President Erdoğan’s Turkey teeters between the conflicts in Ukraine and Gaza

The new Ottomans

The fall and rise of Istanbul under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan


This article is taken from the May 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In November 1920, the Russian futurist Ilia Zdanevich steamed down the Bosporus past a number of Russian warships moored at Istanbul. The initial awe he felt at witnessing the great moment, when the Russian navy reached what Napoleon Bonaparte had called the “capital of the world”, soon dissipated. Ragged military paupers clustered upon the remnants of a once-mighty Tsarist navy, battered by its experience in the First World War and three years of civil war against Moscow’s new communist revolutionaries.

Zdanevich was not the only one to be affected by this “most terrible, devastating, and miserable” sight. “It makes my hair stand on end,” wrote the Turkish novelist and diplomat, Yakup Kadri, in Istanbul’s most popular İkdam newspaper.

Empires were collapsing everywhere in the winter of 1920. German-built train terminals on both the European and Asian sides heaved with soldiers and refugees returning to states that had crumbled in their absence. After secretly promising Istanbul to the Tsar and losing 45,000 troops in the Dardanelles campaign, in a bid to frustrate a Russian takeover by reaching the city first, the British arrived in November 1918 at the head of an Allied armada. Turkish-Greek geopolitician Stefanos Yerasimos noted in his book Constantinople 1914–1923 that the British believed themselves to “own the head of the dragon, but in reality are trapped within the skin of a dead snake, crawling with a myriad worms”.

Zdanevich was on his way to Paris, but loitered for a full year in Istanbul. He documented the destitute Russian soldiers haunting the gypsy encampments in the landfills around the Hagia Sofia and the impromptu markets in the muddy bases of the hills of Pera. There refugees sought to sell on the multicoloured paper currencies issued by already-extinguished Red and White republics that had sprung up in the Bolshevik Revolution’s wake.

Whilst most chroniclers of the city focused on the giddy, jazz-fuelled cosmopolitanism of the Europeanised districts, Zdanevich haunted the city’s muddy margins, documenting the émigrés’ cardplaying dives and the theatrical performances where the audience was encouraged to purchase sex from the tableaux vivants.

As the world rearranged from an imperial to a nation-state system, Istanbul received hundreds of thousands of Muslims expelled from the Balkans. It was meanwhile haemorrhaging away the ethnic minorities that contributed to the city’s otherworldly, Byzantine and Ottoman-era glitter. Levantine, Italian, Greek, Jews and other Mediterranean elites followed the capital flow to London, New York, Hong Kong and Cape Town. Prodromos Bodosakis-Athanasiadis, the former owner of the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul, became one of Greece’s top industrialists and weapons-makers through networking in his luxury hotel lobby.

Istanbul went from leading an empire to becoming the neglected secondary city of a poverty-stricken new country. Easily-defensible Ankara replaced it as capital, sinking the old imperial city into an extended decline that stretched into Armenian photographer Ara Güler’s ravaged 1950s cityscapes and Orhan Pamuk’s hüzün-soaked accounts of the Sixties and Seventies.

But the city’s incredible geopolitical positioning remained astride a waterway clasping the world’s three most sensitive interlinked seas: today’s Houthi-menaced Red Sea funnelling through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean and pouring past the Bosporus into the Black Sea.

The zone of tension stretches along Turkey’s underbelly from the East Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea

From the late 1980s, when I first visited Istanbul, the city has recovered much of its former standing. Finding echoes with its past, Charalampos Minasidis, a research fellow at University College Dublin’s Centre for War Studies, believes “we’re entering into an even more dangerous era where late-nineteenth-century-style empires are reappearing, but their leaders are not the kind of conservative politicians who kept things under control through limited positional wars, and unlike the later total war experienced in World War One”.

For Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, his country teeters between the Russian campaign in Ukraine and the Black Sea, and the Gaza conflict — a zone of tension stretching along Turkey’s underbelly from the East Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf and Caspian Sea. Turkey has been engaged for some years in a strategic unfolding that saw it occupy northern Syria and establish military bases in northern Iraq, Qatar and Somalia. Will the crushing defeat inflicted on Erdoğan’s AK Party on 31 March rock him from his pedestal and change Turkey’s direction? Can it change the course of Istanbul?

