Editor’s note: Istanbul is the Metropolis of the Month for September. This is the fourth entry in the series. You can read additional entries, as they are published, linked at the conclusion of this post.
By Kirsten Voris
As our airport bus turned up the hill towards Taksim Square, I was describing it to my friend Justyna, an Istanbul first timer—the motley patchwork of hawkers, tourists, students, and touts, the socialist newspaper sellers, the scent of meat on a spit.
As the trees of Gezi Park came into view, the bus grew silent. Passengers squeezed together at the windows. There was one person on the street, and they were running. A jet of pressurized water followed. A few moments later, the armored vehicle firing the water jet lumbered into view.
I was dimly aware of the Gezi Park sit-in. I didn’t know that as our plane left Ankara, police had cleared the park. It was May 31, 2013. As we stepped off the bus, all that lingered in Taksim was the sting of teargas. By 8 pm that night an estimated 100,000 people had descended on Beyoğlu to take the square, and the park, from the police. Over the next four months a wave of protest spread to 80 of Turkey’s 81 provinces, resulting in five deaths, over 4,000 injuries, and hundreds of arrests. Seven of those arrested were sentenced to prison; one for life.
Gezi Park would survive the government’s “Taksim pedestrianization project,” which was opposed by, among others, the Istanbul Chamber of Urban Planners, who pointed out that the project prioritized car traffic over pedestrians. Also included were plans to replicate the Ottoman-era military barracks that formerly occupied the park site; an attempt to recreate an imagined past—or a symptom of the rising tide of Ottomania provoked by the success of the Magnificent Century, a Turkish soap about backstabbing and bad behavior in the court of Süleyman the Magnificent. But just beyond the square, at the center of a district long associated with foreigners, Republicanism, and Turkish secularism, a mosque opened in 2021. Turkey’s Islamists have made space for themselves in this formerly bohemian slice of Istanbul.
In this city of over fifteen million, Taksim Square is a rare open plaza and perennial flash point for protests. Over the years the government’s position on protests in the park fluctuated, banning many Taksim Square gatherings, while tolerating others. In 2022 police and the municipality curtailed access to the square for May Day, Pride, and Women’s Day demonstrations; Taksim is again closed to protestors.
Access to public space implies visibility and power. The Gezi Protests were indicative of the struggle for hegemony in Beyoğlu, but they were not about a doomed park; they were about the cyclical loss and reassignment of public space.
Maria and I were hot and exhausted when we stepped off the airport bus and into a night ringing with music. It was Beyoglu, 1995, just south of Taksim Square. We couldn’t tell where the music was coming from because it was everywhere.
We dined late at an outdoor table. Wavering, inebriated voices emanated from our restaurant and others. It seemed that everyone we met over the next three months knew the words to these same songs. We were listening to Beyoğlu’s nighttime soundtrack: Fasil.
Unlike arabesque pop or folk music, classical Turkish Fasil consists of a series of distinct movements played without pause. In Arabic, taksim means “division.” It also refers to an improvisational interlude in fasil music which is played on only one instrument, often, the saz. Beyoğlu itself seemed improvisational. Every brand of humanity, intersecting, habitually along Istiklal Avenue.
Maria and I lived in a hotel, so we ate out, frequenting the cafeteria-style Afacan so regularly that the soup ladlers saluted as we passed on Istiklal. We joined the crowds walking Istiklal—to see who was walking Istiklal. And we stood out. The boys with scales asked to weigh us, the tissue pack girls pulled on our arms, the shoeshine boys followed us. Music blared from book shops and cassette kiosks, and all along Istiklal, all summer long, “It’s a Small World” played in an electronic ad infinitum, as tens of dancing blonde dolls swayed at the feet of hawkers who sold nothing but this one thing.
Istiklal is the pedestrian thoroughfare connecting Taksim Square to the Tünel, a funicular (more or less an underground urban rail line) linking Beyoğlu and Karaköy built in 1875. Today, Beyoğlu stretches from Şişli in the north, Beşiktaş and the Bosphrorous to the east, the Golden Horn to the south, and Kağıthane and Eyüp to the west. It began as a small enclave on the slope facing the Golden Horn, and Beyoğlu’s reputation as a secular playground is rooted here.
