No Green Spaces left in Istanbul??

Future shock

It’s hard for all of us, guys!

In 1970 a guy called Alvin Toffler published a best-selling book “Future Shock”. According to his obituary in the NY Times, “Mr. Toffler was a self-trained social science scholar and successful freelance magazine writer in the mid-1960s when he decided to spend five years studying the underlying causes of a cultural upheaval that he saw overtaking the United States and other developed countries.”

Way back then Toffler identified a phenomenon causing serious global anguish:

“The accelerative thrust triggered by man has become the key to the entire evolutionary process on the planet.” Amazon review

“Today the force of change is almost tangible” Toffler “discusses change and what happens to people; how they do and don’t adapt.” Bookrags review

Toffler was American, and he was writing primarily about the United States of America – and it was their movers and shakers who were responsible for most of the “Future Shock” we were/are experiencing. So, while you can feel some sympathy for US citizens struggling to cope with modernity, at least they get most of the benefits. What about the rest of us, in less privileged parts of the world? Afghanistan? Somalia? New Zealand? Or even Turkey?

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Give him a homespun cotton loincloth, and . . .  Yeah, maybe.

Contemporary Turkey is a divided society, if you listen to the doom-sayers. The leader of the opposition CHP Party is currently trekking through the summer heat on a Gandhi-esque march from Ankara to Istanbul seeking “justice”. And, I hope he finds it – although it’s a rather less easily identifiable commodity than common table salt*. He is accompanied by numbers of supporters who, like may others, have been struggling to adjust to rapid changes taking place in their country whose population has doubled to nearly 80 million since 1970, and whose largest city, Istanbul, has grown from less than three million, to 15 million or more in the same time period.

But, I don’t want to talk about justice, or the difficulties involved in adapting to a changing world. In the current heatwave I’m more interested in finding a shady tree to sit under – and again, if you hearken to those prophets of doom, I’ll be lucky to find such a thing in Istanbul outside a tree museum. Joni Mitchell sang that Big Yellow Taxi song about the concretification (yep, I just made that word up!) of America, also back in 1970. I’m not sure if the New York city fathers ripped up any concrete to plant trees as a result, but we were all proud of Joni for singing that song.

Well, I was concerned about the disintegrating ecosystem of Planet Earth in my youth – and I’m probably more concerned about it now. I recycle our household rubbish, walk, ride a bicycle and use public transport where possible, and carry my supermarket purchases home in reusable natural fibre bags. On the other hand, I do find very tiresome the constant harping by certain people on Turkey’s AKP government and its wanton destruction of the country’s natural and historical heritage.

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Aftermath of Gezi Park demo, 1 June, 2013

What I also find surprising is some of those people are foreign visitors who have been in the country a month or two, maybe a year or two, and talk authoritatively about how things used to be in Turkey, in some mythical golden age they have been told about. Just over four years ago, at the end of May 2013, a series of anti-government protests broke out, ostensibly sparked by the city council’s plans to develop the iconic Taksim Square and its environs. Part of the project aimed to rebuild an Ottoman-era military barracks building demolished in 1940 and replaced with a small green space we learned was officially called Gezi Park.

I have no intention of delving into the politics of the matter. What I can say, however, is that the square was badly in need of a revamp. On one side stood a 20-storey 70’s glass tower housing the five-star Marmara Hotel; opposite the hotel, a busy terminal station for buses heading to other parts of the city. On the other two sides, a soulless 60’s era Soviet-style structure known as the Atatürk Culture Centre facing the blank brick wall of a large water reservoir partly masked by a huge garish TV screen. In the middle of the treeless concrete square itself, a Metro underground station could be reached only by crossing the two or three lanes of speeding buses, yellow taxis and joy-riders that maintained a kind of lethal spinning asteroid belt around it. Behind the bus terminal lurked Gezi Park itself – four hectares of trees, grass and asphalt mostly invisible from surrounding streets, and consequently popular with the neighbourhood’s homeless, youthful glue-sniffers and aging alcoholics. Not a place you would probably have chosen for a family picnic.

Gezi Park quickly, however, became a focal point for those who, for one reason and another, hated the Prime Minister, now President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and his AK Party government. Foreign news media took up the cry that Turkey’s political leaders were destroying “one of Istanbul’s last green spaces” as they buried the beautiful, historic city beneath a pall of tar and cement.

Now I don’t know how many of the protesting tree-huggers have actually been back to Gezi Park since the protests of 2013 ended. I am fairly sure that the widely televised violence of those protests has been a factor in the decreasing numbers of foreign tourists and local revellers visiting the Beyoğlu/İstiklal area which, by all accounts, has lost most of its former vibrant energy. And I am amazed to hear still repeated such claims as “Throughout the vast metropolis there are only a handful of actual parks, a few stretches of grass along the Bosporus and lone trees peeking through the concrete in other places.”

