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Reading into the soul of Istanbul

A photograph from the 1920s makes plain the faultline that lays bare the conflicts of Istanbul, whether clearly evident or deeply hidden, as if it were the summary of a one hundred year history.

This is one of a series of articles we are publishing from Eutopia Magazine – ideas for Europe. Eutopia sets out to create a place for European citizens to analyze the issues most relevant to their future by openly debating them with authoritative voices in each field.

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New Rome, sovereign,
thriving in the middle of these boundless lands,
as if she has inherited the glory of Old Rome,
who would sack her one day?
Who can, who, coming where from
can pillage that other Rome
as they did this Rome?

Bilge Karasu, A Long Day’s Evening*

In order to understand and interpret cities, we classify them. Global city, smart city, creative city, and so on. By doing so, it is possible to group existing cities of the world into a limited number of categories by looking at some data or based on certain indicators. 

Methodological convenience aside, it cannot be claimed that an approach based solely on classification and on grouping into conventional categories is more valid than discovering what is unique in cities and using what is different and original as material for a new analysis. At any rate, if such were the case, there would have been no need for all the studies that look at cities individually.

Something similar may be said of urban processes. Concepts such as gentrification, urban regeneration, and displacement are widely used in the literature, which leads them to take on connotations which become virtually universal and almost indisputable. Whereas, just as is the case with classification, it must be said that these concepts, which can be considered as a kind of stocktaking or as snapshots, inhibit an in-depth understanding of what is urban.

So much has been said about Istanbul, so many legends woven, articles written, songs composed... Is it possible to say something new about such a city?

The names of cities are often like linear historical summaries. Moreover, cities also have titles or nicknames. These concepts/words, which reflect a projection and a wish for the future rather than expressing a situation, may sometimes serve as a clue. One of Istanbul’s nickname is 'der Saadet' (the abode of felicity). It is clearly evident that from the outset the city thought of itself as a eu-topia, a utopia of felicity. It is not easy to guess what prospects this word – which is not used much nowadays except by poets – holds for the present or the future.

Cities also have metaphors. The one most used for Istanbul is, no doubt, the metaphor of the bridge. This is due to its geography, to the fact that it is split into two, with Asia on one side and Europe on the other, by the presence of the Bosphorus, which flows right down its middle like a river more than a maritime strait. The city is perceived as a bridge between East and West, between two different cultural worlds. For now, let us be content with stating that this is a ‘slippery and light metaphor’, unable to hold anything or anyone on the bridge or to allow anything to settle.

A photograph from the 1920s


Kasimpasa and Pera*

Istanbul has also been called the ‘Seven Hills’ after its slopes, hills, and historic heights. This image from the 1920s may give priceless assistance in interpreting the last hundred years of the city (and together with them, the republic in Turkey, which is now over ninety years old).

In the photograph, we can see at one end of a fault line Pera: the upper neighbourhood where diplomatic representatives of the great powers and all their institutions, investment bankers, and those from the world of entertainment could be found. On the other end we have Kasimpasa: the muddy lower neighbourhood where poor Muslim Ottomans lived and through which narrow-gauge rails ran, probably serving the nearby dockyard.

During the early Republic, until the 1970s, the residents of the lower neighbourhood, whose identity was ‘standardized’ as Muslim and Turkish, waged a struggle to conquer the peak which Pera represented and the wealth of those living there; and indeed, they succeeded.

Though Istanbul had lost to Ankara the privilege of being the capital of the new Republic, in this struggle it was backed by the state and all its apparatuses. This support took different forms; sometimes it manifested itself as legal yet illegitimate regulations such as the Varlik Vergisi (the ‘wealth tax’ of 1942) while at other times it was direct violence, intimidation, and expulsion (as was the case during the events of September 6-7, 1955). Indeed, though the capital was Ankara, Istanbul became Turkey’s largest and most central city.

Between 1927 and 1970, the population of Istanbul grew threefold. Today, approximately 20% of the population in Turkey lives in Istanbul. But those born in Istanbul constitute only 20% of its population. The remaining 80% are those who came from other cities of Anatolia and who settled here, attracted by the capital accumulated in this city and in pursuit of work and bread. We must add that right at this point, Istanbul and Turkey were undergoing a fractal development.

