(AFP / Ozan Kose)

Istanbul: a cityscape now scarred by terror

Istanbul -- Almost everyone who lives in or visits Istanbul falls in love with the city. In this vast, sprawling metropolis with centuries of Christian and Islamic history, everyone can draft a highly personal and emotional map in their heads of what the city means to them. For some, it may be holy sites and football stadiums; for others coffee houses down back alleys where you crouch on a stool and someone reads your fortune.

But over the past year, grim landmarks have appeared on those personal Istanbul maps, as terror attacks have relentlessly struck the city.

I have my own very personal map of the city inside my head. I first came here in the late 1990s  -- somewhat implausibly for a university rowing race -- and was spellbound by the setting sun over the domes of the Golden Horn. And vowed that one day I would come back.

The Golden Horn, January, 2016. (AFP / Ozan Kose)

Since arriving here to work as a correspondent in July 2014, I have added to my map --  favourite spots for a dawn run along the Bosphorus as the sun rises over Asia, that mosque on the Golden Horn with the fabulous view, the cafe that can make life seem blissful, that hidden theatre down the seedy looking back street that no-one seems to know about.

But now, my own and other people’s perceptions of Istanbul are being shadowed by a map of terror, increasingly dotted with marks where horror has struck at well-known and much-loved places during 2016.

Including the July 15 coup, there have been at least seven major attacks in Istanbul over the last year, each one striking at key aspects of the city’s life.

The latest is Reina.

People had long warned of the risk of an attack on New Year’s Eve in Istanbul. And of the risk of a strike against a nightclub. But that did nothing to take away the shock of the attack on the Reina nightclub as the city rang in 2017. Clubbing may not be to everyone’s taste in the city, but the place is a byword for sophistication, a hangout for actors, footballers and high-profile visitors.

I often pass it on morning runs by the Bosphorus as the final guests leave after another night of waterside partying. And then on the water by ferry back home. Now, there’s a moving impromptu shrine outside the club to the victims, with pictures and flowers. From the water side it has now been covered in black drapes to keep prying eyes away from the investigation. But the sea wind blows these to the side, revealing what looks like any other bar and dance floor scene. The attacker used bullets, not bombs.

The Reina night club the morning after the attack. (AFP / Ozan Kose)

Presumably, the show will one day again go on for Reina, at its spectacular location by the first Bosphorus bridge with the lights of Asia twinkling on the other side of the Strait. But I will never be able to forget the shadow of what took place at 1:15 am on January 1, 2017.

(AFP / Ozan Kose)

2016 had also begun with horror: with an attack blamed on jihadists against German tourists visiting the historic core of the city in Sultanahmet.

I often return to the scene of that attack to admire two of the city’s most astonishing monuments --- the obelisk of the Byzantine Emperor Theodosius and the also Byzantine-era Serpent Column. It’s an incredible place -- these are among the oldest continuously standing urban monuments anywhere in the world.

(AFP / Ozan Kose)
(AFP / Bulent Kilic)



With tourism in Istanbul now down drastically, it’s also pretty peaceful. The odd group, most likely these days from Arab countries or southern Asia, ambles by. Touts amiably offer photographs or souvenirs (these are not the days of a hard sell). But the memory and the mourning now stains the history. I think of the time a group of tourists were here on a sunny January morning -- their heads also filled with Byzantine history -- and how everything changed in an instant.

Then a deadly jihadist suicide bombing in March hit a place which everyone visits in the city at some time or other - Istiklal Street, the main shopping thoroughfare of the city.

A former Ottoman mansion that I had always admired, the beautiful Celal Aga Konagi hotel near the Vezneciler metro station, was wrecked in June in a bombing claimed by Kurdish militants that also blew out the glass in a nearby spectacular Ottoman-era Sehzade Mosque. Life now bustles by as before in the busy area and maybe passers-by think that the hoardings and rubble in front of the hotel are due to some misbegotten construction work, hardly unusual in this city. But to me the area will never be the same again.

The hotel a day after the attack, June, 2016. (AFP / Ozan Kose)

A place I used at least every month, Istanbul's Ataturk airport that is also key to the city's economic prosperity, was also hit in June in an attack blamed on Islamic State (IS) extremists. Within a day of the strike, the airport had resumed services and travellers now rush through having forgotten, or maybe preferring to forget, the horror. But I notice that the sites of the bombings are still covered up by hoardings with the branding of the airport operator. Small Turkish flags and pictures of those who died give more than an echo of that night.

Then came the failed coup bid blamed on followers of the US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, where deadly pitched battles took place on the First Bosphorus Bridge between renegade soldiers and protesters seeking to defend the established order.  The bridge, one of the modern wonders of the city and utterly spectacular when illuminated at night, has now been renamed Bridge of the Martyrs of July 15.

The Bosphorus Bridge a few weeks before the failed coup. (AFP / Ozan Kose)

Two locations that I -- in fact most residents of the city -- pass frequently were struck in December in a double attack claimed by Kurdish militants outside the football stadium of top Istanbul side Besiktas. The stadium is just a short walk down the hill from AFP’s offices in Istanbul and at a major transport nexus on the shores of the Bosphorus in the shadow of the mighty Ottoman-era Dolmabahce palace. Tourists still go to the palace and football was back at the Vodafone Arena within days of the attack. Yet the scar of the tragedy remains.

The stadium a day after the bombing. (AFP / Yasin Akgul)

And now the Reina attack.

Twelve of the victims were Turkish citizens and 27 foreigners. The place had a reputation for being an elite hangout. But everyone knows that they or a close friend could have been there -- why not do something a little bit chic, it’s the New Year after all.

Everyone asks now -- when and where will the next attack come? Which place in this special, eternal city will become scarred by the wicked blade of terror and its place on the city’s map forever shadowed? An additional chill came from the claim for the Reina attack by IS. Despite all the bloodshed blamed on the jihadists, this marked the first time the group undisputedly boasted that it had carried out a major slaughter in Turkey.

Of course attacks in the city are not new. A visit to the British consulate is a solemn reminder of the 2003 Al Qaeda bombing that killed staff including the British consul. Or the nearby Neve Shalom synagogue hit by horrendous attacks in 1986 and 2003 but still operational today under heavy security.

But never before has Istanbul, and Turkey, been subjected to such a relentless cascade of attacks that have taken so many innocent and often heartbreakingly young lives of police, civilians, foreigners.

I will always love the city. I hope people from all over are not put off and will still come to visit what remains one of the most welcoming and most genuine cities on the planet. Turkey and its small business owners deserve this. But the nervousness -- especially in crowded spots -- is palpable. The threat of attack now stalks the city’s famous silhouettes and shows no sign of going away.

A Turkish riot police officer stands guard in January, 2016, after the attack on Sultanahmet. (AFP / Ozan Kose)


Stuart Williams