The Turkish government is damaging important cultural heritage sites in its pursuit of profits, according to experts who spoke to AFP news agency.
Renovation work inside the Galata Tower in Istanbul caused an outcry in August after video footage emerged of workers using a jackhammer to tear down an internal wall. Culture Minister Nuri Ersoy claimed that the wall had not been an original part of the 14th century building, and said he would take action against the construction company involved.
However, critics like Osman Köker, founder of Birzamanlar (‘Onceuponatime’) gallery in Istanbul, said that a “harshness” toward cultural heritage has always existed in Turkey, especially sites associated with non-Muslim minority groups.
In the first decade of the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) 18 years in power, the government made some efforts to protect symbolic heritage sites, including important Christian sites like the Armenian Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Van’s Akdamar island and the Greek Orthodox Sümela Monastery.
“Restoring buildings with high symbolic value was prioritised back then, as part of efforts to join the European Union,” said Köker.
“Tenders for renovations are awarded to favoured companies which have established a monopoly. And the projects are above all aimed at making profits,” architect and urban planner Korhan Gümüş told the AFP.
Gümüş is a cofounder of the Taksim Solidarity Platform, which advocates for citizens to have a say in the design of the Taksim Square at the heart of Istanbul and played a leading role during the protests in Gezi Park in 2013.
“The renovations are managed entirely by construction calls for tenders, without prior reflection on their history,” Gümüş said.
Restorations did not aim at preserving “parts added by different civilisations” over their history, but call for “a restitution of the original, which leads to grotesque results,” he added.
The Culture Ministry, which is in charge of maintaining historic monuments, did not respond to criticisms.
Mahir Polat, the cultural heritage director for the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, complained that “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 also told AFP that 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 director was told that the fountain had been transported to another location, but the municipality does not know what has happened to it, he said.
“The memory of a city is intimately linked to its living space. We failed to live together with ancient buildings in the past,” Polat said.