Hear me, executioners of Yassıada!

Articles, Islands - Dr. İzel Levi Coşkun - December 1, 2015

As a child, two mystical islands kept visiting my dreams: the islands of Yassıada and Sivriada. To me they were islands in the back of beyond. They were scarcely visible through the mist of our island, Burgaz. There are things that dwell in my memory: the currents are strong around there so you can’t swim, it’s too dangerous; the water there is at least 1 or 2 degrees colder and it’s hundreds of metres deep- there’s no way you can anchor in that water. And they get loads of sharks there anyway. What’s more, if you get anywhere near Yassıada you will get shot because it belongs to the military.


These two islands are like two elegant silhouettes that glide over the water. Sometimes they will shine in glamour; other times they will hide behind a clear screen, and eventually become invisible. As a little boy I thought the imposing 1950s-style military buildings, which were erected on either side of Yassıada, were fortresses. I would try to work out why and by whom such gigantic fortress were built on such a tiny little island.


My first visit to Yassıada took place when the army had already left the island. There was a rumour about the island being handed over to the Istanbul University’s Aquaculture Department. I can never forget that day. It was the early 90s. I had successfully persuaded a guard to allow me to have a short walk around the island. As I was doing so I found an army-leave permission slip, which was written in the 1960s. It stood out among the many long- abandoned items that lay around casually. I suffered from a fear of heights so up until that time I had not been able to fully enjoy the spectacular view from the top of the tallest building I had known- the one that I had declared a fortress in my child mind. From the bastions of the water-level Bulwer Castle (which was built in the 1850s as I would find out later) I gazed at Burgaz in wonder; already missing being there. I remember seeing that it was still covered with pine trees and I remember thinking that it was hundreds of years away from where I stood.


Although I visit the island of Sivriada a lot, the number of times I visited Yassıada has been considerably fewer- probably because of the difficulty of landing. I went there once again after the two-year long adventure of the Aquaculture Department ended in 1995. The department must have moved out, or maybe they were still in the process of leaving, as I saw large numbers of student desks piled on top of each other right by the sea. In the same way as when the army left there were the remains of equipment and furniture. The island was taken over by waves and the cry of seagulls and, oddly, it retreated into silence at the same time. It remained silent for quite some time- until that day when I was enjoying a meal at Kalpazankaya and noticed two fish pens off Yassıada, on the side that faced Yalova. This was in the second half of the 2000s. No, there was no mistake: someone had built a fish farm there.  I talked to the owner of the farm and told him that the pens were simply too close to the island. I asked him whether the strong currents would help to stop the contamination that would be caused by the farm. His answer was: “Chill, young man, the current is really strong around here, nothing will happen.” One other thing I noticed was other people. The island had been opened to visitors. The middle-aged farm owner who claimed to have rented the island he said he never stopped any visitors from coming there; he said that all visitors were welcome.


Later, in 2010, the word got about that zoning was going to be permitted on both islands. In 2013, people heard that construction could begin anytime. The residents of the islands, along with others who came over from Istanbul, gathered to form the largest crowd in the history of the two islands to protest against zoning. A festival-like forum was organised. The town sports hall, where the infamous Yassıada trials were carried out back in history, witnessed some fiery speeches delivered by enthusiastic youths. The event ended with a concert in the Bulwer Fortress, where the smell of the sea met musical notes.


The crowd visited Sivriada as well that day. For some, this was a first. My partner and I planted two pine trees on Sivriada- despite endless advice not to because they would never grow in the dry island soil. During the following summers, especially on extremely hot days, we travelled to Sivriada from Burgaz to water our pines. Then, with love and care, a miracle happened. Those pines grew. They grew.


The first time I truly knew how serious the profiteering lobby was about the construction business and how reckless they were with the environment and nature was during one of my visits to Sivriada early in they summer of 2015. We had heard in the winter that drilling works were being carried out on the island. As soon as I got onto the island, I ran to see how our pine trees were doing. All I saw instead was flattened land, on which a single-storey observation tower had been erected. I had no idea what purpose it served. I pictured how a giant digger must have crushed the trees that we had carefully planted and separated their roots from mother earth. I burst into tears.


