It’s a congested, sprawling transport hub surrounded by 1950s architecture and predominantly used by commuters or tourists to cross the city of Istanbul.
But proposed changes to Taksim Square have seen it become the flashpoint for protests that have swept through Turkey in the past week, leaving thousands injured and focusing the world’s attention on the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Taksim has been no stranger to violence. In 1977, at least 34 protesters died during May Day clashes with police. May 1 rallies in the square were banned in 1980 and were only allowed to legally resume in 2010.
On May Day this year, there were riots after city authorities again refused to grant trade unions and youth groups permission to demonstrate in Taksim, blaming construction work being carried out in the square.
Professor Ersin Kalaycioglu, professor of political science at Istanbul’s Sabanci University, said significantly, Taksim Square was also known as “republic square”, because it was built by the Republic of Turkey’s founding fathers to commemorate the war of liberation.
“Taksim Square is connected to Istiklal Caddesi — Independence Avenue — and Cumhuriyet Caddesi — the Avenue of the Republic. So there is a lot of symbolism that has to do with the Turkish Republic,” he said.
The Turkish word taksim translates as “divide” and Kalaycioglu said Taksim Square was so named because the area used to be the site of Istanbul’s main reservoir, where the water was divided up.
In the 20th Century and earlier, the area was only partially inhabited, he said, housing a military barracks and military training ground and a cemetery running down the slopes and a military hospital that still remains.
“In the 1930s, the cemetery was moved to another part of town and the area was opened up for apartment buildings — and at one point it was one of the ‘poshest’ parts of the city,” he said. “Most of the apartment buildings face the Bosphorus (the strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara),” he said. “Because of its majestic view, (Taksim) is an attraction in its own right.”
It was estimated that millions of people went through the area to work every day, Kalaycioglu said.
Since the protests, however, Taksim has been blocked to traffic. This impromptu pedestrianisation inadvertently reflects the authorities’ plan to divert all traffic from the square. Kalaycioglu said plans to take the traffic underground included a pedestrian curb, but after the tunnel was dug it was discovered that not enough room had been allowed for foot traffic.
That was when the government decided to slice off part of Taksim’s Gezi Park — one of the last green spaces in Istanbul’s centre — “which ecologists and architects of the city started to argue against”.
“When machines were sent in to take down the trees, the people who had been protesting there tried to stop them and a row broke out between the construction company and the protesters — and police intervened,” Kalaycioglu said.
But in an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Mevlut Cavusoglu, the deputy chairperson of Erdogan’s AK Party said the project for Taksim Square had enjoyed cross-party support.
“This project was actually supported by all the political parties in the city council and it was adapted unanimously at the city council,” Cavusoglu said.
He added that the number of trees in the square would be increased by the project — with plans to replant 10 of those being removed from Gezi Park.
Cavusoglu denied reports that a mall was part of the project.
“The building of a shopping mall has never been considered here in Taksim Square. What is (being) considered is the pedestrian way and putting car traffic under the tunnel and enlarging Taksim Square,” he said.
“Only old military barracks are considered for rebuilding.”
The barracks being reconstructed are from the 19th Century, a period when Turkey was still ruled by Ottoman sultans, who declared themselves the “caliphs” — or spiritual leaders — of the Muslim world.
In 1922, the first President of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, sent the last sultan into exile and two years later, banned the caliphate and declared Turkey a secular state — so the ideals of the Republic of Turkey clash with those of the country’s Ottoman past.
The big issue there is, is of course, freedom of expression and to be treated as stakeholders — not as cockroaches. More is at stake than just Taksim Square.
The plans to rebuild Ottoman-era barracks had raised two different issues — the physical change and the idea behind it, said Benjamin Fortna, professor of Middle Eastern history at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.
“The idea — building a replica of a past building — probably suggests to some people that the government’s trying to link itself to the Ottoman past. But of course the square does exist from the Ottoman period.” Fortna said many people objected to a “kind of glorification” of the Ottoman era, which the early republic had tried to “ignore and denigrate”.