“This monument is the best photograph of old and new Turkey”, thundered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the inauguration of the new Atatürk Cultural Center (AKM for its acronym in Turkish) on October 29, the day of the Republic Day in Turkey. The old AKM was “the symbol of the decrepit face of old Turkey”, and now, after overcoming “many obstacles” until its demolition and subsequent reconstruction, its new version symbolizes the new Turkey erdoganist. The speech’s rally aria can seem improvised like the opening act of a building dedicated to the performing arts and like a prologue to the opera that was about to be performed. But if art is always political—because of what it says or what it doesn’t say—in Turkey it is even more so.
Opera and classical music have never been mere lyrical entertainment for Turks, but rather a statement of purpose. For example, when during the 2019 municipal elections, the Republican People’s Party (CHP, center-left) took over the town hall of Hopa (north-east of the country) they began to broadcast Mozart compositions through the public address system of the town hall, which the defeated Islamists of Erdogan’s party called a “provocation”.
These arts represent the aspirations of many Turks, in particular a certain middle class and certain elites. The founder of modern, secular, republican Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, pursued “the standards of contemporary civilization”, which meant achieving the economic, technological and cultural development of Western Europe. A simple military attaché at the Ottoman embassy in Sofia in 1913-1914, Mustafa Kemal marveled at the progress of opera in newly independent Bulgaria: “Now I understand why the Bulgarians won the Balkan war. Already president of the new Turkish Republic, especially during his last years, with an increasingly fragile state of health, he devoted himself to the reform of art, culture and language to leave a indelible legacy and stimulated the production of lyrics, operas and classical music. Andrew Mango, author of the monumental biography Ataturk (Abrams Press, 2002), argues that the founder of the republic wanted art “of national content and Western form” in order to integrate Turkish cultural production into “universal art”.
After the death of Atatürk in 1938, the construction of an opera building for Istanbul (Ankara already had one) was imagined on the central square of Taksim. The project was delayed due to lack of budget until the Atatürk Cultural Center opened its doors in 1969, a building designed by architect Hayati Tabanlioglu in a clearly rationalist style, with an iron, cement and glass facade without concessions outside straight line. . It has thus become the temple of opera, ballet and classical music and was even one of the venues for the Istanbul Biennial (1992 and 2007).
Thus, when the AKM was closed in 2008 by order of the government – which alleged structural failures and the need to reform it – it was seen not only as an attack on culture, but also on the legacy of the founder of the Republic. The Atatürk Cultural Center was allowed to deteriorate, and finally, in 2018, its demolition began to increase its replacement. “Scream and rage as much as you want, we overthrew him,” said the Islamist president at the time. “For years, the government was unable to destroy the AKM because of the criticism it faced, so it considered its final demolition a victory,” says Tarik Sengül, a professor at the Technical University. from the Middle-East.
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But to believe that Erdogan intends to erase the legacy of the founder of the Republic is to remain on the surface. In reality, he is trying to grab his figure and supplant it. Like Atatürk, who commissioned and supervised the creation of the first opera written under the Republic (Ozsoy, composed by Ahmet Adnan Saygun and premiered in 1934), the opera with which the new AKM was inaugurated was commissioned directly by Erdogan. The composer of this new opera, Hasan Uçarsu, who was a pupil of Saygun, explains in the libretto that he took into account the ideas provided by the president. The Opera Sinan takes as his character the most famous architect of Ottoman classicism and splendor (16th century), but in reality he functions as a mirror in which reality is reflected: Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, together with his daughter Mihrimah, claim that the he architect Sinan raises beautiful and grandiose mosques which remain for posterity, despite the attempts of the vizier, Rüstem Pasa, to prevent the works because they squander funds from the imperial treasury. Not only is it that the desire for great works and monumentality at all costs reflects Erdogan’s last years, it’s that the vizier is the sultan’s son-in-law, just like Erdogan’s son-in-law, the controversial finance minister and head of the Treasury, Berat Albayrak, until his resignation and disgrace last year.
The renovation of the AKM is just one of the monuments to Erdogan’s triumph over space in Taksim. Paraphrasing Erdogan himself (“Whoever controls Istanbul, controls Turkey”), art critic Arie Amaya-Akkermans argues that “Whoever controls Taksim controls Istanbul”. The square is traditionally one of the nerve centers of the Turkish metropolis and “a space of political concentration”. It was the center of the Gezi protests in 2013, when the AKM was used to hang dozens of banners against Erdogan (in tribute to the use of the facade of the cultural center during the May Days of the 1970s). “Taksim Square and the area in which it is located has always been a very important physical and symbolic space for secular and modern social strata in Turkey. But like the AKP [el partido islamista de Erdogan] it became more powerful, it also made it more difficult for him to digest the presence of this space of protest, ”points out Sengül. Erdogan therefore crushed the Gezi revolt without giving way to the mediation recommended by his ministers, which allowed him to take full control of Taksim. To conquer her.
Because the conquest continues to be an obsession, a fetish for him and the Turkish Islamists. “We see the Atatürk Cultural Center as the last seal we have put on the city since the conquest of 1453,” he said in his opening speech, as if the “old AKM” were the equivalent of Constantinople and the old westernized elites the equivalent of the Christian Byzantines, ie the enemy. Not in vain, although the facade of the AKM and its structure have been rebuilt as in its previous version, its interior is completely new and is dominated by a scarlet ceramic sphere which houses the main auditorium and represents the “Red Apple “, a symbol of the Ottoman tradition —equivalent to the Christian legends of the Holy Grail—which links to the conquest of Constantinople and the aspiration for universal power.
Other de los “sellos” impresos por Erdogan en Taksim es la nueva mezquita cuya silueta ahora domina la plaza: una vieja aspiration del presidente desde que fuera alcalde de Estambul en los años noventa, pero que las sucesivas protestas contra su proyecto le habían impedido llevar finished. Finally, in the fall of his power, when his state of health and that of Turkey’s economy make its fragility increasingly evident, Erdogan inaugurated the temple last May, thus modifying the structure of a square in which, until then, what stood out the most was the nearby Church of the Holy Trinity (until the middle of the last century, the area was inhabited mainly by religious minorities: Greeks, Armenians and Jews) . The new mosque was built in a neoclassical Ottoman style with neo-Ottoman details.art Deco, rejecting a previous project that proposed a smaller mosque and a more contemporary architectural style. “Neoclassicism is widely used in authoritarian regimes because it is used to say: it has always been there, it has always been so,” explains Amaya-Akkerman.
The aim of the new works, according to Turkey’s Culture Minister, tourist entrepreneur Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, is to “revitalise” the Taksim district and turn it into a new “culture route”. In the past, Istiklal Avenue, which opens to the southwest of the square, and the surrounding streets were where Istanbulites went to walk, go to the cinema and theater, go out or demonstrate. But the district has been in frank decline for years – young people have left for other more friendly neighborhoods – and is riddled with police barricades to prevent any attempt to demonstrate. “It was a neighborhood where people from different backgrounds and social classes converged, but after the Gezi protests, all that ended,” says the art critic. “Erdogan has tried to change Taksim several times, but none of his projects have been functional or successful. Because Taksim, as it is conceived today, is not a space for sharing experiences, but a simple space of transition, a place where you only pass through”, he concludes.
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