“That is when I understood that Yassıada would be facing a similar massacre; that the lives of the sea and earth creatures would be completely disregarded and that the historical and geographical properties of the two islands that have strived to reach us for millennia would be brutally destroyed.”   

You, executioners, who believe you can rule over nature, culture and history with the power that money gives you, hear my words! Do you really think all those additional clauses and laws that you have passed to “legally” rip these two islands from their protected status will hide your fault? Do you really think that your disgraceful acts will be legitimised when the highest-ranking state officials cut a ribbon at an opening ceremony? Do you really believe that getting a signed approval notice from the TOBB (Turkish Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges) authorities for the demolition and digging works on the island is “scientific enough” when what needs to be done is to seek the opinion of experts and archaeologists? Do you really think that the flashy “environmentally-friendly” certificates you will be obtaining for your buildings will help to cover-up the environmental and cultural murder you commit?  Do you really think you have the right to cave-in those rocks, fill that sea or to cut down those trees?  To demolish all those buildings which bear the characteristics of different architectural eras? In short, do you think have the right to reshape and rename that island? To have its memory altered?


Did you know that the islands of Yassıada and Sivriada, among others, were formed 1 to 1.5 million years ago? Were you aware that the collapsed ceiling of the vault belonged to a monastery, which was one of the three monasteries that Ignatios of Constantinople had built on Prince Islands back in the 9th century?  Did you know that where land was reclaimed once stood Byzantine dungeons? Or that the fleets of Moses, the son of Beyazıt the Ottoman Emperor and of the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos battled each other off Yassıada in 1412? That Sir Henry Bulwer, the British Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire bought the island and built a British-style castle, which is unique in Turkey? That Bulwer encouraged agriculture on the island and that Yassıada’s cotton went on display at an exhibition in Sultanahmet in 1863?  That Bulwer later sold the island to Ismail Pasha, the governor of Egypt? That Vasil, who settled on the island in 1892, lived there all on his own for 40 years until his death in 1932? And that he bred sheep and goats on the island? That between 1950 and 1957 there were efforts to turn Yassıada into a modern naval education centre? That archaeological remains were discovered during excavation works at the Bulwer castle foundation and during the military construction period? That the rocks surrounding the island have been housing a myriad of sea creatures for many years? That the best crabs and lobsters in the whole of Marmara live in the rocks under the island? That in the last couple of years some divers have volunteered to collect the seine nets that block the nests in the rocks at the bottom of Yassıada’s sea to make some nesting space for lobsters and meagre fish? For those of you who do not know: meagre fish is a local species that do not migrate. They choose a location and spend all their life there. Did you know that you block nests and smother not only lobsters and meagre fish but also all other sea creatures when you recklessly pour excavated soil in the sea? Did you know that Yassıada and Sivriada stand on the migration route of storks and that there are many other migrating birds that stop on the island?


When I was walking around the island I saw an eagle sailing through the sky. It looked like it was circling above the island, failing to find somewhere to land. That eagle must have been there many times before. Maybe each time it had caught a prey or found itself a nice rocky place to rest. That eagle never landed that day. Perhaps it will not land on the island ever again as there is no longer anywhere to land. Just like the family of boar that tried to cross the Bosphorus when Istanbul’s Northern Forests were being demolished and most likely drowned on the way. The truth is all these animals had lived, bred and freely wandered around the same place for tens of thousands of years.


Hear my words the executioners who, with their itching palms, join hands to spoil and murder Yassıada, breaking all ethical rules with no regret- you who tore the island from its history, nature and essence!


We are aware that the damage you have done to Yassıada is neither the first nor the last of it. Self-deification, caused by the illusion that money gives you power and lets you rule over nature, guides you away from your inner self. No matter how much money you use to fill in the giant gap between you and your inner self, in complete negligence of where you came from and where you will be going, there will never be enough money for you and you will, in the end, suffocate slowly: just like you caused all those creatures to suffocate. And nature, which you think you have managed to successfully destroy, will eventually take its own way and revive, as the cycle of sustainability requires.


Yassiada Under Construction






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