TURKEY – Like most trees, it starts with a seed. Turkish civilians, activists and environmentalists were up in arms last Tuesday protesting the demolition of Taksim Square’s Gezi Park, one of the last remaining green spaces in downtown Istanbul.
Developers, backed by the Turkish government, had planned to bulldoze the park and replace it with a new shopping mall.
In what started as a peaceful protest, activists sat under the branches of the park’s trees last week in hopes that Prime Minister Erdogan would change his mind about cutting down the forest.
Protesters were eventually forced out by police armed with tear gas and pressurized water. The demonstrations quickly escalated into violent clashes with police.
Close to 1,000 people have been injured and over 3,300 been detained.
Video: Peaceful sit-in is broken up by Turkish police on May 31, 2013
In a move to defuse the tension, the deputy prime minister met with a group whose attempt to prevent authorities from ripping up trees in Istanbul’s landmark Taksim Square has snowballed into nationwide protests against what demonstrators see as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule.
While highlighting the friction between a Muslim-led country versus a secular population, this protest also draws light to the significance of these trees in Gezi Park.
Despite its size, Gezi is home to over 600 sycamore trees – also known as Acer pseudoplatanus.
Throughout southeast Europe and the Middle East, sycamore trees bare cultural and religious significance. They are closely tied with traditional tales, and are an integral part of countries like Egypt and Israel’s ancient history.
The sycamore symbolizes protection, divinity, eternity, and strength.
In Turkey, the sycamore is a common recurring theme in Turkic arts and culture. The renowned Turkish poet Rıfat Ilgaz, named his documentary “Yüz Yıllık Çınar: Rıfat Ilgaz” (The Hundred-Year-Old Sycamore: Rıfat Ilgaz) to chronicle himself and modern Turkey, and relate the sageness in both the sycamore and old age.
“Tree of Life” symbols are also prevalent in ancient Turkic mythology. In Altaic Turkic myths, this “Tree of Life” (also called the World Tree) was said to connect earthly shamans through its branches, giving them the opportunity to reach other worlds.
In other Turkic tribes, trees were the object of worship, functioning as “an orientation point in time and space”, according to the 11th International Congress of Turkish Arts in Utrecht, Netherlands.
Sycamores also have a long history of safeguarding, having sheltered troops in North American battles, such as the Battle of Brandywine. The Lafayette Sycamore of Brandywine Battlefield Park in Pennsylvania was named after Marquis de LaFayette, an aid to General Washington in the 1777 battle, whose wounds are said to be dressed underneath this tree.
Sycamore trees also belong to one of the earth’s oldest family trees, Platanacea. Able to live up to 600 years, the sycamore tree family is estimated to be over 100 million years old.
Ancient trees are often at the root of many environmental and legal upheavals.
Tree-sitting (a strategy environmentalists use to prevent old trees/forests from being cut down) became increasingly popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s, starting a movement of environmental groups who fought to save old growth forests.
In 1997, a woman from Humboldt, California nicknamed her tree “Luna” and tree-sat in it for two years. Eventually, her protest raised enough money to prevent it from being cut down.
A year later in Northern California, David Gypsy Chain became tree-sitters’ first martyr as loggers cut down a tree while he occupied. Chain died almost instantly of massive head trauma.
Despite the fact that the WWF in Turkey considers Gezi Park to be a big part of Istanbul’s natural heritage, Turkey’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism only registers and protects roughly 750 different “natural preservation sites”.
Gezi Park is not one of them.
-with files from Associated Press