Istanbul’s Haydarpaşa Terminal, forced into hibernation in 2013, threatened by projects that seek to transform it into a shopping mall or hotel, is a painful reminder of a bygone geographic porosity that once characterized the Middle East, now made impossible by contemporary borders, travel restrictions and the territorial appetites of Western and Islamist conquistadors. Long before Nasser and his pan-Arabism, transnationalism existed as a way of life rather than an ideology – a fluidity of movement enabling the cultivation of shared, regional dispositions and sensibilities. There is no need for Haydarpaşa and its transnational routes in the Middle East of today, but Turkish activists are still fighting to preserve it, clinging to the possibility of a tomorrow when it might be needed yet again.
Dozens of train cars – white with blue trim and deep red doors – sit proud yet lonely in Haydarpaşa Terminal, unsure of when they’ll depart again from one of Istanbul’s most emblematic landmarks.
The majestic Haydarpaşa, built in a regal neoclassical style by two German architects in the early 1900’s, was a lofty present from Kaiser Wilhelm II to the Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamid II. The starting point and final destination on important domestic and international routes during the late Ottoman period and throughout the Turkish Republic, the station now lies dormant, unused since 2013.
Trains once left the impressive terminal bound for as far as Medinah on the Hejaz Railway. Meanwhile, the Taurus Express took passengers to the southern Iraqi city of Basra, right up until the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 forced the line’s closure.
A 1935 travel journal details a trip on the Taurus Express that departed Istanbul on a Sunday morning and reached Basra on Friday. The journey passed through the Turkish city of Adana before passing into Syria and traveling to Aleppo. After crossing the Euphrates, the route continued to Mosul, then Baghdad and ultimately Basra. It’s impossible to imagine such a route existing today, with a devastated Aleppo in the grip of an ongoing bloody civil war and the Islamic State (ISIS) having seized first peripheral Iraqi and Syrian villages and later major urban centres, like Mosul.
But Haydarpaşa also symbolizes the beginning of one the century’s darkest tragedies. The station holds great significance within the context of the Armenian Genocide, as more than two hundred prominent İstanbul Armenians were detained and deported to several locations in Anatolia via Haydarpaşa on April 24, 1915. Many were killed shortly thereafter, while some survivors such as the renowned composer Komitas experienced a swift deterioration in their mental health, irreparably wounded by the traumatic journey.
The terminal’s iconic status has been maintained in republican Turkey. Scenes of passengers newly arrived from Anatolia at the station with all their belongings are prominent fixtures in Turkish cinema. A shining example can be seen in the 1977 film Gönül Ferman Dinlemez. The shriek of an incoming train precedes the camera zooming in hastily to the Haydarpaşa exterior before rapidly panning to its imposing entrance. Passengers disembark (from trains closely resembling the ones resting in the yard today) and pile trolleys high with luggage – all the possessions they own. Newcomers stare in admiration at the Marmara Sea just below its convergence with the Bosporus, the old city skyline gleaming across the water.
Haydarpaşa has not functioned as a train station since June 2013, when the final train on the city’s suburban line – which threaded its way through Istanbul’s Asian suburbs and ended up in the neighbouring province of Kocaeli – left the depo. A year and a half earlier, all other outbound trains were halted for the construction of a high-speed link to the capital, which eventually opened in the summer of 2014, stopping short of Haydarpaşa.
While the station is still closed, debates over its future remain on the agenda. Controversial municipality plans to convert Haydarpaşa into a hotel and shopping centre have been met with staunch resistance from Istanbullites, who demand that it remain solely a station.
It’s a crisp fall Sunday when I meet Ayşen Dönmez, a vivacious activist who has worked at Haydarpaşa as a Turkish State Railways (TCDD) legal counsel for 36 years. It is the 145th consecutive Sunday that Haydarpaşa Solidarity has met to demonstrate on the stairs of the terminal. In February 2012, days after the final Anatolia-bound train had departed, the group’s first Sunday meeting was held with the aim of of protecting the station and ensuring its future use. On this particular Sunday, the group is comprised of mostly older, youthfully disposed citizens who have come to sing and shout slogans in opposition to the station’s appropriation. “Haydarpaşa will never be alone,” they chant. “Cultural legacy cannot be sold, transit rights cannot be stalled,” they shout between Turkish folk songs.