The Turkish centrifuge

I was born in Athens to a mother from a Greek-speaking Christian landowning family with Cappadocian roots that traversed the Ottoman centuries back to the Byzantine period. Although my great-grandparents emigrated in the last decade of the 19th century to Tsarist Baku, the Russian Revolution returned them and their children in 1921 to their neglected property in an Istanbul inhabited by Zdanevich and several Allied armies. Eventually the Turkish centrifuge spun them out and they departed for Greece, a country they had never visited before. It was soon to be engulfed in Nazi occupation and a vicious civil war which visited heavy urban warfare on their district.

With my mother, a history professor at Athens University, I began visiting Istanbul in the mid-1980s where I was introduced to the “amphitheatric neighborhood with a flowing population of diplomats and prostitutes, nouveaux-pauvres bourgeois and intellectuals”. That was her description of her temporary home in the Cihangir district of Beyoğlu.

The religious minorities that inhabited the area had fled or been deported, their chic apartments occupied by immigrant families from the Anatolian interior. Parts of Istanbul at that time would have still been recognisable to a visitor from the 1920s.

After relocating to Tehran, I began passing through Istanbul often in the mid-2000s, and I noticed that the city’s character shifted depending on which direction I approached it: its Oriental domes and minarets stood out when landing from London; its Viennese-style late-19th century apartment buildings struck me when coming from Iran; its cold fogginess when approaching from an Arab country; and its layered magnitude and complexity when chugging in on the train from Greece. Also noticeable was that the shimmering city by the Bosporus and Golden Horn was already under massive structural change, which accelerated after I moved there full time in 2007.

The pursuit of neoliberal reforms backed by Gulf Arab money brought gentrification drives that saw low-status residents expelled to new developments on the city’s expanding outskirts. Financial tower blocks rose along the European and Asian sides as Turkey sought to attract international investors. Construction and industry produced a growth rate second only to China’s in the 2010s.

Giddy with the possibilities offered by cement, steel and heavy machinery, Turkey’s serially reelected Prime Minister Erdoğan constructed an exorbitant White Palace and the world’s largest airport. He broke ground on his “crazy project”, a waterway parallel to the Bosporus that would not be subject to the limitations of the Montreux Straits Convention.

“The AKP built on previous foundations,” noted Dimitar Bechev, a lecturer at the Oxford School of Global & Area Studies and senior fellow at Carnegie Europe, “like the 1980’s economic opening, a surge of internal migration and the suitcase traders produced by the Soviet collapse, by encouraging first Arabs and now Ukrainians and Russians to come in.” A flurry of international art exhibitions, biennales and film festivals injected an international crowd into the city, some of whom stayed. Magazines such as Monocle began bandying around taglines like “Cool Istanbul”.

The Turkish foreign minister at the time was an irascible academic called Ahmet Davutoğlu. His policy of “zero problems” with Turkey’s former Ottoman dominions was still enjoying its honeymoon period before plunging into the vortex of the 2010s. A presentiment of what was to come first appeared at the 2009 Davos Summit, when Erdoğan slammed an Israeli invasion of Gaza. His onstage confrontation with Israel’s President, Shimon Peres, instantly earned him cult status amongst Muslims. Arab tourist flows into Istanbul immediately picked up, feeding into the complaints of Turkish secularists about an Islamist takeover of their republic.

Return of authoritarianism

Conventional readings of Istanbul’s progression describe an arc of modernisation stretching from the collapse of the decrepit Ottoman Empire into the Turkish republic’s westernising dynamism. Large auto-friendly highways punched through the city’s mediaeval fabric in the 1950s alongside an extensive programme of residential construction. In the 1980s, economic reforms opened Istanbul up to American-style consumerism and connected the industrial infrastructure of the post-imperial republican elites to the 1990s dynamism of a new class of religious entrepreneurs, dubbed the Anatolian Tigers.

This drove the transition between two authoritarianisms: from 20th century Kemalist secularism to 21st century Erdoğanist neo-Ottomanism. Nevertheless, Turkey shed its snobbery towards its Muslim backyard and learned how to reassemble a regionalised form of cosmopolitanism, derived from post-communist Central Asia’s émigré populations and the Middle East.

The new inhabitants melted into the districts inhabited by the rural immigrants who had been flocking to Istanbul for decades. From this social class, a young footballer called Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rose to be mayor in 1994 and ultimately Turkey’s president. After completing a prison stint in 1999 for reciting an Islamist poem, Erdoğan formed the AK Party and won a landslide election victory in 2002.