Starting in the 1970s, we witness the second stage of the abovementioned process of how capital, and along with it power, changed hands. Since 1970, the population of Istanbul has grown literally sevenfold. This time it was the new Istanbullers, come to the city in search of a bright future, who entered a struggle to seize the summit of economy and power. And we must say that they have, to a great extent, succeeded in this struggle.

From this perspective, it is no coincidence that the newly elected president, who was the prime minister for the last twelve years, was born in Kasimpasa. We should also add that the political star of the still-fresh president Erdogan began to rise over Turkey after he was elected mayor of Istanbul in 1994.

Likewise, it is not surprising to see that today, in terms of the distribution of political tendencies, Istanbul almost exactly replicates as a pattern the general trend in Turkey. In many respects, Istanbul is like a microcosm of Turkey.

The photograph from the 1920s makes plain the faultline that lays bare the conflicts of Istanbul, whether clearly evident or deeply hidden, as if it were the summary of a one hundred year history.

Inside and outside the Gezi parenthesis

One of the images that best summarises the second wave of struggles is the work titled Networks of Dispossession, featured in the thirteenth Istanbul Biennial in 2013.

Networks of DispossessionNetworks of Dispossession (Photo credit: Servet Dilber). View larger version.

There are many interesting pages in this work, which maps how and among whom capital, the media, and power change hands. One of these pages shows the seemingly complex anatomy of how, during the first wave between 1920-70, foundation properties belonging to minorities whose assets had been seized were handed over to business circles close to the seat of power.

Following the military coup of 1980, a legal arrangement was made enabling the properties which were seized by the ‘public’ and handed over to the Treasury and the Foundations Administration, to be returned to their owners. The diagram of networks clearly shows how and for whom these properties were ‘privatised’. One can tell that what actually seems like a positive step toward rectifying the previous illegitimate intervention became part of another illegitimate dispossession bargain.

The environment that made it possible for these collective maps to be produced is as important as the work itself. While lawyers, artists, and scholars contributed to the mapping through the open source method, the efforts to create these maps began during the events of May and June 2013, which would come to be known as the ‘Gezi Resistance’. Since then, the project continues to progress and is regularly updated.

Urbanites from all walks of life were discontented because they did not have a voice or a vote in any decision that affected their lives. Gezi Resistance was the expression of this discontent when it began to exceed the limits of what was tolerable.

The movement began when people protested against a small park being concreted over and privatised; it was a park in Taksim, which may be the only indisputable centre of a city such as Istanbul, whose centre is not easy to find.

The movement spread first across Istanbul and then across Turkey and turned into a kind of highly colourful and heterogeneous resistance euphoria. The Gezi events erupted at the point of conflict of a dystopia of everyday experience, which is in diametrical opposition with the urban utopia already existing in the memories and therefore in the expectations.

One might have anticipated that it would be possible to analyse the Gezi protests better after the heat of events had cooled down. All the same, the Gezi Resistance will be remembered as a faultline along which can be seen, in the sharpest and clearest manner, the oppositions existing in the city and especially those between, on the one hand, the perceptions and experiences of fellow citizens living in the city, and, on the other, power and its close ally, fierce personal profit.

There is also a cultural faultline. Istanbul represents approximately one third of cultural production and consumption in Turkey. Istanbul’s cultural centre is the Historic Peninsula, the small triangle between Kadiköy on the Asian side and Sisli on the European side.

About 70% of cultural production and consumption in Istanbul happens in this area, where the population corresponds to 30% of that of the city. In other words, 70% of the city’s population living in surrounding districts can access only 30% of cultural events. The fractal design we mentioned above in terms of population and politics is already the harbinger of a major rift of inequality in the cultural field as well.

As in all megacities, Istanbul too has its share of the real-estate speculation and construction fever which knows no bounds in terms of public space. Among the gated communities in Istanbul, ‘Venedik’ (Venice), ‘Mashattan’, and ‘Bosphorus’ are notable! Besides these, the new president, who has already arranged that his name be given to a future airport in the city, dreams of opening a second Bosphorus 'canal', this time artificial, to the north of the city.