 

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Foreground: 1,000-year old Byzantine Pantokrator monastery, currently undergoing extensive restoration

“Constant renovation and reconstruction,” I read recently, “has demolished historic buildings and in some areas completely changed the city’s landscape. . . The current government isn’t known for prioritizing the environment and even relative to other major world cities, Istanbul actually has a pretty poor percentage of green space.”

Istanbul is, as the writer noted, a vast metropolis, its historic heart the capital of three world empires stretching back at least 1700 years. I can’t tell you what vast sums the local and national governments have been spending to restore ancient churches, palaces, city walls, mosques and other monuments that had been left to moulder in picturesque decay by former administrations. I can’t say exactly how much time and money was lost while the building of underground Metro lines was paused so archaeologists could rummage with delight among long-buried Roman harbours and necropolises; nor how many times engineers had to redraw the design for a rail bridge across the Golden Horn to meet the objections of UNESCO World Heritage inspectors.

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Halil Pasha Topçu Barracks building – demolished in 1940 to make way for Gezi park

What I can tell you, with absolute certainty is that Gezi Park is not only NOT one of Istanbul’s last green spaces, it is surely one of its least attractive and significant. I can also assure you that, from personal firsthand observation, the current government has done far more than any of its predecessors to clean up and beautify the urban landscape, in spite of the exponential population growth of recent years. They were even planning to RE-build a formerly demolished historically important building next to Gezi Park – for which they were also vociferously criticised.

When I first came to Istanbul in 1995, residents suffered from frequent outages of electricity and an unreliable water supply. The Golden Horn, streams and rivers stank like open sewers, and no one swam in the turgid waters that lapped the shores. What parks remained in the inner city from former times were neglected and generally strewn with rubbish. Since the AK Party government came to power in 2003, people have begun to swim again at beaches along the Sea of Marmara coast, and fish for their dinner in the Golden Horn off Galata Bridge.

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Bosporus view from Gülhane Park – Yıldız Park in the middle distance

Not far from that bridge, if you walk up the hill towards the ancient cathedral museum of Hagia Sophia, you will pass the gates of Gülhane Park on your left. It’s worth a visit. Its 16 hectares of beautifully laid out gardens and majestic trees provide a sanctuary for migrating birds like storks and cranes; cliff top tea gardens offer a glorious view of the Bosporus across to Asia (if you still believe that stuff about Asia Minor); and the former imperial stables house a fascinating museum celebrating the scientific and technological achievements of Islamic civilisation.

A short bus or taxi ride will bring you to Beşiktaş, a trendy district of bars, restaurants and open-air fish markets where you can visit the Naval Museum, with displays relating to the glory days of Ottoman sea power. Tucked away down a side street you may stumble across Ihlamur Park, which features a small Ottoman hunting lodge surrounded by pretty gardens – an unexpected oasis in a busy neighbourhood. If you’re looking for more extensive greenery you can walk or take a taxi to Yıldız Park, 37 hectares of landscaped woodland, artificial streams, waterfalls and small lakes, with several restaurants and cafes for formal dining or an open-air snack. At the upper end of the park is Yıldiz Palace museum, the last residence of Ottoman sultans before they faded into history.

If you look across to the Asian shore you will see a similar “green space” across the water. Fethi Pasha Park, 13 hectares in extent, has a maze of sheltered walkways, restaurants and cafes and beautiful tree-framed views of the Bosporus across to the European shore. More adventurous souls may catch a taxi or local transport to Çamlıca Hill – in fact two hills whose summits are the highest points in Istanbul, with spectacular panoramic views. Those doom-sayers will probably tell you that this idyllic spot has been desecrated by the construction of a large new mosque – if “desecration” is the right word for a building dedicated to spiritual searching. Anyway, don’t believe them. The mosque, visible from all over town, has had little real impact on Çamlıca’s park and woodland. In fact the hilltops have long been blighted by dozens of lofty radio and television masts – and part of the development plan is to erect a 365-metre tower that will amalgamate all the masts into one, as well as housing two restaurants and a viewing platform that are absolutely on my list of must-visits when they are completed.

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Getting away from the concrete in Validebağ Park

I must say that residents on the Asian (or more correctly, Anatolian) side of the city are more fortunate than their European neighbours in terms of green spaces – which may account for the skewed outlook of foreigners who tend to prefer districts nearer to Western Europe. I will briefly mention two more beautiful parks well worth a visit. Not far from Çamlıca Hills is another former Ottoman imperial woodland, Validebağ Park, 10 hectares of semi-wilderness including a former royal palace that served as the location for a much-loved Turkish classic comedy movie based on the escapades of a gang of over-grown schoolboys.

If you’re looking for something new, and are open-minded enough to accept evidence that the government’s reputation for environmental barbarism is not deserved, check out Orhan Gazi City Park on the Marmara coast in the district of Maltepe. This massive project reclaimed 130 hectares from the sea and created a huge recreation area planted with thousands of trees and laid out with carefully tended gardens of roses and seasonal flowers, tulips, begonias, pansies, marigolds . . . There are 63 ha of picnic area, 7.5 km of bicycle track not counting a 400-metre velodrome; basketball, volleyball and tennis courts; artificial turf football fields, a large gymnasium, running tracks, a skateboard park, children’s playgrounds, several outdoor stations with exercise equipment, as well as the ubiquitous cafes and tea gardens. Also, for devout Muslims, two mosques, in case they are caught short when the call to prayer is heard.

