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.

Glenfell Tower Inferno – A deliberate act?

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Death toll likely to rise

At this time the final death toll is unknown, but it will surely rise above the current figure of seventeen. The building, reportedly engulfed in flames within minutes, is now a burnt out shell.

Labour MP David Lammy says Grenfell Tower tragedy is “corporate manslaughter”

The UK’s Telegraph reports that this Labour MP has called the fire an “outrage”, labelling it “corporate manslaughter”, and demanding that arrests be made. David Lammy may be right – and already people who might be deemed responsible are ducking and weaving, looking to shift the blame elsewhere.

My desktop dictionary defines “manslaughter” as the crime of killing a human being without malice aforethought, or in circumstances not amounting to murder.” The Farlex Free Legal Dictionary elaborates: “The unjustifiable, inexcusable, and intentional killing of a human being without deliberation, premeditation, and malice. The unlawful killing of a human being without any deliberation, which may be involuntary, in the commission of a lawful act without due caution and circumspection.” At the very least, that must fit the bill in this tragic situation.

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Labour MP for Tottenham lost a friend in the inferno

But is it possible that the reality is actually much worse? My desktop dictionary defines “murder” as “the unlawful premeditated killing of one human being by another.” Again, Farley is more useful, examining the concept of “malice aforethought”:

“The term malice aforethought did not necessarily mean that the killer planned or premeditated on the killing, or that he or she felt malice toward the victim. Generally, malice aforethought referred to a level of intent or recklessness that separated murder from other killings and warranted stiffer punishment. Express malice exists “when there is manifested a deliberate intention unlawfully to take away the life of a fellow creature.” Malice may be implied by a judge or jury “when no considerable provocation appears, or when the circumstances attending the killing show an abandoned and malignant heart.”

I was curious when I read that Glenfell Towers is located in Kensington, West London. Anyone who has been to the UK capital knows that inner west London is the expensive part of town. Yet TV footage showed residents milling around outside the burning tower block who were conspicuously not Anglo-Saxon (or wealthy Arab).

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A nice place in “The Boltons”

I checked the figures – and sure enough, the Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington, overseen by the Conservative Party, is “the most unaffordable borough in London when it comes to renting”. It has “a higher proportion of high earners (over £60,000 p.a.) than any other local government district in the country”. İt is “one of the few areas in the UK where population has dipped during the last ten years”.

A quick glance at property prices turned up a 7-bedroom house in “The Boltons” listed at £57,500,000; a more modest 5-bedroom end-of-terrace house for £35,000,000 – and a host of others in the £20-30 million range. Clearly I’ll need a second mortgage to get into that market – though I could lower my sights and snap up a studio “apartment” for around £1 million.

So what’s the story with Glenfell Towers, whose residents gave the impression of being unlikely to fit comfortably into that housing demographic? Well, apparently North Kensington is something of an anomaly – a picturesque multi-ethnic enclave at the lower end of the socio-economic scale, with a high rate of unemployment and a high proportion of welfare beneficiaries. Possibly not the kind of neighbours who would be the first choice of your average £50 million house owner, despite the contribution they might make to local “colour”.

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Local residents near Glenfell Tower

Apparently a company called Rydon “completed a refurbishment of the building in the summer of 2016 for KCTMO (Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation) on behalf of the council”. The refurbishment included affixing plastic and foam insulation panels to the exterior of the tower block at a cost of £9 million. According to that report, Cladding is considered a low cost way to modify the exterior of unattractive buildings and was used on Grenfell Tower so that the building would look better when viewed against the backdrop of conservation areas and luxury flats that surround north Kensington”.

The same report goes on to say, “Almost all witnesses said they saw the cladding basically firing up – bits of it were igniting before their very eyes.” Residents described how the foam-filled cladding “went up like matchsticks” as the blaze spread.

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120 flats – and ONE stairway?

Another report noted: “Renovations of the Grenfell building in North Kensington saw the building not only kitted out in controversial cladding that could have caused the deadly blaze to spread so quickly, but also stripped of two of its fire exits.”

