Erdoğan’s never-ending bid to conquer a city lost for good

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) and his ultranationalist allies lost Istanbul to the opposition’s rising star, Ekrem İmamoğlu, in the 2019 municipal elections. This was a dramatic reversal of fortunes for aging Erdoğan and his waning political career, whose election as the metropolitan mayor of Istanbul in 1994 paved the way to his dramatic rise.

Erdoğan knows best the implications of losing Istanbul, who frequently statedin the campaign trail, “Whoever wins Istanbul wins Turkey.” Since then, the Turkish president has been in a desperate bid to re-conquer the city by fighting symbolic battles waged through iconic monuments to mark his domination.

On May 29, Erdoğan celebrated the 568th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul by inaugurating a radio-TV tower atop Çamlıca Hill that overlooks the Bosphorus, alongside the Büyük Çamlıca Mosque which he brought into service in 2019. Three hundred and sixty nine meters tall, this futuristic tower dominates Istanbul’s skyline like no other. In his address, Erdoğan also boasted about his conversion of Hagia Sophia to a mosque last year and the inauguration of a domineering mosque at Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square, claiming that these monuments beautified the city the most.

Indeed, the domes and minarets of Çamlıca, Taksim, and Hagia Sophia mosques, and the unusual silhouette of the newly inaugurated tower, not only mark the sprawling city’s skyline at three prominent hills, but also mark Erdogan’s craving to dominate the city and control its spoils.

On May 28, the Turkish president inaugurated the Taksim Mosque, a long-awaited dream of Turkey’s Islamists, on the anniversary of the Gezi Park protests. Eight years ago, a handful of environmentalists stood in the way of Erdoğan and his developers to protect Gezi Park, a rare patch of green in Istanbul’s urban jungle, from plans to build an Ottoman-themed shopping mall. The police brutality they faced sparked a wave of nation-wide demonstrations across all major cities in Turkey. The protests lasted for months and unified diverse sections of Turkish society against Erdoğan’s insatiable greed and rising authoritarianism.

This public park became a symbol of resistance, a camaraderie united to fight for the environment as well as for pluralism. Throughout the four-months-long protests, Taksim Square was filled with hundreds of thousands of protestors, chanting slogans against the AKP rule despite the Turkish police’s use of disproportionate force, including tear-gas and water-cannons. 

The Gezi Park Protests of 2013 were the greatest challenge that Erdoğan faced since the rise of his AKP to power in 2002. In his opening speech for the Taksim Mosque, located right across the Gezi Park, Turkish president referred to the demonstrations as “the moment that those terrorists stood against us.” Erdoğan’s vendetta against those who participated in Gezi continues, as many of the protesters are now facing spurious terrorism charges and the threat of lengthy prison sentences.

The Turkish philanthropist Osman Kavala, who supported the Gezi Protests, for instance, is falsely accused of attempting to overthrow the government and has been behind bars on trumped-up chargesfor three years. He is only one of the tens of thousands of dissidents suffering Erdoğan’s wrath.

The Taksim Square is located on one of the most iconic spaces of Istanbul. With its lively music scene, art galleries, and bookshops it has long served as the cultural heart of the city. From the 1977 May Day demonstrations that ended in bloodshed to the funerals of slain Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dinkin 2007 and Berkin Elvan, the 14 year old teenager who was killed by a tear-gas canister during the Gezi Protests in 2014, this neighborhood witnessed some of the most dramatic events over the last several decades.

Istanbul Pride marches and International Women’s Day demonstrations were also held annually here, though the local governor has refused to allow the former to take place for years now. Symbolically, Taksim and Gezi represented the secular lifestyle and liberal values that Erdoğan resents the most.

Erdoğan’s ambitions to suppress the urban memory of the Gezi Protests and take over Taksim Square go hand-in hand.  Over the last few years, the Atatürk Cultural Centre, Istanbul’s major stage for concerts, operas, and ballets was demolished in the guise of refurbishment. Most of the vehicle traffic around Taksim Square was directed underground, giving the public space an appearance of a sea of cement.

In April, news emerged that Gezi Park was transferred to an Ottoman pious foundation, possibly in preparation to open this symbolic park for development in the near future. The Taksim Mosque is a crucial part in Erdogan’s transformation of this iconic secular urban space to fit within his vision.

In his inauguration speech, Erdoğan said that the Taksim Mosque was “a greeting to the Imperial Mosque of Hagia Sophia, which we have opened for worship a while ago, I see it as a gift for the 568th anniversary of the conquest of Istanbul.” Hagia Sophia’s conversion, and the rhetoric of conquest used by the Turkish president through the process was a way of displaying Sunni-Muslim domination over all others in the country. The opening of the Taksim Mosque was the result of Erdogan’s most critical battle and symbolized his hankering to suppress all opposition and dissent.

Erdoğan’s never-ending attempts to conquer Istanbul by building or converting landmark monuments is a desperate bid to win back not only a city, but also a country now lost to him for good.

The Turkish president’s insistence on making his dominating architectural mark on the city is to compensate for his failure to leave a legacy that extends beyond mismanagement, corruption, and oppression.

The symbolic battles Erdoğan continues to fight by way of dominating monuments in Istanbul will go down in history as the symbols of decay and bankruptcy that will mark his decades of tight-fisted rule.


The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.