Bulent Akin stands at the edge of a pit 1,000 metres long and 300 metres wide. Beneath him, ramps and terraces cascade down like faces of ziggurats. Excavators dig. Dumper trucks lumber bumper to bumper. The fleet makes 2,000 trips a day, hauling earth and tipping it into the sea 10km away. The pit is due to be dug in 500 days but Akin, project manager for contractor Agaoglu, believes he can finish quicker: “Just 350 days of excavation work,” he says.
This is Atasehir, on the Asian side of Istanbul, where a new international financial centre is being built from scratch. By mid-2016, 100,000 workers and visitors will do billions of euros of business here each day. The Turkish central bank, state banks and government regulators are all moving here from Turkish capital Ankara. The development is part of a city-wide transformation: a new airport, a new cruise port, new tunnels and bridges. However, what is happening to one of Europe’s oldest cities is not merely an urbanism project, it is foreign policy. Istanbul is to become the hub of a region stretching across three continents.
Such “regional integration” existed when Istanbul was capital of the Ottoman Empire. Not surprising then to hear people call Turkey’s foreign policy “neo-Ottoman”. But Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s foreign minister, rejects this, aware that the imperial associations of the label are not well-intentioned. Davutoglu’s preferred slogan – “zero problems with neighbours” – however, seems increasingly desperate and does little but highlight Turkey’s challenges.
On Turkey’s western border, the EU has made it clear it doesn’t want the country as a member, while to the east is sanctioned Iran; to the south lie Iraq and Syria, the latter consumed by a civil war. Turkey is sheltering hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. It sustains isolated North Cyprus and has a strained alliance with Israel. Russian natural gas powers Turkey but the relationship has been tested by the war in Syria.
Turkey needs markets that are calm and close to home; a blossoming relationship with the Kurdish region of northern Iraq shows how this logic is trumping the country’s oldest prejudices. And if you had to pick a place to put a hub, Istanbul would be hard to beat: it is the only city to straddle two continents; both the New York and Tokyo stock exchanges are open during the Istanbul stock exchange’s trading hours; Europe, Russia, the Caucuses, the Middle East and North Africa are all only short flights away; and the Bosphorus Strait is the only route in or out of the Black Sea. However, the Turkish government is pushing the city to be a platform of another order. “As Napoleon said, if the world was a country, Istanbul would be its capital,” says Levent Kutulu, deputy general manager of Agaoglu.
The last time Istanbul was a finance centre, Ottoman bonds and bills were issued along Banks Avenue, a curving slot canyon of heavy façades that slopes below the city’s famous Galata Tower. The architecture is varied but all imposingly European.
Turkey’s new financial centre will look quite different. “We have a huge history: the Ottoman and the Seljuk empires,” says architect Cagri Kanver, of hok, the firm that has designed the financial centre. “We want to integrate [this heritage] into our designs: wide courtyards, colonnades, terraces, big gateways, overhanging roofs.” And that’s the way the government wants it, Kanver adds: major projects are to reflect Turkey’s Ottoman and Seljuk heritage. The finance centre will be pedestrianised; vehicles will flow through a seven-storey underground “spine” running the length of it.
That an international finance centre should become a pillar of Turkey’s foreign policy at all is a testament to the proverbial opportunity in crisis. A financial crisis, after all, paved the way.
Turkey’s dysfunctional, inflationary economy crashed in 2001. Brutal and fundamental, it concentrated the minds of the bankers and business leaders left standing; stringently regulated banks and a globalised business culture emerged.
The crisis also cleared the political deck, making way for the 11-year (and counting) reign of the Justice and Development party (AK party), led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister. Coming to power in 2002, the AK Party continued the post-crisis recovery programme designed by experts and had an ear for the further reforms business leaders wanted. Its pro-business, pro-EU, pro-Islam and anti-coup d’état policies have brought the party wide support and the mandate to consolidate the changes.
The AK Party has also opened more space for Islam in public life. New influences, including the country’s Ottoman past, now mix with the traditional republican view of Turkey as a “western” country. “Istanbul has become Turkey’s international vitrine and is being used to promote a Turkish alternative modernity,” says Jean-François Perouse, director of the French Institute of Anatolian Studies, in his office at the Palais de France in Istanbul. For generations, Turkey downplayed its Ottoman heritage; the AK Party has changed this.
“The skyline has totally altered in the past five years,” says Perouse, who has lived in Turkey for 12 years and wrote his doctoral dissertation on the urban transformation of Turkey’s capital Ankara. Take Bomonti, he says. The central Istanbul district, once full of industry, is now all gleaming international congress centres and office buildings filled with foreign firms. Districts around the historical peninsula of Sultanahmet, home to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia, have also been cleared of industry. All this benefits tourism and boosts Istanbul’s role as showcase, Pérouse says, but relocating industry pushes social and environmental issues to the literal and figurative edges of town.
Taksim Square is the heart of Istanbul – though for such a landmark it is an underwhelming place – and it too is being transformed. The square will become a pedestrian-only zone; traffic will be sent into tunnels underground. The grimy, car-strewn eyesore is to sprout palm trees. The question is, will it be better? In a tea garden in Gezi Park, the leafy oasis that opens onto the north side of the square, Betul Tanbay, a member of civil society group Taksim Platform and professor of mathematics at Bogazici University in Istanbul, explains why the plans for the square have generated broad opposition.
“There is a projection onto Taksim of almost all Turkish problems: political, economic, ideological, daily life, and architectural,” she says. The government plans to reconstruct an Ottoman barracks in place of Gezi Park and few miss the symbolic “projection” of an Ottoman building returning to what has been a very republican square. But Tanbay argues that the argument is beyond ideology; it is about green space. “Eighty per cent of Turks live in cities. They want to breathe.” Indeed, as monocle went to press Gezi Park and its surrounds were the site of violent protests. There is no the issues of green space in Taksim have become a catalyst for much broader of expressions of discontent against the government.
In a few short years, planners are promising a 15-minute metro journey between Taksim and what will be – so goes the promo – the world’s biggest airport. It will have up to six runways and 150 million passengers a year; an all-Turkish consortium has committed to pay €22bn plus tax for the right to build and run the airport for 25 years.
But this is not just business: it is geopolitics. The airport will draw transit passengers to Istanbul and be the platform from which Turkish Airlines, 49 per cent owned by the government, projects Turkish power. The airline’s major expansion plans are part of a package: dispatched trade and diplomatic delegations; lifted visa requirements; and fully booked international congresses and trade fairs in Istanbul.
The airport project has its critics. “The primary concern is environmental,” says Tayfun Kahraman, chairman of the Istanbul branch of the Turkish Chamber of Urban Planners. Thousands of hectares of forest are to be cleared and the area is a crucial water basin for Istanbul, which depends on reservoirs for its water supply. The airport is just part of a massive transformation in the same area. A new city for 1.5 million people is to be built; a third Bosphorus bridge called Yavuz Sultan Selim will connect to the airport via a motorway; and a canal is to be dug between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, relieving the Bosphorus of ship traffic. Kahraman’s chamber launches 30 lawsuits a year trying to limit the planning mistakes it has identified.
Other questions remain. What of public consultation? What of the public land being transferred to private developers? Of course, many are benefiting. Construction firms are profiting. Public transport is expanding; soon a submerged Bosphorus metro line will connect Asian and European Istanbul. Istanbul’s 2020 Olympic bid is so in tune with the city’s mood that it seems a natural fit.
For millennia, Istanbul was a world centre. Time will tell whether it regains its role but for the city’s residents a transformation is happening underfoot right now and in irresistibly concrete terms.