Interesting! Even more interesting will be to follow what happens to the site after the tower block, which seems to be a complete write-off, is demolished. Will the Royal Borough of Chelsea and Kensington replace it with low-cost housing for the surviving residents of Glenfell Tower? I suspect not. There will be many residents of South Kensington who, while sympathising with the victims of the fire, will be happy enough to see them relocated to a borough more appropriate to their socio-economic status. The value of the cleared land will undoubtedly richly reward developers given the opportunity to construct high-end residences for an influx of more wealthy ratepayers.

Is it possible that the whole business was a deliberate plan to get rid of that eyesore building and its misplaced inhabitants? It wouldn’t surprise me at all. Some might consider that £9 million for flammable cladding to be money well spent.

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.

“Love will save this world”

In my current employment I work weekends, so Thursday and Friday are my days off. In fact I like it this way. Population and vehicle density are so bad in Istanbul these days, you may as well stay home on Saturday and Sunday, unless you want to spend hours snarled up in traffic jams.

dscf0510So I’m happy having my weekend when almost everyone else is working or at school. Today it was really starting to feel like spring. I turned off the heating, opened a couple of windows, then went out for a longish walk.

There’s a pretty park not far from our place, laid out in 1973 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Republic of Turkey. Council workers have been busy planting pansies and tulip bulbs. The tulips won’t bloom for a couple of weeks or so, but, with the sun shining, the rows of yellow,  purple and whie pansies looked great. There were also leaf and blossom buds appearing on some trees, so probably the worst of winter is behind us.

I made a circuit down towards the railway line where progress is continuing on track and stations for the new High Speed Train. Much of the city is under reconstruction these days, it seems – adding to the traffic chaos as truck and trailer units carry away demolition rubble, and concrete mixers and hydraulic pumps shuttle around the building sites.

As I approached the pedestrian overpass crossing the horrendous racetrack linking the coast road with the two main motorways, my eye was caught by a sentence of graffiti crudely painted on one of the steel pillars:

dscf0513“Bu dünyayı sevgi kurtaracak,” it read. And once again I felt happy to be in Turkey. Western graffiti of the artistic or obscene variety has been increasingly in evidence around Istanbul in recent years. Especially during the few months when the so-called “Gezi Park” protests were going on, there was some pretty unpleasant stuff being daubed on walls around town.

This one, however, gave me hope that all is not lost. The anonymous scribe was assuring us that: “Love will save this world.”

Nice to think there are people around who still believe 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.

It’s a Hoax, Folks!

I must thank a friend in New Zealand for drawing my attention to a news item circulating in Western media to the effect that the government of Turkey is planning to build 80 new coal-fired power stations – one in each of the country’s provinces.

I can find no evidence that any such plan exists. There are, of course, plans to build some coal power stations. We all know they are bad for the environment, and miners die underground – but Turkey depends on imports for its natural gas; environmentalists and archeologists complain about hydro-electric dams; nuclear power is scary; Turkey’s economy and energy needs are growing rapidly, and the newly rich middle classes are hell-bent on emulating the profligate American ‘lifestyle’. Wind and solar sources are sadly not enough to meet demands.

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Get a laugh out of it maybe, but don’t take it seriously

The Youtube video circulating online was made by a prominent Turkish actress and is obviously a spoof. The website term-x.com is equally clearly not genuine. ‘Term-X’, the company that allegedly will build the power plants, does have a presence on Linked In and their profile tells me they have 11-50 employees. I suspect they may need to start hiring if they are aiming to build 80 new power stations. Promises to be good for the country’s employment situation, if not for the environment.

However, if you take a look at their website, you’ll pretty soon realize it is not genuine, with punning and ironic slogans like:

‘Projects that will take your breath away!’

‘Our business partners are building a wonderful future for our children!’

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‘Children are our future. We’re looking to the future with hope’. If you believe that’s a genuine website, you’ll believe anything.

It seems all the usual pseudo-leftist, pseudo-intellectual anti-government elitists in Turkey are up in arms; and media in the West are picking up on this nonsense and giving credence to it – whether out of ignorance or bad intentions I leave it to you to decide.

The biggest threat to democracy in Turkey, in fact, is the lack of an effective, credible opposition party. Most of the elitist opponents of the government are still living in the days when the army would step in and overturn a democratically elected government if they seemed to be following the ‘wrong path’ – as happened in 1960, 1970, 1980 and 1997. They just can’t get the hang of the democratic process.

