan may be claiming to be true to history. But as always, especially in a complex, multi-layered city like Istanbul, history is a many-headed creature. The redevelopment of Taksim over time also shows the complicated ways in which the state often lays out its version of history through its city planning. The Topçu barracks were the site of the 1909 counter-revolution that challenged the Young Turk Revolution of the previous year and sought to reaffirm Sultan Abdul Hamid II as monarch. The rebuilding of the barracks where such resistance against the military Young Turks took place in favor of Ottoman legacy is as much of an ideological decision as the one to demolish the barracks was.
It is, of course, true that the Republican regime refashioned Taksim in its image. City planning was granted particular importance as part of the republic’s modernization program, and it is unsurprising that Taksim was affected by this approach. With the declaration of the republic, the Grand Rue de Péra was pointedly renamed İstiklâl Caddesi (Independence Avenue), and in 1928 the Republic Monument, designed by Italian sculptor Pietro Canonica, was installed at the heart of Taksim. During Henry Prost’s stint as the urban planner of Istanbul, a decision was made to add an opera to the square and refashion the area in a more European and modern fashion. The Topçu barracks, which after 1909 had fallen into disrepair and had become a football stadium, and the neighboring Armenian Pangaltı cemetery were demolished to build the park that stands there today.
It is telling that in all the talk about rebuilding the square and going back to a historicised vision of the space the Armenian presence has largely been forgotten. But as the case of the Taksim reconstruction suggests, history is read not just selectively, but in tandem with ideology.