I spent last week in northern Iraq and when I booked the flights six months ago I arranged for a one day layover in Istanbul to get a feel for the place, little did I know that it would end up being a major highlight of this trip. About 2 weeks before my arrival massive protests broke out across Turkey due to anti-government sentiment, in particular a disdain for the current Prime Minister Erdogen, which was all sparked by a plan to redevelop Istanbuls central square (Taksim) and a park (Gezi) into a new complex.
I initially vowed to steer clear of those protests as getting caught up in something like this in a foreign country is not really advisable, however, it appeared that the harsh police intervention against these protests was consistently only occurring at night when the crowds were at their lowest numbers. I reckoned that heading there in the afternoon would be reasonably safe and that I would leave immediately at any sign of trouble. When I noticed there was a direct tram straight from my hostel that really sealed the deal.
Once I stepped off the tram there was a massive crowd marching down the street (see the picture above), I couldn’t believe my luck. I then noticed everyone marching was in various Football shirts so maybe this wasn’t the protest so I texted a friend in England to check if any big games had been played in Istanbul that day, his response came as a bit of a surprise. All of Turkey’s major football teams had set aside their rivalry and asked their supporters to protest alongside each other against the government! This is major when you consider how bitter these rivalries are.
The crowd was moving up a major road but I noticed a few people crossing a park and moving up the side streets towards Taksim square. All the way up these roads were improvised barricades, maybe one every 30 metres or so. Some were made of piles of pulled up paving stones and others made of steel barricades and rubble, political graffiti covered the surface of almost every building.
Once I reached the square the first thing that stood out was several burnt out police vans as wells as a couple of mobile cell masts set up by TurkCell to provide reliable phone reception for the protests. This is something I’ve never seen before, major companies backing a political protest in such a hands on way. Regardless these vans didn’t escape a covering in graffiti.
Inside the square there was a bit of a festival atmosphere with various public speakers and music playing as well as carts selling various cooked foods and other enterprising people selling gas masks and goggles. One of the buildings on the east side of the square (The Ataturk Cultural Centre) was covered in various political banners and there was a gradually growing number of people up on the roof setting off flares (some aimed at police helicopters overhead) and leading chants with the main crowd in the square. After getting a few good pictures I thought it wise to make my way back to the old city.
Once again thanks for reading and please do subscribe if you’d like more updates from the upcoming Iraq posts :).