Istanbul, all a facade

For years the Turkish government has been deliberately gutting Istanbul’s old town rather than restoring it, writes the Süddeutsche Zeitung. UNESCO now intends to strike Istanbul off the World Cultural Heritage list, seeing as politicians have done nothing but stymie efforts to preserve its historic monuments.

Published on 27 July 2010 at 12:58
özgür özkök /Istanbul through my eyes  | Just add concrete. In Istanbul's Balat district

Istanbul is a grandiose city. And a mauled city. That’s how architect Korhan Gümüs sees it: “Sometimes one party wins the elections, sometimes another. But Istanbul loses every time. Ever since the founding of the republic.” Maybe even longer than that. Stick your spade in the ground and you can’t miss Byzantium and Rome: 2500 years of history lie piled up here layer upon layer, buried and forgotten.

The city of the Ottoman sultanate at least was supposed to be spared that fate. The Turks wanted to preserve the legacy of their forebears, in 1985 UNESCO declared the old part of Istanbul a World Heritage site: this spit of land between the Sea of Marmara and the Golden Horn, whose silhouette against the evening afterglow, when whole clouds of seagulls swarm round the minarets of the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, has never failed to enthral even the most callous beholder.

Nothing went the way preservationists intended

But the rest is. UNESCO means to strip Istanbul of its World Heritage status. The old town is to be put on the red list of endangered cultural heritage sites. And more than a few are nodding in agreement: that’s where it belongs. But what a resounding slap in the face for the authorities, what a scandal: now, of all times, when the city fathers are preening themselves on their European Capital of Culture 2010 title.

If you’d like to know how it came to that, start by taking a stroll through the Fener and Balat districts. This is where the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate is headquartered, this is where Armenians, Jews and Bulgarians once dwelt. Quaint neighbourhoods still chock-a-block with old Ottoman wooden houses. UNESCO invited tenders for a project to save those houses. But under the responsible municipality of Fatih, nothing went the way the preservationists had intended.

Spreading paranoia among the populace

When UNESCO came along with money and know-how, not only did the town council not move a finger to support the project – it went out of its way to sabotage it. “They whispered to the residents that it was a secret project launched by the Greek Patriarchate,” says Aysegül Kaya, a lawyer. “That the Patriarchate wanted to build a second Vatican here with the help of the UN: an independent patriarchal state.”

Madness? This country has plenty of experience in spreading paranoia among the populace. When the UNESCO team set off to delight homeowners with funds and restoration plans, many locals slammed the door in their faces. Then came the hour of the AKP [Turkish Justice and Development Party] local government. Middlemen bought up residents’ houses on the cheap – threatening that otherwise the houses would be seized. The authorities are now “restoring” the houses their way: viz. tearing them down and rebuilding them…“Ottoman style”.

An Ottoman Disneyland

Kaya, the lawyer, has been living here for a few years. “They say the old houses weren’t earthquake-proof. Such nonsense. Now only the façades are left. The neighbourhood is becoming a huge property development project. They’ve already torn down hundreds of houses. The whole area inside the city walls has fallen prey to nepotism. To speculators.”

Korhan Gümüs says the city government is turning a lively neighbourhood into an Ottoman Disneyland. It has sabotaged the UNESCO project because it cannot control it: “It would have been a model project. Transparent, and involving its neighbours. The success of the project would have had a significance extending well beyond the area itself: it would have shown that Turkish-style politics doesn’t work anymore. That’s another reason why it had to fail.” Turkish-style politics? “The state won’t use expert knowledge, the intelligence that society has to offer. It takes a technocratic approach. Instead of architects or preservationists, it calls in building contractors. The upshot is corruption and injustice. The authorities uphold the interests of the powerful, the entrepreneurs.”

Some people like the author Murat Belge claim the authorities have got what they wanted: carte blanche for profiteering and for a conception of modernity that harks back to the Western mindset of the 1960s and ’70s. But the government is also noticeably panicking, fearing disgrace. “Turkey is bringing considerable pressure to bear on UNESCO behind the scenes,” says Korhan Gümüs. The architect remains optimistic, however. Yes, he has lost many battles. “But in each defeat it becomes a bit more apparent that we can win, too.” Istanbul tenacity. In the meantime, the city is still taking a beating.

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