ISTANBUL: With sloppy restoration work and damaged or disfigured historical monuments, experts say a race for profits, ideological considerations and favoritism 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 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 amphitheater or unrecognizable 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 prioritized back then, as part of efforts to join the EU,” 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. But Ankara’s estrangement from the EU in recent years and a hard-line turn in Erdogan’s policies have transformed the situation, said Korhan Gumus, an architect specializing in preservation of cultural heritage.
“Tenders for renovations are awarded to favored 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.”
Rather than preserving “parts added by different civilizations” 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.
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,” Polat said.