The Conflicted City: The Sound of Sulukule’s Drums

Sulukule was one of the first Romani settlements in Istanbul; communities believed to have arrived from India settled here, next to the city walls of Istanbul. Since then, Sulukule continued […]

Sulukule was one of the first Romani settlements in Istanbul; communities believed to have arrived from India settled here, next to the city walls of Istanbul. Since then, Sulukule continued to be a Romani neighbourhood until urban renewal projects forced their relocation.

If we look at the time when the Democrat Party was in charge, we see that the destruction starts then. Solidarity between romani settlers started with the first destruction because the settlers had to be relocated.To renew and construct their solidarity they used the support of the Tourism Ministry. They set up the first NGO in Sulukule, calling it ‘Sulukule Turizm Yaşatma ve Koruma Derneği”. However their attempts did not bring a successful outcome and they had to cancel the association.

Mandira Destruction Site

In 2005, when the new law (5366) passed, TOKI that is housing development administration of Turkey started the process of regenerating these historic areas, Sulukule being the first. The regeneration consist of the legislation that  dismiss the settlers from their neighbourhood and re-build these areas with more valuable places .The aim can be defined basically as “gentrification” and “enrichment”. The settlers were generally from the lower income people so they were pushed to leave the places where they live. “Police officers and real estate agencies forced the settlers to leave their houses. However, with the declaration of urban renewal in Sulukule, lots of academicians, intellectuals, architects, journalists and activists decided to do their bests to save Sulukule and created the “Sulukule Platform” in which they declared their support for the local people of Sulukule; they were met with support from all around the world. They told the settlers to not sell their houses. They proposed an alternative plan of STOP (autonomous planners without borders) that is a group of people who try to plan alternative and humanitarian urban project in 2008. However, the destructions had already started by 2007. In 2012, the local court finally dropped the case and decide that the project was not in the public interest. Yet, in 2012 the TOKI project was nearly completed.

As we mentioned above, the Sulukule Platform was formed to stop the urban renewal project. By 2010 they realized two things: First, they accepted that they lost the battle, there was nothing they could do for the houses demolished. However, they did not lose at every point. From 2007 to 2010, the people from platform managed to show their goodwill to Sulukuleners. In our interview, F.E. pointed out:

Romani people are introverted and it is too hard to gain their trust, we had to work very hard to accomplish that. We went to every house in the neighbourhood and tried to convince them not to sell their houses by informing them about the laws and their rights. While we were visiting houses, we realized the actual needs of the people living in the neighbourhood, we needed a renewal project for sure– but not an urban one. Most of them did not have health insurance; most of the children were not continuing in school, and more importantly most of the people were not even aware of their rights as humans. By using media channels, Platform made Sulukuleners visible even to EU. With the help of the Platform, the whole world became aware of the situation in Sulukule, this is why the people in Sulukule believe in us.

The second thing is that most of the Sulukuleners relocated during the project, now moved to Karagümrük and are living with worsened life standards. Because the Romani people were used to work in daily paid jobs, and the solidarity among them plays a significant role in their work live, the economic costs of their relocation were severe. When they moved back to Karagümrük, because of the rents they had to pay since they had to sell their houses, sustaining their lives became almost impossible. Besides, new TOKI housings are separated from the area by walls which creates pressure on Sulukuleners psychologically because the message here is that “you’re not welcomed in your streets anymore.” Because families are incapable of taking care of their children there are many abandoned children wandering around those streets, who have a higher chance of turning into potential criminals in the future.

Sulukule New Houses
Sulukule New Houses

When the people working at Sulukule Platform realized the situation of abandoned children, they decided to change their focus from the urban renewal project to children and human rights. The Head of the Sulukule Platform, F.E. explained this process with the words:

“In 2010, we rented a small room for ateliers and formed the association Sulukule Children Art Atelier. After the renewal project, most of the children had to change their schools and sadly some of them had to drop out, their education was in danger. We talked to the families of children who dropped out of school, we tried to help those children to continue their educations. We knew that these children were extremely talented at art and with the atelier we gave them the opportunity to improve themselves and become successful in life despite all the destruction that has been made.”

Despite the fact that Sulukule Children Atelier started off with limited resources, it obtained very significant outcomes. Sulukule Romani Orchestra and Sulukule Youth Orchestra for example are products of this association and they are quite successful today. They went abroad for concerts, won awards, and many of the children who took place in these orchestras are today playing with famous musicians.

The hopeful things about the Sulukule is that despite the fact that the government intervention pushing a lot of Sulukule-Romani people out of their neighbourhood , you can find still Romani people who did not leave or come back again to Sulukule, and the spirit of old neighbourhood, Sulukule, started to reconstruct . They love their homes eternally. Lastly, to better understand recent situation of Sulukule I recommend the group: Tahribad-ı İsyan. Specifically, their song Wonderland… It tells their story.


In colloboration with Remziye Aslan and Sueda Evirgen.

Photo Credits: , John Lubbock

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