To escape poverty and the absolute sovereignty of the Holy Roman Empire, the Genovese built a merchant fleet that reached Byzantine Constantinople by the 1140s. By invitation of Emperor Manuel Komnenos, Genovese merchants settled at the southern tip of Beyoğlu in 1155. However, shifting power dynamics between the Byzantine Empire and merchants from the Italian city-states led to tensions that frequently ended in bloodshed. When the Genovese were ascendant, they walled in the hillside known as Galata. Behind it, they lived subject to their own laws. When Mehmed the Conqueror took the city from the Byzantines in 1453, he extended the Byzantine arrangement, minus the walls.
The privileges Ottomans granted foreign residents were called “capitulations.” They included the right to self govern, operate postal services, and worship freely.
Christian foreign residents and non-Muslim subjects settled here, founding Armenian, Roman, and Orthodox churches, synagogues, schools, newspapers, and fraternal organizations, and growing it well beyond the Galata tower, the northern limit of the Genovese walls. Residents called it Pera, “the opposite shore” in Greek. The Turks called it Beyoğlu.
After the Crimean War (1853-1856), ten thousand Levantines settled in Beyoğlu just as the Tanzimat Reforms (1839-1876) eliminated the legal distinction between Muslim and non-Muslim subjects, and Ottoman administrators embraced European organizational models and dress, as well as closer relations with Europe. Sultans Abdülmecit and Abdülaziz were spotted in the audience at Theater Nayum. One of the leading operas of Europe, Nayum was merely one more venue in this district of theaters, eateries, dance halls, and night clubs. An occidental outpost in a Muslim empire, where revelers poured into the cobbled streets, skirting the tables of singing and drinking diners. Alcohol consumption was one of the freedoms enjoyed by non-Muslim communities. It was officially proscribed for Muslims until 1926, and available everywhere in Beyoğlu.
On July 15, 2011, around Ramadan, President Erdoğan was heading to the Mevlevi Museum in Beyoğlu when his motorcade became tangled in pedestrians and tables. Some say streetside drinkers saluted the president with alcohol. Others, that a bodyguard began shouting at bar patrons from a black sedan. What happened five days later is undisputed; municipal workers cleared the tables and chairs from Beyoğlu’s streets.
In the months that followed, bar and restaurant revenues declined precipitously. Demand for outdoor seating had increased following the 2009 indoor smoking ban; without streetside tables, businesses could not make rent.
Two summers later, Gezi happened.
The Gezi protests changed Beyoğlu. Yet changes were already underway. The book shops, junk sellers, and folk music bars of 1995 had given way to malls, chains, and businesses that cater to the Muslim tourists, who arrive in ever greater numbers. The remaining used book sellers huddle together off Istiklal in a dusty building filled with illicit cigarette smoke. I visited in 2019.
Sifting through old photographs, I found three I needed: a dancing woman; women with a badly pruned tree; diners, posing with the remains of lunch. The bookseller materialized and glanced at the photos.
”You know where those come from,” he said. Sensing a rhetorical question, I waited. “Those are Armenian families. They left piles of albums behind when they emigrated.” Judging by the Jackie Kennedy suits, these photos were from the 1960s.
As we stood there, not speaking, I realized two things. The changes Beyoğlu has undergone are bigger than the ones I’ve experienced. And the man who sold me the photos was Armenian. Ottoman-era non-Muslim communities persist, but they are hidden.
The district’s reputation as an artistic hub survived the Ottomans. Between 1950 and 1980 Beyoğlu boasted nearly 30 bookstores, 10 theaters, and 42 theater companies: by the 1970s, over 19 cinemas. But the non-Muslim community was shrinking.
Hoping to discourage the nationalist movements that fragmented the Ottoman Empire, Republican governments undermined the economic power of non-Muslim Turks with a ruinous wealth tax in 1942 and incited a pogrom against Beyoğlu’s Greek community in 1955. In 1964 Greek residents of Istanbul, who had evaded 1923’s forced “population exchange” with Greece due to their economic utility, were expelled from Turkey.
From 1517 until 1924, when it was abolished by the Turkish Grand National Assembly, the Ottoman Empire was the world’s last widely recognized Caliphate. President Erdoğan, a politician with deep Islamist roots, has been accused of fetishizing Turkey’s Ottoman past. In particular, its religious leadership.
