Island of Mourning

The abandoned island of Yassiada, an hour’s ferry ride from Istanbul, is haunted by bitter memories. It is home to the eerily beautiful ruined stadium where Turkey’s elected Prime Minister, Adnan Menderes, was tried and sentenced to death by the military regime that toppled him in a 1960 coup. Three of his cabinet ministers died with him.


Fifty years later, Yassiada is remembered as an “island of mourning” where Turkey’s democracy gave way to decades of politics dominated by the military. A few hundred metres away is another lonely, craggier outcrop – Sivriada, where thousands of dogs were shipped and abandoned in one of Istanbul’s periodic attempts to clear its famous street dogs. The howlings of the famished and fighting animals could be heard across the water, it is said.

A group of activists called the “Young Civilians” organised a reporters’ visit to Yassiada on the anniversary of the coup this week. With the blessing of Tayyip Erdogan’s government, they have campaigned to refashion the island and it’s empty military barracks into a national “museum of democracy”.

Their clear political message is to underline the danger of challenging an elected prime minister at time of new turbulence in Turkish politics, with the country roiled by protests since the Gezi Park demonstrations last year.

Members of the Young Civilians hammered home the message to foreign journalists that Yassiada marks the moment when “military tutelage” began in Turkish politics. “Menderes was the first father of the baby called Turkish democracy,” said Ceren Kenar, a young woman journalist for a pro-government newspaper overseeing the tour, but was . “Bad politicians should only be judged through the ballot box. You can’t just topple and kill a PM you don’t like.”


Turkey saw further coups in 1971 and 1980, with the army casting itself as guardian of a secular republic. In 1997 a memorandum from the military produced the so-called “post-modern coup” in which an Islamist prime minister resigned. But in 2007, a similar so-called “e-memorandum” saw a backlash against intervention and Mr Erdogan has worked hard to break the military’s role.

A second boat arrived at the island on the anniversary, emblazoned with the logos of Menderes’ Democrat Party and the sign: “We have not forgotten, we will not let it be forgotten.” “It was really important, because he was hung, and even if he was a foreigner it would be really important to us,” said Necmir Kirimlioglu, an elderly woman in a large group from Istanbul. “What happened to him is an issue we have to deal with now. He was hung out of ignorance.”

Istanbul remains shaken and tense since the Gezi protests in the city centre a year ago, followed by bitter anger over the Soma coal-mining disaster. A reported 25,000 police and 50 water cannon were drafted in to halt fresh demonstrations this weekend.

Mr Erdogan has publicly invoked Menderes’ memory, and spoken of him as a political model. But even the plans for the island are loaded with controversy. Critics claim the museum plans are an excuse for more overblown development of highly desirable real estate, part of what triggered the Gezi uproar.

Last year Yassiada was renamed “Democracy and Freedom Island”. Detailed plans reported in opposition newspapers included an “Eternity Quay,” a hotel and suites, a helicopter landing pad, cafes and restaurants, a park, a “Democracy Martyrs Memorial,” a library, the museum, and a conference hall.

Yassiada is one of the Princes Islands in the Sea of Marmara, with others used as gentille retreats from Istanbul since the 19th Century, with charming wooden Ottoman mansions and horse carriages..
Bizarrely, it is crowned by crenallated Gothic towers built by Henry Bulwer, Queen Victoria’s Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, who bought it in 1857 and used it as a residence.

The desolate stadium, with banks of concrete seats, has a modernist style with a roof resembling a 1960s airport, with cells behind. It was specially built for the trials of 400 defendants after military officers toppled Menderes, and is adorned with aged political graffiti. Yassiada became a military outpost that has been uninhabited for at least ten years.


Mr Menderes was elected in 1950. He built his power base in Turkey’s Asian hinterland, leaned towards Islamist support, convincingly won national elections, but was accused of authoritarianism and faced student protests. All have parallels to Mr Erdogan, who has been Turkey’s Prime Minister since 2002, and is set to run for President this year.

Menderes was subjected to a lengthy and humiliating show trial after months in solitary confinement in which he was accused of dictatorship, plotting to kill Turkey’s President, forcing his opera singer mistress to abort their child, and even of taking a dog given as an official present by the people of Afghanistan. He was taken to another island, still closed to the public, and hanged, with two of his ministers. His interior minister committed suicide.

Multi-party democracy in Turkey gave way to a coup that “institutionalised and normalised” military power in Turkey until the 21st Century, said Doğan Gülpinar, who briefed journalists on the trip, and specialises in history at Istanbul Technical University. He and others were at pains to argue that the same groups increasingly opposed to Mr Erdogan – intellectuals, lawyers, left-wingers, writers and artists – had fatefully supported the coup against Menderes.

He called Menderes “a martyr of democracy who died at the dark hand of the military. That is why it is so symbolic.” The island, he said, was “semi-holy”.

This article was filed to Scotland on Sunday on May 28th but did not get used in the publication, so I am posting it here.

NOTE: Sad memories aside, I found the design of the stadium architecturally interesting; though one observer dismissed it as generic military construction, it had a wing shape reminded me of the Dulles Airport in Washington DC. Below, the openings cut in the back.