Hevsel Gardens: Turkey's next Gezi Park?
Flowing down from Diyarbakir's ancient city walls, Hevsel Gardens has acted as a green respite for thousands of years. But now resistance has mounted to rumored government plans to develop the area.
Destruction of ancient gardens
As many as 7,000 trees are said to have been cut down from wetlands of the Hevsel Gardens in Diyarbakir on the banks of the Tigris River. Rumored plans to develop the ancient gardens have sparked a protest movement uniting students and the broader public against the Turkish government's potential new construction project.
Students at Dicle University set up a tent village in response to a housing project rumored to be planned for the land. The Turkish government has been working with private firms across Turkey to build prestigious buildings, malls and housing projects, despite public outcry.
Students built their encampment and occupied Hevsel Gardens for several weeks to prevent further destruction after Dicle University felled trees in cooperation with the Ministry of Forestry. Last summer, a similar occupation at Gezi Park in Istanbul grew into a mass movement that ended up shaking the foundations of the Turkish government.
Students, including many young women, took shifts, spending the night sleeping in tents or gathered around a bonfire. The encampment was continuously occupied for more than three weeks.
The gardens, believed to be 8,000 years old, have been nominated for UNESCO protection status. Flowing down from Diyarbakir's ancient city walls to the banks of the Tigris River, Hevsel Gardens provide fresh produce and a green respite from the historical metropolis.
The area between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers is known as the cradle of civilization - humans have continuously inhabited the Diyarbakir region since the Stone Age. The region's ancient roots continue to attract tourists, like these young people photographing Diyarbakir's city walls. The walls were built in antiquity and enlarged by Romans in the 4th century.
As part of the protests, university students initiated a constant vigil in Hevsel Gardens to oppose the cutting of trees and planned development of the land, which divides the university from the walls of the old city of Diyarbakir.
One student said he thought that after the university finishes building the road, they'll build a high-rise. In recent years, Turkish officials have frequently kept construction project plans secret and found ways to work around environmental restrictions and public opposition.
Burning the midnight oil
Student activists made tea to stay warm and awake during their all-night vigil. Tea is an integral part of Turkish culture, reflecting its hospitality and sociability.
Dicle University officials have refuted the development rumors, saying they were only building an emergency fire road. The university owns much of the land where the ancient gardens sit. A major corruption scandal has erupted in Turkey over such construction contracts, from which public officials - perhaps even Prime Minister Erdogan himself - have benefitted enormously.
Diyarbakir has remained a stronghold for Kurds, an ethnic group with large populations in areas of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Although Kurds lack an officially recognized national homeland, "Kurdistan" continues to refer to a small region in southeastern Turkey. A separatist conflict continues to simmer there, although Erdogan last year announced reforms intended to grant Kurds more rights.
An end, a beginning
After three weeks of vigils and round-the-clock protest, the tent camp was disassembled on Sunday (23.03.2014). But the protest about destruction of the ancient Hevsel Gardens in Diyarbakir will not stop - rather, like the movement that started in Gezi Park last year, it is likely to grow.