Istanbul’s Galata Tower has survived earthquakes and the fall of empires, but the monument has been unable to withstand the jackhammer of the Turkish ministry of culture. On August 12, video footage of two restoration workers jackhammering the 14th century structure sparked outrage and sent concerned citizens flocking to the site. Mahir Polat, head of the cultural assets department of Istanbul municipality, was not allowed into the tower, ostensibly to avoid further damage. The next day, the culture minister, Mehmet Nuri Ersoy, tweeted that “workers were merely removing stones that had been recently added” – a claim that Polat disputed.
This is not the first time a cultural-heritage site has been damaged in the name of restoration, under the supervision of the government led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Hot on the heels of the Galata Tower incident came news from Sivas, a city in central Turkey. On August 19, the newspaper Hurriyet reported that cranes had been used to remove parts of the city’s 800-year-old bridge, which was built during the Seljuk empire. The archaeologist Nezih Basgelen, founder of the Cultural and Natural Heritage Watchdog Platform, an NGO started by concerned expert conservationists, said that “under no circumstances should excavators or other heavy construction machines be allowed to restore ancient archeological sites.”
This raises the question how construction companies like the ones at the Galata Tower and in Sivas were retained for the projects, when they apparently show little expert knowledge of conservation and restoration.
The answer is that such companies are not required to have any specialist knowledge. Burhan Ersoy, head of the country’s directorate general of foundations, the branch of government responsible for nationwide restoration projects, admitted as much on national television, saying the problem would be remedied “soon.” After the Galata Tower incident, Ersoy told a journalist that “certifications will become a must.” But when asked how his organization was monitoring current projects, he had no answer.
The fact is, there is no monitoring going on. The directorate has neither the manpower nor the organizational skills to do so – which is alarming, considering it is responsible for the care of thousands of historical sites.
In 2013, the directorate went to court to acquire rights over the former St George’s Church in Bursa, in northwest Turkey, from the local municipality, which had operated the building as a cultural center since 2009. The directorate won the case, locked up the building and promptly forgot about it. The building, which as a church was also known as Hagia Sophia of Bursa, now is so badly decayed that it may be beyond saving.
The directorate or the ministry of culture might claim to oversee restoration work throughout Turkey, but thousands of failed projects suggest otherwise. These include the Suheyl Bey mosque, built in 16th century Istanbul by the legendary Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, which now resembles a contemporary glass-box edifice. Then, there is the 2,000-year-old Ocakli Ada castle in Istanbul’s Sile district, the “restoration” of which has been ridiculed as resembling a statue of the cartoon character, SpongeBob SquarePants. The fact that nobody is being held accountable for such travesties says much about the government’s vision and policy toward the country’s heritage.
In 2015, marble of the wrong color was used in the restoration of the 10th century Aspendos theater in Antalya. The same mistake was made in 2018 with the stone seats of the 2,000-year-old Roman theater in Ankara’s Ulus district. The repetition of the same mistake makes one wonder if it is deliberate.
Sometimes it is. The Ataturk Culture Center was one of Istanbul’s most significant cultural symbols. A testament to the Turkish republic’s commitment to liberalism and modernity, its theaters and bookshops were a haven of cultural life for more than half a century. The ministry of culture abandoned the building in 2008 and it was demolished in 2019. The area around it now is an open-air market for cheap secondhand clothing.
President Erdogan has made clear his views on cultural conservation. “Pots and pans should not stand in the way of progress,” he asserted in a speech where he complained about the four-year completion delay of the Marmaray commuter railway line in Istanbul. The rail line includes a tunnel under the Bosphorus, joining the Asian and European sides of the city. The “pots and pans” he referred to were archeological artifacts found in the 4th century Harbor of Eleutheros (also known as the Harbor of Theodosius) on the European end of the tunnel. They include traces of the city wall of Constantine the Great, and what appear to be remains of an ancient or early medieval galley ship.
The government responded in the same dismissive tone at widespread protests sparked by the intentional flooding, behind a new dam, of Hasankeyf, an 11,000-year-old settlement in Batman, southeast Anatolia. Nothing was to be allowed to stand in the way of progress and of the “New Turkey,” and in May the destruction of an ancient city that has been home to more than 20 different cultures and of around 300 medieval monuments went ahead.
This large-scale destruction of heritage is at odds with the ruling party’s international campaign demanding the return of Turkey’s “stolen heritage,” such as the Pergamon Altar from the 2nd century CE, now in Berlin. One can only imagine what might have happened to it if it had remained in Turkey. It probably would have been left to rot.
Alexandra de Cramer is a journalist based in Istanbul. She reported on the Arab Spring from Beirut as a Middle East correspondent for Milliyet newspaper. Her work ranges from current affairs to culture, and has been featured in Monocle, Courier Magazine, Maison Francaise and Istanbul Art News.