Istanbul's subtle polish - Monocolumn | Monocle


A daily bulletin of news & opinion

16 October 2013

It’s a crisp, quiet autumn in Istanbul and the city wears it well. Its skyline sparkles, partly because of a recent effort to clean some of the city’s buildings. After a recent restoration the stone façade of the Suleymaniye Mosque appears like the day it was finished by the great architect Mimar Sinan in 1558. The nearby Kilic Ali Pasa Hamam just at the end of my street has been reopened this year, scrubbed clean and shimmering next to the Bosphorous. Inside, the balconied interior is made from laminate wood and decorated with sky-blue linen cushions.

Yet in Turkey’s precarious post-Gezi park peace, buildings – and the symbols of the city – are loaded and potent with meaning. For a newcomer, as I am, it feels as if I am learning a another language alongside the standard greetings and mispronounced orders in my local bakkal. There’s the Turkish actor who showed me his recent tattoo of Ataturk’s distinctive signature emblazoned on his forearm – "a statement of loyalty". There are the steps in Findikli and elsewhere painted the colours of the rainbow as a sign of protest. There’s the derelict 1960s-era Ataturk Cultural Center in Taksim square under armed guard.

The chaos of the summer clashes is missing but there are statements of intent knitted into the urban fabric of the dense city. It’s a curiously detailed code in a huge metropolis that heaves with 15 million citizens. But for all the talk of polarisation in this city there is a powerful sense that every Turk is proud of their commercial capital – and their Republican squares and religious sites, too.

Among some older Turks there seems to be a yearning to go back to an era when the city’s residents rubbed along in the chaos of the metropolis. Before its buildings were bright and clean; before the rents were so high and the construction companies so omnipotent and loathed.

But post-Gezi a new language prevails. The populace and the political elite have become alive to the significance of the everyday. During the protests the mayor of Istanbul vowed that he wouldn’t move a bus stop without public consultation. As we move towards 2014 and local elections in March, there’s no doubt the city’s infrastructure will be a key issue – not just for its efficiency or cost but for its symbolic value.

Sophie Grove is Monocle's senior editor and Istanbul bureau chief.


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