The night Turkey changed forever

Piero Castellano
8 min readJul 16, 2017

By Piero Castellano

The night that changed Turkey forever began with soldiers blocking Istanbul’s bridges and the scream of F16 jets flying low over Ankara’s roofs. With thousands dismissed from their jobs this week and the Justice and Development Party stronger than ever, the legacy of this fateful night is still unfolding.

Supporters of President Erdogan in Kizilay square the day after the failed coup with Turkish and Ottoman flags.

On the anniversary of that dramatic night, the failed coup attempt still haunts Turkey. Questions about what happened remain unanswered and the unrelenting crackdown against critical voices continues apace.

If there was ever a brief spirit of national unity in the days after the 15th of July 2016, it is long gone. As the country’s elected leader, President Erdoğan retained widespread support from all sides the morning after the failed coup. But eight months later, a bitterly contested constitutional referendum that was narrowly and controversially won highlighted growing concerns over his rule, even amongst his natural supporters.

One year on and Turkey has been transformed, but Turkish democracy is not necessarily in better shape.

Supporters of President Erdoğan flashing the “rabia” sign march under a giant Turkish flag in Kizilay square where they have clashed with rogue tanks and soldiers during the coup attempt the night before.

When the coup the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) had long been paranoid about finally came, 95 percent of the Turkish Armed Forces stayed loyal to the government. But it still took hours for the bewildered loyalist generals to make a stand, leading many to believe that they were waiting to see if the coup would succeed.

It quickly became clear that the army, which is mostly comprised of conscripts, was no longer the secular monolith it was in previous eras. Seizing the chain of command was not enough to secure the obedience of the vast majority of soldiers, let alone ordinary citizens.

But while it seems likely that the loyal remnants of the army could have eventually suppressed the attempted putsch, it was ‘the people’ who became saviors of democracy that night, securing the idea of the AKP government as the bearers of Turkey’s national will.

A young man marches in Kizilay square doing the Turkish Nationalists’ “wolf salute.”

The gravitation of nationalist voters towards the AKP’s position is now stronger than ever. Ever since the party lost its majority in the June 2015 elections, the AKP has pursued increasingly nationalist policies, winning crucial votes from former supporters of the far-right Nationalist Action Party (MHP).

This has been accelerated in the aftermath of the failed coup. The MHP has traditionally been one of the staunchest supporters of the armed forces, ‘no matter what’. But nationalists’ unrelenting hatred for the Gülen movement — the organisation widely accused of organising the coup — and association of them as ‘foreign powers’ has driven more and more of them to line up behind Erdoğan and the AKP.

There were signs that the MHP could rebuild itself with the rise of Meral Akşener, who criticised the party leadership’s growing cooperation with the AKP, but was blocked by the courts from mounting a leadership challenge. With the surge of nationalist support for the AKP after the coup, her chances of taking over the party have been significantly set back. And on July 13 2017, Akşener announced plans to form a new party. Whether this will result in a more dynamic, or more divided, opposition is still an open question.

Women wearing çarşaf, the Turkish version of Islamic abaya, in a march supporting President Erdoğan the day after the failed coup attempt. One of them is wearing a Turkish flag over her çarşaf.

Among some pious circles, the flag of the Turkish Republic was seen as a symbol of the destruction of the Caliphate and the crackdown on religious communities that followed the establishment of the secular state. But the post-coup rallies marked the final appropriation of patriotic symbolism from the Kemalist side.

A placard on a taxi wrecked by a tank in Kizilay Square reads “The Pope from Pennsylvania will not defeat Islam,” in a derogatory reference to Fethullah Gülen, accused of being the mastermind behind the coup attempt.

Following the coup attempt, anti-western sentiment has been riled up across the nation. The association of Fethullah Gülen with ‘foreign powers,’ due to his exile in USA and the close relations his organisation has sought to build with institutions in the West, including the Vatican, has helped the AKP supporters turn against their former ally with a bitterness reserved only for former friends who betray the common cause.

A young man with a headband reading “Father we follow your steps” and the signature of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk march to support President Erdoğan in Kizilay square the day after the failed coup.

Support for President Erdoğan skyrocketed overnight on July 15 2016. The vast majority of Turkish citizens on all sides opposed any military takeover with the violence of Kenan Evren’s military regime after the 1980 coup still raw in the public memory.

Young men with Turkish and Ottoman flags march to support President Erdoğan in Kizilay square the day after the failed coup.

Much has been said of Erdogan’s legendary TV appearance via Facetime to call on the people to “take to the streets!” But before that rallying cry had been made, people were already taking to the streets in response to mosques sounding an emergency call to prayer, and highly unusual calls for jihad in defense of democracy.

