“Istanbul is a giant Matrushka doll: You open one doll and find another lodged inside; you open that only to find another one hiding within. The smallest doll would be where the heart of the city beats frantically: Taksim Square.” – Elif Shafak
It is in Taksim Square that the different Istanbuls become most visible: Byzantine Istanbul, Levantine Istanbul, Turkish-Muslim Istanbul; instead of existing side by side, solid and intact, they have melted into one another
In Turkish, the word “taksim”—from the Arabic original—means “distribution.” In 1732 Ottoman Empire Sultan Mahmud I required a new system to distribute water to various parts of the city. To this end a stone reservoir was made in the area; it can still be observed today. In the nineteenth century, the world’s third-oldest subway line (after London and New York) was opened here, connecting Galata to Pera. Taksim Square and the areas surrounding it were traditionally the most cosmopolitan parts of Istanbul. Unlike more conservative boroughs, the area around Taksim has always been multicultural and continues to be so.
Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Taksim hosted all the major protests, some of which ended with bloodshed. Although subsequent governments have tried to limit the symbolism of the square by not allowing protesters, deep in the subconscious of the people, Taksim is a political space as much as it is a social and cultural space. In the middle of Taksim Square is a small park that in 2013 was thrust into global headlines: Gezi. The word has become synonymous with youth and rebellion.
It all started when the AKP government, with Prime Minister Erdogan at the helm, announced his decision to demolish the park and build a shopping mall. One way or another, politicians seemed determined to flatten one of the very few parks left in central Istanbul. When a number of people—architects, environmentalists, academics—tried to voice opposition, they were brushed aside by the government. There is no doubt that had Istanbulites been asked their opinion, the majority would have preferred to preserve the park instead of getting yet another shopping mall.
When the first bulldozers arrived on the site, a group of young environmentalists had already arrived, camping there with their tents and guitars, determined to stand guard over the trees. At dawn, while the city was still asleep, armored police officers entered the park. The crackdown was aggressive, brutal. Unarmed environmentalists were beaten, their tents set on fire. The next morning the entire country was in a state of shock and outrage when these images of excessive force were shared on the Internet. As in Tahrir Square and in the Euromaidan, social media played a pivotal role. In just a couple of hours, hundreds of people of all backgrounds took to the streets. Among the unexpected protesters were people from traditional backgrounds, such as clerks or housewives, who showed their support by banging pots and pans from balconies and windows. In the early days of the protests, there was much hope and good humor on the streets. But the optimism melted fast. Police responded with tear gas and pepper spray, exerting disproportionate violence. As always, violence created more violence. While demonstrations spread to other cities across the country, new groups appeared on the streets, angry and suppressed, ready to resort to violence. It was a time of mental chaos accompanied by a surge of paranoia. Taksim Square was unrecognizable during those early weeks. For over ten days the protesters had full control of the area, not allowing the security forces to enter. Giant posters were hung from the tallest buildings. Next to a picture of Ataturk,the founder of modern Turkey, smiled the poster of Deniz Gezmis, a leftist revolutionary who had been sentenced to death and executed, and one of Yilmaz Güney, the iconic Kurdish film director of the 1970s. Like the posters, the people in the square were a mixed bunch. Those who would never come together under normal circumstances found themselves in the same public space, singing, dancing, breaking bread—or simit, bagels with sesame. The protests went on for weeks. When the dust had finally settled, there were more than eight thousand wounded, three thousand arrested, and eleven dead.
There remains in Turkish society, along with an undercurrent of grief, a deep sense of injustice and sorrow. Academics have lost their jobs, doctors have been questioned, journalists have been sued, and artists have been demonized for supporting the Gezi events. Since then Turkish society has never been the same.