As prime minister, he ran the country as he had run Istanbul, but his massive investments in infrastructure and efforts to improve quality of life included traditionally neglected rural areas. Erdoğan’s tenure brought space for Turkey’s culturally-sidelined religious working classes. But he also renegotiated the state’s very nature, angering his secularist critics by ending the army’s role as the guardian of its interpretation of secularism, launching waves of persecutions against his opponents and bending the Turkish judiciary to his will.

Riot policemen clash with protestors near Taksim square in Istanbul on 31 May 2022
on the ninth anniversary of the Gezi park and Taksim square demonstrations

By 2013, these tensions spilled over into the Gezi Park protests, which saw disparate and mostly apolitical secular social groups uniting in anti-government protests over an attempt to build an Ottoman-themed mall and residential complex on the site of a park. The garden adjoined Taksim Square, a monotonous cement square featuring a five-star hotel tower, a church, the city’s opera, and a republican monument depicting Turkish founder Kemal Atatürk and Soviet allies — which holds meaning in the secularist mental map.

The government intended to rebuild an Ottoman-era barracks razed by westernising secularists in the 1920s to create a French-style urban park, which added a historical dimension to the confrontation. The police scattered the week-long occupation of the park, marking the demise of Istanbul’s most historically Western-facing district. Arabic-language signs aimed at Gulf tourists proliferated, and the cool urban crowd that had gentrified Beyoğlu migrated across the Bosporus to the secularist bastion of Kadiköy. Within a decade, Taksim Square boasted a large new mosque overshadowing the previously dominant church, with a rebuilt opera. The park remains intact, in a small victory for those who lost so many other urban development fights.

Nexus of the Arab Spring

Even as Istanbullus fought their internal culture wars, Turkish foreign policy helped shape the Arab Spring, which erupted in 2011 in Tunisia and spread across Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

Erdoğan’s exposure to the Arab World had been through close ties with Syria and Gulf countries like Qatar and the Emirates. But alongside these, he developed tight relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni Muslim political movement founded in early-20th century Egypt that maintained branches in nearly every Arab country, despite often being repressed by secularist dictators. In cultivating the Brotherhood, Erdoğan emulated the Ottoman sultans, who presented themselves as patrons of Sunni Islam and, by virtue of controlling Mecca and Medina, defenders of the faith.

With the region in chaos and the Obama administration not engaging, Erdoğan encouraged the Muslim Brotherhood, drawing on long-standing ties cultivated whilst on the staff of Islamist Prime Minister Necmettin Erbakan in the 1970s.

Turkish foreign policy backed electorally successful Brotherhood-affiliated political parties in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, and a Brotherhood-dominated National Transitional Council in Syria. But it failed in every country except Libya, where Turkey and the UAE fought each other via local proxies.

Turkey’s Muslim Brotherhood-supported faction won, claiming control of over a third of the country and a portion of its oil receipts. In Egypt, a Muslim Brotherhood candidate was elected president in the 2011 elections, but a military coup in 2012 and a massacre of between 600 and 2,600 Brotherhood supporters ended this democratic experiment. It resulted in a rift between Ankara and President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military regime.

Similarly in Tunisia, a 2021 coup ended a string of Muslim Brotherhood electoral successes in the decade following the 2011 Jasmine Revolution. The bloodiest debacle was in Syria, where Turkish political support for the Muslim Brotherhood united with Qatari financing of arms transfers, but foundered on the group’s battlefield failure to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

As the Brotherhood failed to maintain power, Ankara diversified its support to ever more radical groups, including facilitating arms transfers to jihadi outfits such as Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS. President Biden accused Ankara in 2014 of having “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad — except that the people who were being supplied were [Jabhat] al-Nusra and al-Qaida and the extremist elements of jihadis coming from other parts of the world”.

I joined the United Nations in 2011, leaving Istanbul but visiting regularly. Turkey became the country hosting the most refugees in the world during that period, and I would see recently-arrived Syrian families sheltering from Istanbul’s harsh winters in public parks, under overpasses and in apartment building entrances.

As Washington restricted its regional involvement to diplomacy and covert military action, Turkey led a rush by regional powers to influence events, often in coordination with Washington. In Libya, the US ambassador killed in Benghazi in 2012 had been part of the CIA Timber Sycamore programme, charged with ferrying Libyan weapons to Syria via the Turkish port of Iskenderun. Local Libyan militiamen described a ratline to Syria whereby ships ferried weapons and Turkish Airlines flew fighters, who then would take connecting flights down to the southern Turkish city of Antakya and across the border to the weapons dumps and battlefields of Syria.