Urban Renewal in Istanbul – Tilting at windmills

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Former St Euphemia School and Eglise N.D. du Rosaire

Dilek and I went to a concert of classical music last night. The setting was a small but beautifully restored Roman Catholic church in the Istanbul district of Rasimpaşa. There was a chamber orchestra and a talented young pianist, Nilüfer Kıyıcılardan, playing a programme of Bach, Vivaldi and Mozart.

We arrived twenty minutes early and were fortunate to find two of the last unclaimed seats – somewhat surprising, given that the venue is not on any well-beaten social track, and the event had received little publicity. I had stumbled upon it accidentally during the week while researching for this post.

These days Istanbul resembles what I imagine New York City to have been during the late 19th and early 20th centuries – a vast construction site. Tunnels are driving under, and bridges over the Bosporus and the Gulf of Izmit; subterranean Metro lines burrow in all directions beneath the city; vast commercial and residential projects rise to the winter sky; hectares of run-down inner city blocks are giving way to new up-market apartments; and domed monumental mosques springing up to occupy landmark sites; all presided over by multitudes of arachnoid construction cranes.

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‘1453’ – a new conquest of Istanbul by megalomaniac developers

Not everyone is happy, of course. I wrote a piece some years ago on a conflict between local residents and guests at an art gallery opening that made international news at the time. Many of us prefer shopping in local traditional small businesses to the homogeneity of climate-controlled malls; and have questions about the wisdom of allowing the national economy to be dominated by a bloated and parasitic financial sector. Local residents whose families may have lived in a neighbourhood for generations are resentful of being pushed out by the new urban yuppie class – some of the latter even mourn the loss of traditional colour that inevitably accompanies such development. Lovers of the atmospheric decay that characterised old Istanbul in recent memory have issues with way restoration is carried out on world heritage buildings. And then there are the megalomaniac property developers who seem to ride roughshod with impunity over zoning and town-planning regulations.

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Abdülhamit I’s windmills

Me? I’m ambivalent, I guess. I’m appalled when I look out a window on our university campus and see the abomination of the Ağaoğlu ‘1453’ development blighting what was once a forested landscape. On the other hand, I love the Marmaray Metro, and feel sorry for those who refuse to ride it for fear that the waters of the Bosporus will pour in upon them while their train is half way through. I’m a fatalist when it comes to such matters. But I want to tell you about my recent discovery – the Yeldeğirmeni neighbourhood of Kadıköy.

One thing I learned is that the neighbourhood goes by two names. Until recently it was known by its official one, Rasimpaşa, after a small mosque dedicated to a relatively minor Ottoman official who served as mayor of Istanbul for a couple of months in 1878. Tradition says that Rasim’s loving wife, Ikbal Hanim, had the mosque built on the site of an earlier ruin. Be that as it may, more picturesque, and arguably more significant is the district’s earlier history.

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Italian Valpreda Apartment Building

Tourist brochures about Istanbul often mention that Khalkedon (Kadıköy) was originally a larger city than Byzantium/Constantinople across the water. The name is translated as ‘City of the Blind’ in tribute, apparently, to the failure of its inhabitants to recognise the obvious superiority of the other site. Dating from 675 BCE, its defensive walls are believed to have extended as far as Rasimpaşa.

The Asian city’s importance waned after the foundation of Constantinople as capital of the eastern Roman Empire. Following its conquest by the Ottomans, its environs became a popular location for the city’s elite to build summer mansions on the banks of the Haydarpaşa Stream that once flowed there. There were also barracks and a training ground for imperial cavalry and infantry. The Marmaray Metro line currently terminates at a station in front of the modern Tepe Nautilus shopping mall. The station is called Ayrılık Çeşmesi, and the eponymous fountain was the gathering point for Ottoman armies departing on campaigns to the east, and caravans of pilgrims setting out for Mecca. As an interesting aside, the fountain is said to have been commissioned by Kızlarağası Gazanfer Ağa – whose title refers to his responsibility for the ladies of the imperial harem. Nice work if you can get it! In the late 18th century, Sultan Abdülhamit I had several windmills erected to supply the needs of the military and local residents – and from the Turkish word for windmill (yel değirmeni) comes the name that is supplanting the memory of that short-lived city mayor.

