Originally posted July 7, 2013 by Svetopolis
“Pop! Pop!” Muffled bangs echoed off the tall buildings along Istiklal Avenue, the main thoroughfare of the Beyoğlu District of Istanbul. Taksim Square was a half-mile down the road where the blasts originated. The police were moving in on the protest. The street was lined with the department stores and fancy designer chains. Shoppers and protesters walking among the crowds of passersby. Suddenly yelling and shouting began. A large crowd began running by us from behind. We ducked down a side street to escape before things got too out of hand.
We had made our way to see what the whole “Taksim” thing was about. At the end of May, protests had started in Taksim Square revolving around the planned demolition of Gezi Park. The park that sparked the whole movement is not much of a park but more a leafy green blip alongside the square. Since May, the movement has turned into more of an anti-government demonstration. Apparently, most of the protests had subsided (except on Saturdays) since the middle of June.
Around 5 pm, we approached the square by stumbling up a wide winding street up the hill from the Kadasa tram stop. The approach didn’t seem anything strange or unusual. People were going about their daily business as usual. Suddenly as we got to the top of the hill, we found ourselves at the far side of Taksim Square. Ataturk looked onto the square from a giant poster hanging from a tall building. A crowd of protesters–-numbering a thousand or two, maybe more–-had gathered in the middle of the square. They were maybe 300 or 400 yards from where we stood. Waiters from a luxury hotel stood outside looking anxiously onto the open space between them and the crowd. This area was a no-man’s land–a place that kept the distance between the protesters’ chants and flags and slogans and the hundreds of Police that stood casually in groups on the outskirts of the square. Police trucks were parked near Starbucks where we stood. Some blonde haired foreigners and Turkish businessmen were inside drinking coffee. A camera man was getting his lens focused. A gas mask hung from his belt. The police began to form up in lines, putting helmets on and shields in hand. Something was going to go down. The tension mounted. A double-decker city sightseeing bus broke some of the tension, but just barely, as it drove past the protesters. The police line broke to let it drive through. My friend and I decided this was a good sign and it was time to leave.
We backtracked and then cut through some back streets and alleys, winding our way past grocery stores and cafes and other local hangouts. Men smoked from water pipes and women went about shopping. Occasionally the echoes from the protest reverberated through the canyon-like alleys.
We finally made it to Istiklal Avenue. (I read on Wikipedia that somewhere to 3 million people walk this street on weekends.) The crowded pedestrian street would lead us back toward the Galata Bridge and our hostel. The street was packed with people. We walked by foreign embassies and luxury shops. From time to time a group of protesters with flags and banners would march by heading towards Taksim. We walked by a sit-in of sorts. A group of people held pictures of those taken into custody by the police. Under the pictures read “serbest bırakmak”. I quickly pulled out my iPhone and my Turkish dictionary translated it as “set free”. We continued on our way through the throngs. As we walked farther down the crowded road, it looked as if a large group of protesters was blocking our path and marching towards Taksim. We weren’t sure really where to go so we stopped on the side of the avenue to watch. Then we began hearing the action from Taksim, and people started running down the street towards us.
As we ran across the crowded street and ducked into a side alley, protesters with gas masks, shoppers holding shopping bags and tourists wielding cameras followed suit. Stores quickly began closing up shop. The atmosphere was tense. We walked down the steep hill toward the tram. The crowd picked up steam. Young people were on their phones calling to friends. Taxis and cars were honking like crazy. They were stuck in traffic jams trying to reverse back down the narrow lanes.
We veered down another narrow alley to get out of the crowd. A man was washing his car and moms were watching over their kids in a playground. A group of boys and girls, maybe about 7 or 8 years old were playing on this street.
“Hello!” shouted the bravest of the boys.
“Hello!” I said back.
“What is your name?” asked the kid.
We stopped walking.
“Adim (my name is) Tim,” I said.
Kat introduced herself too.
Five or six little girls came up to us all yelling and shouting their names at us. I think they liked seeing an American woman. The playful children were so happy to see two foreign strangers walking down their street–-not an everyday occurrence for them, even in Istanbul.
We began walking again.
“You no,” said one girl. She pointed down the alley. “No… Lycée Italia! You no!” The smiling girls directed us back toward the way we came.
Apparently it was a dead end, so we went back to the craziness of the mass exodus from the avenue. The kids seemed to have a good way of breaking the tension that was occurring just up the hill. We finally made our way back to the metro and jumped on the packed tram.
On the walk to the hostel we had decided that was not our best decision. I later read that the police used tear gas and water cannons to remove the protesters (even using these tactics on Istiklal Avenue where all the shoppers were). The protest apparently had turned violent as protestors marched toward Gezi Park with a court order in hand banning the proposed demolition of Gezi. They demanded that they be allowed to enter Gezi. (The park had been closed by the police since protestors had been removed 2 or 3 weeks prior.) The police said that if the protestors tried to enter the park, they would use force to remove them… (http:// www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Turkish-protesters-return-to-Taksim-riot-police-respond-318940) The funny thing about this whole experience–aside from the fact that the park is supposedly going to be open to the public starting today–-when we talked to our hostel roommates, they said they had been in Taksim at 3 pm (2 hours before us). They said their experience was rather boring and anticlimactic. There was no one there when they arrived except a few police and gatherers.
Anyways, we headed down the Bosphorus today with our hostel roommates for a nice relaxing cruise. I guess it was needed after a couple days of walking everywhere and it helped take the edge off an intense experience we had yesterday afternoon… The Bosphorus was beautiful and we hiked up to an old castle at the last ferry stop. Tomorrow night we’re leaving Istanbul for a new adventure on the coast!
Svetopolis comment July 20, 2013 at 22:39 – Protests and safety
- I would like to note, though, that the unrest in Istanbul was mostly contained to the Taksim area– and from what we’ve been told has really only been happening on Saturdays. In the more “touristy” areas, like Sultanahmet and near the Galata Bridge, there were no signs of protest or unrest. When we returned to Istiklal Avenue a couple days later after our run in with the protest, we didn’t see any signs if unrest. In other cities, as well, we never saw any protests.
- As for the civil war in Syria, I asked a Turkish man who was from the bordering area if there were many refugees. He said there were, but beyond the immediate border areas there weren’t too many signs of that conflict spilling into the rest of Turkey.
- I had heard of people canceling trips to Turkey this summer. This is too bad. In my opinion, Turkey is a safe, friendly and easy place to travel for Americans and other foreigners.
Svetopolis comment July 23, 2013 at 07:59 – Bosphorus Ferry info:
- See the mansions and palaces of the Bosphorus on the public ferry. It’s a more “authentic” experience than going on the more expensive (and shorter) tourist boats. The first boat leaves at 10:35 am and runs through the day. I recommend getting there 30 minutes ahead to get a prime seat on the left side of the boat.