On Tuesday night, faithful to a century-old daily tradition, the Fatih Express train to Eskişehir pulled slowly out of Istanbul’s Haydarpaşa station. As the last carriage disappeared in a flurry of snowflakes into the darkness, a long and prosperous era in Turkish history drew to a close.
For Jan. 31 marked the beginning of the end for Turkey’s busiest rail terminal -- train services as we know them from İstanbul to Anatolia officially will be no more, and when, in a few months, inter-city services cease to run, silence will descend on the echoing hallways of one of the most important architectural, historical and symbolic buildings in İstanbul.
The official line from the director of Turkish State railways (TCDD) is that the station is being closed temporarily for 30 months so that work on the high-speed train (YHT) line to Ankara and the Marmaray project, which will connect İstanbul’s Asian and European sides via an undersea commuter train line, can be completed. However, true to widespread suspicions that the municipality would use the break in services as a convenient loophole to embark on yet another gentrification project, reports this week hint it is strongly unlikely the historic structure will resume its traditional purpose.
Designed by German architects Otto Ritter and Helmut Conu at the request of the Anatolian Railway in 1906, Haydarpaşa station was inaugurated by Sultan Abdülhamid II on Aug. 19, 1908. However, for thousands of people, the majestic gothic structure overlooking the Bosporus has represented much more than just a transport terminal.
Over the course of the past century, the historic station has witnessed protests, concerts, victorious returns and tearful departures. During World War I, young troops boarded trains at Haydarpaşa, never to return. Many of the great films from the sparkling Yeşilçam era of Turkish cinema featured scenes shot at the station, and it was at Haydarpaşa that some families who had migrated to İstanbul in search of a better life stepped off the train to catch a glimpse of the sea for the very first time.
On Tuesday night, Sunday’s Zaman spoke to some of the passengers waiting to board the last train out of town. Ayşe Ünver has lived in İstanbul for 40 years and used the services to travel often to and from Eskişehir. “They say 30 months, but we know what that means. It could be 30 years! I have both laughed with joy here and cried with sadness. The last time I saw my oldest brother was on this very platform. Yes,” she says with a nod, “I have never forgiven myself that I didn’t wave at him as the train moved off. Tonight is a sad night.”
Another regular passenger, Murat Keneş, expresses displeasure at the closure. “The train was always something different. It was cheap, enjoyable and comfortable. They talk about this fast train, but why are people in such a hurry these days? What are a few hours on the road?” he exclaims. Ahmet Çalışkan has been running a barbershop in the station for the past 23 years. “Everyone will be affected,” he says, smoking glumly by a small heater in his somewhat outdated salon. “I’m not going to close down yet, but I don’t hold much hope for these next few years. No one has told us anything; they never do.”
Çalışkan’s neighbor, Cenk Sözübir, the owner of the popular Haydarpaşa Station Restaurant, was similarly unsure of what the future holds. “We learn what we know from the press,” he says irritably. “One day, it’s going to be a hotel, the next a shopping center, the next a museum. Who knows? I certainly don’t.”
Following months of speculation, light was finally shed on the fate of the old terminal when İstanbul Mayor Kadir Topbaş stated at a press conference on Thursday it is unlikely the historic structure will resume its services as a railway station. Instead, Topbaş confirmed a report by the Radikal daily on Wednesday to the effect that the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality is planning to include Haydarpaşa in a large-scale development scheme, which will see the station as well as many of the surrounding buildings in the adjacent shipyard regenerated into a vast 15,000-square-meter cultural and tourism complex. Haydarpaşa, Topbaş said, will most likely take on the role of a culture and arts center, with the possibility it will also function in some capacity as a hotel.
Although not a surprising announcement, activists and railway enthusiasts alike have expressed anger and sadness at the decision, which they see as typical of a trend towards pushing gentrification in İstanbul to the detriment of preserving historical structures. Not only is a grand establishment that has over the years served as a gateway from Europe to Asia and a major transportation hub for much of the Middle East falling into disuse, but long-term workers have also been left in the lurch.
Running along the platform are a line of six kiosks. Selling identical goods, their charming vendors compete in a series of discordant bellows for the attentions of disgruntled passersby. Bahattin Kale moved to İstanbul from the northern province of Tokat in 1985 and has manned his small kiosk for 20 years. “Am I sad? Of course I’m sad!” he exclaims. “This has been my job for more than two decades, and now all at once, I have to pack up.”
“I understand some people worry about the historic building, but for me, what matters is earning my daily bread! To be honest, this set-up isn’t ideal, six kiosks in a row. It’s like a competition, everyone is calling out ‘Welcome,’ and people don’t know where to look.” He lowers his voice and continues: “I don’t even like the other sellers. But at the end of the day it’s a job -- it gets you by.”
It has been an emotional week for those associated with the station. Saturday saw a party of 50 people, including former and current station employees, brave the biting cold to board one of the last trains to Eskişehir on a symbolic journey to visit the grave of the station’s first director-general, Behiç Erkin, who passed away in 1961. On Tuesday evening, former railway workers gathered to pay a last tribute to the old station over a meal at the Haydarpaşa Station Restaurant.
Restaurant owner Sözübir is one of the few workers about the station who seemed confident his business won’t suffer anytime soon. “My father worked here and my grandfather before him, we have been running this business since 1964 so we have a strong reputation. Most of our customers travel here especially for the restaurant, so we should be OK. But the other businesses,” he raises a telling eyebrow. “Well, let’s just say it’s unlikely people will come here especially to have a shave or buy a can of Coke.”
Haydarpaşa is quieter now, pigeons flutter from the station’s pitched roof and placards detailing now redundant routes lay propped against a wall. Above the platform, a sign heralding İstanbul’s status as the 2010 European Capital of Culture, declares ironically, “For Future Inspirations, We Wish to See You Again.” A message that has passed its sell by date sooner than many hoped or even expected, one thing is certain -- with Haydarpaşa’s closure, more than just a little bit of İstanbul’s inspiration has slipped silently away.