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Historic mosque in Sadabad Park, Kağıthane

Well, I could go on to talk about Sadabad Park in the district of Kagıthane, for many years a polluted industrial wasteland now gradually being restored to something resembling the small slice of heaven once known as the Sweet Waters of Europe. I could rhapsodise about the Nezahat Gökyiğit Botanical Garden located in an unlikely apex of converging motorways in the district of Ataşehir – but I won’t. If you live in Istanbul, or have time to spend while you’re here, get out and visit these or others of the many spectacular “green spaces” in this beautiful “city of the world’s desire”.

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  • Mahatma Gandhi led a march in 1930 to protest against the British monopoly of salt production and sales. It was a symbolic act of defiance against the British Raj. At the time of his selection as party leader, some remarked on Mr Kılıçdaroğlu’s resemblance to India’s national hero – though the Turkish chap is more often seen in a suit than a homespun cotton loin-cloth.
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What are they doing to Istanbul?

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An edifice of some significance!

A month or so ago I had cause to visit a commercial office block on the southern slopes of Istanbul’s highest hill, Çamlıca. In fact there are two such hills: Büyük Çamlıca rising to 260 metres above sea level; and the smaller Küçük Çamlıca, some 30 metres less in height. As my taxi approached our destination my eyes were drawn to a narrow tower-like structure under construction near the summit of the smaller peak. Clearly it would be an edifice of some significance, and I was surprised I knew nothing about it.

After doing a little research, I can now share with you the following information:

The tower’s primary purpose will be to replace the dozens of unsightly radio and television masts that have disfigured the scenic hills of Çamlıca for decades. The first stage will be a reinforced concrete structure 220 metres high topped by a 165 metre antenna mast.

Adding in the height of the hill itself, the top of the mast will rise 565 metres above sea level. The tower will also fulfil a secondary role as a tourist attraction. It will be set in an extensive park offering recreational and picnic facilities, and will have two restaurants and viewing decks, at 176 and 180 metres, providing unsurpassed panoramic views of the city and hinterland.

Supporters of the project argue that the new tower will be a symbol of modern Istanbul, visible from beyond the city’s boundaries. They point out that creating a public park will guarantee the hill is preserved from speculative private development, and replacing the existing forest of radio and TV masts will actually beautify the hills of Çamlıca.

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The new Çamlıca Mosque – and the forest of TV/radio masts

There is, of course, some controversy boiling around recent developments in this iconic urban location. Attracting most criticism has been the construction of an enormous mosque, the largest in Turkey, on the northern slope of Büyük Çamlıca. Contrary to the claims of some opponents, it will not be dedicated to President Erdoğan, but will be known as the Çamlıca Republic Mosque. Its size is certainly impressive. The central dome has a diameter of 35 metres and a height of 72 metres. Four of its six minarets will rise to 107 metres, the other two to 90 metres, and it is expected to provide praying space for 37,500 worshippers. The project will also house a conference hall, art gallery, museum and a library.

Interestingly the mosque was designed by two female architects. Breaking with tradition, its layout is said to be female-friendly and features special provision for the disabled. Despite its size, however, the Çamlica Mosque is still a long way short of being the world’s largest. That title is held by the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Housing the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine and the place which Muslims worldwide turn towards while offering daily prayers, that structure covers an area of over four million m2, and is said to accommodate four million worshippers during the Hajj period.

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The new tower after completion

Personally I have no problem with the size or location of the Çamlıca Mosque. Like the TV Tower nearby, it will be set in a large park that will ensure public access to this important recreational area, and will guarantee that no future private development restricts entry to those with the money to pay. Moreover, the population of Turkey is largely Muslim, so building an emblematic mosque in its largest city does not strike me as something to be shocked or surprised about. What did surprise me was learning that the country’s largest mosque was previously the Sabancı Merkez Camii in the southern city of Adana – named for one of Turkey’s wealthiest families, thus nicely uniting the conflicting forces of God and Mammon.

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Proposed landscaping around the tower

If I really wanted to get excited and protest about something, I might turn my attention to another vast construction not far away: the Emaar Square “Community”. This huge project, financed by the same Dubai company that built the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa, will include a 180-room five-star hotel, 1,000 luxury residences, 40,000 m2 of office space, and a mega-shopping mall featuring an “underwater zoo”.

Does Istanbul need another mosque? Who am I to say? I am certainly pleased that those ugly TV antennae will disappear from Çamlıca Hill. However, when it comes to another soulless shopping centre purveying the same luxury brand clothes and watches to mega-rich globe-trotters in another generic multi-storey five-star hotel – Nup. Don’t need that.

