Istanbul’s Heritage Under Attack

First off, let me say that I feel remarkably safe living in Istanbul. Of course there are parts of town better avoided in the wee small hours, but that goes for pretty much everywhere, doesn’t it? My fellow Kiwis in the New Zealand Embassy in Ankara thoughtfully send me warnings from time to time about steering clear of places where people congregate – but in a city of fifteen million plus in a country of eighty million, that’s easier said than done. Certainly I’ve been shying away from towns near the Syrian border lately, where rockets and mortar bombs have been straying over from the neighbour’s backyard, making life difficult for Turkish villagers. But I don’t have much call to go down that way, and it hasn’t been such a great hardship.
So I was kind of surprised to read an article published recently in the Economist, circulating among Turkish friends and colleagues, announcing that Istanbul’s heritage is under attack. Well, ok, it’s only the city’s heritage they’re talking about, and there seems to be no immediate threat from chemical weapons and high explosives, but still . . . We all know what happened to the Buddhas of Bamiyan when the Afghan Taliban decided they were a bad influence on the Muslim population. Attacking my heritage can be the thin end of a nasty wedge – you can’t afford to ignore these things. So I read the article.
The first thing I noticed was that there was no byline. Whoever wrote it was, for one reason or another, not revealing his/her identity. I don’t know what the Economist’spolicy is on this. I would have thought that normally they’d want to give their correspondent recognition, or at least add an explanation that the writer feared for his life or liberty if his identity was known. Nevertheless, let’s move on.
His or her reason for putting pen to paper seemed to be the announcement of plans to build two large new mosques in prominent parts of the city – Taksim Square, the heart of the old European quarter’, and Çamlıca, ‘Istanbul’s tallest hill’. Now I don’t wish to get embroiled in a debate about whether citizens and ratepayers need these new mosques. It seems to me there’s a good deal of construction going on in Istanbul these days that the majority of people could well do without: huge shopping centres mushrooming everywhere, alongside residential towers of skyscraper proportions . . .
I will note, however, that one of the buildings that attracted my attention on my first visit to Taksim Square was a large Greek Orthodox basilica. As you walk down the two-kilometre stretch of Istiklal Avenue, you will pass two equally impressive Roman Catholic churches, not to mention the monumental palaces of former European embassies, now inhabited by their less prestigious consulates. Stroll down side streets off the main avenue and you will find a large Anglican church, one or two minor Armenian and Orthodox places of worship, and several Jewish synagogues. OK, there is a mosque on Istiklal Avenue, currently undergoing renovation, but considerably less grandiose than its Christian neighbours. If you continue down the hill at the end of the main street, you will find another one, catering, I imagine from its size, to a small congregation of locals. That’s it. Does the area need another mosque? Well, at least it’s open to debate – and after all, Turkey’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim.
As for Çamlica, and the Economistcolumnist’s assertion that the proposed mosque will ‘dominate the city’s skyline’, anyone who knows Istanbul is well aware that the hill in question is about ten kilometres from the old city. A tourist standing on Çamlica Hill will see the Blue Mosque as a small detail in the distance – and we may safely assume that another tourist, back in the Sultanahmet area, would probably not even know where to look to locate the Hill of Çamlica. If he did, he would more likely notice the forest of television and telephone masts that currently adorn the slopes and summit.
I’m not going to spend time rebutting each of the writer’s nonsensical assertions – that the Blue Mosque’s silhouette has been blighted by skyscrapers, the nearest of which would be five kilometres away in another direction; that urban renewal is pushing out the colourful encampments of ‘gypsies, transvestites and minorities’, whoever the ‘minorities’ may be; and the implication that Turkey may have been better off when the army was staging regular coups to oust democratically elected governments. I have a feeling I recognise the writing style, and if I had to hazard a guess, I would say the anonymous author is Andrew ‘What Everyone Needs to know About Turkey’ Finkel. Wonder why he’s stopped signing his name.
