Good-bye, Gypsies: The Loss of 1,000 Years

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Posted on Tuesday, June 30th, 2009
A sister and her brother watch as their neighborhood is demolished. <br />(Photo: Hacer Foggo)

A sister and her brother watch as their neighborhood is demolished. (Photo: Hacer Foggo)

By Sean David Hobbs

(Istanbul) The legendary music clubs and belly dancers were the first to go. There’s no longer a trace of the lively coffeeshops or balcony restaurants. And now, the once-narrow alleyways are strangely opened wide: because of the bulldozers, Sulukule, a gypsy settlement within Istanbul that dated back to before the 15th century, has become nothing more than a memory.

Nearly 1,000 years of history have been unceremoniously demolished over the past six months as the last buildings of this relic of the Ottoman empire have been razed. The roar of bulldozers was unbearable for those within earshot, but barely a sound has reverberated throughout the rest of Istanbul, Turkey and the world, as Europe’s oldest permanent gypsy settlement was torn down.

Sukru Punduk, center, treasures his traditional, close-knit community. <br />(Photo: Sean David Hobbs)

Sukru Punduk, center, treasures his traditional, close-knit community.

“Now it is gone,” laments Sukru Punduk, close to tears. Punduk, 41, is a Roma musician and native of the district, which traces its history back to Byzantine times. He sits with a few other Roma men in an Istanbul café, angered by the destruction of their homes, businesses and way of life. The demolition—or redevelopment, in the words of the governing authorities—began in 2006. The few remaining buildings next to Istanbul’s centuries-old stone walls were crushed during the past year.

The Roma families who were from this historic neighborhood feel the destruction is also an attack upon their heritage and culture. Once the proud home of nearly 5,000 Roma people, only about five percent are left in the district as bulldozers flatten the mounds of debris.

“Will we continue to exist or will our culture disappear?” Punduk asks.

In 2007, when this shot was taken, the area was still inhabited. <br />(Photo: Sean David Hobbs)

In 2007, when this shot was taken, the area was still inhabited. (Photo: Sean David Hobbs)

Demolitions began in Sulukule in 2006 as the municipal government started a process billed as urban renewal. However, the national Turkish newspaper Hurriyet reported that the municipal government’s Justice and Development Party (known as the AK Party) sold some of the newly-emptied land to family members and friends of AK Party leaders.

Hacer Foggo, whose glasses give her the air of a scholar, is one of the founders of the activist group Sulukule Platform. She called the renewal plan “corrupt gentrification,” and strongly suspects an economic motivation. “The plan is to remove the poor from the city center and build expensive homes in Sulukule,” she said.

But residents were already being moved out in 2007. (Photo: Sean David Hobbs)

But residents were already being moved out in 2007. (Photo: Sean David Hobbs)

The Romani have been present in Istanbul since the middle of the 11th century, when the city was known as Constantinople. Built along the city’s ancient protective walls, Sulukule was Istanbul’s first entertainment district, which included a thriving red light sector. Generations of people from all over Turkey came to Sulukule’s famed music halls.

Punduk explains, “Ours was the culture of music and dance in Istanbul. People came to Sulukule for the music and the beautiful Romani belly dancers. We had fortune tellers and dancing bears.”

Two years ago, there were still kids in the streets.

Two years ago, there were still kids in the streets. (Photo: Sean David Hobbs)

The exotic strain of Rom music that grew within Sulukule was a mix of traditional Balkan and Middle Eastern music intermingled over generations with the court music of the Byzantines and Ottomans. The result was a unique Istanbul sound.

The beginning of the end came in 1992, when conservative government leaders shut down Sulukule’s music and dance halls. Poverty and poor education—already chronic problems there—became even worse with the loss of the entertainment venues.

By last year, the piles of rubble were growing. (Photo: Hacer Foggo)

By last year, the piles of rubble were growing. (Photo: Hacer Foggo)

“Even after 1992, we could all live together at least. We were poor, but rent was cheap,” Punduk says. “We got by economically and preserved our culture.”

Then came the urban renewal plan of 2006, which resettled Roma in the Tasoluk public housing development 40 kilometers outside of central Istanbul. Over the past three years, nearly 700 families from Sulukule took up residence there—but only 20 families remain in the new neighborhood.

Uniformed police kept order for the bulldozers. (Photo: Hacer Foggo.)

Uniformed police kept order for the bulldozers. (Photo: Hacer Foggo.)

High rent in the new development has forced some Roma onto the streets, and many more into cheap apartments throughout Istanbul where, stripped of their community and culture, many say they have suffered alienation and depression.

Watching the demolition of a thousand years of culture. (Photo: Hacer Foggo)

Watching the demolition of a thousand years of culture. (Photo: Hacer Foggo)

All of this has unfolded even though UNESCO listed Sulukule as an endangered World Heritage site. More recently, the U.S. Congress’ Joint Helsinki Commission urged the Turkish government to protect the Sulukule Roma.

The spot to wash your feet before prayers is gone. So is the rickety wooden house in the background. (Photo: Sean David Hobbs)

The spot to wash your feet before prayers is gone. So is the rickety wooden house in the background. (Photo: Sean David Hobbs)

In April, the commission sent a letter to Turkish Prime Minister and AK Party leader Recep Tayip Erdogan, which noted that the “Roma community in Sulukule is living on the fringes of society and continues to be treated unfairly.” The letter urged Erdogan to implement a program to “preserve this centuries-old neighborhood and allow the Roma there to remain together as a community.”

