Written by Carlotta Gall
The skeleton of a large new mosque has risen up on the west side of Istanbul’s Taksim Square in the last year, dwarfing the monument to the secular Turkish republic’s founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, and commanding the public space.
And as the mosque was going up, a beloved symbol of the Ataturk era, Istanbul’s opera house, was demolished.
Few Turks oppose the mosque — although some question its size and derivative Ottoman design — but the symbolism of a house of worship dominating the monuments of Ataturk’s secular republic is not lost on Istanbul residents.
“It is completely changing the topography and design of the square,” said Soner Cagaptay, director of the Turkish Research Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “It is highly symbolic of Erdogan’s reign taking over Turkey’s republic.”
Erecting a mosque in the square has been a goal of several governments since the 1950s. But the latest effort is part of a government push being steered by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to develop the square in a way that proclaims the city’s Islamic faith and glorifies its Ottoman past.
An earlier plan backed by Erdogan when he was mayor of Istanbul was thwarted by a military intervention in 1997 that removed the country’s Islamist government in Ankara.
Now, with few checks on his power as president, Erdogan’s plan to remake the square according to his vision is becoming reality.
“He wants to shape Taksim in his own image,” Cagaptay said.
In addition to fulfilling a promise to his pious base, Erdogan has other incentives to alter the fabric of this essential patch of Istanbul.
While Istanbul’s fabled skyline of domes and minarets may be its global signature, Taksim Square is the popular center of city life and a symbol of the modern republic founded nearly 100 years ago.
Throngs of shoppers, commuters, tourists and partygoers pour through the square, day and night, and into the adjacent Independence Avenue, Istanbul’s main shopping street.
The primary gathering point in the square to meet up with friends is the monument to Ataturk, who is depicted leading supporters to victory in the fight to establish modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
The defining moment in Taksim Square’s recent history came in 2013, when it was the site of large and violent protests against Erdogan, who was then prime minister.
Environmentalists, students, artists and democracy activists staged a weekslong sit-in in Gezi Park, the raised gardens that cover the square’s north side. Their aim was to block Erdogan’s plan to build a shopping mall designed like the Ottoman-era barracks that once occupied the park.
Furious and threatened by the popular challenge, Erdogan dispersed the protest with police forces and tear gas. Dozens were arrested and two people died in Istanbul, and another six, including a policeman, were killed in simultaneous protests around the country.
The park was left to decline. Police occupied one corner, breaking the marble flagstones with their anti-riot vehicles and setting up barricades to prevent further gatherings.
Erdogan had crushed his opponents, but development of the square was put on hold, at least for a time.
Taksim Square, named after a Byzantine cistern wall, has had many lives. It once marked the edge of the city, and its surrounding districts were populated by non-Muslim communities of Greeks, Armenians and Jews. An Orthodox church still stands on the southern corner, and Gezi Park was once an Armenian cemetery.
Under Ataturk’s republic, the square became the center of modern Istanbul.
“Taksim is a symbol of progress, labor and modernism,” said Mucella Yapici, secretary of Taksim Solidarity, a group that campaigns to guard the square’s protected status.
Older denizens of the square complain of the gentrification and commercialization that have come with its popularity. Cafes and tourist hotels have taken over, pushing out the neighborhood artisans, and their carpentry and leather workshops.
People dressed smartly to come to the square in the old days, said Sevim Isbilir, 70, sitting on a bench in the square as she waited for a friend.
“We would wear suits,” she said. “We would see famous artists and beautiful shops.”
Making the square pedestrian in 2012 helped expand its appeal, but it lost something of its soul under the wide expanse of concrete, longtime vendors complained.
“There was a tram and electric buses and booths selling food,” said Gulzade Yorgun, who said she has been selling flowers on the square for 43 years. “The old version was more beautiful.”
While the 2013 protests paused his plans, Erdogan — whose legacy has been one of ambitious construction projects — did not give up on his ideas for Taksim. In February 2017, he pushed ahead with building the mosque, calculating that no one would protest a site for worship.
Then in May of last year, as the mosque took shape, Erdogan ordered the razing of the Ataturk Cultural Center, an acclaimed Modernist building and one of the city’s favorite institutions, where generations of Turks attended concerts, operas and theater productions.
A symbol of the republic’s openness to Western values, the cultural center had been closed since 2008, for refurbishment, according to the government, but it never reopened.
Erdogan, who comes from a working class, religiously conservative background, has never hidden that he has little appreciation for the arts. It did not help the building’s fate that the Gezi protesters had adopted the place as their own and hung banners across the facade of the building.
After the Gezi protests, it became a temporary police station. Stripped bare by construction firms that had been contracted to strengthen it, the building was eventually declared derelict.
“It was a fabulous building,” Yapici, of Taksim Solidarity, said sadly. “When the lights were on when an opera was playing, it came alive with the square.”
Even as he oversaw the destruction of the original building, Erdogan, in an apparent nod to secular society, announced plans to rebuild the center, promising a grander multipurpose complex and assigning Murat Tabanlioglu, the son of the original architect, to design the new building.
Some saw his actions as an effort to woo liberal voters in both last year’s presidential contest and critical municipal elections later this month.
Perhaps most controversially, Erdogan has said he would go ahead with his plan to rebuild the Ottoman-era barracks in the park, the very project that had set off the unrest in 2013.
Opponents of Erdogan’s urban transformation see him as determined to push through his original commercial project. “They want to privatize that square,” Yapici said.
She is among 16 trade unionists, artists and activists who have been charged recently for participation in the protests six years ago. Accused of trying to overthrow the government and destroying property, they face life sentences if convicted. The trial will open in June.
In a recent statement, Taksim Solidarity denounced the indictment of the 16 as a smear campaign against the protests.
“If democracy is to come to this country one day, it will draw power from Gezi’s egalitarian, libertarian and peaceful togetherness,” the statement said. “You may put millions of people on trial, but you will never destroy the truth.”
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