ISTANBUL — A giant flag-waving crowd, the size of which some Turkish media said had never been seen before, gathered in Istanbul Sunday for a rally to mark the end of nightly demonstrations since Turkey's July 15 abortive coup that left more than 270 people dead.
No official estimate was provided, but Turkish media said millions were at the rally. The event was so full that many were turned away at the gates.
The Yenikapi meeting area by the Marmara Sea waterfront in Istanbul's European side was transformed into a sea of red and white, the colors of Turkey's flag. The "Democracy and Martyrs' Rally" was billed as a cross-party event representing Turkish unity in the wake of the failed coup, in which a group of renegade military officers attempted to seize power with tanks, helicopters and fighter jets.
Religious leaders and two of Turkey's three opposition parties were attending, sitting next to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who arrived on board a helicopter with his wife Emine. The pro-Kurdish People's Democracy Party, or HDP, wasn't invited.
"July 15 has opened the door for our reconciliation," said main opposition Republican People's Party Chairman Kemal Kilicdaroglu said. "There is now a new Turkey after July 15. If we can further this power, this culture of rapprochement, we will all be able to leave our children a great Turkey."
The event kicked off with a minute of silence for those killed while opposing the coup, followed by the Turkish national anthem and a recitation of prayers ahead of speeches by the political party leaders. Erdogan was also to address the rally.
A 60-meter (200-foot) stage was set up for the event, framed by two platforms and draped with massive national flags and banners depicting Erdogan and Turkey's founding father Mustafa Kemal Ataturk. A roll call of those who died opposing the coup was read out as the crowd gathered.
"I have never been in democracy rallies but I really wanted to come this one. Because I don't want to lose my country," said Sevda Bozkurt, a 44-year-old housewife who didn't manage to get in to the rally area. "This is one of the biggest rallies. Turkey's three political parties gathered together, they become friends, they become brothers. Maybe there is hope for Turkey."
Construction cranes suspended giant Turkish flags beside the meeting area, while flag-draped boats and yachts zipped back and forth along the water.
Following the abortive putsch, the Turkish government has been encouraging nightly anti-coup rallies in all of the country's 81 provinces as well as in certain foreign locations such as Cologne, Germany.
The event was being simultaneously broadcast on giant screens in all of Turkey's provinces, and crowds of thousands gathered to watch in the country's major cities.
"Today is a special day, which is making all of the gatherings held for 15, 24 days, more precious," said Mustafa Yavuz Aycil, a 44-year-old Istanbul resident attending the rally. "I also had to be here today because as you see all of the crowd is showing its reaction to the coup."
Nearly 15,000 police were providing security at the event. Anti-aircraft batteries were also set up at the event grounds, while two helicopters circled overhead.
Thousands of buses and more than 200 boats were commissioned to bring attendees to the area, where they passed through one of 165 metal detectors before being given hats and flags. Those wounded during the attempted coup and the families of those who died were given special passes for a seated area.
Erdogan urged people to bring only the Turkish flag instead of party banners.
"There we will stand together as a single nation, a single flag, a single motherland, a single state, a single spirit," he said Saturday.
An Ottoman marching band entertained the crowd before the official start of the event, with 240 members representing the number of those authorities say gave their lives fighting off the coup.
Turkish media also said a giant screen was to be set up in Pennsylvania, the U.S. state that is home to Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, who moved there in self-imposed exile in the late 1990s. The Turkish government says Gulen is the mastermind behind the failed coup and is seeking his extradition. The cleric denies any involvement.
The government has launched a sweeping crackdown in the coup's aftermath, targeting followers of Gulen's movement. Nearly 18,000 people have been detained or arrested, mostly from the military, and tens of thousands of people have been suspended or dismissed from jobs in the judiciary, media, education, health care, military and local government.
The scope of the crackdown has alarmed European countries and rights groups, who have urged restraint. Erdogan has lashed out at such criticism, and complained of a lack of support from the West for his government for surviving the coup.
Neyran Elden and Bram Janssen in Istanbul contributed to this report.