facts in the ground: archaeological resistance during Occupy Gezi

Posted: 10/08/2013 in free archaeology, News & Analysis, Research, resistance
Tags: , , ,

I’ve written a readable summary of my recent work on illegal development on cultural heritage sites (and/or illegal non-employment of cultural heritage workers) in Turkey, which contributed to archaeological resistance during Occupy Gezi. The International State Crime Initiative posted it on their blog; this is a pre-print.

When state repression provoked radically democratic resistance, archaeologists were on the front line as victims of government policy and police brutality and as advocates of real democracy. Mass unemployment had driven them to rebel even before Occupy Gezi; the first protester hospitalised at Gezi Park was archaeology student Hazar Berk Büyüktunca; and both unions and autonomously-organised platforms went to the occupations and squares to resist as a professional responsibility.

Even before Occupy Gezi, archaeologists organised; they produced collective petitions for employment and publicly questioned the government in social media campaigns; they participated in the prohibited May Day march. Since then, they’ve established archaeological clusters and forums within the occupations’ tent cities; they’ve played the rough music of pots and pans; and they’ve coordinated resistance in cities’ central squares for (professional) ‘honour’ and ‘revenge’.

Rule of law

Governance itself is brutal because the government has little respect for the rule of law. When Istanbul’s cultural heritage committee rejected the government’s plans for Topçu Barracks, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared: ‘the decision of the Committee is not important for me and we reject the rejection of the committee, the project to build a shopping mall and hotel in the area of the park will continue’.

One of Erdoğan’s concessions to the protesters was that he would accept the court’s ruling; but it was, after all, only a promise to respect the rule of law; it was only possible because the government-augmented national cultural heritage board had overturned the Istanbul cultural heritage committee’s ruling against the project; and (as in the national cultural heritage board) the government has a role in the appointment of senior judges so, if the government’s appeal goes high enough, it may find a favourable ear…

In an attempt to further establish “facts on the ground”, the government even appealed the (separate) ruling to pause development work until the work’s acceptability had been decided.

Facts in the ground

Even with the advantage that it has legally and takes forcefully, in order to realise these environmentally and culturally destructive projects, the state must disregard its own laws on development and practice. Legally, the municipality/state institution must employ experts appropriate for projects/sites (for example, restoration specialists and architects on renovation projects, material scientists and conservators on preservation projects, etc.).

Accordingly, the Ministry of Culture and the municipality must employ (expert) archaeologists to assess (and, therefore, license, limit or prohibit) developments, and to manage any consequent excavation of archaeological remains. Yet the contractors on the Taksim Square Pedestrianisation Project deliberately removed archaeological remains without expert supervision and so quickly that it became a fait accompli. The only archaeologists present at the Gezi Park development were amongst the protesters.

During the four-year (2008-2012) court case to prove the illegality of the demolition of the thousand-year-old Roma neighbourhood of Sulukule in Istanbul, its demolition continued (and an insignificantly different plan was drafted so that, when the original plan was finally proved illegal, the municipality completed the “new” project).

During the near-simultaneous (2009-2013) campaign against hydroelectric dam projects in Uzunçayır, Pembelik and the Jara Gola Çetu (extension of Uzunçayır) in the south-east, communities occupied critical sites. When (with the assistance of the dam-builders themselves) the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) municipality established a cultural heritage park in order to preserve a site that was sacred to the local Alevi community, the (Sunni) Justice and Development Party (AKP) government’s State Waterworks prosecuted the municipality in order to force the site’s destruction anyway.

Since the state has some projects that are assessed and implemented by cultural heritage professionals, including the largest archaeological excavation in the world (for the Yenikapı metro station), there appears to be a motive other than impatience for certain projects to be approved and conducted by people who are legally inappropriate (non-)experts. There appears to be a policy of illegal non-employment of archaeologists in order to ensure the non-recovery and non-documentation of politically-unacceptable cultural heritage.

Gezi Park, Surp Hagop cemetery

Gezi Park was built over (and with gravestones from) the Armenian community’s Surp Hagop (or Pangaltı) cemetery. The state appears to have excluded archaeologists from the Topçu Barracks project in order to avoid the embarrassment it experienced during the Kasımpaşa road project (in Erdoğan’s home neighbourhood), where ‘gravestones belonging to Armenians were caught in the mechanical diggers’ teeth [kepçenin dişlerine Ermenilere ait mezar taşları takıldı]’.

As the graveyard lies beneath the park, development work might even exhume buried Armenians’ bones (which archaeologists would be best able to identify and about which archaeologists would be most difficult to silence).

False hope

On the 2nd of July, Istanbul’s Sixth Regional Court notified the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Taksim Gezi Park Protection and Beautification Association that (on the 6th of June) it had dismissed the government’s appeal against the suspension of the project (until another court’s final judgement); and on the 3rd of July, the city’s First Regional Court notified the Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Turkish Chamber of Engineers and Architects that (on the 8th of June) it had accepted the case against the development.

Yet this seeming victory has merely led archaeologists to wonder how the government will get its way: will it “do a Munzur” (and find a pliant judge to accept an appeal) or “do a Sulukule” (and make cosmetic changes to the plan to bypass the ban).


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