Imagining Taksim Square

Public spaces have been and continue to be central to the nationalist project that defines secular Turkey. Abundant images of Ataturk, the benevolent dictator who is revered as the father of modern Turkey, reinforce the triumph of the secular state over alternative ideologies (Islamist, Kurdish) and also tie local spaces into the larger space of the nation, creating a sense of national unity. While public space continues to represent the secular state, it has become a site of conflict over nationalist ideologies. The current government has co-opted public space to reproduce the image of Islamism, representing national identity as Islamic, Ottoman, and Eastern. Taksim Square in Istanbul is a prime example of contested space, both physical and cultural.

Left: Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. Middle: Republican Monument, Taksim Square. Right:
Taksim Square, located in the European part of Istanbul, is a major shopping district and leisure district. It is also in many ways the public face of modern Istanbul.

This public space, also known as Taksim Republic Square, was re-appropriated by the Kemalists as a new center for the city in the late 1920’s. Their choice was one of geographic and cultural distancing from Sultanahmet Square, which had been the heart of Istanbul under Ottoman rule. Home to Hagia Sophia and the Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), as well as Topkapi Palace, Sultanahmet Square was so saturated with symbols of Ottoman/Islamic power that it simply could not be re-imagined as a public face for the new nation. On the other hand, Taksim Square, in European Istanbul, was largely devoid of Ottoman/Islamic presence: it housed no mosques (and in fact was surrounded by the churches and synagogues of Istanbul’s non-Muslim communities)—and, important to the psychological distancing from Sultanahmet, the grand mosques of the old city were not even visible from this hilltop site. Thus, Taksim Square became the site in1928 for the construction of the Republic Monument, a prominent marker of secular Turkish identity and ideology.

Sultanahmet Square in winter. When the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, they converted the Byzantine Hagia Sophia into a mosque and built the larger Sultanahmet Mosque -the only mosque in the world with 6 minarets - across the square.

Taksim Square is a contested space. In the mid-1990’s Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist city administration came into power and controversially pushed for the construction of a mosque in the square. The need for a mosque had far more to do with the cultural landscape of Taksim and the marked, highly intentional absence of Islamic identity within that landscape than with the worship needs of local populations. Today, a strong marker of secularist identity in Taksim Square is under attack: the Ataturk Cultural Center. This cultural center and opera house is an institution of western enlightenment, and it is also by virtue of its namesake a symbol of secular nationalism. The current Islamist government has proposed the demolition of the Ataturk Cultural Center under the argument that it is both architecturally and programmatically outdated, but pro-secularist Turks are adamantly opposed to the prospect of its removal—primarily on ideological grounds. This battle is not merely a question of public space—it lies at the heart of Turkey’s identity as a nation and as a people. It is a site where cultural landscape and physical landscape are so densely layered as to be basically indistinguishable from one another.

1 comment:

ab said...

hey lr -- i really liked this post. it made me imagine each edifice as having a kind of radius or bubble around it that, as they accumulate, determine the atmosphere of the public space that is technically in-between the buildings but actually within these radii of influence . . . ab