Deficient restoration a problem for Turkey’s heritage

Except for a handful of well-known landmarks, signs of non-Muslim history in Turkey are largely ignored.
Sunday 09/06/2019
People cast their shadows on a wall as they look at a view of the Bosporus from the courtyard of the Ottoman-era Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. (Reuters)
Challenging times. People cast their shadows on a wall as they look at a view of the Bosporus from the courtyard of the Ottoman-era Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul. (Reuters)

A mosque from the late Ottoman period that now resembles a neatly painted suburban home, PVC window frames that grace a 12th-century castle, a fitted kitchen unit in a medieval shrine or a 2,000-year-old fortress tower that was mocked as resembling the cartoon character SpongeBob SquarePants after its restoration: The list of botched restorations in Turkey is very long.

In one of the latest rows, experts bemoaned a hole drilled into the wall of the Imperial Suleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul to fasten a cable.

Anyone who cares about the protection of cultural heritage and expert restoration of historical monuments will suffer in Turkey, said Banu Pekol, of the Protection of Cultural Heritage (KMKD). “I know that I cannot save everything. That’s a terrible feeling.”

Archaeologist Nezih Basgelen blamed the construction frenzy, a lack of expertise and greed for the lack of historical preservation and restoration blunders.

“Restorations are often handed to private contractors who lack the experience and the expertise,” he explained. “They treat these projects like simple construction work.”

Costs are cut using the cheapest possible materials: plastic, instead of wood; a lick of paint instead of stone mosaics; or moulds pressed into wet concrete instead of cobblestones.

Not only are the contractors to blame, employers who want to see quick, cheap results are also responsible. “Municipalities want to take advantage of monuments for tourism purposes as quickly as possible,” Basgelen said. “That’s why they don’t have the patience for time-consuming restorations.”

Last year, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government passed a highly criticised building amnesty that aims to legalise hundreds of thousands of unregistered constructions all over the country and has brought billions in taxes and licence fees into government coffers. The amnesty allows for illegally built or altered buildings to be officially registered in exchange for a fee, a nightmare for preservationists and archaeologists.

“It’s horrible,” Pekol said. “The amnesty has destroyed my hope that things will improve. It means that many buildings that violate preservation standards or that endanger cultural heritage will get state authorisations.”

One example, she said, is the illegally built hotel in Zeyrek, a UNESCO-listed historic neighbourhood in Istanbul that will be eligible for legalisation.

She said there is a lack of appreciation of shared cultural heritage in Turkey. Except for a handful of well-known landmarks, such as the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island in Van province, signs of non-Muslim history in Turkey are largely ignored.

“It breaks my heart to see Armenian, Greek and Assyrian villages fall into ruin,” Pekol said. She warned that with the disappearance of tangible history, memory will fade as well.

“Buildings trigger memories. If you build housing blocks on the site of an Armenian village, people will stop asking who used to live there. They might even assume that there had never been anyone else,” she said.

Ignorance, too, is a part of the problem of the destruction of cultural heritage and historical monuments, which is why her association organises training programmes. Pekol has seminars for people who live or work in historic buildings, teaches them what problems might arise and how to address them, such as repair work that does not destroy the building’s structure.

She criticised that it is mostly experts who are seriously involved in the protection of cultural heritage. She said members of other professions, such as journalists and teachers, should get more involved and KMKD has been organising seminars for them for two years.

The media can help change attitudes, Pekol said, adding: “Content and the choice of words when writing about cultural monuments play an important role in their protection.”

Teachers are encouraged to use and talk about monuments in their lessons. “A math teacher could teach counting using statues or important sites,” Pekol said.

KMKD also offers training courses for tourist guides. “They visit historic places much more regularly than anyone else, which is why they are often the first to notice any problems or damage,” Pekol explained. “Why shouldn’t we use their knowledge for the protection of historical monuments?”

Despite the shortcomings, the situation has improved in recent years, said Basgelen. “More monuments are being restored in accordance with UNESCO standards than before but the government should make sure that UNESCO rules are enforced more rigorously,” he said.

The AKP has given priority to historical preservation. The Ministry for Culture and Tourism aims to complete 1,000 restorations by 2023, the 100th birthday of the Turkish republic. Archaeological excavations are being equally sped up to stimulate growth in the tourism sector.

Scientists and other experts advise more diligence. “If fast profits and personal gain are all that counts, the protection of century-old cultural heritage becomes only a secondary matter,” Pekol said.

She added that politicians do not have the luxury to plan until the next election. “They are only in power for a certain time but cultural monuments have to be professionally protected over centuries, independently of all politics,” she said.