Trains to return to historic Istanbul station
ISTANBUL - AFP
Built in the first decade of the 20th century as Europe’s gateway to the east, Istanbul Haydarpaşa railway station stands proudly on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, its gothic towers looming over the waters.
The imposing facade has witnessed and survived more than a century of turbulent and sometimes tragic history; the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, World War I, the deportation of Armenians, military coups and a devastating November 2010 fire that destroyed the roof. But this most historic of railway stations now lacks its most fundamental component, trains.
Since 2013, the celebrated terminus has not seen any train traffic after being shut for restoration work and a major upgrade of Turkey’s railway network.
With the refurbishment stalling, top local officials openly spoke of plans to sell off the station, possibly turning it into a hotel, shopping center or entertainment complex.
The situation sparked alarm among Turkish architecture and heritage activists, who staged weekly demonstrations to salvage its future.
In 2012, when the number of trains pulling in and out of the station had already dropped off, Haydarpaşa, named after the neighborhood where it is located, was placed on the watch list of endangered heritage by the World Monuments Fund NGO.
However, Turkish architecture activists, local officials and the Turkish State Railways (TCDD) said the station’s future as a railway terminus was now assured after a period of uncertainty.
“It will remain in public ownership. There were debates but right now there is no such danger [of privatizing] the train station,” Aykurt Nuhoğlu, the mayor of the Istanbul district of Kadıköy where the station is located, said. “The trains will begin to arrive as of 2019.”
An official from TCDD added: “It is being restored as a train station, nothing else is being considered.”
Once the station is reopened, it should be the terminus for the new high-speed trains from Ankara which are currently stopping in Pendik, well outside the center, as well as again being a hub for commuter trains.
Haydarpaşa station, designed by two German architects, was inaugurated in its current form in 1909, five years before the outbreak of World War I.
It was a symbol of the friendship between the Ottoman Empire and imperial Germany under Kaiser Wilhelm II, who yearned to expand Berlin’s influence deep into the Middle East and had sealed a strong relationship with Sultan Abdulhamid II.
The station was to be the key hub of the kaiser’s dream of a Berlin to Baghdad railway passing through Constantinople, Aleppo and Mosul, with a branch line south to Damascus.
One of the darkest moments in its history came on April 24, 1915 when Haydarpaşa was used as the start point for the deportation of the first convoy of Armenians rounded up in Istanbul. Turkey denies Armenian assertions that the ensuing mass slaughter amounted to genocide.
Until its closure five years ago, Haydarpaşa was a busy station, with commuter trains but also overnight services to towns in eastern Turkey like Kars and Van, as well as a service going as far as Tehran.
It was also the starting point of the Istanbul-Baghdad train service, the Taurus Express, which features in the opening chapter of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” but is now indefinitely suspended.
“Haydarpaşa is not just a building of architectural importance but is at a critical point for the railways,” said Ishak Kocabıyık, a former general secretary of Turkey’s United Transport Workers’ Union.
“There were attempts to turn this land into a trade center and a cruise port. We have so far stopped such attempts by using our right to opposition,” he added.
Activists insist that it was only due to pressure from civil society that plans to transform the station into a hotel or shopping complex were thwarted.
“Our solidarity was a mission that will go down in history,” said lawyer Ersin Albuz, a key force in the campaign. “We will keep going until all trains stop here and when that happens, only then will we end our campaign.”