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Dolmabahçe Palace on Labor Day

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The irony wasn’t completely lost on us. Visiting Dolmabahçe Palace, a symbol of preposterous wealth and privilege, while just outside workers were marching in Istanbul’s infamous Labor Day protests. “What’s that smell?” I whispered to Jürgen, while admiring a carpet with more square footage than any apartment I’ve ever lived in. “Tear gas”, he said, his eyes starting to well up. “Amazing carpet, though.”

Dolmabahçe Palace

Labor Day is a big deal in Istanbul, with a history marred by violence. The march in 1977, for example, became known as the Taksim Square Massacre, when 40 people killed by overzealous policing and a panicked stampede. This year, the government refused to let protesters even reach Taksim Square. They were taking no chances — traffic in Beyoğlu was prohibited, public transportation was shut down, and even the Galata Bridge was closed.

And at the exact same moment Turkish protesters were being denied their right to congregate, Jürgen and I were ogling the outrageous luxury of Dolmabahçe Palace: perhaps Istanbul’s most perfect symbol of class inequality.

Despite being completely contrary to Labor Day’s socialist spirit, it was the perfect time to visit the palace. Dolmabahçe is normally one of the most popular tourist sights in Istanbul… but not when people can’t reach it! And with public transportation down, only those lucky enough to live within walking distance (like us) could make it.

Built in 1856 by Sultan Abdülmecid I, for whom the long-serving Topkapı Palace was no longer modern enough, the new palace on the Bosphorus was a testament to growing European influence on the Ottoman court. Neoclassic, baroque and massive to the point of stupidity, the palace is over 11 acres in size, with 285 rooms, 68 toilets, and 6 hamams. Oh, and a harem. Because no home is complete without an enclosure for your female sex slaves.

Despite its grandeur, visiting the palace is unfortunately a bit of a let-down. You’re forced to join a tour, with a guide whose main purpose is corralling you through as swiftly as possible, and you’re not allowed to linger in any of the rooms. A real shame, since there’s so much to linger over. The decorations, the artwork, the gold, the chandeliers, the carpets, the stairs… let alone the views of the Bosphorus from the magnificent windows.

The wealth of an empire was poured into this royal home for the benefit of a very few people, and the palace provided a stark reminder of how unfair life can be. So it was easy to find sympathy for the Labor Day protests going on right outside. Dolmabahçe, although beautiful, is sickening! The palace interesting to visit, but I’m mostly just glad that the days of sultans, lords and kings, and their massive homes, are behind us.

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Dolmabahçe Clock Tower
Dolmabahçe Gate
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Dolmabahçe Fountain
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Dolmabahçe Lion
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Dolmabahçe Palace
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Dolmabahçe Peacock
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June 11, 2013 at 2:05 pm Comments (0)

The Gezi Park Protests in Istanbul

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I was at my desk in Cihangir, trying to write about the Yeni Camii, while outside the dueling sounds of chanting and tear gas cannons were clamoring for my attention. When, just outside your window, tens of thousands of people are clashing with police in a protest that was making headlines around the world, it’s a little hard to concentrate on anything else.

The drama started on May 28th, 2013, in Taksim Square’s Gezi Park. A small group of concerned citizens had occupied it, in protest of a new shopping mall which would destroy one of Istanbul’s few remaining green areas. Using tear gas and water cannons, police in riot gear violently dispersed the protest, which by all accounts had been peaceful.

This excessive use of force in Gezi Park ignited the always-flammable powder keg of Istanbul’s popular rage. By Friday night, the number of protesters had grown into the tens of thousands. The government’s response? More cops and more tear gas.

All this over a new shopping mall? Not entirely. Popular frustration about increasingly aggressive police tactics had been building for awhile. On May 1st, the yearly Labor Day march, was suppressed with tear gas and water cannons. And I myself tasted the acid sting of tear gas three times, just because we live near Taksim. But you know what I never saw? Any sort of protest that could possibly justify tear gas. The police were deploying this weapon indiscriminately, and people eventually got fed up.

Weeks before Gezi Park erupted, we passed a small gathering of protesters in Taksim Square. I don’t know what their cause was, but it must have been over pensions or something, because these were elderly people. They had a couple signs, and there were no more than thirty of them. But the police force which had been deployed was ridiculous. There were at least four times as many cops as protesters, all of them outfitted with weaponry and riot gear. It was a presence designed not for peace-keeping, but intimidation.

So, there was a lot of anger in Istanbul and the flames were only being stoked by the dismissive attitude of the government. Prime Minister Erdoğan gave a speech in which he boasted that he “didn’t care” what the Gezi Park protesters thought. The shopping mall would be built as planned. He called any opposition to his plans “illegitimate” and labeled the protesters as “extremists“. State media in Turkey ignored the protests, or covered them in a very superficial manner.

For years, Erdoğan’s Islamic AKP party had been introducing ever more conservative laws, and this had liberal Istanbul on edge. The country had recently been in the news for banning red lipstick on flight attendants. There was a strange fight in Ankara over public displays of affection. And a law banning sales of alcohol between 10pm and 6am, and outlawing any advertising of alcohol, had just gone into effect.

One fear we heard over and over from Turkish friends, is that their city might lose its identity. That the conservative, Islamic values of the majority will be forced upon the city’s secular minority. It’s not inconceivable. But if the Gezi Park protests are any indication, Istanbul will never be afraid to fight for its beliefs.

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June 1, 2013 at 2:15 pm Comments (8)
Dolmabahe Palace on Labor Day The irony wasn't completely lost on us. Visiting Dolmabahçe Palace, a symbol of preposterous wealth and privilege, while just outside workers were marching in Istanbul's infamous Labor Day protests. "What's that smell?" I whispered to Jrgen, while admiring a carpet with more square footage than any apartment I've ever lived in. "Tear gas", he said, his eyes starting to well up. "Amazing carpet, though."
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