This is Views from the Metropolis, a monthly column by Paul Osterlund on Turkey's urban transformation due to development, conflict, and migration.
A casual tourist new to Istanbul might chalk up the demolition of one major building and the construction of another on either end of the city’s main square to be mere examples of the greater ongoing development one encounters at every corner of the metropolis. On the contrary, though the unchecked growth and mass concretization that has defined the past decade in Istanbul amounts to an ordinary profit grab at the expense of the city’s health, beauty, and residents, the knocking down of the Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM) and the building of a giant mosque just across the square represents a deliberate ideological campaign launched by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
The mosque, which is planned to bear a striking resemblance to the iconic Hagia Sophia, is expected to open its doors for worship during the holy month of Ramadan this year after a feverish construction effort. Reports indicate that 85 percent of the basic construction is done after having only started in February of last year. The mosque is a manifestation of the “New Turkey” that Erdoğan frequently claims to have ushered in. “New Turkey” means a number of things, but in particular is one in which the political sphere is dominated by the president, the proud representative and fearless defender of the 50 percent of the country that supports him.
Construction of a new mosque. Photos provided by the author.
The Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM).
On the opposite end lies the AKM, an iconic performance hall built in the 1960s and notoriously despised by Erdoğan. It has sat vacant and in ruins for the past decade. He sees it as a signifier of “Old Turkey,” in his eyes a secularist yet despotic country dominated by the military’s interference and overseen by elites out of touch with their Muslim roots, who attend theatre and ballets, sip cocktails, and look down on religious conservatives like the president himself. It didn’t help that during the Gezi Park protests of 2013—themselves launched in opposition to Erdoğan’s plan to cover the park with a mall fitted in a replica of an Ottoman barracks—protesters entered the AKM, emblazoning its facade with posters bearing the names of left-wing opposition parties, iconic leftist revolutionary figures (some banners featured provocative language addressed at Erdoğan himself), and assembling triumphantly on the roof.
During the heat of those demonstrations, protesters occupied Gezi Park and blocked off a number of the entrants to the area to police, effectively creating a mini-utopia in the park where volunteers collected trash, distributed sandwiches and water, and held yoga classes and film screenings. This may have been a tactical calculation on the part of the government to allow this to briefly flourish, as police eventually stormed the area and quickly brought it under their control. Nevertheless, the scene that played out represented one that Erdoğan does not want to see again, and his subsequent domination over the neighboring square should not be seen as unrelated. The fact that he has not gone through with the original plans to pave over the park reflect that the widespread protests bestowed upon him some semblance of fear.
In contrast to the relatively rapid way which the Taksim Square mosque has popped up, the destruction of the AKM has played out in a painstaking, delayed fashion. The AKM has been in various stages of sluggish decay for the past two months, slowly but surely being brought to the ground. Interestingly enough, the new AKM that will be built in its place was designed by the son of the original’s architect, and the plans for the new building strongly resembles its predecessor. This suggests Erdoğan doesn’t have a problem with a cultural center in Taksim, though it must exist under his terms.
The primary criticism of the new mosque is that there is no demand for it, though that may no longer be the case as Taksim Square and the pedestrian-only Istiklal Avenue have become very popular among tourists from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, many of whom stay in adjacent hotels. Opposition has been mostly confined to grumbling on social media, perhaps an indicator of how repressive the atmosphere is. If the mosque construction had begun in 2012 or 2013, it may have resulted in massive street protests like those that began around Gezi Park. But the ensuing harsh police crackdown and the introduction of new security legislation have basically squelched mass demonstrations. The exception is the March 8 th Women’s Day march, which attracts thousands to Istiklal. The authorities—for now—allow it to take place.
Taksim Square, the site of a massacre on May 1, 1977, has retained a keen political significance that, with a few exceptions over the past decade, results in the authorities banning groups from assembling there on May Day. Until recently, its most visible landmarks were the Republican Monument—built in the years following the establishment of the Turkish republic and prominently featuring the republic’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk—and the Aya Triada Greek Orthodox located just a stone’s throw behind it. The new mosque, even in its unfinished state, now dominates both of them.
After a pedestrianization project brought traffic underground, the square became a dismal, cracked concrete mass, with Twitter users regularly posting photos lamenting its greener character in years past. There have been odd attempts to jazz it up, including the installation of bizarrely huge and grotesque street lights, and most recently, giant planters full of tulips, which only seem to highlight the drabness of the square.
Though convenient to chalk up the mosque’s construction and the AKM’s demolition as the death rattle of Old Turkey followed up by the official, triumphant inauguration of New Turkey, that would be giving Erdoğan, admittedly the most powerful political figure in the country, too much credit. The concepts of Old and New Turkey are ultimately the imagined realities of a man that is unable to conceive of the country without himself in the dead center of it. Though Erdoğan doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon, Turkey remains a country too complex and rich to split into tired binaries of east/west, secular/religious, and Old/New.
Perhaps nowhere articulates this more clearly than in the heart of Istanbul. The backstreets of Beyoğlu that begin just steps away from Taksim Square, where Kurdish cafés, Armenian churches, heavy metal bars, trans sex workers, packed tavernas, gay clubs, glue sniffers, street musicians, and many more cross paths, in an exhilarating flow of motion that has persisted in spite of numerous ongoing attempts to physically transform the surrounding area.