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.”

 

Molla Zeyrek

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.

Sadabad

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.

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.

Çamlıca kulesi 2

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.

I’m not leaving Turkey

When I started writing this blog, nearly seven years ago, my aim was two-fold:

First to present to English-speakers out there an alternative picture of this country to the one they tend to get from their own corporate-controlled mass media, and

Second, to give Turks themselves another view of their history and culture that their own education system does not always do justice to.

i-turkeyI came up with the name “Turkey File”, which, of course, is a not-very-creative pun along the lines of “Anglophile, bibliophile” etc.

I’m not planning to write here about the latest terrorist outrage committed at the Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve. I do, however, want to pass on the words of an American citizen, William Rakk, quoted in our Hürriyet newspaper this morning. The young man was wounded in the hail of gunfire that took the lives of 39 innocent young people enjoying the first celebration of 2017. “I want to come back to Turkey,” William said. “This is a beautiful country. The people are great!”

Also on the front page was a brief report about a journalist from Britain’s Independent newspaper. Simon Calder was quoted as saying, “I’m impatient to go to Turkey. The best response to random acts of violence is not to change your behaviour.”

In another positive, the so-called “Islamic-rooted” AK Party government has let it be known that they will not tolerate religious nutters trumpeting that the New Year’s Eve killings were God’s punishment for godless alcohol-drinking sinners. Freedom of speech is an important human right, for sure – but there should be limits, don’t you agree?

A few years ago some religious extremists were demanding that the government turn the Aya Sofia Museum back into a mosque. Mr Erdoğan’s reply at the time was, “When you can fill the next-door Sultanahmet Mosque five times a day, and not just for Friday prayers, we’ll look into it.”

Well last week I had my residence permit for living in Turkey renewed, and I’m happy about that. It is indeed a beautiful country. Its government and its people have been good to me – and I have no intention of leaving.