ISTANBUL — They lived for almost 1,000 years around the remains of Istanbul's Byzantine walls. But when they were forced to leave, the gypsies of Sulukule only found out about their eviction from the journalists flocking to their shantytowns to cover the story.
"We heard from the media that the neighborhood would be destroyed to make way for luxury residential developments," Mehmet Asim Hallaq, 55, a spokesman for the ongoing campaign opposing the removal, told me in the summer of 2007. "This is a kind of aesthetic assimilation they're trying to impose on us."
It is all part of what locals call the "Dubaification of Istanbul." Kemal Ataturk’s secular Turkish republic has strived to put water between its Ottoman Empire precursor and the European vision it harbors of itself. With Turkey’s beaches beating Spain to second place as the holiday choice of Britons for the first time last summer, a real estate boom has swept across the country.
Istanbul's gypsies say they have inhabited Sulukule ever since the 11th century, when their Roma ancestors arrived in Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium.
Their presence is recorded in sources that describe how they lived in black tents, practicing fortune telling, playing music and dancing at the city's feasts. When Istanbul fell to the Ottoman conquerors in 1453, it was the Sulukule Gate that was first breached, while many of the Ottoman cannons and other artillery were forged by the contingents of Roma metal workers and smiths that were part of the Ottoman army.
Istanbul is in the throes of massive redevelopment, as Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, a former mayor of the city, seeks to transform it into a regional tourist and financial hub.
Massive commercial projects are springing up along Istanbul's coastline, with luxury residential apartments, a cruise docking area and an "Ottoman-style market" being constructed in one port area. In the financial district of Levent, United Arab Emirates construction companies are throwing up skyscrapers such as a controversial project called "Dubai Towers — Istanbul."
Solukule’s moneyless gypsies are the big losers. They sit in the smoky cafes of the out-of-town development where they have been relocated and fret about trading their cosy niche by the city walls for the wide open fields of Thrace and an uncertain future.
(Iason Athanasiadis is reporting from Turkey on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.)