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  • Writer's pictureJoel Butler, MA

A Brief History of Beyazıt Square in Istanbul

What is Beyazıt Square?

Beyazıt Square is a large public square outside Bayezid II Mosque and Istanbul University’s monumental gate.


Beyazıt Square

Beyazıt Square History

‘You can only hang our bodies, but not our ideology’. These were the last words of Matteos Sarkissian – the activist, freedom fighter, or terrorist, depending on your perspective, known as ‘Paramaz’ – who was hanged in Beyazıt Square with 19 Armenian comrades on the 15th of June 1915, during the Armenian Genocide. They had predicted this genocide, having already witnessed the pogroms and massacres of Armenians, and so had plotted to assassinate the leaders of the Young Turk movement, who they held responsible. Paramaz’s words echo much of the modern history of Beyazıt Square as a site of political violence. Bloody Sunday, a massacre of protesting left-wing students by state police in 1969, began with a march from Beyazıt Square to Taksim. Police were also implicated in the 1978 Beyazıt massacre, when Istanbul University was attacked by bombs and gunfire by the far-right terror group the Grey Wolves, all while security forces only looked on. In 2016, the area was the site of yet more violence, this time the police the target, as their bus was bombed.


This hasn’t always been so, and it goes without saying that Beyazıt Square is perfectly safe. For much of its Ottoman history, the square formed part of the complex of the adjacent Bayezid Mosque – as is evident from the madrasa (a college for Islamic instruction) and State Library standing opposite. The Beyazıt State Library is one of only six legal deposit libraries in Turkey, and home to historic collections of Ottoman works. The square itself was redesigned in the 1950s by multi-Aga-Khan-Award-winning Turkish architect and city planner Turgut Cansever. His experiences with the square inspired his passion for modern town planning. Nowadays, the square is often host to markets and other community events. In the Roman period, it was much the same; the square was the site of the Forum of Theodosius. Remains of the forum can be seen at the roadside near the square, where once stood a triumphal column, three basilicas, and a triumphal arch through which the main road from the Hagia Sophia out towards Thrace passed.


Also adjoining the square is Istanbul University, which claims a much earlier foundation date than is really the case, due to an earlier non-university institution preceding it on the same site. A school of philosophy, medicine, law, and letters, which also functioned as a madrasa, was founded on the 30th of May 1453 by Mehmed II, a day after conquering the city, and this was then re-established in 1846 as something approaching the university we see today. The main gate opens onto the square, which in fact used to be the main gate of the Ottoman Ministry of War. Underneath the gold lettering of the university, the Ottoman calligraphy on the gate still identifies it as such. Also on the campus is the Beyazıt Tower, a 19th-century stone fire watchtower dating back to the site’s origin as the Ministry of War. Today, the tower signals weather forecasts and maritime navigation information to traffic on the Golden Horn during hours of darkness.


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