Occupy Gezi background, part three: the archaeology of Gezi Park

Posted: 28/06/2013 in News & Analysis, Research, resistance
Tags: , , , , ,

I’ve provided background information on the protests and their repression, and on the protesters and their politics. Here, I begin to summarise the archaeological background of Gezi Park, which I continue through an examination of the destruction of Surp Hagop cemetery and a consideration of the challenges that confront those who wish to speak honestly.

You don’t need to read any of the background pieces to read the “proper” posts on the economics and politics of archaeology; I’ve posted them to provide historical context for the events and evidence for my interpretation.

If any non-native speakers do read these, I want to reassure you that I have tried to write the “proper” posts in plain English.

Urban transformation, neoliberal Islamist annexation

Historic buildings that are targets for privatisation or unpopular “regeneration” projects, such as Haydarpaşa train station, the Istanbul Education Department and Galatasaray University property, have a tendency to catch fire through electrical faults or ‘carelessness‘ during maintenance work. Even without such misfortunes and despite public protests, le Cercle d’Orient suffered a façadectomy (it was gutted), and İnci Pastanesi (İnci Patisserie) and the Emek Cinema were demolished, in order for them to be replaced by a mall.

The transformations are sectarian as well as neoliberal: for example, the third bridge over the Bosphorus was inaugurated on the anniversary of the 1453 Ottoman (“Turkish”) conquest of Byzantine (“Greek”) Constantinople and named after Sultan Selim the Grim, who was notorious for his massacres of Kurdish and Turkmen Alevis.

The neo-Ottoman project engages in systematic ‘appropriation gilded by nostalgia‘. The political and business elite’s euphemism of ‘urban transformation’ actually means ‘the demolition of public places… and historical sites‘, and the displacement of vulnerable communities, in order to establish an Islamic hypercapitalism, in which spaces are designed to physically obstruct protest.

Taksim as a site of historic struggle and as a historic site of struggle

And Taksim, the pre-eminent secular republican nationalist space in Istanbul since its redevelopment during Turkey’s birth, is the pre-eminent physical site of a struggle for symbolic dominance between Ataturkists and Islamists. It is also a site of struggle between leftists and rightists. It is the site of the Taksim Square Massacre where, on May Day 1977, the police and the paramilitary Counter-Guerrilla (Kontrgerilla) or deep state (derin devlet) cooperated to kill 34-42 and injure 126-220 labour rights activists.

Protection of cultural and community property and commemoration of social struggle

So, one of Occupy Gezi’s key aims is not merely to gain control over (and establish an alternative order within) space, but actually to materialise hidden histories, in order to use those suppressed memories to struggle for equality, freedom and justice. For example, Gezi Park activists have renamed one of its paths Hrant Dink Street (Hrant Dink Caddesi), in honour of an Armenian Turkish journalist was was murdered by ultranationalists during Erdoğan’s reign. (The gunman, Ogün Samast, was convicted, but the masterminds were never arrested.)

Occupy Gezi are against the Topçu Barracks Project because it would ‘force the social memory…. of the square of labour and democracy…. of the memory of struggle and solidarity…. to be erased [emek ve demokrasi meydanımız[ı]…. [m]ücadelenin ve dayanışmanın belleği[ni]…. toplumsal hafızamızdan silinmeye zorlanmaktadır]’.

When the crackdown on the occupation began, the Confederation of Revolutionary Workers’ Unions’ Chairman, Kani Beko, railed against the crony capitalism that wrecked cultural heritage in Turkey. Beko stated that,

the ‘agents of the sultanate’, who see the city’s historic buildings as hotels, every plot of land as a concrete building, every park as a shopping centre, every tree as timber, and public spaces as their own private property, had attacked the defenders of public living spaces with pepper spray, truncheons and armoured cars. Noting that the urban plunder sought to entirely eliminate the squares as [embodiments of] social living memory, Beko said that ‘political power is determined to annihilate the memory of the past. While Istanbul is erased and redesigned from scratch, history too is wished to be rewritten’….

Criticising the AKP, Beko continued: ‘With this attitude, civil dictatorship says “the city has only two owners”: “power and the market!” Both come down to the same thing, the unlimited rule of capital! The choice that is offered to us is to be either a customer or [as the government categorised the demonstrators] a ‘marginal criminal’.

[For] millions of Turkey’s working class, who must sell their labour to sustain their lives, Istanbul is the city of their suffering, yearnings, hopes. Istanbul is the capital of labour. And so it will remain!’

