A Brief History of Bağcılar, Turkey’s Most Misunderstood Municipality

How one district in Istanbul captures so much of Turkey’s history

A Brief History of Bağcılar, Turkey’s Most Misunderstood Municipality
A man pushes a cart in central Bağcılar / Photo courtesy of Evan Pheiffer

“Geography is destiny,” Özcan tells me with a hint of both relish and resignation, “as Ibn Khaldun used to say.” It’s fitting that Özcan, a mild-mannered assistant to the mayor of Bağcılar, one of the Istanbul area’s toughest municipalities, quotes the iconic 14th-century North African polymath. For his life, like Ibn Khaldun’s, has been marked by perennial migration. Born in Diyarbakir, Turkey’s largest predominantly Kurdish city, Özcan spent years in Germany before moving in 2008 to Bağcılar, a district on Istanbul’s European side.

None of this, to be sure, makes him an outlier. With inhabitants from all 81 of Turkey’s provinces, Bağcılar, due west of Istanbul, is to Turkey what Jamaica, Queens, is to the New World: proof that humanity is one. Just not without its growing pains. For starters, Bağcılar’s nearly 1 million people are crammed into 21 square kilometers, an area a third the size of Manhattan. More populous than Copenhagen, Amsterdam or Oslo, on its own Bağcılar would be the densest city on the planet. Yet it’s merely the fourth-most crowded municipality in the Turkish megalopolis.

It’s understandable that Istanbullus love to quote Ibn Khaldun’s famous adage. For 1,000 years they ruled over the heart of Eurasia. But why do people from Bağcılar constantly make recourse to it? After all, Bağcılar is not merely on the periphery of Eurasia’s greatest city: It’s the “other half” incarnate. In any part of Istanbul, to utter its name is to evoke pity and bewilderment in the eyes of the aspiring middle classes, fear and contempt in those of the rich. Even the dolmuş, the ubiquitous minibus that binds Istanbul together, doesn’t go there.

That, it seems, is the problem with translating the word “kader” into “destiny.” For many in the district, geography is something darker. For the 400,000 people under age 30 who inhabit its treeless maze, geography is not destiny, but fate, the iron cage of Fortuna.

A grapevine grows along a wall in central Bağcılar / Photo courtesy of Evan Pheiffer

First incorporated in 1992, Bağcılar is one of Turkey’s youngest municipalities. For most of its history it was the Wild West, a legally ambiguous free-for-all where strife and opportunity were in equal abundance.

“Sure, we’re a new district,” Mehmet Şirin, the deputy to Lokman Çağırıcı, mayor of Bağcılar since 2009, told New Lines. “But remember, most of what you think is central Istanbul was far from the center until the end of Ottoman days. Beyoğlu, Kadıköy, even Üsküdar,” he says, naming three of Istanbul’s most famous districts. Though legally separate, these had been central to the lifeblood of Istanbul for centuries. Bağcılar, on the other hand, was chiefly farmland through the 1970s. Just ask Esat, a muhtar, or village elder, for the secular People’s Republican Party (CHP) in Mahmutbey, Bağcılar’s most prosperous quarter.

“A couple of years ago, I was sitting with a customer on the top floor of a new corporate plaza when I got a phone call from my brother. ‘Where are you?’ my brother asks me. ‘I’m in the village,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll call you back in ten,’” he recalled.

He added that when he hung up, his business associate was livid. “Why would you lie to your brother?” the associate asked him. “And tell him you were in your [ancestral] village?” It took Esat a moment to put two and two together. “But this is my village!” Esat said he told the man as they surveilled the concrete horizon from the 25th floor. “At least it used to be.”

Fırat, an investigative journalist at one of Turkey’s last surviving leftist newspapers, has similar memories. “When we first moved here in 1997 from Mardin,” an ancient Mesopotamian city inhabited by Kurds, Arabs and Syriac Christians, “60% of the neighborhood was gecekondus,” the makeshift single-story family homes that were the staple of the first generation of Anatolian migrants to Turkey’s urban centers.

“At four stories, we had the tallest building on the block,” he said over coffee. “Twenty years later, we can hardly see out the front door!” Dwarfed on four sides by imposing new developments, the small, tilled fields and single-family homes of the 1990s now seem an ancient memory.

High-rise developments, which have improved living conditions but remain financially out of reach to most / Photo courtesy of Evan Pheiffer

Even for a country as quick to urbanize as Turkey, the changes in Bağcılar have been vertiginous. In 1980, when Turkey was still 57% rural, Bağcılar had some 54,000 inhabitants. A decade later, at which point the country had become 57% urban, it had well over 300,000. By the turn of the millennium, the nascent municipality had 560,000 souls, a number that climbed to three quarters of a million by 2010. But just because they came did not mean that anyone had built it.

