But proposed changes to Taksim Square have seen it become the flashpoint for protests that have swept through Turkey in the past week, leaving thousands injured and focusing the world's attention on the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Taksim has been no stranger to violence. In 1977, at least 34 protesters died during May Day clashes with police. May 1 rallies in the square were banned in 1980 and were only allowed to legally resume in 2010. On May Day this year, there were riots after city authorities again refused to grant trade unions and youth groups permission to demonstrate in Taksim, blaming construction work being carried out in the square.
Professor Ersin Kalaycioglu, professor of political science at Istanbul's Sabanci University, said significantly, Taksim Square was also known as "republic square," because it was built by the Republic of Turkey's founding fathers to commemorate the war of liberation. "Taksim Square is connected to Istiklal Caddesi -- Independence Avenue -- and Cumhuriyet Caddesi -- the Avenue of the Republic. So there is a lot of symbolism that has to do with the Turkish Republic," he said.
The Turkish word "taksim" translates as "divide" and Kalaycioglu said Taksim Square was so-named because the area used to be the site of Istanbul's main reservoir, where the water was divided up.
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In the 20th Century and earlier, the area was only partially inhabited, he said, housing a military barracks and military training ground and a cemetery running down the slopes and a military hospital that still remains.
"In the 1930s the cemetery was moved to another part of town and the area was opened up for apartment buildings -- and at one point it was one of the 'poshest' parts of the city," he said. "Most of the apartment buildings face the Bosphorus [the strait that connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara]," he said. "Because of its majestic view, [Taksim] is an attraction in its own right." It was estimated that millions of people went through the area to work every day, Kalaycioglu said.Since the protests, however, Taksim has been blocked to traffic. This impromptu pedestrianization inadvertently reflects the authorities' plan to divert all traffic from the square. Kalaycioglu said plans to take the traffic underground included a pedestrian curb but after the tunnel was dug it was discovered that not enough room had been allowed for foot traffic. That was when the government decided to slice off part of Taksim's Gezi Park -- one of the last green spaces in Istanbul's center -- "which the ecologists and architects of the city started to argue against