The world’s largest neo-Ottoman suspension bridge

Yesterday I took a trip to look at a bridge. Sometimes you need to get away from all the politics and violence in the world and just chill out. So I took a ferryboat ride on the Bosporus. The Bosporus is a narrow twisting stretch of water flowing though the middle of Istanbul, joining the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara. It’s 33 kilometres long, and the ferry ride, popular with tourists and day-tripping locals, takes ninety minutes from Eminönü in the old city to the fishing village of Anadolu Kavağı.

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Rumeli Castle in April

It’s a delightful trip, taking you past centuries-old seaside mansions, royal palaces and two early Ottoman castles. The best season is spring, when the coastal slopes are clothed in purple erguvan blossom, known in English as the Judas tree. Cooler weather is also better, because you have a trek ahead – but some times you can’t be picky.

There’s a twenty-minute walk from the ferry wharf up a steepish road to the ruined castle that once guarded the northern entrance to the Bosporus strait. If you want a glimpse of the Back Sea, this is the place to come. The view and the fresh air make the climb worthwhile, and as everywhere in Turkey, there are cafes and restaurants catering for your refreshment needs, be it a cold beer or a gourmet meal. And now you can see the full stretch of the third Bosporus bridge, the main motive for my visit.

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The third Bosporus bridge

It’s an impressive structure. Weather conditions out here are pretty extreme. Black Sea storms are legendary. Snow sweeps down from Russia in winter, and summers are pitilessly hot. Earthquakes too are an ever-present threat. The bridge was budgeted to cost $2.5 billion. Its towers rise to a height of 322 metres, and the span between them is 1,408 metres. Huge oil tankers and container vessels constantly ply up and down the Bosporus so the road crosses about 70 metres above the sea.

Like cafes and restaurants, however, political controversy is everywhere in Turkey. There was a time when pretty much every new construction was honoured with the name of the republic’s revered founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk: bridges, airports, parks, culture centres, city squares, state forests, botanical gardens . . . Fair enough, I guess. There’s a strong case to support the belief that, had it not been for his vision, courage and determination, Turkey would not exist, at least in anything resembling its present form. Foreign visitors, however, rarely grasp this. To most of them it just looks like blind adulation coupled with a sad lack of imagination.

The present government has departed from this almost sacred tradition, adding fuel to the fire of critics convinced that the AK Party, in power since 2003, is steadily undoing the work of the republic’s secular founders and dragging the country inexorably back to a state of Islamic fundamentalism.

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The Anatolian Castle

The new bridge across the Bosporus has been named for Yavuz Selim, the ninth Sultan to rule the Ottoman Empire, and the first to claim the title of Caliph, leader and protector of the world’s Muslims. There is a precedent. Admittedly the first bridge, opened in 1973, followed tradition and was officially called the Atatürk Bridge – though I have never heard anyone use that name. The second crossing, completed in 1988 during the term of Westernising prime minister Turgut Özal, is known to everyone as Fatih Sultan Mehmet, FSM for brevity’s sake, after the Ottoman conqueror of Constantinople.

Commemorating Selim I, however, has aroused some anger, particularly among the country’s large Alevi community. Back then, in the early 16th century, there was growing rivalry between two expanding powers in the region, the Sunni Ottomans and the Shi’ite Safavid Persians. Depending on who’s telling the story, Qizilbash Alevis were either innocent victims, massacred en masse for their religious beliefs by an evil, vengeful sultan – or traitors to their legitimate ruler who were lending military support to a dangerous foreign power. I’m not getting into that argument. Whatever the truth of the matter, 500 years is a long time to hold a grudge. But that’s the way things often are in this part of the world. Finding peaceful solutions isn’t easy. Maybe the government could have chosen another sultan to immortalise – but Selim I is definitely one of the Ottoman greats.

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Çamlıca Mosque

Still, if you’re looking for evidence that Turkey’s current leaders are harking back to their Ottoman past, you can find it. Another new suspension bridge was opened a month or so ago – this one to carry vehicles across the Gulf of Izmit, a major obstacle for holiday-makers heading to the Aegean or Mediterranean resorts. It’s been named “Osman Gazi”, after the founder of the 600-year Ottoman dynasty. Then there’s the park recently completed on the coast of the Marmara Sea on the Asian side of Istanbul. The 130 hectare reserve, developed on land reclaimed from the sea, provides much-needed sports and recreation facilities in a city not rich in such amenities. I haven’t heard anyone actually use the name, but officially it’s “Orhan Gazi City Park”, Orhan being son of that Osman, and the Empire’s second sultan. As if that wasn’t enough, in the wake of the recent failed military coup attempt, the government has renamed the 1973 Atatürk Bridge, “15 July Martyrs’ Bridge”, to commemorate the civilians who lost their lives facing down the tanks and guns of the insurgent soldiers.

