Taksim Square, like Tahrir Square and Zuccotti Park before it, is just another space in a city: it could have been one more spot to meet friends, or to read a book under a tree. But Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, decided he’d like to replicate the Ottoman-era Taksim military barracks on the site, and build it into a shopping mall and a mosque. In late May, several dozen environmentalists began protesting Erdogan’s designs in Gezi Park, the island of trees within the Square, and were attacked by Turkish police with tear gas and water cannons. Soon, as Elif Batuman wrote, “only fifteen per cent were protesting the destruction of trees, while forty-nine per cent were protesting police violence against the kinds of people who were protesting the destruction of the trees.” Since then, nearly eight thousand protesters have been injured. By now, the protest has broadened into an objection to Erdogan’s religious agenda and authoritarian rule. Today, “Taksim Square” is no longer just a tangle of people and plazas but a byword for a clash of ideas, a movement, a battleground.
Considering the symbolism with which the site has been imbued, it is an uncanny and unpleasant fact of history that, for an entire people, Taksim Square already represents the demolition of the past. In an alleyway in Gezi Park, activists recently installed a makeshift tomb marked “Armenian Cemetery Sourp Hagop, 1551-1939: You took from us our cemetery, you will not have our park!”
Unknown to most of Istanbul’s brave protesters is that, centuries ago, members of Istanbul’s Armenian community were buried beneath the place where they stand. In the sixteenth century, when Suleiman the Magnificent was sultan of the Ottoman Empire, a group of conspirators is said to have approached an imperial chef, Manuk Karaseferyan, with a plan for him to poison the sultan’s dinner. Karaseferyan, however, reported the assassination plot to Suleiman, who offered him a favor in return. Karaseferyan requested a place for his people, the Armenians, to be buried. The Pangalti Armenian cemetery would become the largest non-Muslim cemetery in Istanbul’s history, although, after an outbreak of cholera in the eighteen-sixties, Armenian burials moved to the city’s Sisli district.
When the First World War began, there were two million Armenians living in the Ottoman Empire; by 1922, fewer than four hundred thousand remained—a slaughter of 1.5 million that historians call a genocide. (The word “genocide” was coined by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer and Holocaust survivor, after his study of the Armenian massacres.) The campaign against Armenians involved confiscating their land, such as the cemetery; it was razed in the nineteen-thirties. Now part of Gezi Park, it is the site of hotels, apartment buildings, and a Turkish Radio and Television center. Gravestones remain on view, however: they were used to construct stairs. (This is not the only instance of repurposed gravestones: Tablet published a photo series this summer of Jewish gravestones built into artists’ workshops, basketball courts, and children’s sandboxes around Poland.)
Nearly a hundred years later, the Turkish government has not recognized the Armenian genocide. Few Armenians remain in Turkey. The Washington Post recently published an article about an elderly woman named Asiya—the last Armenian in Chunkush, a town that once had ten thousand.
In 1919, a memorial to the Armenian genocide was built in the Pangalti cemetery, but it was destroyed in 1922, years before Gezi Park was erected. Every year, a Turkish human-rights group called DurDe organizes a silent commemoration on April 24th, when, in 1915, several hundred Armenian intellectuals were rounded up for execution. It intends to reinstall a memorial in Gezi Park, but pressure from nationalists has prevented this thus far. Cengiz Algan, a member of DurDe, told Le Monde, “All the political parties are killing each other, but when it’s about Armenians, there is always a consensus.”
Those protesting against Erdogan in Turkey, in complicated straits, wish to practice their liberties and honor their past, free of tear gas, bloodshed, denial, or pain. They are not alone.
Illustration: from “Black’s Guide: A Guide to Constantinople,” by Demetrius Coufopoulos.