“Since the [ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP)] government came to power [in 2002], they have sought to implement a nearly 1 million-square-metre project to redevelop Haydarpaşa and its surroundings,” Dönmez explains, while we sit on the steps of the terminal. “[Istanbul’s AKP Mayor] Kadir Topbaş unveiled the plans for this project at a real estate fair in 2005,” she says, adding that at the fair, Topbaş claimed that with the inevitable introduction of the Marmaray railway tunnel between the two continents of Istanbul (which opened in 2013), Haydarpaşa would no longer be needed as a train station. Shortly after this announcement, the Haydarpaşa Solidarity platform was founded by employees, members of the Istanbul Union of Engineers and Architects Chambers and various other organisations.
“Haydarpaşa is important from a historical perspective, since it was built 106 years ago as a station, and has been used as such from then until now. It is also important due to its special structure and style, and its role as the country’s main transportation centre. We view Haydarpaşa as having both a significant cultural and industrial legacy, because it possesses a living history, one that is based on its functionality. The station’s history and its legacy is kept alive by its usage,” says Dönmez.
In 2010, a fire broke out that ravaged the third floor and roof of the station. Dönmez, who worked on the third floor for decades, believes the blaze was intentionally sparked by those with a vested interest in the station’s redevelopment. It occurred on a Sunday, when none of the TCDD employees were working upstairs. The fire still rages on for those unwilling to allow Haydarpaşa to be removed from its role as Istanbul’s quintessential transit hub. “Our struggle continues until this project is completely abolished,” Dönmez says, matter-of-factly.
While a restoration plan approved by Turkey’s Council of Monuments earlier in 2014 claimed there was no mall or shopping centre project, plans later surfaced for a 100,000-square meter space including a workshop, underground market and parking garage. The plans were rejected by the mayor of the station’s Kadıköy Municipality, who said that he would not approve of a project that failed to protect the original spirit of the terminal.
Signs welcoming incoming passengers to “Istanbul, European Cultural Capital of 2010” still adorn the rafters at Haydarpaşa. The inside of the station is occasionally used as an art gallery, or as the set for music videos by famous pop stars, and the station’s restaurant is still open. According to management, business is doing fine. Diners can opt to sit just outside the entrance alongside the hibernating trains, imagining scenes from decades earlier when passengers would drop in for a bite to eat before a long journey, or take their meals inside the elegant restaurant, whose door opens to the glittering night-time Marmara Sea, while tunes of desperation and jealousy by Muazzez Ersoy flutter from the stereo.
“Sometimes after half-past ten, when the restaurant closes, you don’t see a single person all night,” says Ahmet, who works in a small security booth in the middle of the station. When Haydarpaşa was still in use, Ahmet checked tickets on board and travelled from city to city on the Anatolian lines.
“These old trains won’t be used on the high-speed line. If they are usable, maybe they will be sent elsewhere, if not, off to the scrap yard,” he says, gesturing towards the nearby cars. “It’s harder to pass the time working by yourself,” says Ahmet, speaking to me as a I crouch down to reach the minuscule window of his cramped booth. It is clear that Ahmet, who for years travelled the country while clocked in, is biding his time until the station is again up and running.
On that Thursday evening, the station’s doors, as always, are wide open and welcoming, although no one seems to have received the invitation. In the waiting room sits an empty currency exchange rate panel that looks like it could be from the 1960’s. Nearby are TV screens broadcasting messages from the TCDD and the Ministry of Tourism and Culture, interspersed with promotional material and Martin Luther King, Jr. quotes. The lone working ATM and the television sets are the only features that make the Haydarpaşa waiting room seem like it exists in the present era. The clocks on the inside of the waiting room are set correctly, while the one adorning the wall outside hasn’t moved in years. It’s stalled at 3:17.
The ticket counters are boarded up and the area remains mostly empty save for a security guard pacing and waiting for his shift to be over. The waiting room in particular imparts a crushing sense of melancholy; particularly when gazing out of its main entrance window, where four small panels are stained a forlorn shade of green. Once a starting point for transnational routes that now seem impossible due to ongoing conflicts in Syria and Iraq, the important domestic and suburban lines could once again depart from and arrive in Haydarpaşa, but the threat of unnecessary redevelopment and the uncertainty of the station’s future hang heavy in its chambers.