It would not be mistaken to say that the dream of power and its allies is an Istanbul based on a triplet of construction, finance, and congress tourism, and built upon the discourse of a vague and triumphant Turkish and Muslim Ottoman legacy.

In the meantime, while debates continue about when, following the Marmara Earthquake in 1999, the major fault will rupture again,  we witness that in the city, which is growing at an exponential rate and situated immediately adjacent to this fault, with every heavy rainfall, on avenues having Dere (river) in their names, the more or less covered waters sweep away anything in their paths, be it four-wheeled or two-legged, as if seeking revenge.

Despite all the pressure, the standardisation, and the unbridled passion for profit, we see that at times, just like watercourses which quietly pursue their existence deep underground, Istanbul’s soul too rises to the surface and manifests itself in a most violent way. What, other than Istanbul’s soul, is the crowd of people, both young and old (and especially young), who sang with one voice in the most colourful ways during the Gezi events?

Above are examples of faultlines which could rupture at any moment and which do not escape the watchful eye. These faultlines show that Istanbul is not the kind of city that can be ‘read’ on the surface or by dynamically identifying singular cases. In order to begin to understand Istanbul, it seems more proper to take an in-depth look at the layers as they become visible from time to time, rather than at its history.

And when we look at it this way, it becomes necessary to lay the metaphor of the bridge to one side, and to replace it with a metaphor more suited to the city, such as 'the palimpsest' on which layers of writing overlap, and where some can be read more clearly while others are more faint, and where various cultures clash at times and co-exist at others.

Perhaps, right at this point, we can return to the famous and never-ending debate about whether Istanbul (and Turkey) is the East of the West or the West of the East. This debate, on which much ink was expended when the winds of Orientalism had not yet subsided as they have today, flared up again around 2004-2005 when negotiations began for Turkey’s full accession to the EU.

Thankfully nowadays, this matter seems to preoccupy neither the EU, which may have lost much of its former powers attraction, nor Turkey, which is much more concerned with the problems and expectations to its east. It looks like the only thing that remains of it is allusions in trend and lifestyle media to mosques, old fountains, the Egyptian (or Spice) Bazaar, and so forth.

Istanbul is the city where the tomb of Abu Ayyub al-Ansari is situated, who died during the siege of Constantinople, as far back as the seventh century, and was buried at the foot of the city walls; this is where, at every opportunity, government officials stop by to pray.

Yet today, when we walk from Taksim to Kasimpasa – seen in the above photograph from a hundred years ago – we encounter a neighbourhood inhabited by African immigrants. It is futile to debate whether a country’s largest city is in the East or West when its inhabitants read the Koran by rote in a language all but incomprehensible to them, despite the fact that it abruptly switched from Arabic script to the Latin alphabet exactly eighty-six years ago.

Besides, we must not forget that it was not in Rome but in Istanbul that Rome’s sun last set.

*Bilge Karasu, A Long Day's Evening. Translated by Aaron Aji and Fred Stark, San Francisco, City Lights Books 2012.

**I would like to thank my friend Tugrul Artunkal for the photograph.

Translated by Linda Stark

First published at Eutopia

About the author

Serhan Ada is a member of the faculty of Art and Cultural Management BA/MA/PhD Programmes of İstanbul Bilgi University and the founding director of santralistanbul, an international center for arts, culture and education. He has been a visiting Professor at Turin School of Development, Torino, University UIAV in Venice, Rutgers University and GIOCA at University of Bologna; Cultural Advisor to İzmir Metropolitan Municipality, founding member of AICA Turkey (International Association of Arts Critics), Deputy President of the Turkish National Commission of UNESCO’s Committee on Cultural Diversity. Among his publications: Turkish Cultural Policy Report: A Civil Perspective (eds., Instanbul, 2011), Introduction to Cultural Policies in Turkey (eds., Bilgi Universitesi, Instabul 2009), Festivals of İstanbul (eds., Instanbul 2011) and Emerging Cultural Continent: Actors and Networks (co-editor, Instanbul 2008).


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