Well, it seems to me if you are determined to criticize someone, you can always find cause. The construction industry is booming in Istanbul, with major public and private projects springing up everywhere you look. One huge recent achievement was the building of a tunnel beneath the Bosporus carrying an underground Metro line. Its name? Marmaray, a combination of Marmara (the Sea) and the Turkish word for “rail”. The country’s largest mosque is currently rising on the upper slopes of Çamlıca Hill on the Asian shore, assuredly a symbol of creeping Islamification, though it seems to go by the unpretentious name of “The Çamlıca Mosque”. Another bridge carries a Metro line across the Golden Horn. Official title? The “Golden Horn Metro Bridge “(Haliç Metro Köprüsü). Work is progressing on a third airport for the city, to be known, to the best of my knowledge as the “New Istanbul Airport”. Not very creative, but “Atatürk” was already taken. Undoubtedly the most ambitious of all these mega-projects is “Kanal Istanbul” – a 50-kilometre artificial waterway linking the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara, allowing those tankers and other huge commercial and military vessels to bypass Istanbul’s metropolitan area.

Of course there are voices raised in protest at all these projects, mostly on environmental grounds, since their names are fairly unobjectionable. No doubt there are environmental costs – but, to give merely one example, nothing compared to the cost of a major oil spill if one of those tankers came to grief in the Bosporus. As for names, the power of the people generally prevails. I suspect most Istanbulites will go on referring to the first Bosporus bridge as “The First Bridge”, whatever their President says.

In spite of all this, Western news media, and a vocal minority of Turks, insist that the AK Party government is steadily dismantling the democratic, secular republic, and establishing in its place a neo-Ottoman dictatorship based on Islamic shariah law. Part of the problem, as I have argued before, is that the Western version of history has never fully come to grips with realities in this part of the world. A good deal of the language English-speakers use when talking about modern Turkey has its roots in the ancient civilisations of classical Greece and Rome, and studiously ignores the fact that Turkish, in one form or another, has been the dominant language here for more than seven centuries.

For example, the city of Istanbul is divided by the “Bosporus” strait – that name coming down to us from an ancient Greek myth about one of Zeus’s lovers who was apparently turned into a cow. Similarly, the “Golden Horn”, the estuary that was a major harbour in Byzantine and Ottoman times, is a direct translation of the Greek word. Neither bears any resemblance in form or meaning to the names used by Turks. The much cherished belief that the Bosporus forms the boundary between Asia and Europe owes its origin to the Roman name for its easternmost province, which certainly did not include China, India, or even Iran. The word “Asia” probably derives from the Hittite word “Assuwa”, their name for what the Greeks called “Anatolia”, and the Turks, “Anadolu”. English-speakers insist on referring to the “European” and “Asian” sides of Istanbul – which serves to perpetuate our stereotype of Turks as Eastern, and “other”. Visitors to the city are often surprised to find that parts of the “Asian” shore seem more Western than the “European” side.

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The NOT-Genoese Yoros Castle at Anadolu Kavağı

As my ferry wound its way towards the Black Sea, it passed two castles on opposite shores. These were built by Ottoman sultans as they tightened their noose around the neck of the dying Byzantine Empire. The first, on the Anatolian (Asian) side, was the work of Sultan Bayezid I in preparation for his unsuccessful siege of Constantinople in 1395. The other, Rumeli Castle on the European side, severed the city’s lifeline to the north, and contributed to its final conquest by Sultan Mehmet II in 1453.

My objective, however, was that third fortress, known in Turkish as Yoros Castle, with its view of the bridge. In English it is generally referred to as the “Genoese Castle”, another example of our Western determination to ignore reality and reconstruct history as we would like it to have been. The Genoese, active traders in the eastern Mediterranean in those days, did indeed occupy the castle for some years in the early 15th century. It had been built, and controlled for centuries before that, however, by the “Byzantines” – a rather confusing Christian empire who spoke Greek, but considered themselves Roman and certainly not Byzantine. The castle was seized by the Ottomans in the 14th century, and apart from that brief Genoese spell, it has been in Turkish hands ever since.

It’s a beautiful spot, though badly in need of some tender loving care. It struck me yesterday that the Turkish military, who control most of the surrounding area, would be performing a useful public service if they despatched a platoon of soldiers for a couple of hours each week to do a little tidying and landscaping of the castle and its grounds. And the company that runs the ferry service might consider assigning one of their newer vessels to the route, in the interests of international goodwill. I’ll probably never drive over the Yavuz Selim Bridge, but I’m happy to have seen what all the fuss was about.

Millions stand for democracy in Turkey

Was this reported in your local news media?

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Standing up for democracy in Istanbul

Millions of people gathered Aug. 7 at a meeting venue in Istanbul’s Yenikapı area for a massive joint democracy rally to protest the July 15 coup attempt, putting an end to three weeks of demonstrations following the failed takeover.

The rally was a rare event in which the leaders of three political parties took the stage upon a call made by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leaving aside their political differences.

The event began with Mehmet Görmez, the head of Turkey’s Religious Affairs Directorate reciting from the Quran.

