Turkish bulldozers raze 1,000 years of Rom history
by Nicolas Cheviron
Ferdi Celep sat on a sofa surrounded by the debris of his life, watching city workers empty clothes and furniture from a row of two dozen colourful houses huddled against the Byzantine battlements of Istanbul’s old city.
Within hours, the last remnants of a thousand years of Rom history were wiped out by bulldozers.
Anti-riot police supervised this final phase last week of the demolition of Sulukule, a neighborhood on the European bank of Istanbul once home to a vibrant community of musicians and artists whose rhythmic songs and belly dancing served as the city’s musical heart.
Similar scenes have been repeated across the country as municipalities, supported by the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), drive home a programme of urban renewal, destroying ramshackle and often unsanitary housing in favour of new tower blocks, often many kilometers (miles) outside localities.
But the demolition of Sulukule caused controversy as it razed an ancient community of Rom gypsies who can trace their history in the suburb back to Byzantine times.
« A big thank you to the municipality, » said Celep, who is unemployed.
« Thanks to them I will sleep on the street with my wife, my new-born child and the four-year-old. We have no where to go. »
City officials in the Fatih district, run by mayor Mustafa Demir from the AKP, estimate the project will relocate about 3,500 people from Sulukule — 1,300 of them Roms — and replace their old housing with fancy, wood-panelled « Ottoman style » buildings.
The demolition, begun at the end of 2006, will wipe out « hovels you wouldn’t dump coal in, » according to the mayor.
However local activist Hacer Foggo of a group called the Sulukule Platform estimates that closer to 5,000 people, the bulk of them members of the minority, are being displaced, and all to benefit the ruling party and its allies.
« Who is going to buy the houses that they will build here? It will be the profiteers, those close to the AKP, » she said. « The idea is to expel the poor from the city centre and put the rich in their place. »
Turkish media reported a few months ago that several AKP members and figures close to the party were allegedly among the prospective buyers of the new houses.
Foggo said the resettlement will break up a community that has survived through centuries thanks to a tradition of solidarity and mutual aid.
« Here at least everyone knew each other, the rent was very low and the local grocer always gave you credit, » she added.
Sulukule welcomed generations of residents from other parts of Istanbul who came for music, booze and belly dancing before a ban in the 1990s by conservative governments shut its colorful neighbourhood taverns.
Some meanwhile insist the redevelopment of Sulukule amounts to more than the disappearance of one of the most picturesque parts of this sprawling city of more than 12 million that has served as the capital of three empires — Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman.
It means the end of a millennia of history, according to British researcher Adrian Marsh, a specialist on the Roms of Turkey.
Sulukule was the oldest known settlement in the world of Nomadic Roms, said Marsh, first mentioned by a Byzantine scribe in 1054.
His writings speak of « Egyptians » living in black tents along the fortress walls and eking out an existence thanks to their belly dancers, fortune tellers and dancing bears, Marsh said.
After Constantinople — as it was then known — fell to the Turks in 1453, Sulukule’s dancers and musicians became fixtures of the opulent nights at the Ottoman court.
« Demolishing Sulukule is not the same as demolishing just any other gypsy slum, the way it happens all over Turkey and Europe, » said Marsh.
« It is the annihilation of the memory of an entire community. »
A Rom man salvages goods from what once was his neighbourhood following its demolition by authorities in the Sulukule neighborhood of Istanbul. Municipal workers, guarded by anti-riot police, supervised this week the final phases of demolition in Sulukule, a district on the European bank of the Istanbul that was once home to a vibrant community of musicians and artists.
© 2007 AFP Mustafa Ozer
A Rom man stands amongst his possessions beside the wreckege of what once was his home in the Sulukule neighborhood of Istanbul. Municipal workers, guarded by anti-riot police, supervised this week the final phases of demolition in Sulukule, a district on the European bank of the Istanbul that was once home to a vibrant community of musicians and artists.
© 2007 AFP Mustafa Ozer
A bulldozer destroys a house in Sulukule neighborhood of Istanbul. Anti-riot police supervised this final phase last week of the demolition of Sulukule, a neighborhood on the European bank of Istanbul once home to a vibrant community of musicians and artists whose rhythmic songs and belly dancing served as the city’s musical heart.
© 2007 AFP Mustafa Ozer