President Erdogan’s AK party took power in 2002, and since 2004 mosque building has accelerated; a record 1,991 mosques were built in 2012, and at the low end, 488 in 2007. According to the Turkish Religious Affairs Administration, there were 75,941 mosques in 2003; in 2019 there were 89,259.
Çamlica Hill was grass and television towers as Maria and I climbed it with Süleyman, the proprietor of our hotel, in 1995. When we reached the top, it was multi-generational groups, lunching on blankets, buying tea from the hawker, and breathing cleaner, cooler air. Perhaps noticing they could still see the children when they wandered beyond hailing distance. There was nothing to obscure them. Just a few towers and satellite dishes.
In 2019, 30,000 square meters of Çamlıca Hill were transformed into public space dedicated to a specific purpose: worship.
The Çamlıca mosque is the largest in Turkey. And in Turkey mosques are gathering places for men, a fact verified by the Çamlıca project. Designed by women architects, Bahar Mızrak and Hayriye Gül Totu, Çamlıca was touted as a woman-friendly mosque, featuring a separate area for ablutions, an elevator to a separate prayer space, and childcare. In the perhaps poorly translated words of mosque foundation president and chief engineer Metin Külünk, the Çamlıca project means “positive discrimination for women.”
The innovations of this earthquake-safe mosque capable of sheltering 100,000 in an emergency bring reality into sharper focus. From the Ottoman era to the Republican, Turkish women have been denied a place under the soaring domes during Friday prayer. Where space has been offered, it has been so inadequate that, for generations, women have worshipped at home.
The AK party has dedicated significant money, resources, and land to remaking spaces that are public in the truest sense—welcoming to men, women, and everyone else—into use-specific public spaces, such as the Çamlıca and Taksim mosques.
When the Taksim mosque opened in 2021 it was a victory for the AKP and a strange moment in the history of Beyoğlu. A mosque had appeared in the heart of secular Istanbul in a neighborhood that has largely escaped the dramatic redevelopment projects that have remade other areas of Beyoğlu, like Tarlabaşı.
Gezi Park has been described as Beyoğlu’s only green space. But from the time Europeans established embassies in Beyoğlu beginning in the 16th century, parcels of land have been gardens and grounds. When Atatürk moved the capital to Ankara in 1923, the embassies followed. However, Beyoğlu’s foreign consulates and residences remained. The cumulative size of these parcels must dwarf Gezi Park. They are closed to development and the public. And I had access to one during the Gezi Protests, courtesy of Justyna’s husband, a French diplomat.
The only guests in the vast French embassy residence, Justyna and I spent the night listening to the pop of gas cannisters, shattering glass, and the amplified, incomprehensible directives of security forces. We woke to a subdued Beyoğlu layered in graffiti and garbage. Volunteers fed arriving protestors from makeshift kitchens; masked teens collected trash. Across the Golden Horn, we watched gardeners plant thousands of tulip bulbs at Topkapı palace. And for two more nights, we heard a small war we could not see.
I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to leave, that someone would die. I felt guilty, that we were safe behind the walls of a private garden, while protestors risked their lives to save a public park.
Weeks later, I watched a video of Davide Martello and Yiğit Özatalay playing piano in a Taksim Square filled with every kind of person. I remembered my first night in Beyoğlu. We were falling asleep, but music leaked into our hotel room. I wanted to be out in this neighborhood. A place where people gathered at night and sang together. It was 1995, and as far as I could tell, everyone was welcome.
Additional posts on Istanbul
- City of Empire: An Overview and Bibliography of Istanbul
- Counterinsurgency and Insurgent Safety in Istanbul
- Istanbul Under Allied Occupation: Venues of Resistance
- Once Upon a Time in Istanbul: The City of Melancholy as Remembered by Orhan Pamuk
- For Whom the Clock Ticks? Cannon Balls, Cruise Ships, and Capital Accumulation on the Bosphorus
Kirsten Voris is a writer and translator with an MA in Ottoman History. You can read more about her life in Turkey in Hippocampus Literary Magazine, Superstition Review, and Dorothy Parker’s Ashes. She’s a contributor to the anthology, Expat Sofra: Culinary Tales of Foreign Women in Turkey (Alfa), and is writing a biographical memoir about the Jazz-age stage psychic who predicted her mother’s birth. She lives in Southern Arizona.
Featured image (at top): Galata rooftops and the Golden Horn, Beyoğlu, Istanbul. Photo by Maria Richter, 1995.