A Libyan friend who moved to Istanbul on an Islamic studies scholarship recounted how some Libyans, whom a friend had asked him to host in his quiet Asian-shore apartment for a few nights, turned out to be jihadis headed to Syria. On a flight back to Istanbul from Antakya in 2014, jihadis heading from Syria to Istanbul for R&R stood out through their mud-encrusted boots, moustacheless Salafi beards and Arabic-language banter about military exploits in heavily-armed farms.

As the Islamic State spread and entrenched itself across Syria and Iraq, it became apparent that Erdoğan had opened a Pandora’s box. Moscow accused him and his family of directly profiting from selling oil from ISIS-controlled oilfields, and Turkish Kurds streamed over the border to battle ISIS fighters trying to take the Kurdish Syrian city of Kobane.

In Mosul, ISIS fighters kidnapped and held for two months 49 members of the Turkish consulate. Starting the same year, ISIS militants launched a wave of attacks in Istanbul: gunmen and suicide bombers struck police stations, busy tourist areas and Istanbul’s international airport. They staged a New Year bloodbath in an international nightclub. On mornings after a mass attack, the shaken city’s boulevards would be empty of residents in a presentiment of the Covid lockdowns.

The 2016 coup against Erdoğan marked the height of the instability. Istanbul was the coup’s main stage, and F16 fighter jets screamed over streets and bridges crowded with tanks and Erdoğan loyalists. The violent chaos in which more than 300 people were killed was the final drop for several locals and expats, who packed up and left. Cool Istanbul was officially over.

Thriving on ambiguity

In the aftermath of the coup, Erdoğan cleared the army, judiciary and security forces of opponents, changed the constitution in 2018 to a presidential system to bypass the constitutional re-election limit and invaded Syria the following year, prompting a scrap with President Donald Trump.

The Turkish lira was further devalued against the dollar, and inflation saw the Turkish rate climb from 8 per cent at the time of Trump’s threat to a 2022 peak of 85 per cent. Turkey’s domestic drone-building capacity started making its mark on battlefields in Libya, Syria, Armenia and most recently Ukraine. Turkey had entered the home straight for the turbulent Twenties.

Around the same time, Erdoğan and the AKP’s performance in elections waned. The first upset came in the 2018 municipal elections, when the AKP lost control of Istanbul and Ankara. Erdoğan invalidated the result and called a second poll, but lost this one too. The defeat was particularly heavy for a man who had started his climb to the highest post from the Istanbul mayoralty. This month’s municipal elections confirmed the AKP’s slide, as it surrendered all Mediterranean-facing municipalities and retained only 24 of 81 districts nationwide.

Istanbul and Turkey entered the 2020s more influential than at any time in the past century

Ultimately, these election setbacks are unlikely to affect Turkey’s geopolitical priorities. For all criticisms of Erdoğan, Istanbul and Turkey entered the 2020s more sovereign and influential than at any time in the past century. Having overcome its identity uncertainties, the city thrives on the ambiguity of a location teetering just beyond the Schengen zone and self-consciously receiving the EU and US on equal terms with China, Russia and the Middle East. The city’s sprawling harshness and beauty inspire in new arrivals the intense illusion that they can reinvent themselves.

The Transatlantic shift of influence in the aftermath of the First World War is now draining back eastwards as America’s dominance wanes. During that century, Istanbul has been weakened and reinvigorated. But it remains at the diplomatic and geopolitical centre during a period of transformation, crowded once more with Russian and Middle Eastern émigrés.

My mother came to visit me in Istanbul in 2021. We went to visit the archive of Boğaziçi University, from where her grandfather graduated in 1897 before moving to Baku. I felt that perhaps we might come across a document or graduation photograph that would render his presence more palpable. A considerate American academic showed us around the library housed in the historian and traveller John Freely’s old campus house. But my mother showed little interest in revisiting the past.

Perhaps she was anxious not to become trapped by life’s circumstances in between two active magnetic fields, two states of being. As we walked away from the campus, I wondered whether Istanbul is capable of transcending the magnetic fields created by its geography, or is history doomed to repeat itself?

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