The helicopter buzzing overhead was the first hint of trouble.
We didn’t pay much attention: we’d arrived in Istanbul late afternoon, just in time to enjoy a fish dinner sitting out in a pretty cobbled street. People wandered by, enjoying the balmy Friday evening. Our waiter looked up as the helicopter passed low overhead but no-one seemed worried.
After dinner, we took a leisurely stroll along Istiklal Caddesi, enjoying the festive crowds, the old tram laden with passengers, the smells of roasted chestnuts and coffee. The shops were open, people sat in pavement cafes eating baklava. We were almost at Taksim Square (though we didn’t know it) when we turned back towards the opulent Pera Palace Hotel where we were staying for a romantic weekend with the kids left behind in London.
The next hint of trouble came from a woman near the hotel who told us in terse, broken English to get inside and stay there. Bemused but untroubled, we wandered up to our room.
And saw the news
By this time, the bridges spanning the Bosphorus had been blocked by tanks and Twitter had exploded with speculation of a coup. No-one knew where President Erdogan was. He’d left the country and was on his way to Tehran. He’d landed in Germany. He’d been taken captive. Rumours abounded.
From our balcony the city looked tranquil – a waxing moon glowing softly over the domes and minarets on the skyline. But below us people were streaming along the road, the glow from smartphones lighting many faces as they consulted social media as they walked.
A Belgian couple emerged on the balcony next to ours. No, they didn’t know what was going on either. We’d heard the bridges were blocked but we could see headlights of traffic crossing the water. Newbies to the city, we didn’t realise that we were looking at the Golden Horn. The bridges that span the immense Bosporus were round the headland and events there were unfolding rapidly.
We talked about Ghent and Brexit with our neighbours while we watched the people passing below. There were rumours that social media had been blocked but we continued to get most of our news from the Twitter storm while Facebook messages tinged in from anxious friends and relatives back home.
Sometime during the dark hours after midnight, the mosques started to broadcast the call to prayer, the rise and falling chant eerie in the moonlight.
A call to prayer in the middle of the night?
It was, we learned later, a rarely used form of prayer which was widely recognised to be a call to action. Ironically, Erdogan – who has tried to block social media in the past – had used Facetime and texts to call the people to the streets as he raced back from his holiday in the south of the country. The mosques took up the summons. Soon we saw chanting crowds heading to Taksim Square but it still seemed that the coup could go either way. Helicopters buzzed overhead and there was the sound of gunfire in the distance.
By about 4am we decided to try and get some sleep but were soon back at the windows as fighter jets ripped through the sky, low over the city. Jittery, we eventually fell into an uneasy doze for a few hours.
By morning, it was already becoming clear that the coup had failed. We were the only guests at the hotel breakfast buffet, the shell-shocked staff admirably carrying on as normal even though they were on double shift while they waited to see if the morning shift would make it into work.
‘Don’t worry’, everyone said, ‘things are back to normal.’ Even flights were resuming although a couple who had set off that morning had returned, unable to reach the airport. Amid rumours of coup leaders still holed up in the Old Town, the staff advised us to stay inside for a few hours but sounded calmly reassuring. The events of the night felt surreal.
At lunchtime we ventured out, discovering the astounding beauty of the Old Town with few other tourists to be seen. We bought ceramics from a young man who proudly told us that he had gone to the squares the previous night to push back the military. Stories from the night were filtering through. The death toll was rising and so were the number of arrests.
Nightfall brought the reassuring blinking lights of commercial flights back in the air space over the city though, alarmingly, a fighter jet also tore through the sunset. Many cars passing below our balcony were waving the Turkish flag from the windows or had draped it across bonnets . Horns blared as passing cars acknowledged the peoples’ victory- young men and women in headscarves hung out of the windows cheering as they drove up and down.
Back up on Istiklal, chanting crowds carried flags as they marched up to Taksim. Dotted among the young men were occasional women and children and the atmosphere was festive, triumphant, but very different from the relaxed, strolling crowds of the night before. Shops were closed, the chestnut sellers were absent. Few tourists braved the streets.
A little intimidated, we ducked into a wine bar where we found an Argentinean couple eager to chat, the four of us united by our bewilderment as we shared sanctuary over a glass of wine. We wondered if we would be able to get home, if the flights really were returning to normal after tanks had closed down the airport
Our hosts offered a huge selection of Turkish wines and, over an excellent red, the owner joined our conversation. Wasn’t it rather wonderful, we asked, the people bravely facing down the military to defend democracy?
He shook his head despairingly. How could a coup have happened at all? And what was the country’s future under an increasingly repressive regime with Erdogan stronger than ever? Democracy is important, he said, but money in the villages bought votes. He was afraid that he would come under increasing pressure not to sell wine any more. And would the tourists keep coming?
Sunday brought a few more tourists to the Topkapi Palace but we still saw only one other couple the entire time we were inside the fabulous Harem. In the main palace there were tour groups from Asia and groups of Middle Eastern tourists, but Europeans were a rarity and Americans more or less absent due to a US ban on flights in or out of Turkey. In the cobbled streets around the Palace, carpet sellers and restaurant staff gathered on corners to chat or grouped around TV sets showing the news.
Sunday night and the people again took to the streets. By now the shops along Istiklal had reopened and at least tome tourists remerged. Over dinner, the restaurant owner told us that she had gone to the market that morning to buy food with no idea if people would come for dinner.
‘I can’t believe you are here’, she told us. Our guide book told us that a booking in her establishment was essential but, apart from us, there were only two other couples eating there that night. There would be a lot of food left at the end of the evening.
She told us that she feared for her country’s future. She had joined protests in Taksim Square in 2013 to fight for her country but now she could see nothing to fight for. She couldn’t help but say what she thought, she told us, and she’d end up getting in trouble for it. She’d decided to leave the country. Costa Rica looked nice she thought.
Our waitress was born in Germany and had an EU passport which clearly gave her much comfort. The schools had made religious studies compulsory, she said, but her children were exempt because they were German. She also planned to leave.
Back on the streets it felt safe enough to go to Taksim where a small crowd waved flags and listened to someone speaking through a microphone. On our way back down Istiklal, however, we passed big crowds coming the other way. Young men walked beneath a giant flag, taking selfies. Occasional motorbikes weaved through the crowds. An old lady in a headscarf held her smartphone high to film the processions while a toddler wore the flag like a superhero cape. As we walked away from Taksim, we were pushing against the flow of people, often standing to the side to let larger, louder groups go by.
All night long the horns of cars driving up and down the road below our balcony blared once again. At one point the patter of something like gunfire had guests looking anxiously through the curtains but we concluded that it was only firecrackers.
So we were bleary eyed when we emerged to walk down to the Grand Bazaar on our last morning. We stopped to buy scented soaps on the way and the young proprietor could barely stop yawning as he served us. Yes, he said, he had been in Taksim every night since Friday. Of course.
The elegant arches of the Grand Bazaar were, like the Old Town, weirdly deserted. Vendors chatted over coffee: there were no customers to serve.
“Let us help you spend your money!” they called as we passed. But we had no Turkish Lira left to spend as we were on our way to the airport to go home.
“Because of the trouble?”
“No, no,” I reassured them. “We only came for the weekend. We arrived on Friday afternoon.”
“On Friday afternoon? Were you scared?”
“A little, when the fighter jets went over,” we confessed.
“Ah, that was just a message,” one guy said.
Another rolled his eyes comically. “Yes,” he replied. “But what message?”