I went to Istanbul’s Taksim Square in a blizzard. Snow comes with Istanbul winters but blizzards are rare. When I emerged from the funicular, Taksim was deserted, which was also rare. The streets spiraling out from its center like bicycle spokes were washed out by a volley of flurries that forced the few pedestrians to scuttle like crabs along the sidewalks. A few tourists gathered in front of the Republic Monument, which depicts two statues of Ataturk, one before and one after the war for independence; the wind had blown a mask of snow over his face on both statues. A batch of roses had been laid at his feet along the eastern portico, a reminder of his importance in Turkish memory. On the western portico, Ataturk’s snow-covered face looked toward Istiklal Caddesi, “Independence Avenue,” obscured by flurries.
I had gone to Istanbul partly because of the weather. I’d always wanted to go but the weather had been a bonus. I hadn’t thought Istanbul would be warm, exactly, but I hadn’t expected the Biblical storms we were at the time experiencing in Boston. I’d been thinking 40, maybe even 50 degree days. It couldn’t get much colder in a city lined with palm trees, right?
The driver who’d collected me at the airport had been the first to warn me of the impending snow fall, but he hadn’t been worried. “The snow here, it does not last.”
He’d been wrong on that point, but neither of us could have known then. I’d asked him if he could visit just one site in Istanbul, what would it be. I’d wanted to know what a local thought worth seeing, and I’d been hoping for a suggestion off the beaten path, the kind of tucked-away jewel only locals knew about. Without hesitating he’d said, “Taksim. If you want to see Istanbul, that’s where to go.”
I was in Istanbul a year ago, winter 2015, a particularly brutal season for weather both at home and abroad. But I’m reminded today of my trip for a sad reason: this morning, a bomb detonated along Istiklal Caddesi, killing five and wounding over thirty. It’s the second bombing in Turkey this week, and the second in Istanbul this year.
Taksim Square is a place both of transition and unity. Once the hub of Constantinople’s water supply, it’s now Istanbul’s transportation center where buses, trams, and metros converge on their cross-town journeys. The Republic Monument is an apt metaphor for Turkey at the crossroads: on the eastern portico, Ataturk is the armed rebel rising up against the Ottoman sultans; on the western side, he’s the modern politician, garbed in suit instead of sultan’s robes.
On the surface, Taksim’s unremarkable. It’s flanked by a cultural center, fast-food joints, and five-star hotels, and surrounded by a network of congested roads. A nostalgic tram runs the length of Istiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s most famous pedestrian street, named to commemorate the birth of Turkey from Ottoman ruins.
If Taksim is the literal crossroads of Istanbul, Istiklal is a metaphoric crossroad. Here you can buy lokum in Art Nouveau sweet shops, or dine on gozleme in European-style cafes. The Neoclassical designs show the European influence that Constantinople had gradually turned to in the 19th and 20th centuries. The neighborhood attracted foreign visitors, and is still today the site of foreign consulates and schools. Mosques here are more discreet than their ornate counterparts in the Old Town; churches are tucked away down side streets. This is, as many Turks will proudly tell you, a secular nation.
Istanbul’s position between East and West is understood to the point of cliche, but also impossible to ignore. It’s the only city in the world to straddle two continents. It’s the cultural capital of a secular republic built on a Muslim empire layered with the remains of a Christian one.
Orhan Pamuk, himself a lifelong resident of Istanbul, writes that this cultural layering is not indicative of division between East and West, as Westerns assume. Instead, it’s indicative of the tension dividing present from past, the inevitable fate of a city built on the ruins of a once-great empire facing an uncertain future. This separation creates a collective melancholy, a huzun that can only be understood by Istanbul’s people. Istanbul is one of Europe’s largest cities. Its population boomed in the latter half of the 20th century due to the influx of immigrants from Eastern Turkey. Although the economy is strong, the disparity in wealth is clear; the richest few control a majority of resources, and the sectors where jobs are created don’t accommodate the poorest of the population.
As the city’s symbolic center, Taksim is often the site of growing social anxiety. It was the site of protests that turned violent in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with 1977 Labor Day demonstrations ending when right-wing gunmen massacred thirty-six protesters. More recently, in 2013 and 2014, demonstrators occupied Taksim to protest the government’s plans to rebuild a military barracks in Gezi Park. The demonstration broke when police assaulted protesters with tear gas and water cannons.
The democratic status of the nation has recently been brought into question. The surprise re-election of conservative president Recep Tayyip Erdogan last November raised concerns of voting corruption, a theory further fueled by Erdogan’s suppression of journalists. Just weeks before the bombing on Istiklal Caddesi, the government formally took control of Turkey’s largest newspaper, Zaman. On March 5, police again fired tear gas at demonstrators who’d gathered to protest the takeover outside of the newspaper’s headquarters.
Then there are the myriad other problems Turkey is embroiled in: ISIS; Syrian civil war; the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK); conflicts with Russia over airspace. So far, ISIS is the prime suspect in the Istiklal bombing, and in a similar bombing earlier this year in Sultanahmet Square. Istiklal and Taksim are “soft targets”, gathering places that promise massive casualties. But beyond this softness, Taksim carries symbolic importance: it’s where grievances are aired, where people can come to find their collective voice amid tension and uncertainty. Taksim, itself, becomes a place of such tension and uncertainty.
Past and present are rarely reconciled peacefully; the present seeks to break from the past while the past always seems to disrupt whatever change the present brings. For Taksim, stricken by a sudden blizzard in February 2015, the snow brought a break from the push-pull of time, covering the tension between present and past. The square and its vicinity became surprisingly still. A few women armed with umbrellas and Styrofoam cups scampered into galleries. Bankers spent their smoke breaks huddled under awnings. A lone vendor selling grilled corn from a push cart saw his cobs half-covered in blowing snow; inclement weather was no excuse for a day off.
Taksim is not the place to go quiet so easily. But, as with the corn-cob vendor, life didn’t stop just because of snow. Checks still had to be cashed, dinners fetched from the fish market. Children needed collecting from schools. Muezzin still called to prayer. The nostalgic tram continued chugging the length of snow-covered Istiklal.
It didn’t matter that the predicted flurries would turn into an accumulation worthy of respect in the jaded American Northeast. Istanbul might not have expected a blizzard, but when faced with such new and startling weather, Istanbul did what it has done for centuries: it persisted. Perhaps its glory does lie in the past, but there is a future, however uncertain, to look to. •