I first visited Istanbul on a four-day business trip in 2002 and was so impressed I have returned many times since; on business and for holiday. Recently, I returned from my ninth visit with disappointment at the changes. Istanbul in September 2016 is a very different city to the one I had fallen for yet I hope and believe that it will ride out the current challenges and renew the vibrancy and energy of this beautiful historic city.
On the Turkish Airways flight from Dublin a professionally produced A4 booklet was provided to each passenger telling “what actually happened” on July 15 the day of the attempted coup. This full colour government sponsored booklet entitled FETO’s Coup Attempt in Turkey: A timeline, provided a pictorial narrative of the coup from the time it unfolded until it was crushed by popular protest. In the centre, over 5 pages, and against the scarlet background of the Turkish flag, was a list of the names and occupations of “the July 15 martyrs”. All were tragic deaths but now they are also political deaths. It was on the flight that I came across for the first time FETO (the Fetullah Terrorist Organisation), the government name for the organisation headed by Fetullah Gulen and officially blamed for the putsch. FETO, I thought, this is like the British Government coming up with name for the “The IRA”. The propaganda was as unsubtle as it was unsettling.
The hotel foyer had an unusual silence. I had stayed here many times and this lobby was normally buzzing with guests and businessmen. Not today. We met no one on the route to our room and the concierge explained that since it was summer-time the hotel bar and patisserie were now closed and these services relocated to the terrace.
For dinner we went in search of a wine-bar/restaurant we discovered on our last trip in 2012. As it was Sunday evening we assumed fewer people were out in the popular Beyoglu area but we quickly found our wine bar closed, as it had evidently been for some weeks. The most obvious change, post-coup, is that the crowds have gone from Istanbul.
On our first full day we visited the Sultanahmet area home to the Topkapi Palace, Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque and found it virtually deserted. Security was reassuringly evident and it needs to be. It was here on January 12th this year that 11 German tourists were killed and 16 were wounded in a bombing. There have been in total four fatal bombings this year in Istanbul killing some 70 people. But bombings are not new to Istanbul. On my second trip in 2003, on route from the airport, my Turkish driver pointed out, up among the trees, the British Consulate. Here, only weeks before a bomb killed fourteen including the Consul-General Roger Short. The same day over twenty died when the HSCB Bank was bombed in another part of the city. The weekend before, some twenty Jews visiting their synagogue were murdered in another bomb attack. And yet visitors came. What is different now is the risk of a coup and this is a risk few visitors seem willing to take.
In the Grand Bazaar we found more sellers than buyers. My walk down the main street just of Gate 7, where armed guards now have a check-point, was difficult not because of the crowds of tourists but because of the crowds of sellers. “Sir your wife has forgotten your Turkish carpet” came the good humoured refrains but behind the light-heartedness was desperation. These traders are in trouble. A small genial man immaculately dressed with henna-dyed hair asked if I would buy “a genuine fur coat”. He held my left hand strongly in his right hand and clasped it to his chest. He smiled benignly telling me how my wife would always love me if I bought such a coat. I told him I didn’t come to buy a fur coat and suggested I might buy one when I returned next year. He looked at me warmly and said “Next year, I don’t think so”.
A local newspaper confirmed this problem. One Grand Bazaar carpet seller told its reporter he had sold one carpet in the last week; he normally sold five or six a day. And yet the 4,000 shops that line the warren of medieval covered streets are highly valuable retail spaces with annual rents as high as $250,000 and costing as much as $3million. Many are now vacant.
In 2016 Turkey is in deep constitutional crisis and its secular future; the vision of Kamal Ataturk in the 1920s, endorsed by the Turkish People and protected by the Turkish Military is now much less certain. There is little opposition to the Government of Tayyip Erdogan; the rule of law has been replaced with rule by decree. During our visit 41 businesses were seized worth Euro 1.7 billion; it seems they used the wrong bank. If Turkey becomes a de facto Islamic State that will not only be a problem for Turkey it will be a problem for the region and possibly the world. In 2002 I cursed the crowds that swarmed this city; now I pine for their return. Three weeks after my return my holiday postcards have still not arrived. Perhaps I said too much about how few tourists I met.
Terry Maguire is a pharmacist in West Belfast.