With sloppy restoration work and damaged or disfigured historical monuments, experts say a race for profits, ideological considerations and favouritism are leaving sensitive upkeep of cultural heritage by the wayside in Turkey.
In August the Galata Tower — an emblematic 14th-century Istanbul landmark — became the latest monument at the heart of a dispute.
Criticism from residents managed to narrowly block the demolition of one of its walls with a jackhammer as part of a restoration, only after a video of workers using the power tool leaked on social media.
Culture Minister Nuri Ersoy tried to smooth things over, saying that the destroyed section was not an original part of the tower and announcing “sanctions” against the construction chiefs for using the heavy-duty equipment.
But in recent years, the list of poorly renovated monuments has grown, ranging from Roman mosaics damaged by a botched restoration to concrete piled up in the middle of an ancient amphitheatre or unrecognisable mosques and citadels.
For Osman Koker, founder of the gallery “Birzamanlar” — a venue to display the country’s cultural diversity — a “harshness” toward ancient buildings has always existed in Turkey, aimed especially at erasing traces of non-Muslim minorities.
The picture was much brighter in the early 2000s, when Recep Tayyip Erdogan — now president — first became prime minister.
“Restoring buildings with high symbolic value was prioritised back then, as part of efforts to join the European Union,” Koker said.
In 2011, the highly successful restoration of the 10th-century Armenian church on Akdamar island in Lake Van in eastern Turkey received praise from many experts.
-‘Profit above all’-
But Ankara’s estrangement from the EU in recent years and a hardline turn in Erdogan’s policies have transformed the situation, said Korhan Gumus, an architect specialising in preservation of cultural heritage.
“Tenders for renovations are awarded to favoured companies which have established a monopoly. And the projects are above all aimed at making profits,” he lamented.
“The renovations are managed entirely by construction calls for tenders, without prior reflection on their history,” Gumus said.
Rather than preserving “parts added by different civilisations” over the centuries or millennia, project specifications often call for “a restitution of the original, which leads to grotesque results,” he added.
The culture ministry — in charge of maintaining historic monuments — did not respond to the criticism when contacted by AFP.
It was Mahir Polat, cultural heritage director for Istanbul’s municipal government, who raised the alarm on the use of the jackhammer during the restoration work at Galata Tower.
The municipality, run by the main opposition CHP party since 2019, lodged an immediate complaint, only for the culture ministry to reject its appeal to inspect the project.
“When restoration is seen only as a construction activity and when we forget that the monument reflects the centuries it has passed through, we miss the objective of preservation. We then have brand-new reconstructions,” Polat said.
“Arbitrary decisions” sometimes bypass those in charge of cultural heritage protection, Polat complains.
He said he discovered in July that a historic fountain in Uskudar on the Asian side of Istanbul had vanished overnight as part of a road-widening project.
The district municipality led by Erdogan’s ruling party, he said, had decided to “transport” the fountain without any authorisation.
“The historical value attributed to a monument only makes sense in the place it is located. You cannot transport it like any other object,” Polat said.
“We’ve heard nothing about this fountain since then”.
Tugba Tanyeri Erdemir, researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, argued that Turkey’s government favours “the domination of cultural heritage rather than its conservation,” highlighting recent decisions to convert Hagia Sophia cathedral and another church into mosques.
In August, Erdogan ordered the ancient Orthodox Kariye church that became a mosque and then a popular Istanbul museum to be turned back into a space for Muslim worship.
The decision came just a month after a similarly controversial conversion to transform the UNESCO World Heritage-recognised Hagia Sophia into a mosque for the first time since 1934.
With the erasure of cultural heritage, Polat fears the memory of Istanbul will disappear.
“The memory of a city is intimately linked to its living space. We failed to live together with ancient buildings in the past,” he deplored.
“I hope we will realise the treasure we have in our hands.”