An Imagined Ottoman City in Istanbul

Jan 12, 2022 by Sundus Al-Bayati

Sundus Al-Bayati is the 2019 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship. All photographs are by the author, except where otherwise specified.

A Detour and a Different Kind of Reconstruction in Istanbul

Hello from Istanbul, a city I didn’t think I’d visit in the course of my fellowship travel. The city wasn’t wiped out in any war in recent history that dramatically altered its appearance, like Berlin or Warsaw. People visit Istanbul to revel in the persistence of history at the site of three great empires. The Istanbul panorama, a landscape of hills dotted with domes and minarets straddling the sea elicits a sense of timelessness. This isn’t to say there hasn’t been conflict or destruction in Istanbul’s history. In my investigation of war and its consequences on how cities develop and grow, I’ve come to recognize the processes of globalization as another powerful force that damages the historic and social character of cities. What might have survived the air raids and bombs gets destroyed later to make room for a new mall or luxury housing. Istanbul’s accelerating development has mostly been the product of planned destruction that is associated with profit-led urban renewal projects. Some might remember news from Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square in 2013 where protests broke out against the government’s plans to raise Gezi Park to make room for a commercial development and a new mall. Taksim Square is one example of many neoliberal market-driven urban transformation projects that have been shaping the historical city since the 1980s. But there are other reasons why I find myself in Istanbul, a combination of the ongoing global pandemic, an economic crisis, and visa limitation for an Iraqi passport holder like myself.

After Warsaw, I had planned to visit Beirut to explore the effects of the Lebanese civil war on the city. As I followed the news of the recent economic crisis in Lebanon and growing political instability, it was becoming clear that I needed an alternative plan. I settled on Nicosia, Cyprus. Nicosia, divided in the middle by the UN-buffer zone, would be a good alternative to Beirut as an example of a city divided by civil conflict. I’d like to share with you, if you indulge me, my visa experience with the Cyprus embassy in Berlin, to illuminate a small part of what it means to be a passport holder of a Third World country when traveling for research or academic scholarship. For all my friends and readers who are holders of US or European passports, unlike you, I cannot travel to a country for tourism without undergoing a lengthy visa process with indeterminate outcomes. With three months in the EU, I thought I had plenty of time to work out my visa with the Cyprus embassy. 

Initial correspondence with the Cyprus Embassy in Berlin seemed encouraging and that they were willing to work with me. The embassy asked me how long I plan to stay, for what purpose, to send copies of my passport, green card, fellowship information, and reservations for flights and accommodations. I convinced them to schedule my appointment a month before I needed to leave the EU instead of the two weeks they suggested. Once I got in touch, I didn’t hear anything for almost two weeks, and then I got an email asking me again for the purpose of my travel and to describe in detail my “meetings, appointments, and specific schedule of my time there.” I referred them to my fellowship letter and website and explained again that this is a self-directed project and I didn’t have any “appointments” with any institutions. I am two weeks away from needing to leave Warsaw at that point. When they finally called me to set up a visa appointment, they added two conditions: first, I can only receive a third of the time I requested to stay in Cyprus as they are not convinced that I need to be in Cyprus for that long to “just look at buildings.” Second, I needed to show them nonrefundable tickets for my accommodation in Cyprus before they approve my visa. This process was extremely discouraging and uncertain. I had to let go of Cyprus for now and think of something else. So I headed to Istanbul.

In Istanbul, I’ve become aware of a different kind of reconstruction that is not the result of war, one that is driven by power, political hegemony and efforts to restructure Turkish national identity through the city’s symbols and iconic urban images. These new projects, led by the Justice and Development Party (AKP), translate its ideological and political agenda into the urban form with a host of flagship projects transforming the historical narrative of the city as much as its future development. Similar to the way Mustafa Kemal Ataturk and his government adopted modernist architecture as the language of the new Republic in a determinate effort to detach from Ottoman culture and symbols in the urban space, the AKP seeks to resurrect Turkey’s Ottoman and Islamic past by building a large numbers of mosques in a Neo-Ottoman style and converting existing historical churches into mosques, most prominent of which is the Hagia Sophia which was reclassified as a mosque in July 2020. 


Taksim Square against the Forces of Urban Transformation

Taksim Square holds symbolic significance as the heart of Istanbul. The site, where the Republic Monument celebrates the beginnings of the Turkish Republic, has historically been the place of political expression and demonstrations (Figure 1). In 2013, people rushed to Taksim Square to protest against an extensive development project by Istanbul Municipality to restructure the square and the adjacent Gezi Park. The plan proposed removing one of the few remaining green spaces in the city and replacing it with a shopping mall that carried the façade of a former 19th-century military barracks building from the Ottoman era. The protests were a testament to the growing dissatisfaction of Istanbul residents with an increasingly authoritarian government and its neoliberal economic policies that have transformed their city since the ascension of the AKP and its founder, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to power in the early 2000s. The development project would transform Taksim Square and Gezi Park from an open public space that allows for political expression to another space that prioritizes a consumerist-based experience, right next to the biggest commercial street in Istanbul, Istiklal Caddesi.  