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Remember that picture from Tiananmen Square? This is Turkey!

“That night, I realized that I am a part of a very great nation,” said Orçun Şekercioğlu, who came to the stage on a wheelchair. He was wounded by coup soldiers on the Bosphorus Bridge as he was standing against tanks.

“July 15 has opened a door of consensus for Turkey,” Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kılıçdaroğlu said, while addressing the crowd. “There is a new Turkey now,” he said. “All political party leaders should learn lessons from the coup attempt. That includes me.”

“I am happy because I can see the rise of Turkey,” Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahçeli said in his address to millions from all walks of life. “July 15 is a milestone for Turkey,” he said, praising the citizenry’s strong stance against the coup soldiers at the cost of their lives.

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This is a huge one, for those who know Turkey!

Chief of Staff General Hulusi Akar received a big round of applause when he took the stage. Along with Akar, other members of the top brass who were taken hostage by the coup plotters were present at the meeting. Akar once again said U.S.-based Islamic preacher Fethullah Gülen was responsible for the coup.

President Erdoğan arrived in Yenikapı in a helicopter alongside first lady Emine Erdoğan. Mr Erdoğan started his speech by thanking the people who stood against the tanks and planes used by the coup plotters during the failed takeover. He wished his condolences to the 240 people killed by putschists, of whom 172 were civilians, 63 were police officers and five were soldiers. He also wished speedy recovery to the 2,195 wounded.

During Erdoğan’s speech the crowd repeatedly shouted that they wanted the death penalty to be reintroduced. “If parliament accepts the reintroduction of death penalty, I will accept it,” he told the crowd, adding that the death penalty exists in the U.S., Japan and “many other countries.”

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The Aegean region is a stronghold of opposition to the government, but . . .

“We’re here to show that these flags won’t come down, the call to prayer won’t be silenced, and our country won’t be divided,” said Hacı Mehmet Haliloğlu, a civil servant who traveled from the Black Sea province of Ordu for the rally. “This is something way beyond politics, this is either our freedom or death,” he said, a large Turkish flag over his shoulder and a matching baseball cap on his head.

Repeated announcements were made in the area regarding a ban on carrying party flags or party slogans. Millions of Turkish flags were seen in the area, as well as the flags of Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Albania and the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Posters of Erdoğan and Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey, were also hung around the venue.

The “Democracy and Martyrs Rally” was held as the last in a series of meetings to protest the failed takeover, which is believed to have been masterminded by the Fethullahist Terrorist Organization (FETÖ).

Read the whole article

It has been estimated that 3.5 million people turned up for the meeting in Istanbul – and large crowds attended similar gatherings in all of Turkey’s 81 provinces.

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“There is a new Turkey now!”

In spite of that, I could find no mention in the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, the Sydney Morning Herald or the New Zealand Herald.

BBC News chose to report: Turkey’s president backs death penalty!

Apart from the Beeb, the other sites I visited focused on the possible abdication of the Emperor of Japan; continuing violence in Libya, Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan; and the possibility that Oscar Pistorius may have tried to top himself.

Is there disappointment out there that the attempted coup in Turkey didn’t succeed? It sure looks like it from where I’m sitting.

Anti-Turkey Bullswool

My New Zealand diplomatic people in Ankara send me regular updates on how they view the security situation in Turkey. Recently I got this one:

‘We now advise against all tourist and other non-essential travel to Ankara and Istanbul due to the heightened threat of terrorism and the potential for civil unrest (High risk). This is an increase to the risk level for Ankara and Istanbul.’

On 9 April 2016, the US Embassy in Ankara advised US citizens of credible threats to tourist areas, in particular to public squares and docks in Istanbul and Antalya.

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While in Brussels don’t forget to ride the Metro

So if you had been thinking of a trip to Turkey in the near future, you may now be reconsidering. On the other hand, Auckland’s number one (and only) newspaper, The NZ Herald, published a travel advisory on 23 March entitled ‘Why you need to visit Belgium’. The piece begins:

‘We love Belgium. This week’s terror attacks in Brussels have cast a pall over a beautiful country.

The best thing Kiwi travellers can do? Put Belgium on the list for your next European visit. Here are five reasons to visit the home of Tintin and great chocolate.’

Well, I’m ok with The Herald’s position here. In fact, the best response to terror is to get on with your life and not bow to the fear. I do, however, find the contrasting advice somewhat paradoxical. Especially given the rather limited list of attractions the writer offers to recommend Belgium:

Apparently the food is great, though specifics boil down to chocolate, waffles and hot chips! There’s a comic culture, and it’s not just about Tintin! Beer is plentiful and available in 1,000 varieties. There are lots of markets, and Christmas time is especially lovely. AND THE CLINCHER . . . There are 67 kilometres of coastline! That’s about the same length as Auckland’s Muriwai beach, in the entire country!

