By Timur Hammond, author of Placing Islam: Geographies of Connection in Twentieth-Century Istanbul

In late June 2023, the building known as Feshane was reopened by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality as ‘ArtIstanbul,’ a complex consisting of expansive gallery space, a café, meeting rooms, and a library. Located in what is now the district of Eyüpsultan and a short walk from the Mosque of Eyüp Sultan, the building was originally built in 1839 to meet the Ottoman Empire’s need for fez and soon expanded to produce a broader range of woven textiles. By the end of the 19th century, Feshane was as one important anchor of the Ottoman Empire’s industrialization and a key part of the urban landscape of Istanbul’s Golden Horn. Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War I and the declaration of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the factory was reorganized, nationalized, and eventually came under the direction of Sümerbank, the state industrial holding company. Between the 1930s and the early 1980s, the factory continued to be a central part of the district’s social and economic life.

However, in the aftermath of Turkey’s September 1980 military coup, the privatization of state-led assets, and the deindustrialization of the Golden Horn, Feshane’s future was suddenly in doubt. As I explain briefly in my book Placing Islam, planners working for the Eyüp Municipality tried to protect Feshane from the bulldozers that were leveling factories, workshops, and warehouses on both sides of the Golden Horn. Eyüp Municipality publications from the late 1980s imagined the building as a Museum of Textiles and Industries; instead, however, it was recast at the future home of Istanbul’s Contemporary Art Museum. In 1992, the restored complex—largely emptied of its textile machinery—hosted the 3rd International Istanbul Biennial in 1992. For some, the biennial signaled Istanbul’s ascension into a ‘global’ constellation of cities that were transforming their former industrial landscapes into new cultural destinations. Others, however, criticized the choice of Feshane.

As I relate in Placing Islam, one example came in June 1993, when a front-page article in the local newspaper Eyüp Haber (Eyüp News) decried, “The flying of all the Zionist and imperialist countries’ flags—chief among them Israel and America—in the skies above Feshane and only the Republic of Turkey’s flag not being found.” The article continued by accusing the proposed art museum of being a plot to “erode” the spiritual and religious importance of Eyüp. It was no accident that the story was published in Eyüp Haber. The newspaper was closely linked with the Islamist Welfare (Refah) Party; its editor, Ahmet Genç, would be elected Eyüp’s mayor in 1994. At the scale of the district municipality, the metropolitan municipality, and the nation as a whole, the Welfare Party often used these cultural debates as a political tool to sharpen the distinction between ‘our values’ and the threat of ‘them.’ Following Genç’s election in 1994 (alongside Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s municipal victory), the plans for the museum fell through. Over much of the next two decades, the building played several different roles, none of which was especially long-lasting. By the time I was finishing revisions on Placing Islam, the building was being discussed as the home to a future ‘Museum of Sufism.’

What changed? The 2019 mayoral victory of Ekrem İmamoğlu, marking the first time in 25 years that the Justice and Development Party (led by now President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) did not control the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality. A full account of İmamoğlu’s administration is well beyond the scope of this post, but one priority has been a series of highly visible restoration projects across the city. As one admiring interview began, “İBB Heritage (İBB Miras, the office tasked with restoration projects), which has, restoring structures that had been left unproductive, brought new contemporary living spaces (çağdaş yaşam alanları) for the city has also rescued the city’s symbolic places from destruction.” In other words, the municipality’s restoration projects – of which ArtIstanbul is one – are both a cultural project and a political investment, seeking to make visible the success of İmamoğlu in the lead-up to the 2024 municipal election.

Yet in ways that echo the 1993 debates, the opening of ArtIstanbul has been criticized by civil society organizations for its supposed insulting of Turkey’s “national and spiritual values” (milli ve manevi değerler). A story in Yeni Akit, a conservative newspaper, added to the list of offenses: “LGBT propaganda, expressions denigrating religion, dancers in front of a mosque adorned with an English-language mahya, paintings showing sexual relations, grotesque and naked statues, visuals containing violence against the police, symbols of satanism, and praise of socialism and communism.” As of this writing, the protests continue. The organizers claim that they don’t have a political agenda, but the coordinated media coverage suggests a clear aim: Sharpening the lines of cultural difference in contemporary Istanbul to consolidate once more as ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ In writing a Conclusion to Placing Islam, I deliberately refrained from making strong statements about where Istanbul—and Eyüpsultan in particular—might go. Partly, that reflected the uncertainty surrounding contemporary Turkey, but it was a deliberate choice to leave this place and its histories open to change and revision, to recognize that Feshane is, as Doreen Massey puts it, “ a conjunction of many histories and many spaces.”