“We had an old saying that Bağcılar was more backward than any village in Anatolia,” jokes Fuat Sarp, head of the Mahmutbey Selanikliler Foundation, the NGO that coordinates social life among the descendants of Bağcılar’s oldest community. From Salonica, or Thessaloniki in modern Greece, Bağcılar’s Selanikliler were among the 400,000 Muslims forced to flee Greece after the Greco-Turkish Population Exchange of 1923.

“Bağcılar’s roads were entirely made of earth,” Fuat told an oral historian working for the municipality. “Every winter during the rainy months, it was impossible to go anywhere. There was no public transportation, very poor electricity and no infrastructure. For those arriving in search of a better life,” he says wistfully, “Bağcılar was a huge disappointment. Life here was clearly worse!”

Two momentous changes in the early 1990s would start to rectify this situation. The first was Bağcılar’s incorporation as its own municipality in 1992. Breaking off from Bakırköy, a leafier district to the south that until 2019 housed the Atatürk International Airport, Bağcılar now had a government of its own to pursue concrete ends. Among the initial projects were building a modern sewage system, regular trash collection and ridding the district of its tens of thousands of farm animals.

“I gave everyone six months to dispense with their flock,” Feyzullah Kıyıklık, the legendary first mayor who oversaw Bağcılar’s transformation from 1992 to 2007 and is now a member of Parliament for the ruling AKP, said over tea with New Lines.

“There were over 260 stables when I came in,” he recalls, “each of whose owners I spoke to fair and square. ‘You’ve got six months to get your animals out of here, or I take them to my butcher in Tuzla,’ ” a district at the end of Anatolian Istanbul. “Two blokes didn’t believe me,” winks the onetime theology teacher who moonlighted as a lawyer before entering municipal politics. “But at least I sent them back a cut of the meat.”

The second change was the election of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as mayor of Istanbul on a new Islamist party ticket. Despite its coming in third nationally, the Welfare Party’s cleanup of Turkey’s major urban centers was a watershed in modern Turkish history. Taking power in Istanbul, Ankara, Kayseri, Diyarbakir, Konya and Erzurum in the elections of 1994, the party sealed the success of political Islam in Turkish municipal politics for the next quarter century.

Though its successor, the Justice and Development Party (AKP), would later turn toward more neoliberal policies, the Welfare Party was nothing if not in tune with the plight of the urban poor. As the numbers quadrupled from 8.8 million in 1960 to 37 million by 1994, even statistics about Turkey’s ‘urban’ population were a misnomer: Without water, electricity, sewage, or trash removal, for millions of Turks, ‘urban’ meant nothing more than a denser, dirtier, more dangerous version of the villages they had been so eager to leave.

The original populists, Welfare’s heavy hitters were willing to get their hands dirty. “Erdoğan himself came to help pick up the trash when I became mayor,” reminisces Feyzullah.

Feyzullah’s own breakout moment as mayor came in ridding the municipality of the mountains of trash that had long clogged its streets and choked its streams. The catch? The city didn’t have a single truck of its own. So Feyzullah put out a call for vehicles of any kind: the next morning more than 80 trucks had been volunteered. “All the trash that had accrued for years was cleaned up in a month,” Mehmet Orhan, a resident who partook in the operation, told an oral historian. “Thereafter it was like a rose garden.”

For many people, Bağcılar is the worst of both worlds: Not only does it suffer from the violence, exploitation and suffocating density of the big city, but it still has the ignorance, isolation and social conservatism of the village. Even so, to dwell merely upon its shortfalls is to miss the point, say those who’ve governed it for the past 25 years.

“Of course there are new social problems,” concedes Bağcılar’s first mayor with a battle-hardened stoicism. “We have an old saying: ‘An empty stomach doesn’t care what kind of clothes it has on.’ But you have to remember—when we were elected, half the city didn’t know how to read! Now we’ve got four universities and a medical school.”

“Of course we can never compete with old Istanbul,” the current deputy mayor Şirin said. “We’ll never have a view of the Bosporus! But no matter how peacefully the people of any district live, three out of a hundred will always complain about life. It’s only human nature.”

Still, insists Feyzullah, the man who inherited a kingdom of mud: “Bağcılar has never had any real material problems. That is to say, nothing insurmountable. Name the problem—water, sewage, electricity, schools, sports centers, libraries, hospitals—and we solved it! Heck, we even made a children’s parliament, a women’s parliament, and a handicapped persons’ parliament!” As if to say: What more could anyone ask for?

A lot. Take someone like Serra, a university-educated resident out of work since last May. After losing a scholarship to study in France when the pandemic struck, even café and bar owners reject her CV the second they see her address: “How will you get home?” goes the constant refrain. Though Bağcılar has been served by the metro since 2006, the last train leaves the center at 11:30 p.m. Buses don’t run past midnight. If you take a taxi, there goes half your wage.

