We had a few more days in Istanbul after Surabhi, Dylan and Safina abandoned us very early on May 30. We left our Beyoglu apartment, relocated to a guesthouse not far from Taksim square, and proceeded to search out another enormous Turkish breakfast with which to stifle our sorrows. We found a great one in Cihangir, a slightly more off the beaten path neighborhood full of winding streets, tiny cafes, and odd antique shops. We spent the afternoon exploring before deciding to meander back toward home. The weather was lovely all day, but we were caught in a massive downpour just after finishing dinner. It showed no signs of letting up and we were a long way from home, so we were forced to take refuge in a shisha bar, drinking tea and wringing out our clothes. It was staffed by an energetic guy who ran around nonstop adding hot coals to all of the hookahs out of a somewhat-insulated old coffee can– these came from a much larger coffee can, red and glowing and stored somewhat dangerously in the middle of the aisle. Decidedly not up to code but entertaining nonetheless.
The following day, May 31, was one of our more interesting. As soon as we made it outside, it was apparent that something was amiss. There was a heavy police presence around Taksim Square, and the funicular we were planning to take into a different area of the city was closed. It was clear that the cops were gearing up for a protest of some sort, but we didn’t think much of it at first. Taksim seems to be something of a magnet for protests. When we started wandering into the rest of the city, though, it was apparent that something more significant was happening. There were tons of police officers everywhere– many in full riot gear. We saw huge groups of them hanging out on street corners and piling out of vans all over the city. This seemed incongruous– it was around noon on a calm Saturday and as far as we could tell, the other residents were acting normally. Soon, though, we noticed a lot of men dressed in street clothes but carrying police truncheons. As soon as we spotted a few, we couldn’t stop seeing them– plainclothes policemen were everywhere. Their truncheons were a dead giveaway, as were the matching black and white backpacks many carried to “conceal” them– the sticks were about 6 inches too long, so they stuck out.
Finally, a friendly local explained that it was the one year anniversary of the Gezi Park protests, and that demonstrations were planned to commemorate the event. Last year’s riots and the police response left several dead and hundreds injured. This year the government warned people not to protest and sent out an enormous police presence–25,000 uniformed and plainclothes police–as a deterrent. Everyone we spoke to was aware that protests would go on anyway, starting at 7 p.m., and suggested that we make our way to the hotel well before that.
We followed the advice, fortunately– even as we headed home around 6, many of the streets and alleys close to our hotel were blocked off in the police’s effort to keep people farther and farther from Taksim square. We encountered a group or two of chanting protesters who had gotten a jump on things, facing down a squad of policemen that was blocking the street with an armored van. Things remained calm until later, though, when we were safely inside and watching the news. Then we saw police using tear gas and water cannons on protesters as well as detaining large numbers of people– including at one point a CNN reporter who was in the middle of a live broadcast and clearly displaying his press credentials. It was a good deal calmer than last year (likely in part because of the deterrent effect of so many police officers), but still a sobering and interesting scene to witness.
The next day was almost absurdly back to business as usual. Barricades were gone, police weren’t out in force, and people were going about their weekend affairs as if nothing had happened. We decided to check one last tourist item off of our list, and headed to Sultanahment to visit the Istanbul Archaeological Museum.
As Brian mentioned in his Bogota post, we have a bit of Archaeological Museum Fatigue (DSM admission pending). We’ve been lucky enough over the last few months to visit museums all over South America… but you (or at least we) can only see so many pottery shards or precolombian gold jewelry before the eyes glaze a bit. Fortunately, the Istanbul museum still stood out. It’s actually three museums–the Archaeological Museum, the Tiled Kiosk Museum, and the Museum of the Ancient Orient. All were nice, but the latter was our favorite. It was full of artifacts from Egypt, Mesopotamia and Anatolia, including Sarcophagi and a version of Hammurabi’s code. Also the oldest known love poem and peace treaty (no relation).