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Figure 1. Republic Monument and Taksim Mosque in the back


The urban transformation plan of Taksim, while heavily driven by prospects of economic gains, underlines the motivations by the AKP government to chip away at the legacy of the Turkish Republic and solidify its own ideological presence in the most iconic part of Istanbul.1 The project also included the controversial addition of a mosque in a typically secular urban space in Istanbul. This part of the plan came to fruition with the construction of Taksim Mosque, which was inaugurated this year by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. In addition, the old Ataturk Cultural Center, an iconic cultural institution from Turkey’s modern age, which stood there since 1969, was also part of the reform of Taksim Square. It was demolished in 2018 after a decade of neglect. The reconstruction replicates the façade of the original building but aims to surpass it. 

In the middle of the square, the Republic Monument commemorates the formation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who is depicted in the sculpture as both a military commander and a political leader. East of the monument stood the old Ataturk Cultural Center, an iconic modernist building completed in 1969 as a cultural and educational space that comprised an opera house and concert hall, among other cultural activities. The old Ataturk Cultural Center’s modern façade and progressive cultural programming became a symbol of Ataturk’s vision of Turkey as a modern state with a new secular identity that broke with the religious rule of the Ottoman Empire.2 Symbols of the Republic permeate Taksim Square and explain why it has been the target of redevelopment projects by the AKP government that seeks to significantly reconstruct its image to display president Erdogan’s own vision of Turkey, a return to the grandeur and Islamism of the Ottoman Empire. The current Ataturk Cultural center in Taksim Square is a new construction that was completed in October of this year (Figure 2–4). To the surprise of many, the façade of the new building looks almost the same. This is partly because the new building was designed by Murat Tabanlioglu, the son of the architect who designed the original building. 

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Figure 2–4. The New Ataturk Cultural Center


At the other end of Taksim Square and across from the Republic Monument and the new Ataturk Cultural Center, stands one of President Erdogan’s mega-projects and triumphant symbols of his presidency, the new Taksim Mosque (Figure 5–11). The mosque opened this year, in the same week that marked the eighth anniversary of Gezi Park protests. The project was part of the redevelopment plan that sparked the protests in 2013 as it purposefully altered the secular identity of the square and reinforced Erdogan’s image of a religious Turkey. More importantly, the mosque ensures that Erdogan leaves his own legacy in Taksim. The massive size of the mosque dominates the existing landmarks of Taksim from the Republic Monument and the Ataturk Cultural Center to the Hagia Triada Greek Orthodox Church. 

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Figure 5–11. The new Taksim Mosque


Urban Renewal in Two Istanbul Neighborhoods: Tarlabasi and Balat

Running along Taksim Square is the Tarlabasi thoroughfare, which I walked by a couple of times and noticed the glaring contrast between new shiny luxury and crumbling apartment buildings. The Tarlabasi neighborhood houses primarily low-income Kurdish residents, Syrian refugees, and Romani communities. Tarlabasi is an example of prevalent state-led urban renewal projects of dilapidated areas of high real estate value, often without regards to the underprivileged communities that are displaced in the process. The neighborhood has been the target of aggressive government “regeneration” projects to boost the Turkish economy.3 In 2005, law No. 5366 was passed, which gives municipal governments power to seize run-down but valuable land for redevelopment with the premise of protecting the historical character of these derelict buildings4 (Figure 12–16). One example of such development in Tarlabasi is the Taksim 360 project, a luxury residential and office complex, which began in 2010 with the eviction of residents and demolition of buildings and it is still under construction today (Figure 17–23). It’s hard to miss the stark contrast between the freshly built luxury apartments of Taksim 360 and heaps of trash at the front of decaying buildings just one street over. The project’s website is especially tone-deaf to the realities of the area in their description of the project as a lifestyle. The logo reads “you are at the center of this 360-degree lifestyle.” 

