Home > Musings > Some old battles never die – the case of Istanbul’s Taksim barracks

Some old battles never die – the case of Istanbul’s Taksim barracks

Screen shot 2013-06-14 at 09.02

The old Taksim Barracks

Inspired by a paragraph in Sean Singer’s fine article in the American Interest on the historical background of Turkey’s current unrest, I started looking for more reasons for Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s insistence on rebuilding an Ottoman-era barracks on Taksim Square. Yes, it was partly intended to reverse an outrage against the fabric of the city by one of Istanbul’s many destructive modernisers, who leveled the barracks in 1940 to make Gezi Park. And surely the prime minister feels that he would lose face and a patronage opportunity by giving up the project. But is restoring it worth the high current domestic and international damage to his image? Perhaps there’s more to it than meets the eye. As Singer wrote:

Erdogan had addressed the protestors directly earlier in the day. “Do whatever you like”, he told them. “We’ve made the decision, and we will implement it accordingly. If you have respect for history, research and take a look at what the history of that place called Gezi Park is. We are going to revive history there.”

Erdogan was not referring to the Armenian cemetery that once stood nearby, but the Halil Pasha Armory Barracks, built in 1803–06. In 1909 the barracks were the site of a mutiny against the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), the ideological predecessors of the nationalists who founded the Republic of Turkey. The CUP had come to power in the name of constitutionalism in 1908 but eventually succumbed to the authoritarian temptation. It used the mutiny to justify the deposition and exile of Abdülhamid II, the last Ottoman Sultan to wield total power.


Artillery damage done to Taksim barracks in the fighting


A ‘revolutionary disguised as a preacher’, arrested by the CUP.

In other words, the barracks was the site of a pro-Islamic, anti-CUP Turkish nationalist revolt – and even today, Erdogan’s ruling party remembers Sultan Abdulhamid with fondness. I hadn’t realized that the ideological struggle over this barracks went back this far! One of the Turkish Wikipedia article on the barracks – and the “31 March Events” of 1909 – even tells how the “Action Army” that marched in support of the CUP nationalists and crushed the uprising in the barracks was accompanied by Bulgarian “çapulcus”, irregular looters/marauders, the same name that Erdogan gave to the mostly secularist, nationalist demonstrators that occupied Gezi Park in June 2013.

IMG_7686IMG_7689Most of these photos come from a May 1909 copy of the Ottoman “Resimli Kitab” (‘Picture Book’) magazine, a random volume I inherited from the late French writer Jean-Pierre Thieck, who must have found it in a flea market and realised that the events described in it would one day be relevant again. The big photo below shows how even back then, the international media was in the thick of things. This reporter certainly conducted himself with some style, and was no doubt also accused of being behind all the trouble. And yes, as on the left, there was an environmental angle too, with a picture of a tree that got damaged by the shelling.

"American Journalist wounded during the Taksim fighting"

“American Journalist wounded during the Taksim fighting” (the Ottoman text seems to say he works for an English newspaper)

  1. Ian S
    June 14, 2013 at 7:52 am

    Thanks Hugh. There was also a western Christian cemetery where the park lies. When the grave stones were removed one was placed in St Helena’s Chapel. The stone is the memorial of my predecessor Thomas King who died and was buried in Taksim in 1618. Ian S

  2. June 14, 2013 at 7:53 am

    Fascinating–it seems that so many of these ideological battles have sometimes centuries old precedents. Which makes it difficult for a country who basically rendered all its documents pre-Republican unreadable to understand itself.

  3. Cliff Endres
    June 14, 2013 at 9:35 am

    Tanks for the context.

  4. June 14, 2013 at 9:43 am

    The caption reads: “Hadise-i ahirede Taksim’de mecruh olan Amerikalı İngiliz gazete muhabiri: Hastanede”, meaning “An American journalist for a British paper injured in the latest incident, in hospital”

  5. jgwpu
    June 14, 2013 at 2:13 pm

    Reblogged this on InternationalScope.

  6. Thomas Goltz
    June 14, 2013 at 4:00 pm

    Very nice, Hugo–it is why I always look up to you (at least on the steps of Gezi Park, 2013!)

  7. June 16, 2013 at 6:41 pm

    A curious point related to this. Said Nursi, the ideological of the ancestor of the AKP, called AbdulHamit a despot to his face and was exiled to Thessoniki where he joined up Committee of Union & Progress, all of which is edited out of the new AKP Said Nursi museum in Eminonu in almost Stalinist fashion. Said Nursi was also charged with participating in the incident but strenously denied it and called it treason. They seem to be an even more complicated twisting themselves in ideological knots rehabilitating Abdul the damned.

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