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Picturesque Belgian beach

The whole glowing article took 435 words – approximately the number of people you can expect to rub shoulders with per square metre of beach, I’d say, during Belgium’s month-long summer. My guess is, if you don’t have local friends to entertain you, you’ll be lucky to last a week. I’m not going to begin to list the attractions of Turkey. I reckon you could spend 435 days here, and do something memorably different every day.

Sadly, Western news media everyday publish ‘news’ and opinion pieces denigrating Turkey and its government. I have in front of me a page from CNN’s website penned by a Turkish academic and follower of the shadowy ex-pat. Fethullah Gülen. It’s not so long ago that Gülen was arousing much suspicion in his adopted homeland, America, and was the evil bogeyman of Turkey’s secular elite. In the last couple of years, however, there has been an about-face, and the mysterious Muslim cleric seems to have become the darling of anti-government propagandists within the country and abroad. We hear the same criticisms repeated again and again:

President Erdoğan is polarizing Turkish society.

In fact, a noisy minority of Erdoğan-haters has been doing its best to polarize Turkish society since the AK Party was elected to govern in 2002.

The state cracked down brutally on Gezi Park protesters in 2013, and holding public protests has become a life-risking activity.

Political protests in Turkey have always been known for violence. The so-called Gezi Park protests attracted a motley collection of anti-Erdoğanists with nothing in common other than their hatred of him. Some of the protesters may have been well-meaning tree-huggers, but there was the usual hard core of anarchic vandals.

The government is waging a war of terror on peace-loving Kurdish villagers.

The AK Party government made genuine efforts to work out a peace process with its Kurdish minority, including the establishment of Kurdish-language TV channels and the opening of a previously impossible dialogue. The US government, on the other hand, has been supporting and supplying Kurdish militants in Iraq and Syria for years for its own ends, making it more difficult to find a solution in Turkey. The PKK is internationally recognized as a terrorist organization.

Opposition media and members of parliament are harassed by the government and its supporters.

Political opposition to government policies is one thing – libelous personal attacks and deliberate incitement to violence quite another. Freedom has its limits.

Erdoğan has been seeking to change the constitution to create an all- powerful, executive-style presidency.

This is what the United States already has. But anyway, Mr Erdoğan can’t change the constitution by himself. There is a democratic process that must be followed. The USA might benefit from public debate on its own incomprehensible electoral system.

Reporters Without Borders call Turkey “the biggest prison for journalists in the world.”

This is nonsense. Who are these journalists that are in prison? Can we see a list of names?

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Memories of Turkey’s 1980 military coup linger on

The writer of this article, Alp Aslandoğan, says: ‘I was a middle school student in the 1970s during another period of instability, when armed groups thrived and thousands of young people were killed. I’m even more worried for Turkey now.’

I would wonder what a 12-year-old child of a privileged Turkish family really understood of the political chaos that reigned in his country in the 1970s; chaos that began with a military coup in 1960 when the Prime Minister was summarily hanged by the coup-leaders, and continued through the 1990s until the most recent military intervention in 1997. Anyone who says that Turkey is less democratic now is either ignorant of his (or her) own history, or deliberately distorting the facts for some ulterior purpose. ‘Thousands of young people were killed’ then – and it’s worse now?

Then there are the accusations of government corruption. Even if these accusations had been proven, which they haven’t, they would pale into insignificance beside previous governments that twiddled their thumbs while presiding over decades of banana-republic inflation, as they allowed 90% of the country to languish in medieval backwardness.

Anti-cameron

Not everyone loves him either

Like me, you may have been following with interest the current scandal unfolding as a result of the ‘Panama papers’ leaks. One of my foreign colleagues, outspoken critic of Turkey’s AKP government, expressed surprise that Mr Erdoğan and his people had not been mentioned as involved in this ocean of money-laundering and tax evasion. British Prime Minister Cameron, however, has been named, and is facing calls to resign from his own citizens and local media.

NZ protest

New Zealand police dealing with protester

New Zealand, it seems, is one of the countries recommended by lawyers Mossack Fonseca to their mega-rich clients as a reliable place to hide cash. Prime Minister John Key has made no secret of his grand scheme to turn our tiny nation into the Switzerland of the South Pacific. And what exactly does that entail? Mr Key has made a name for himself over the past year for his sponsorship of a project to change NZ’s flag, pushing ahead with referenda despite apparent lack of public support. Just yesterday it emerged that much of the financial backing for Mr Key’s questionable project came from ‘wealthy Chinese donors’ wooed at secret private fund-raising luncheons – which must surely raise speculation as to how much the NZ PM’s political success depends on those same wealthy Chinese donors. Despite his government’s repeated denials, it seems certain that the property boom making Auckland houses amongst the world’s most unaffordable, has been driven by rich Chinese ‘investors’.

Another frequent criticism leveled at Turkey’s government is that they are ‘Islamic-rooted’, whatever that means. So it was with interest that I read on Friday that Democratic presidential hopeful, Bernie Sanders, beloved of the American intellectual Left, has accepted an invitation from Pope Francis to attend a conference in the Vatican just four days before the New York Primary. According to NBC, ‘Since 1972, the winner of the popular vote in every presidential race won the Catholic vote, going by the exit polls. From Nixon in 1972 to Obama in 2012.’ And what has the Catholic Church got to say about a woman’s right to choose? Anyone? Anyone?