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Figure 12–16. Rundown and Renovated Tarlabasi buildings


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Figure 17–23. Taksim 360 project in Tarlabasi


Balat is another historical neighborhood in Istanbul that was the subject of controversial urban revitalization projects (Figure 24–38). Balat was historically considered the "Jewish Quarter” of Istanbul but was also home to different ethnic and religious groups including Armenian and Greek Orthodox peoples. By the 1940s, most Jewish, Greek, and Armenian residents left the neighborhood and immigrants from Anatolia moved to the area in large numbers to work in the emerging industries that developed there.5 During the 1980s, government-led urban regeneration projects sought to revitalize historical areas like Balat, that have become dilapidated due to industrialization and overcrowded conditions. These projects included removing industries and destroying historical buildings in the process, which led to the decline of the neighborhood.6 Between 1997 and 2008, Balat underwent a more positive urban transformation project led by UNESCO and Fatih Municipality, among other non-profit organizations. The project prioritized preserving the historic character of the neighborhood by restoring local architecture and renovating decrepit buildings. 

At the same time, Balat was experiencing a second type of urban transformation that was more market-driven and focused on transforming the neighborhood into a tourist destination. The second plan sought to undo some of the work from the first phase of transformation by demolishing rehabilitated buildings and constructing new ones that match the local architecture of Istanbul but doesn’t historically reflect what actually stood there.7 While parts of the project were halted by a court order in 2012, as the area is historically protected, for-profit piecemeal transformation projects, empowered by Law 5366 that disregards the social and economic implications of urban transformation projects, has given private development companies a lot of power in shaping the neighborhood. Walking around Balat, it is easy to see the forces of gentrification working their way through the neighborhood. New coffee shops and restaurants adorn the ground level of derelict and sometimes empty buildings. The street level and the top levels seem to inhabit two different dimensions. English signs to restaurants and cafés are clear indications that these places are targeting the tourist crowds. People still go to Balat for its historic streets and colorful houses. It’s a shame that soon this historical place will be reconstructed to be “instagrammable” at the expense of local residents and their buildings. 

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Figure 24–38. Balat neighborhood


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Figure 39–40. Kirmizi Kilise, Fener Greek Boy’s High School, built in 1881


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Figure 41. Palace of the Porphyrogenitus, 13th-century Byzantine palace



A New Mosque on the Hill

It wasn’t until a couple of days of being in Istanbul, absorbing its panorama of domes and minarets, had passed did I notice how odd the mosque on the Asian side looked. It looked different from the other ones. Perhaps it stood out more because it was the only mosque of its size on that side of Istanbul but for all I knew, it could have been another mosque from the Ottoman period dating back to 16th or 17th century. It sure looked like it. I didn’t know then that I was looking at the biggest symbol of President Recep Tayyib Erdogan’s regime, only completed in 2019 (Figure 42–66). The Camlica Mosque, built in a Neo-Ottoman style to resemble the 17th-century Blue Mosque on the European side, is a physical embodiment of Erdogan’s continuous molding of Turkish national identity as both Ottoman and Muslim. As the patron of this great mosque, Erdogan is a modern day Sultan and Turkey, his empire. Not only is the mosque located on the highest hill in Istanbul, Camlica Hill, but its massive structure, which can accommodate 63,000 people, makes it visible from all around Istanbul. Camlica Mosque is one of many hundreds of mosques that are popping up all over Istanbul and Turkey without input from communities whether they are needed or not. When I entered the mosque, I was quickly directed by the male guard to walk towards the periphery, that is the women’s section. I told him I am just interested in seeing the mosque and wanted to look up at the dome but he insisted that I leave the “men’s” section, which is the heart of the mosque and observe from the side. This is the only mosque where I have experienced this. Reluctantly, but slowly, I walked to the women’s section and snapped my photos along the way. 

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Figure 42–66. Camlica Mosque


1 Fuhrmann, Malte. "Taksim Square and the Struggle to Rule Istanbul’s Past." "Taksim Square and the Struggle to Rule Istanbul’s Past" in Critique & Humanism 46 (2016), 163–190, 2016.

2 Ibid

3 Arıcan, Alize. "Care in Tarlabaşı amidst Heightened Inequalities, Urban Transformation and Coronavirus." Radical Housing Journal, December 6, 2020.

4 Arıcan, Alize. “Behind the Scaffolding: Manipulations of Time, Delays, and Power in Tarlabaşı, Istanbul.” City & Society 32, no. 3 (2020): 482–507.

5 AYSEV DENEÇ, Evren. “The Re-Production of the Historical Center of i̇stanbul in 2000s: A Critical Account on Two Projects in Fener - Balat.” METU JOURNAL OF THE FACULTY OF ARCHITECTURE, 2014.

6 Mutman, Demet, and Hulya Turgut. “Colliding Urban Transformation Process: The Case of Historical Peninsula, Istanbul.” International Journal of Architectural Research: ArchNet-IJAR 12, no. 1 (2018): 164.

7 AYSEV DENEÇ, Evren. “The Re-Production of the Historical Center of i̇stanbul in 2000s: A Critical Account on Two Projects in Fener - Balat.” METU JOURNAL OF THE FACULTY OF ARCHITECTURE, 2014.

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