For many, the religious tone of much of the anti-coup resistance raised old anxieties about the increasingly political role of religion. Alevi neighborhoods braced for possible attacks, having long raised concerns over precisely this . And In at least one mainly secular neighborhood of the capital, police cars with loudspeakers told people to stay at home, not take to the streets, stressing that the government was in full control.

Marks left by a coupist tank’s tracks unable to cross Atatürk Boulevard in front of the Parliament.

The incompetence of coupists was staggering. One of their most fatal errors was to assume there would be widespread acceptance, if not support, for a coup. Whatever the reason, be it bad intel or bias, it was clear that soldiers and commanders were stunned by the hostile reactions of the crowds. But in a deeply polarized country, with virtually no independent press left, people increasingly live in their own bubbles, making it possible that the coup’s leaders really believed they would be welcomed as saviours.

Two heavily armed policemen in the ruins of a guard post outside the bombed headquarter of National Security Directorate.

Police officers were the heroes of the day. For years it was said that the security forces were Gülenist strongholds. But it was the police who reacted quickest to resist the coup, even detaining commanders of army columns.

While the military has since been brought under almost full civilian control, the police have been given heavy arms and increased responsibilities, including the protection of the President after the whole Presidential Guard was disbanded. Still, alongside academics and civil servants, the Turkish police have borne the brunt of the post-coup purges, with thousands dismissed or detained.

An explosion crater, possibly by a helicopter rocket, near a building of Grand National Assembly of Turkey, the Turkish Parliament, after the failed coup attempt.

The night of the coup was one of the Turkish Parliament’s finest hours, but it was also nearly its last. Under bombardment from rebel fighter jets, all parties gathered in the National Assembly building to condemn the coup and reject any chance of cooperation with its leaders. There was none of the ambiguity seen after the 1980 coup.

But it was clear that the real power was in the Ak Saray, the monumental presidential palace built by Erdoğan. Five days after the coup, a state of emergency was declared, giving extraordinary powers to the president and prime minister. Soon after, the parliament approved the constitutional changes necessary to essentially make this executive power permanent, with a new presidential system confirmed by a controversial referendum in April this year.

The main Parliament building after it was bombed near the Prime Minister’s office on the night of the coup attempt.

A F16 pilot has reportedly ‘confessed’ to have been ordered to bomb the Parliament, but many argue that the damage to the building is more compatible with that from a Hellfire missile fired from a helicopter. This, along with other discrepancies in the official account means that questions remain about exactly how events played out that night.

One of the Parliament’s main building doors smashed from the inside by the aerial bombing explosion with marks of bullets and shrapnel.

The coup took the world by surprise, but it cannot be argued that it was unexpected. Given the country’s tumultuous history, there have always been rumours that another military intervention was never far away. Only a few weeks before the coup, speculation in military and diplomatic circles began to foment, with reports that important military figures fighting the PKK were on the verge of revolt, leading to the now almost forgotten denial by the army in a press statement. Many of those same commanders were later detained and accused of being involved in the coup.

The exiled Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen, accused of masterminding the failed coup, is hanged in effigy on Kizilay square, renamed “July 15th Martyrs and National Will square”.

The Fethullah Gülen movement, or the “Cemaat’ (the ‘Community’) was instrumental to the rise of AKP; supplying the party with much needed human resources to take over and manage the state administration.

Their fabrication of infamous scandals like the Ergenekon and Balyoz triggered witch-hunts and purges that limited the power of the Turkish Armed Forces vis-a-vis the government, but was the source of ire for Kemalists and nationalists, who despised the movement.

When Erdoğan began floating the idea of reinstating death penalty for coup plotters, there were few willing to come to the defence of Gülen movement, but such a move could end Turkey’s hopes of joining the European Union. That said, ongoing debates over the reintroduction of the death penalty have been perceived in many circles as a bargaining chip with the EU with the Union’s ongoing strategic need for the country barring the full secession of accession negotiations.

Supporters of President Erdoğan came to Ankara from other cities to take part in post-coup “Democracy Rallies” rest in Güven Park, on the main Kizilay square. One of the tents is marked “Yozgat,” an Anatolian city and conservative stronghold 180 km from Ankara.

Over 250 people were killed by gunfire, strafing and bombing while resisting the coup. They are now hailed as martyrs, adding to the mythical aura that now surrounds the 15th of July. “This is our Gezi”, one demonstrator said.

But feelings run even deeper, with a sense of finally having their day after generations of perceived oppression. “This was just like 1960, but Menderes’ children won, this time!” said another referring to the Prime Minister Menderes, who was executed after the 1960 coup. Government opponents argue the coup continues however, and with thousands purged from across the judiciary, media,academia and police, analysts largely agree. What next for Turkey, even a year after a night which changed the country forever, remains to be seen.

Originally published at on July 16, 2017.



Piero Castellano

Photojournalist and writer, traveler, biker, based in Genoa, Italy.