An unlikely weekend in Istanbul.
Before landing in Istanbul, I had a pretty good idea of what I would be doing over my weekend: exploring picture perfect mosques and royal palaces, practicing my bargaining at the city’s world famous bazaars, and having a sweat sesh or two in a Turkish baths. Just as my traveling companion and I were about to set off into the city on our first day, our host informed us of a peaceful protest going on nearby in Gezi Park. Citizens were protesting Prime Minister Erdogan’s plan to transform the park, one of the area’s last green areas, into a new shopping mall. Hoping to check off our to-do’s and even catch of glimpse of the action, we headed into town. To our dismay, the protest had grown so fast that the roads leading to our destination were blocked. We were thwarted; of all weekends be in Istanbul, I thought to myself.
To get a better idea of what was going on, we headed back home, only to find that none of the channels on TV were covering the protest. We were finally able to stream live footage through the Internet, and what started as a peaceful demonstration had unfolded into an aggressive battle, and images of police spraying tear gas and pressured water at close contact played before our eyes. Matters grew worse on day two, and it became clear that Occupy Gezi, as the movement was called, was no longer just about preserving the park; people were responding to police violence. Out of caution, we remained away from the commotion for the rest of the day, still determined to enjoy the magnificent city. Luckily for us, the Rumelian Castle was nearby, and there we enjoyed a stunning view of the Bosphorus Sea, the body of water separating the Asian and European sides of Turkey, and the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, which connects the two sides. To end our easygoing day, we indulged in a dinner along the water. Our meal was cut short when we began to feel stinging sensations in our eyes and noses; the wind had carried the tear gas that had been sprayed miles away down to where we were. Talk about unexpected!
By our third day in Istanbul, Prime Minister Erdogan had issued a formal apology to his constituents, and plans to develop the mall were suspended. The violence had stopped, but damage was visible: there was graffiti on walls of buildings and stones and rubbish were scattered along the roads. We were finally able to enter the Old City, exploring the grandiose mosques and colorful bazaars we had long waited to see. But in time, even that normal experience ended in surprise and the road home was once again blocked. This time citizens weren’t protesting, but parading, cheering and waving their Turkish flags through the streets. Since we couldn’t get home by land, our generous host hailed us a water taxi, aka boat, to take us home. The Old Town and crowds of citizens were already in the distance as we cruised through the soothing waves of the Bosphorus. By night, we recounted the unprecedented happenings of the weekend over dinner and showed our support for the peoples’ triumph by clanging pots and pans and flickering the house lights alongside the rest of the neighbors.
Our trip to Istanbul didn’t quite go as planned, but life doesn’t always to adhere to plans. Something bigger happened last weekend, and the Turkish people had something to say. I’m glad to have witnessed their efforts in speaking up and I don’t think I could have picked a better weekend to visit Istanbul after all.