Erdogan harbors ambitions for Istanbul

August 31, 2012

From the top of Istanbul’s highest hill, amid teahouses and television towers, throngs of local residents look down on the spectacular city they call their own.

But the view that opens up before them — with the Bosporus Strait shimmering silver and blue as it flows between the Asian and European continents — is set to change, at the initiative of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s commanding prime minister.

To the north, beyond the two bridges that span the Bosporus, a third is soon to be constructed. Farther into the distance, near the Black Sea, is the site of what will be Istanbul’s third airport, which the prime minister recently announced will handle 100 million passengers a year. Closer by is the city’s heart, Taksim Square, which will be dramatically remodeled.

And on Camlica itself, the 885-foot-high hill from which the whole panorama can be surveyed, Erdogan intends to build a giant mosque, a 160,000-square-foot building that he says will be “designed to be seen from all parts of Istanbul.”

The mosque, the bridge and the airport, together with the remodeling of Turkey’s most iconic square, signal the scale of Erdogan’s ambitions for a city that, despite its grandeur, has long suffered from a lack of planning.

Although Istanbul ceded the position of capital to Ankara with the formation of the Turkish republic in 1923, it is easily Turkey’s biggest city and increasingly the seat of government and diplomatic, as well as commercial, activity.

But critics accuse the prime minister of building monuments to himself and say they fear his plans are being pushed through with insufficient scrutiny.

The debate has become more charged as Erdogan positions himself for a run for the country’s hitherto mostly ceremonial presidency and presses for changes to the constitution beforehand to invest the post with executive powers.

“The theme I see here is the presidential election in 2014 and the prime minister’s efforts to consolidate his power in symbolic ways,” said Soli Ozel, a professor of international relations at Istanbul’s Kadir Has University.

The prime minister’s ties to Istanbul run deep. A former mayor, he keeps a house just below Camlica hill and spends much of his time in the city, working out of an office in the Dolmabahce Palace, where the Ottoman sultans lived and where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic, died.

His favored projects — particularly the mosque, whose construction he announced in late May — could bind his name to the city’s for generations.

The hills of the old city of Istanbul are crowned by mosques built by the sultans of the past, and the skyline is dominated by the Suleymaniye, erected by Suleiman the Magnificent, the ruler whose troops reached the gates of Vienna. The mosque that Erdogan plans for the opposite, Asian side of the strait could overshadow them all.

Many of the government’s initiatives for Istanbul are geared toward alleviating the legendary traffic problems of a city with 3 million privately owned cars.

Some moves have received widespread praise, such as a new, 13.6-mile-long metro line opened by the prime minister in August.

Others appear to be on the back burner, notably the prime minister’s self-styled “crazy, ambitious” plan to build a canal to divert oil tankers from the Bosporus, announced during his successful campaign for reelection last year.

But critics say that overall, too many projects are imposed on the city from Ankara, the capital.

“The municipality came out with a city plan in 2009, with no third bridge and a new airport in a different place,” said Akif Burak Atlar of Istanbul’s Chamber of Urban Planners. “And then, suddenly, Ankara came up with the third bridge. That is not how planning works.”

Atlar says the bridge and the airport will infest much of the Belgrade forest to the city’s north with urban sprawl, despite government protestations to the contrary.

His organization is trying to prevent the mosque from being built on Camlica, a protected area. “Who is it for?” he asks, noting that the hill is sparsely populated and that the city has a profusion of mosques.

But visitors and residents on the hill were supportive of the project. “As Muslims, we think it would be great to have a big mosque here — it’s like what the Ottomans did,” said Turba, a medical student visiting Camlica.

Mehmet, a minibus driver, took a pragmatic view. “It will bring in tourists and Arabs,” he said. “And shopping centers.”

— Financial Times

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