Synogogue

5659 in the Jewish calendar = 1898 C.E.

From the mid-19th century Rasimpaşa began to take on a more residential character. The present pattern of streets was laid out, and Istanbul’s first post office opened there. The city had always been prone to disastrous fires, and after a particularly bad one that devastated the Kuzguncuk district, Jewish families moved in and established Istanbul’s first apartment buildings. The Hemdat Israel Synagogue, one of the oldest surviving in Istanbul, entered service in 1899 after Sultan Abdülhamit II stepped in personally to moderate in a violent quarrel between the Jews and the Orthodox and Armenian communities. It seems Christians objected to the construction of a synagogue in the district. It is said that the Jewish community named the synagogue in a way that recognised their gratitude to the sultan for his assistance – the Hebrew consonants for ‘Hemdat’ can also be read as ‘Hamid’. Anyway, in the interests of natural justice, the Orthodox lot were allowed to erect their own place of worship, the church of Ayia Yeorgios, a few years later in 1906. Both buildings are still standing, though their congregations have been sadly depleted over the years.

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Simits with a touch of history

Development became more rapid in the early 20th century with the building of the Haydarpaşa train station as a key link on the Berlin-Baghdad railway line. Italian stonemasons came to work on the project, as well as German architects, engineers and builders. The edifice that currently serves as Orhangazi Primary School was also built around this time to provide education for the children of the German professionals. Among the more noteworthy apartment blocks from this time are the five-storey Italian (Valpreda), Demirciyan and Kehribarcı buildings.

Underlining the multicultural character of the district, and the tolerant attitude of the Muslim Ottoman government, Roman Catholics even managed to get a big foot in the door. A gaggle of nuns calling themselves the Oblates[1] of the Assumption established a school in the name of St Euphemia in 1895. RC education continued here until some kind of dispute took place with the Republican government in 1934. As a result, the nuns departed and the school was taken over by the Turkish Ministry of Education, eventually assuming its present role as Kemal Ataturk Anatolian High School. Next door to the school is the small (now deconsecrated) church dedicated to Our Lady of the Most Sacred Rosary, where Dilek and I were privileged to hear last night’s delightful concert.

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Mural-İst street art

A recent article in the Kadikoy Life magazine contains an interesting quote by a former resident of the district:

“The bakers, sweets and helva-sellers were Turkish; the grocers and restaurateurs, Greek; the greengrocers and chemists, Jewish; the butchers, Armenian, and the dairymen, Bulgarian. People from every religion and ethnic background lived happily together. Our neighbours to the right were Greek, the ones on the left were Turks; directly opposite were Armenians, next to them another Greek family, and on the far side, they were Jewish. Neighbourly relations were excellent; we all respected each other’s special days.”

Sadly, the tide of history brought cataclysmic events on to the world stage that destroyed the harmony of those halcyon days – waves of violent nationalism, the slaughter of the First World War, the Greek invasion of Anatolia, and the Turkish War of Liberation. The world would never be the same, and Istanbul suffered as much as anywhere.

Kamarad cafe

Cem and İnci brewing coffee for connoisseurs

I was motivated to explore the neighbourhood after visiting a café recently, run by the daughter of a friend. Trendy cafés are sprouting there like truffles in a Piedmont autumn, and Kamarad is one of the latest. İnci and Cem are catering to the true coffee connoisseur, importing beans from various sources in Africa (Kenya, Ethiopia) and South America (Honduras, Costa Rica, Columbia), roasting and grinding them on site, and offering delicious brews produced by the method of your choice: the familiar espresso machine and French press, or more esoteric techniques, chemex and V60. They are also supplying beans to other businesses nearby.

One of the more striking features of the new Kadıköy is the proliferation of enormous surrealistic outdoor murals that confront you unexpectedly as you stroll around the narrow back streets. Kadıköy Municipal Council has sponsored an annual street art festival, Mural-İst, for the last four years. Seven local and nine foreign artists have turned their talents to the enlivening of the neighbourhood, with impressive results.

The old days will never return, of course, but the new/old district of Yeldeğirmeni may be showing the way to a better future.

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[1] Oblates, it seems, are one step down in the holy orders, following less stringent rules than is usual for monastic orders.