Sanders and pope

Bernie Sanders – friends in high places

So don’t expect too much from President Sanders, is my advice, even if he does manage to edge out Mrs Clinton for the Democratic nomination – and whichever capitalist ignoramus the Republicans select. Previous darling of the liberal Left, Barack Obama, has had eight years to close Guantanamo Prison as he promised – and those unconvicted inmates are still waiting. On Tuesday, President Obama acknowledged that “civilians were killed that shouldn’t have been” in past U.S. drone strikes, but said the administration is now “very cautious” about striking where women or children are present. Good to hear – especially for those families of civilians killed in previous US drone strikes. Mr Obama went on to say, “In situations of war, you know, we have to take responsibility when we’re not acting appropriately.” As far as I’m aware, however, the United States has not actually declared war on any of those countries whose citizens they are killing with drone strikes. But maybe that’s just a semantic quibble.

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Not the only beach in Turkey – and five months of summer

Anyway, what I really want to say here is, if you were thinking of a trip to Turkey, don’t be put off by the bad publicity. If you’re American, you or your children are probably more likely to be shot by a disaffected nutcase in a random massacre; or if you’re an Asian in New Zealand, to get mugged on the street by young hooligans. It’s a dangerous world – but Turkey is a beautiful country. There may not be a thousand varieties of beer, but there are a thousand-and-one other things to do.

“Turkey is like a dream”

This article appeared in our local newspaper ‘Hürriyet’ this morning. I couldn’t find anything in English, so I’m translating it for you. You can read the whole article here (but you can’t rely on Google translation).

Syrian restaurantA Little Damascus in the Heart of Istanbul

A mere 250,000 of the 2.2 million refugees who have fled the civil war in Syria have found a place in camps. About 330,000 are living in Istanbul. It’s unclear when the war in Syria will end, so they are settling in as though they will never return. There are schools, radio stations, arts and cultural groups. Just like London’s China Town, Syrians have established their own settlement in the district of Fatih. Desserts from Aleppo, döner from Damascus, coffee from Lattakia . . . bookshops and cafés, poetry readings and music are adding a new dimension to the city’s culture.

In this district there are places where the only language you will hear is Arabic. Especially after 4 pm, the streets come to life. Syrian students, girls and boys, families, men and women, flock into the streets. In one small area there are eighteen restaurants. We dropped into one called ‘Tarbush’. It was so crowded we couldn’t find a seat. While we were there, people were constantly coming and going. There were families, businessmen and students – but all were Syrian. Even the street-vendor outside was Syrian.

Syrian restaurantThe proprietor, Muhammed Nizar Bitar, came to Turkey when the war broke out in 2011 and started a small operation making hummus. He explains how similar  Syrian and Turkish cultures are:

“When we first opened, 90 per cent of our customers were Syrian and 10 per cent Arab. As time went by, Turks began to come, and now they make up 35 per cent of our clientele. The main topic of conversation among Syrian families is their new life. Old-timers say to new-comers, ‘Turks go to bed early, so don’t use the washing machine or the vacuum cleaner at night.’

“Turkish restaurateurs come and ask for recipes. Some of them are looking for Syrian chefs. We have no trouble finding ingredients. We can easily find the vegetables and spices we need. For example, we were looking for ‘mulubiye’, which you call ‘nane’ (mint). What we call ‘keshke’ is known as ‘tarhana’ here. Turkey is like a dream for us.”

A Black Woman in Istanbul

I came across this in my wanderings on the internet recently – thought you might be interested to see it . . .

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW ABOUT BEING A BLACK WOMAN IN ISTANBUL

MadameNoire has teamed up with Black Girl Fly to bring you profiles of Black girls taking travel to new heights. Each week we’ll profile a new lady, giving you the details on her latest adventure and everything you should know about being a fly Black girl abroad. 

Black Girl Fly: Tammy Freeman

Home city: I’m originally from Queens, NY but I currently reside in Northern Virginia.

Why Turkey? I stopped in Turkey on my way to Italy. Going and coming from Italy I elected for an overnight layover in Istanbul, and I’m so glad I did.

Travel companion? Solo traveler

Length of Stay: 2 days (1 day en route to Italy, 1 day en route from Italy to DC)

How much was your flight? Around $800, but I was flying to Naples, Italy. Flights to Turkey as a final destination are a bit less.

What should you know about being a Black girl in Turkey?

Being in Istanbul, I’m sure the locals have seen people from nearly every nationality. Even when I was out among the locals, no one seems shocked by me being there. It’s very much like NY, people seemed unbothered by my presence for the most part. Compared with a place, like Asia, where black skin is treated as an anomaly and most act like they’ve never seen a black person before! Turkey was amazing. Great people, a plethora of things to see and do.