The Sultan Ahmet area of Istanbul is visited by millions of people every year. The heart of a cultural heritage spanning 20 centuries, there are a mindboggling number of sights to be seen in the small area.
One place most visitors are likely to miss is a tiny park located just south of the Blue Mosque, at the end of the Hippodrome. One would scarcely believe the small flower bed was even a park, were it not for the sign stating “Isa Yusuf Alptekin Park, 1993.” But this little spot tells a big story.
Occupying a small patch of land partially surrounding the Turkistan Diner restaurant, the park displays a few rose bushes, some faux-antique urns, and a slightly weather-worn monument. Perched on the squat brick obelisk is a Gökturk flag, the symbol of the Turkic peoples, as well as the flag of the Turkish Republic. A plaque states: “In honor of the East Turkestanian martyrs.”
The park commemorates the short-lived East Turkestan Republic, a breakaway state in Northwestern China. The region is home to the Uyghurs, a people culturally and linguistically similar to the Turkish people. In the 1950s, the Chinese military moved in to suppress the young republic and Isa Alptekin, one of its leaders, fled. He would eventually end up in Istanbul where he lived the rest of his life as an Uyghur independence advocate in exile.
Alptekin’s story has similarities to that of the Dalai Lama, but in contrast to the Tibetan spiritual leader, Alptekin and his Uyghur cause remained largely unknown in the West. In Turkey, however, he was widely revered, an icon of the pan-Turkic struggle. In 1993, the then mayor of Istanbul had the park built in his honor, in the face of strong criticism from both China and parts of the Turkish leadership.
Alptekin passed away shortly after the park was founded. Within a few years, Turkey (under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s AKP party) embarked on a paradigm shift and entered a closer political and economic relationship with China, arguably making this mini memorial park more politically charged than ever.
Know Before You Go
The neighboring Turkistan Diner serves dishes from Turkic-language speaking states and peoples in an environment of pan-Turkic ethno-kitsch.