The fight for the heart of Istanbul

Now under President Erdogan’s control, the symbolic weight of the city’s central square has never been more obvious. What was once a gathering place for dissenters and a cosmopolitan melting-pot of nightlife is now a bland, soulless space dominated by a mega-mosque, watched over by riot police.

Taksim Square in Istanbul from above.
Taksim Square in Istanbul from above. Credit: Emre Zengin / Alamy Stock Photo

Stand in the middle of Istanbul’s Taksim Square and turn 360 degrees, and you will take in a panorama of the ideological battle that is shaping modern Turkey. On one side there is the rebuilt Ataturk Cultural Centre, a hub for opera and classical music named after Kemal Ataturk, the soldier-turned-statesman who founded the secular Turkish republic a century ago. Directly facing it is President Erdogan’s mega-mosque, a gargantuan piece of brutalism that dwarfs the ancient churches around it. Between the two sits Gezi Park, a scrappy and rare bit of green space in the heart of the city. And around its fringes, stacks of police barricades stand ready to meet anyone who might attempt a protest.

Taksim has always carried a weight of symbolism: a vast, ugly expanse of concrete that is more than the sum of its parts. In Turkish its name means ‘separation’; in its original context, it referred to the ancient underground cisterns that diverged at this point to feed various parts of the city. Today it carries a political connotation shaped by the massacres, coups and uprisings it has witnessed. Anyone who wants to take control of Turkey’s political narrative must first take control of Taksim. Over the past decade, since mass protests over the proposed redevelopment of Gezi Park into a shopping centre erupted into an uprising against Erdogan, the president has remoulded its very fabric to erase any last trace of past dissent along with the possibility of more in the future.

In May 2013, when the protests broke out, Taksim and Istiklal, the long pedestrian boulevard that feeds into its southern edge, were unkempt and scruffy. Drug dealers and pickpockets prowled. The small square paving stones were so loose that if you trod in the wrong place they would tilt violently, shooting old rainwater up your shin. Amid the most violent demonstrations, some protestors ripped them from the ground to hurl at the police.

Then, the Ataturk Culture Centre was a grim concrete block looming over the square. It had already been closed ahead of demolition — plans to rebuild the unloved structure were approved in 2008 — but a huge banner of Ataturk still hung from its frontage, a reminder of the founder’s continuing dominance. Erdogan, Islamist though he clearly was, still at this point was forced to pay lip service to the republic’s secular values. As the protests swelled, participants found a way in and hung their banners next to Ataturk. After the crackdown, squads of riot police moved in.

The centre was still standing three years later, watching over soldiers as they attempted a coup against Erdogan. It was in Taksim that it started to crumble, as the teenage recruits on military service saw crowds of civilians coming out to resist them, and realised this may not be the fait accompli their commanders assured. In the nights after the coup was crushed, crowds of Erdogan’s supporters thronged Taksim and his image was hoisted alongside Ataturk’s.

Alongside the political cataclysms tearing through Taksim, a social change was brewing in the winding alleyways around it. This district was a cosmopolitan melting pot and the heart of Istanbul’s nightlife for centuries. Waves of pogroms in the twentieth century forced out most of its non-Muslim residents, but its club and bar scene survived. After the Gezi protests, licenses started becoming more elusive, and, one by one, premises that served alcohol began closing. A new wave of tourists from the Muslim world started wandering the streets around Taksim, drawn to Istanbul by the high-budget Ottoman period dramas, such as Payitaht Abdulhamid, and Dirilis Ertugrul, which showcase Erdogan’s version of Turkish history. Hookah cafes and baklava shops opened up to serve them.

The Ataturk Cultural Centre was finally demolished in 2018, as Erdogan prepared for the election that would cement his grip on power. With his win, a new constitution kicked into force, sweeping away Ataturk’s parliamentary democracy and installing an executive presidential system allowing Erdogan to seize almost all the levers of power. At the same time the centre was razed, the skeleton of his new mosque was rising, the realisation of a dream that had begun with Islamists way before Erdogan. He had revived the plan when he was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s. Now, with the Gezi protests and an attempted coup crushed, and the hundreds of thousands of people accused of participating in them in prison or exile, the way had been cleared. The mosque opened on May 28, 2021 — the eighth anniversary of the protests. The square was doused in 25 tonnes of rosewater to celebrate. Erdogan’s victory over Taksim was complete.

The Ataturk Cultural Centre has also been rebuilt and reopened, its new design far more loved than the old. But Turks have few other reasons to visit Taksim these days. The grungy nightlife has gone, the old paving stones replaced with new ones, which are perfect and soulless. Once Istanbul’s premier shopping street, Istiklal is now lined with cheap souvenir shops. The entire area is monitored by facial recognition cameras and scores of undercover officers. Anyone attempting to gather is immediately met by a wall of heavily armed riot police and tear-gassed out of the square. Just one constant remains: the monument that depicts Ataturk alongside his republican co-founders. Erdogan can’t directly criticise Ataturk or the republic – the founder is still venerated. It is the only thing in Taksim that Erdogan can’t touch. But in the shadow of the mosque, it has started to look more like a relic of the unravelling republic than the symbol at its heart.


Hannah Lucinda Smith