“What makes Bağcılar unique?” I ask Ali, a well-known barber in the fashionable neighborhood of Cihangir who has lived in Bağcılar since the late 1990s. “Nothing, really,” laughs the 48-year-old who grew up in Tophane, a neighborhood along the Bosporus that he can no longer afford. “It’s just a place to live.”

Not everyone would agree. If gray, overcrowded and architecturally oppressive, Bağcılar still has a certain magic to it, a sense of possibility and solidarity that defy the odds. “Were it up to me,” says Mehmet Orhan, the man who partook in the first trash cleanup, “Bağcılar would be called the municipality of the world! After all, it was built with the bare hands of Bulgarians, Kazakhs, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Albanians and Bosnians. What do I know?” he muses. “There were probably some Russians in there too.”

Deliorman Kebapçısı, one of Bağcılar’s most beloved Bulgarian Turkish restaurants / Photo courtesy of Evan Pheiffer

A brief survey of its history only confirms this. Like much of the country, Bağcılar arose from the ashes of the Turkish War of Independence, a conflict that concluded with the League of Nations-brokered ethnic cleansing of Christians from Anatolia and Muslims from Greece in 1923.

Far outside the city gates as it then was, Bağcılar’s Greek Orthodox villagers were rounded up and sent to Hellas in 1923-4. To replace them came Muslims expelled from northern Greece. Though known to this day as Selanikliler, after what was once the second city in the Ottoman Empire, Salonica, they hailed from all over Western Thrace, a region the rump kingdom of Greece seized from the Ottomans in the First Balkan War of 1912.

Arriving as they did in the same boat, the fabled Trabzon Gemisi, there was something biblical about Bağcılar’s first generation of ‘Turks.’ Like Noah, 280 households got into an ark with all their belongings—animals included—and set sail for Turkish Zion. Upon arrival in villages such as Mahmutbey, where a handful of handsome Greek households stand to this day, they moved into the recently vacated homes and converted the village church into a mosque.

For the next fifty years, these ‘mübadeleler’, or ‘people-of-the-population-exchange,’ raised sheep and grew okra, tobacco, oats, wheat, sunflowers, and grapes. Bağcılar’s name, after all, means “les vignerons,” or grape-growers-and-winemakers. Though now it is haram–forbidden–to make wine in this conservative district, the grapevines still creep up the side of many concrete tenements.

Though Bağcılar was not heavily urbanized until the 1980s, other waves of migrants found shelter there those first decades. First were the Bulgarian Turks, who first came in the early 1950s to escape the brutal assimilationist policies of the communist regime in Sofia. Second were the Kazakhs, who fled Soviet Central Asia not long after. Third were economic migrants who came from every corner of Anatolia from the 1970s onward; and fourth were tens of thousands of Kurds who came after fighting in the southeast destroyed over 2,700 villages in the 1990s. The mayor’s office estimates there are at least 50,000 Syrians in Bağcılar, too.

Though always a place of refuge, Bağcılar is even more tied to the industrialization of Istanbul. Spurred by the Cold War era reforms of the Democrat Party, which ruled from 1950 to 1960 after 30 years of single-party state senescence, Istanbul saw its first great spate of growth in the 1950s.

This included the Ülker factory, ground zero of Turkey’s global biscuit empire. It opened its first factory in neighboring Topkapı in 1948, and a massive expansion in 1965 was responsible for much of Bağcılar’s early growth. In the neighborhood of Çıfıtburgaz, for example, the population grew 2800% in 15 years: from a sleepy hamlet of 1,900 inhabitants in 1965 to 6,300 in 1970, 21,400 in 1975 and 53,600 souls by 1980.

But the real explosion came as Turgut Özal’s neoliberal reforms opened up Turkey to the global economy in the 1980s. A U.S.-trained engineer and World Bank economist, Özal persuaded the military regime to lift interest rate ceilings and exchange controls and implement a strict diet of austerity. As desired, this greatly boosted exports, reined in inflation and eliminated shortages. With consumption curtailed and huge increases in personal savings, Turkey’s resources were shifted en masse to export-oriented industries. After the country boosted exports by 55% the first year alone, many spoke of a “Turkish economic miracle” as early as 1981.

As Turkey’s share of output for export grew from 5% of GDP in 1979 to 23% by 1989, places like Bağcılar benefited enormously. In addition to meat-packing plants and an explosion of small textile factories, many of Istanbul’s most famous industrial parks went up here during Özal’s early years in power. These include İstoç, an auto-manufacturing cooperative that now employs 75,000 people; İÇDAŞ Steel and Iron, where 10,000 work; and Turkey’s largest furniture, blacksmith and printing concerns.

