Taksim Through Time

In the last few days, the news has been full of stories about the protestors in Istanbul's Gezi Park, who have been camping on the site in order to prevent its imminent demolition as part of the controversial Taksim redevelopment project that has taken over the heart of the modern city for the past several months. In response to the protestors who say that the park should be maintained due to its history, Prime Minister Erdoğan stated at the announcement ceremony for the 3rd Bosphorus bridge: "If it has a history, go and research the history of that place they call Gezi Park," indicating that the site has had many lives over the past 200 years, and that this is merely another chapter in its history. His comment raises a critical point--that the stories we tell ourselves about the history of art and architecture can be used to make permanent decisions for the future of a site. Today, at a moment when the urban fabric of Istanbul is, for better or worse, in the midst of dramatic transformation, Stambouline looks back to the different moments of the place we call Gezi Park.  

[2] The eponymous "Taksim"
reservoir, 1731
[1] In this 16th-century representation of 
Galata, the area that is now Taksim was just 
garden and pastures. Matrakçi Nasuh, 1537
The area that is now Taksim Square was essentially a pastoral hinterland until the 18th century; most early city views [1] do not even include the site because it was not considered to be part of the city proper. In the 1730s under Sultan Mahmud I, the elaborate waterworks from the north of the city were directed to this point and collected in the stone reservoir [2] that still stands today on one side of Taksim square, at the mouth of Istiklal Avenue. The tower itself was referred to as the taksim, deriving from the Arabic-Ottoman term for "division" or "distribution," as the reservoir served to redistribute water to the different neighborhoods down the hill, such as Pera and Galata, with the hydraulic design taking advantage of the natural slope of the terrain. Yet even until the mid-19th century, the area of Taksim remained on the forested periphery of the Pera neighborhood. By 1850, what is now Gezi Park was a cluster of Christian cemeteries at the end of the Grande Rue de Pera (now Istiklal). 

[3] Plan of the Barracks and
the Adjacent Park.
Pervititich Map, early 20th c
In order to construct the first park of Taksim (b. 1869), these cemeteries were moved en masse to the neighborhood of Şişli in the 1860s (which will be the topic of a future post). The one exception is the Armenian cemetery, which remained next to the new park and both of these sites can be seen in a later insurance map. [3] It appears that this park as well as the cemetery was located due west of what is now Taksim Square, approximately where the Divan and Hyatt Hotels are now. Looking at the map, we can see that the park featured winding paths in a circular pattern, with a gazebo "orchestra" to the north. Apparently, the park immediately became a favorite site for afternoon promenades in the city. 

[3] Main entrance gate to the Taksim Barracks, ca. 1860s

Next to this park were the barracks, labeled  on the map as the "Top Kışla."  According to Zeynep Çelik, these barracks were also constructed in the 1860s under Sultan Abdülaziz, as part of the effort not only to modernize the Ottoman military but also to create landmarks in open spaces punctuating broad avenues, in the fashion of Baron Haussmann's transformation of Paris one decade earlier.  The barracks were a large structure, with a huge open courtyard for military drills and reviews. The main gate to the barracks [3] boasts an Orientalist flare in a hodge-podge of Ottoman, Indian and "Moorish" design. The entrance recalls what is now the gate of Istanbul University in Beyazit Square, which was also built around this time. (On the Wikipedia entry for the barracks, it says that the barracks were built in 1806 under Selim III, and I have seen this information repeated in many recent stories about Gezi Park. It is possible that a previous military structure occupied the site in the early 19th century, but it seems most plausible that the building we see in photographs was primarily built in the 1860s, with perhaps some later renovations.)

[4] The Barracks converted into a football pitch, 1930s.
Image Source
With the coming of the Turkish Republic in the 1920s, the barracks, now located in the center of the modern city and with a large open courtyard, naturally lent itself to be converted into a new football stadium. [4]  From the photograph, we can see the main gate was located in the center of the south facade, looking on to what is now Cumhuriyet Avenue. As the Monument to the Republic (1926) can be seen in the bottom right corner of the photograph, and we know that the stadium was demolished in 1940 to make way for the present Gezi Park, this image was therefore probably taken some time in the 1930s.  

[5] Gezi Park Plan. Pervititich Map.
SALT Galata
As for the Gezi Park itself, [5] it was created in the 1940s. The Park's official name, as can be seen on the plan, was İnönü Gezisi, or the "İnönü Esplanade," after İsmet İnönü, the second President of Turkey under whose government the park was created. It was designed on a bilateral axis, with neat rows of trees surrounding a wide open area to the west. To the east is the set of stairs that anyone who has ever waited for a bus in Taksim has come to know and love. For over 70 years, Gezi Park has served as a pleasant green space in the center of the bustling city.

[6] Projected recreation of the Ottoman Barracks, 2013 

Currently on the cusp of transformation, the potential demolition of the Gezi Park and the re-organization of the wider Taksim Square causes us to reflect on how tenuous architecture and landscape can be. So tenuous, in fact, that in a week's time the Google Map attached to this post will most likely become irrelevant. And the projected recreation of the Ottoman barracks [6] in the form of a shopping mall and residential housing (and, yes, a park) also raises the question--how can we respect the past, while still being able to move forward? After looking to the history of the site of Gezi Park, it seems that two conclusions are possible: that change is an inevitable part of a city's development and should be taken in stride, or, perhaps, as very few monuments manage to stand the test of time, it is all the more important to fight for the ones that matter, before it is too late. 

Or, on the bright side, maybe it is never too late, because all of your favorite buildings can always be resurrected in the form of a shopping mall.

ÇELİK, Zeynep. The Remaking of Istanbul: Portrait of an Ottoman City in the Nineteenth Century. Seattle: University of Washington, 1986.
Modern Turkish Architecture. Edited by Renata Holod and Ahmet Evin. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1984.

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  1. Well, let's not forget the minority legacy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pangalt%C4%B1_Armenian_Cemetery

    (Though I've always thought it strange to have an Armenian cemetery between the Taksim barracks and the War Academy...)

  2. Thank you for your comment, I quickly re-edited the post and the Pervititich map to include the cemetery.

  3. Fascinating post!

    A question, though: were the remains of the deceased from the old Armenian burial ground in Taksim re-interred in one of the other Armenian cemeteries (Kuzguncuk or Şişli)?


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