[Kentteki tarihin binaların rezidans otel, her arsanın beton bina, her parkın AVM, her ağacın kereste ve kamusal alanların kendi özel mülkiyeti olarak gören “saltanatçılar”ın, kamusal yaşam alanlarını savunanlara biber gazı, coplar ve panzerlerle saldırdıklarını söyledi. Kentsel talan sürecinin şimdi de toplumsal yaşamın belleği olan meydanları ortadan kaldırmaya yöneldiğini kaydeden Beko, “Siyasal iktidar geçmişin anısını yok etmekte kararlı. İstanbul sil baştan yeniden dizayn edilirken, tarihi de yeniden yazılmak isteniyor” diye belirtti….

AKP’yi eleştiren Beko, şöyle devam etti: “Bu tutumuyla ‘Kentin sadece iki sahibi vardır’ diyor sivil dikta: ‘İktidar ve piyasa!’ İkisi de aynı kapıya çıkıyor, sermayenin sınırsız egemenliği! Bizlere sunulan seçenek ise ya müşteri ya da ‘marjinal suçlu’ olmak.

İstanbul, Türkiye işçi sınıfının, yaşamını sürdürmek için emeğini satmak zorunda olan milyonların acılarının, özlemlerinin, umutlarının kentidir. İstanbul emeğin başkentidir. Ve öyle de kalacaktır!”]

The social memory of Occupy Gezi

As well as being a project to protect and promote the memory of struggle, occupation and resistance have themselves generated new experiences and forged new memories, which are constitutive parts of that struggle, and which bond all members as participants in the struggle.

Direnişçiler have established the Museum of the Resistance (Direniş Müzesi (@DirenisMuzesi)), which curates the ‘recorded social memory of experiences in the resistance that started in Gezi Park on the 28th of May 2013 and later spread across the country [28 Mayıs 2013 tarihinde Gezi Parkı’nda başlayan ve sonrasında ülke çapına yayılan direnişte yaşananları kaydettiğimiz sosyal bellek]’; and Occupy Gezi Architecture, which curates the (architectural) archaeology of the resistance.

As I will go on to show, some of the struggles over memory in and through Gezi Park are foundational to the country, and intimately bound up with both archaeology (archaeological evidence) in general and (the lack of) archaeological work at the site, because the Republican Turkish site is located on top of and physically constructed with the remains of an Ottoman Armenian place.

Istanbul City Museum

The Curator of the Museum of the Princes’ Islands, Deniz Koç, has considered the government’s proposal for a city museum inside Topçu Barracks. As the standfirst summarises:

The whim to found a city museum cannot be reconciled with the construction of Topçu Barracks on Gezi Park. Do not found the city museum on top of the truths of suffering, death, mutilation/disablement, outcry and the massacring of nature. That which is constituted cannot go beyond a hollow space of nostalgia.

[Taksim Gezi Parkı’na Topçu Kışlası inşa edilmesi kent müzesi kurma hevesiyle bağdaşmıyor. Kent müzesini acı, ölüm, sakatlanma, itiraz, doğa katliamı gerçeklerinin üzerine kurmayın. Kurulan içi boş bir nostalji mekanından öteye geçemez.]


Much of the Anglophone media has confused Topçu Barracks and Halil Paşa artillery barracks. It’s a little difficult to work out the process, but the Halil Pasha barracks were the site of Sultan Abdülhamid II’s 1909 counter-coup for absolutist power (against the Young Turks’ 1908 Constitutional Revolution, which had limited the Ottoman sultan to being a representative of a democratic parliament).

Seemingly, because some of the Christians and Muslims who died in the counter-coup were buried in the Armenian cemetery in Şişli (Abide-i Hürriyet/Hürriyet-i Ebediye Abidesi), some people mistakenly believed them to have been buried in the nearby Armenian cemetery in Taksim (on top of which they built Topçu barracks); therefore, some people mistakenly believed the two barracks to have been one and the same building.

  1. […] background posts on the protests and their repression, the protesters and their politics, and the archaeology of Gezi Park. In the archaeological backgrounder, I look at Occupy Gezi’s use of historic sites to reveal […]

  2. […] Occupy Gezi background, part three: the archaeology of Gezi Park […]

  3. […] They are resisting culture-and-environment-devouring capitalist, neoliberal, Islamist, neo-Ottoman development. […]

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