Textiles, however, remain king. In a modern version of the “putting-out system” that drove the proto-industrialization of 18th century England, Bağcılar now has thousands of makeshift ‘contract textile manufacturing’ sites in unmarked storefronts and residential basements that subcontract for larger concerns like Zara, Mango and Gucci. With up to 40% of the population employed in textiles, not a youth I spoke to had not spent their formative years under the neon lights of an unmarked neighborhood sweatshop, making 100 Turkish lira ($14) per 10-hour shift.

The last surviving remains of Ottoman-era Bağcılar (also known as the Greek village of Kalfaköy) / Photo courtesy of Evan Pheiffer

Similar revolutions took place in housing. Though they are now nearly extinct from Istanbul’s urban landscape, an estimated 75% of Istanbullus lived in gecekondus, makeshift shanty homes, at the turn of the millennium. If unimpressive, these rustic one-story homes are strangely pleasing, equipped as they are with their own gardens to grow vegetables and raise chickens and blending with the natural environment.

Built illegally (the word means “erected overnight”), gecekondus are the precarious backbone of Turkish capitalist modernity. The homes were the foundation on which generations of urban arrivals carved out a tenuous place for themselves, and no fewer than 15 amnesties were passed by Turkish Parliament from 1948 to1988 granting title to those who had squatted and “put up something overnight.”

All that came to an end in the early 1990s. Though elected on the strength of its support in the gecekondus, the Refah Party, predecessor to the AKP, banned their construction and began hurriedly replacing them with 4-to-5 -story concrete affairs. Though this led to massive wealth creation for those with land titles, it locked out further newcomers. For the half-million arrivals whose ship docked in Istanbul each year, much of their wages now went to rent to those who had sneaked in and closed the door of amnesty behind them.

The next phase in Bağcılar’s housing revolution is already well underway, with massive “siteler” or high-rise housing complexes springing up everywhere to replace the concrete blocks that ousted the gecekondus in the 1990s. Though criticized for creating even more social anomie (“You don’t even know the people in your own tower!”), they’re far more luxurious and fetch as much as 1.5 million lira ($200,000). Yet most locals cannot afford them, and many remain empty even when bought up by absentee foreigners.

“Take a good look around,” says Bağcılar’s first mayor, Feyzullah Kıyıklık. “It’s no paradise, but we’ve come an extremely long way. When I first came to office, there were no parks and no neighborhood health clinics,” the latter a feature by law of every Turkish neighborhood. “Within a year we’d built them in all 22 neighborhoods.”

For certain there have been disappointments, even for this perennial optimist. For starters, he never got to put in place his Le Corbusier-inspired vision for Bağcılar, a vast low-rise, tree-lined neo-Ottoman paradise in which no child would have to walk more than a few blocks to school and no man more than a few to mosque. Though little resembles his vision today—much of Bağcılar is notoriously treeless, and the district is quickly growing vertically—his predecessors are fully aware of what Bağcılar needs to become more livable.

“By 2050, we’ve got to reduce the population by at least 25%,” admits deputy mayor Mehmet Şirin, and get it “somewhere closer to 600,000 people”—about the population it had when he arrived with his parents in the 1990s. “And introduce more green space,” he adds.

“Of course Bağcılar can never compete with other parts of Istanbul,” his assistant Özcan jokes. “They’ve got the Marmara Sea, the Golden Horn, the historic peninsula. Their teahouses face the Bosporus,” he jokes, “while ours look out over Demirkapı!” one of Bağcılar’s roughest quarters. “Geography,” he winks again, “is destiny.”

Serra raises several equally important points. It is true, she admits, that being a woman is very difficult in Bağcılar: You have to be a brave son of a gun to travel by foot after dark.

“That’s why I salute any woman out here at night in even remotely ‘modern’ clothing: That takes a special kind of courage. I’m not that brave myself,” she admits, “which is why I always travel with an extra set of clothes. One for Kurtuluş, Kadıköy and Beyoğlu,” she says, revealing the tank top she wears in secular middle-class districts, “and another for Bağcılar.”

More impressive, she argues, is the tenacity of the broader population. Though mocked or feared for hailing from Bağcılar—especially by well-to-do liberals—Serra doesn’t feel nearly as comfortable living anywhere else.

“This is my country, and these are my people. No one judges you in Bağcılar the way they do in the rest of Istanbul,” she says. The condescension she gets from richer folk is what saddens her the most. “These prejudices are absurd,” she notes wearily, “especially since people in Bağcılar work harder than anyone on Earth!”

As in many places born of grit and struggle, the people of Bağcılar are proud of where they come from. Living in a city built from the blood, sweat and tears of a dozen nations, they’ve every right to call themselves Turkey’s “municipality to the world.” But there’s something even more important than pride, or even progress, that the district embodies. There’s a coming-togetherness, an inexpressible but palpable sense of solidarity that defies the cruder stereotypes about Istanbul’s toughest district.

“If peace ever comes to the Middle East,” says Serra, “it will come from Bağcılar.”

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