Cosmetic changes to Istanbul’s historic sites

Have you ever visited the slums around the historic sites of Istanbul? Have you ever walked along the back streets of Sultanahmet and Suleymaniye? We face such unpleasant scenes as a result of expensive restoration projects for the area around historic buildings which have not been conducted properly.

Sultanahmet Mosque alone draws 15,000- 20,000 visitors every day. This means 4-5 million people visit the mosque annually. Though 95 percent of tourists who come to Istanbul visit Sultanahmet Mosque, Hagia Sophia and Topkapı Palace are the other places most frequented by tourists coming to the city. No one raises any objections to the fact that Istanbul grabs the largest share of the tourism pie in the country. Politicians are busy praising “Istanbul, the saint” all the time. Istanbul has however become odd, dirty and unmaintained because of unplanned urbanization.

We just have to look at the historical peninsula to see several examples of this. The capital of the Ottoman Empire that we constantly praise for its beauties is being destroyed.

Although historic buildings are being restored thanks to the efforts of both the Directorate General for Foundations (VGM) and several private organizations, art historians are concerned that poorly planned restoration projects will damage the authenticity of these historic buildings. In fact, VGM President Adnan Ertem has already admitted to this, noting, “It is true that we have made some mistakes while restoring some historic sites.”

The restoration projects conducted on the historical peninsula are nothing but cosmetic changes. The facades of historic sites which attract a large number of visitors are clean, splendid and impressive whereas the other areas are dirty, shabby and derelict.

Suleymaniye Mosque and its surrounding areas is the best example of this. The mosque, which Mimar Sinan referred to as his journeyman’s piece, was renovated between 2007 and 2010. On Nov. 16, 2010, the mosque was reopened for worship with the participation of state officials.

However, why was Vefa, a historic neighborhood within walking distance of Suleymaniye Mosque, neglected? The neighborhood seems dreadful even in the day. While Suleymaniye looks like an elegant gentleman, Vefa looks like a homeless man in shabby clothes.

Sehzade Mosque is another work of Mimar Sinan located within walking distance of Vefa. The mosque, which was defined by Sinan as the center of the world, stands as a green island in the middle of the city. However, although the mosque recently underwent a major renovation, the area surrounding the mosque remains neglected. The Aqueduct of Valens that straddles busy Ataturk Boulevard as it runs from the Golden Horn to Fatih and SaraChane Park is where glue-sniffers and drunks hang around at night.

Back streets of historical peninsula not included in city tours

Tour guides have also complained about the neglected back streets of the historical peninsula. Halis Kutlu from Nunans Tour said: “Sultanahmet Square, Suleymaniye, Eyup and Fatih mosques attract millions of tourists each year. However, the back streets of these historic sites are neglected. Sultanahmet Mosque provides a peaceful atmosphere but when you go to Vefa, you encounter homeless people and old dilapidated wooden houses.” Noting that these wooden houses which are a part of the Ottoman heritage have become refuges for glue-sniffers, Kutlu underlined that the back streets of Sultanahmet are no different from Vefa.

“As a tour guide, we do not enter the back streets unless it is required to do so because we do not want to create a bad image of the city in the minds of tourists.”

Restoration a matter of grace

Dr. Teyfur Erdogdu from Yıldız Technical University’s faculty of humanities and social sciences underlined that restoration is not only technical matter but is also about culture and experience. “Unfortunately, in Turkey, beauty and aesthetics are not one of our primary concerns. This applies to our restoration projects as well. Restoration requires a high level of aesthetic feelings, culture and experience. However, only a few conservators have these qualifications, which is why restoration works in our country are usually poorly conducted,” he said.

The same applies to Sultanahmet Mosque and its surrounding areas. The mosque and Sultanahmet Square are relatively clean whereas the back streets around it are neglected. The SuriCi district is occupied by hotels and parking lots.

For example, in Eminonu, there are many historic inns waiting to be restored. Buyuk Valide inn located on CakmakCılar YokuSu in MahmutpaSa neighborhood is one of these places. The historic inn was built by Kosem Sultan, who was the wife of Sultan Ahmet I and the mother of future sultans Murat IV and Ibrahim. When you view the city from the roof of the historic inn, the city’s historic sites cry out. The mind-boggling beauty of the Bosporus is not enough to cover up all these problems.

Despite all the official statements saying we are preserving our history, there is no way to undo the damage.

According to Erdogdu, in order to solve this problem we need to raise people’s awareness of the cultural identity and aesthetic beauty of cities and establish new independent inspection mechanisms that will inspect even the current inspection mechanisms, impose graver penalties on those who are responsible for negligent work and amend the laws on the restoration and conservation of historic works.

The KılıC Ali PaSa Complex at Tophane, another work of Mimar Sinan, elevates our hearts and awakens our souls. Renovation of the mosque was completed last year but it sparked heated debates. The facade of the mosque is splendid but the debris from the renovation work has not yet been removed from the side facing the rear.

Shopkeepers around the mosque have already gotten used to this picture. In addition, many historic gravestones were destroyed during the renovation of the Yahya Efendi dervish lodge. The ancient city walls of Istanbul are in a deplorable state… The conquest of Istanbul is one of the milestones of history. However, the ancient city walls, which bore witness to this conquest, are surrounded by terrible buildings.

SOURCE: TODAY’S ZAMAN

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