Taksim Square, one of Istanbul’s most famous cultural battlegrounds and the scene of 2013 protests against the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has officially embraced a new religious identity after the inauguration of an imposing new mosque.
The controversial project was opened by Erdoğan on Friday after four years of construction. With two minarets and a 30-metre-high dome, the huge art deco building symbolically dwarfs the square’s Republic Monument – which depicts Turkey’s secularist founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – as well as the nearby Hagia Triada Greek Orthodox church.
The house of worship in the heart of the modern city is a longtime dream for the pious Erdoğan, who has worked to dismantle Atatürk’s secular legacy and put his own stamp on Turkey during nearly two decades in charge.
Several hundred people turned up to pray outside the new house of worship on Friday afternoon. Most sat patiently in the sunshine on paper prayer mats featuring the mosque’s name and inauguration date, or took selfies or videos on their phones, as the call to prayer boomed across the open space for the first time.
In line with Ottoman tradition, 25 tonnes of rose water was sprayed around the area ahead of the grand opening. The president was met with scattered applause on his arrival, waving at the crowd before heading inside the complex to lead the ceremony.
“Taksim mosque was brought to our Istanbul following a nearly one-and-a-half century struggle,” Erdoğan said in a speech after the prayers, claiming that plans for the house of worship date back to a Russian-Turkish war in 1877-78.
“I hope it will illuminate our city like an oil lamp for centuries to come,” he added.
The timing of the inauguration, which came the same week as the eighth anniversary of the Gezi Park protests, was not lost on anyone in the deeply polarised country. Pro-government media went into panegyric overdrive on Friday morning, with one newspaper declaring the mosque a “victory over the Gezi terror”.
The Gezi Park movement, named for the green space adjacent to Taksim Square, was sparked by plans to redevelop the area, which were fiercely opposed by campaigners who argued that the rare green space in the city centre should be protected.
The demonstrations morphed into a wave of protests against the increasingly authoritarian direction of Erdoğan’s government that swept across Turkey in the summer of 2013, and were stamped out after a harsh state crackdown.
Taksim Square, which lies just outside the original Byzantine city walls, was traditionally home to Istanbul’s religious and ethnic minorities. Since the Republic of Turkey was founded a century ago, it has become both a bustling cultural hub and the site of protests and police violence: in 1977, 34 people were killed during a May Day commemoration.
Citing a lack of mosques for worshippers in the area, Erdoğan declared his intention to build a mosque in Taksim when he was mayor of Istanbul in the 1990s, but the project was beset by court battles for decades.
“The mosque wasn’t built to meet an urban need: it is an ideological and political symbol. The mysticism of religion is being used as a tool, and that is a sad feeling,” said Mücella Yapıcı, a founder of the Taksim Solidarity campaign group.
“Maybe [the mosque’s construction] is something the next generations can learn from … Those in charge can’t always control the narrative.”
According to the state-owned Anadolu news agency, the Taksim mosque complex can accommodate 4,000 worshippers, and includes an exhibition hall, library, soup kitchen and underground car park.
It is one of many construction mega-projects that have come to define Erdoğan’s rule, and the third landmark house of worship he has opened in Istanbul, Turkey’s cultural capital, in recent years in an effort to placate a conservative voting base while the government grapples with an economic crisis.
In 2019, the president opened the massive Çamlıca mosque on a hillside on the Anatolian side of the city. He converted the Hagia Sophia, a Byzantine cathedral the modern state’s secular founders turned into a museum, back into a mosque last year.