Taksim Square and Gezi Park: a world heritage site of struggle for human rights?

Sociologist Özlem Kumrular appealed: ‘In Turkey, there are 11 World Heritage sites under the protection of UNESCO. Petition for Gezi Park [to be one] too! [Türkiye’de UNESCO’nun koruduğu 11 Dünya Mirası var. Gezi Parkı için sen de yaz! #GeziParkiUnescoWorldHeritage @UNESCO]’. But ‘[she] could not get support [destek göremedim]’. That’s a pity, because I think it’s an interesting idea (though, as everyone recognises, it’s unlikely to be implemented by the Turkish state…).

Neither Gezi Park nor Taksim Square has a monument or other architecture that, in and of itself, would constitute cultural heritage of ‘outstanding universal value’. However, the positive and negative heritage of Gezi Park and Taksim Square could make the complex eligible for World Heritage status.

One of the criteria for inscription on the World Heritage List is ‘to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design’. Another criterion is ‘to be directly or tangibly associated with events or living traditions, with ideas, or with beliefs, with artistic and literary works of outstanding universal significance’.

  1. Taksim Square was (re)designed as a secular republican nationalist space at the birth of a country that was defined by its secular republican nationalism. As recent events have demonstrated, it is still a key site of ‘struggle for [ideological] predominance between secularists (Ataturkists) and Islamists (through architectural (re)development).
  2. Moreover, Taksim Square’s significance has expanded to encompass the central Western struggle over the socio-economic and geopolitical order. It was the site of the Bloody Sunday Massacre of 16th February 1969, which was a fascist paramilitary attack on a popular protest against imperialism, and the “Second Bloody Sunday” Taksim Square Massacre of 1st May 1977, which was a coordinated police-and-paramilitary attack on a march for labour rights.
  3. Both massacres were crimes of CIA-backed “Deep State”/”Counter-Guerrilla” forces, under NATO’s Operation Gladio, as part of a Cold War “strategy of tension”. As such, Taksim Square constitutes cultural heritage of the Cold War and the global struggle for democracy (and could be characterised as the embodiment of the intangible cultural heritage of working-class struggle).
  4. Similarly, Gezi Park was created through the demolition of the former Ottoman state’s Topçu Barracks. Again, the state’s plan to demolish the public park and recreate (or imagine) the barracks as a private, hypercapitalist/neoliberal Islamist space shows that these defining politico-religious and socio-economic struggles continue.
  5. Likewise, since the emergence of the uprising and its repression, Gezi Park could be characterised as the embodiment of the intangible cultural heritage of democratic struggle. Tellingly, one member of the movement to protect Gezi Park, the Confederation of Trade Unions of Revolutionary Workers (Devrimci İşçi Sendikaları Konfederasyonu (DİSK)), was the organiser of the march that was targeted in the Taksim Square Massacre.
  6. Furthermore, Gezi Park was built over (and with architectural elements from) the Armenian community’s Surp Hagop/Pangaltı cemetery (which was gradually demolished between 1912 and 1939). Particularly as that programme of destruction included the 1922 erasure of the 1919 memorial to the Armenian Genocide (which is officially denied, the recognition of which can be prosecuted), Gezi Park also stands as evidence of humanity’s capacity for inhumane treatment of others (and others’ struggle for remembrance, dignity and human rights).

Indeed, aside from the state’s natural unwillingness to submit Taksim Square and Gezi Park for official recognition as world heritage, there appears to be only one problem: ‘protection, management, authenticity and integrity of properties are also important considerations’. So, the very attacks on the sites that contribute to their eligibility could invalidate that eligibility; and the consequent lack of legal protection could leave those sites vulnerable to destruction.

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