This man has a portable stove, drinking water, and a coffee pot. But he needs more than a wall to maintain his community. (Photo: Hacer Foggo)

This man has a portable stove, drinking water, and a coffee pot. But he needs more than a wall to maintain his community. (Photo: Hacer Foggo)

Punduk said he and other Romani leaders support music groups that reach out to Roma children, and thus keep the spirit, culture and artistry of Sulukule alive. Still, he is despondent when he considers all that has been lost. Sitting in the café and gazing at his Islamic prayer beads, Punduk has no answers.

“Ours is a very old culture,” he says, “It isn’t just Istanbul or Turkey which lost this special place. The world has lost a piece of its culture.”

Standing guard over rolled-up rugs and some furniture. (Photo: Hacer Foggo)

Standing guard over rolled-up rugs and some furniture. (Photo: Hacer Foggo)


A video from last year by the Guardian UK.

Sean David Hobbs is a New Orleans-based writer originally from Wisconsin. He lived in Istanbul for three years.

A NewsPlink Exclusive: This article contains some of the last known photographs of Sulukule before the final demolition.


11 Responses to “Good-bye, Gypsies: The Loss of 1,000 Years”

  1. Gloria Powers says:

    Very interesting piece with great photos….more like this please.

  2. Hikmet says:

    Very well documented.
    Indeed, the land was sold not only to akp politicians but also to a wealthy arab seikh who is supposed to build apartments for the gypsy community as well. But we all know that won’t happen.

  3. Don Paul says:

    Thanks, this is a good piece. Non-statist communities are being attacked all over the world.
    In 1997, after traveling in Italy and Greece, a song came to me that’s titled “Where Will The Gypsy Go?”

    I hope that this gets wide distribution and look forward to more.

  4. Helen says:

    What a loss! Punkuk is right. The world has lost a bit of its culture. Beautiful piece and pictures.

  5. Maggie Collins says:

    It seems like the old adage, “He who holds the gold makes the rules” has been modified to “He who holds the gold holds the culture.”

    I can relate to this very well-written article. It seems that after Hurricane Katrina, the musicians, artists, writers, etc. were moved out of low-income housing and rental property and were forced to live in tents and shanty towns to make way for a grander vision of New Orleans.

    This community is in my prayers.

  6. Paul Yochum says:

    Very well documented and written. The photos made the story come to life. Best to you!

  7. Fatih says:

    This is one side of the story. On the other side the streets and buildings were filthy. Most of the the buildings were not from hundreds of years ago. Old buildings still are protected and renewed. I don’t like the ruling party, AKP.

  8. Suzanne Ahmed Leonora says:

    Anti-Roma people call the Roma irresponsible vagabonds, but these Roma are people of houses and neighborhoods, forced into homelessness and further poverty by irresponsible government decisions. Ankara and Istanbul should be thoroughly ashamed of themselves — in fact it should never, ever, have come to this — but these actions are shamelessly echoed over and over throughout Europe. If a group of people is defined as sub-human, you can do anything to them.

  9. Suzanne Ahmed Leonora says:

    Fatih, if the streets and buildings are filthy, the answer is to clean the streets and buildings, not to ethnically-cleanse the people.

  10. Michelle Marion says:

    Sadly, this seems to be the fate of the world, otherwise known as the white bread effect. Take a loaf of bread, remove any irregularities or uneven holes or colour, and thereby remove any nutritional quality or fiber content. This leaves us in poorer health.

    Same thing in trying to make all races and cultures the same. I lived in Istanbul as a child in the 60′s. My father was in the US Military, and though I was rather young, I vividly remember the sights and the smells, the hauntingly beautiful call to prayer from the mosques. And, of course, I have fond food memories…

    Has anyone ever had a cement (sp?)? It’s a pretzel-like bread ring covered in sesame seeds, and sold by street vendors for 25 karusch: yum.

    Your article brought back a flood of memories, as the gypsies were a constant presence and part of the exotic mystery that was my experience of Isanbul. Sad indeed, man’s inhumanity to man. A good read and informative novel about the Roma is a book called Bury Me Standing. It dispels a lot of the mystery and gives an understanding of yet another foreign culture.

    Thanks for letting me rant…

  11. Sulukule says:

    Here are facts about Sulukule Urban Renewal Project:

    It is beyond any question that both tenants and homeowners within the Sulukule project area gained unparalleled benefits from the generous offer made by the local authority Fatih Municipality and TOKI (Public Housing Administration). The tenants enjoyed the opportunity of becoming homeowners where TOKI built social dwellings in Tasoluk. The property owners either sold their buildings to the third parties at very high amounts, or made an agreement with the municipality to possess the new houses to be constructed.

    Many surveys showed that Istanbul citizens who know the area well strictly support the Sulukule urban renewal project as it is hoped to bring an end to the ongoing security and health problems in the area. Everyone accepts that the area was almost fully occupied by the thinner addicts, bag snatchers, extortionists and beggars who are far from the so-called Roma culture and music. It should also be noted that there was sexual abuse of the teenagers; the pimps were good earners of Sulukule and they were serving the little girls to the visitors.

    While this is the case, some of the NGO’s and especially the members of the opposing party in Turkey, developed a systematic campaign to abort this project of the century, claiming that the dwellers of the area were forced to leave and a cultural heritage is about to fade away.

    Not surprisingly, those NGO’s and opposing parties were completely silent although they were witnessing the misuse of the historical buildings and the occupied land walls destroying the tangible heritage day by day before the Sulukule renewal project was introduced.