One of the big problems with Turkey’s heritage is that no one is a hundred percent sure what it is – or, at least, opinion is strongly divided on the subject. Modern Greeks and Hellenophiles of the old school would very likely deny Turkey’s right to be considered heir to the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Yet Ottoman Sultans of old felt they had a good claim. Republican Turkey’s relationship to that same Ottoman Empire is itself contentious. In founding the Republic, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk had to do away with the imperial line and its claim to the Islamic Caliphate. The current Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has attracted some criticism for allegedly seeking to recreate a Muslim Ottoman state with himself as Padishah. Now, however, it seems the Istanbul elite have adopted the Ottomans as their own, and are defending their right to glory in the life and loves of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent through a popular soap opera. It’s a confusing business, for sure.
A former English colleague of mine worked, as a young man, on an archeological dig in the centre of old Istanbul. They were excavating the ruins of an ancient Byzantine church, St Polyeuctus. I passed by the site recently with some visitors from abroad, and found it fenced and neglected, clearly home to a community of otherwise homeless souls. It would take a brave and determined student of history to gain entrance and examine the remains today. I can understand Chris’s anger with the city authorities who have allowed the fruits of his sweat and toil to deteriorate to a barely recognisable heap of overgrown rubble.
Nevertheless, there are numerous churches of similar vintage in this antique city, still standing and even undergoing tasteful restoration. The 5th century Church of St Sergius and Bacchus, although these days serving as a mosque, has been beautifully renovated at some considerable expense. In fact, it was not marauding Muslim Turks who ravaged St Polyeuctus and suffered it to collapse and decay. My research tells me that the venerable building had already fallen into disrepair by the 11th century, and its end came when Crusaders stormed the city of their fellow Christians in 1204. Their orgy of looting and destruction included carrying off what remained of St P’s legendary treasures. I’ve mentioned before the equestrian statue adorning the façade of St Mark’s basilica in Venice, removed thither from the Hippodrome in Constantinople.  Another feature of St Mark’s, so I’m told, is the Pilastri Acritani, the so-called Pillars of Acre, a pair of beautifully carved columns uplifted from St P’s at the same time.
Luckily for Turkey, and for the kind of history buff tourist who prefers to see ancient relics more or less in situ, there are still plenty of such to be found. A few years ago I visited the city of Antakya in the eastern Mediterranean near Turkey’s border with Syria. Antakya is perhaps better known in the west as Antioch, founded by one of the Great Alexander’s generals in the 4thcentury BCE, and later to become one of the cradles of Christianity. It is said that here Christians were first called ‘Christians’, and the grotto church of St Peter the Apostle is one of the oldest churches in the world. The highlight of my visit was seeing the archeological museum, which houses a fabulous collection of spectacular mosaics dating from classical Roman times. In those days, Antioch ranked with Alexandria as one of the most important cities of the Mediterranean world. Sadly, it fell on hard times later as a result of disastrous acts of God and man. The natural disasters were earthquakes, an all-too common occurrence in these parts. The man-made ones were primarily the Crusades, which saw the great city succumb to a series of sieges and conquests from which it never recovered. Antakya’s fate is paralleled by that of its patron goddess Tyche, whose magnificent statue was removed and is now, I understand, to be found in the Vatican.
Orpheus Mosaic returns to Turkey
Protecting the heritage of Constantinople, Istanbul, and now Turkey, is a task that, even today, requires constant vigilance. You may have seen a news item in the past week referring to a mosaic depicting the legendary character Orpheus, until recently a prized piece in the collection of the Dallas Museum in Texas, USA. It seems the Dallas authorities accepted the argument that the mosaic was illegally removed from Turkey before the museum acquired it in 1999, and have since returned it. I’m not making light of this. That’s a huge gesture on the part of those Texans. For a start, they paid big money for the mosaic. And of course it’s irreplaceable. They’re never going to get another one like it, so you have to take off your stetson to them. As an aside, according to the press release I read, a certain Italian art dealer is currently under investigation in his home country for ‘trafficking in looted antiquities.’
Getting back to the mosaic, it was discovered near the south eastern Turkish city of Şanlıurfa, and that’s another place well worth a visit. More commonly referred to as Urfa, and renowned for a particularly delicious kebab dish, the city was known in the classical age as Edessa – but its history goes way back into the ‘foggy ruins of time’. Devout Muslims are to be seen queuing for entry to a cave, said to be the birthplace of Father Abraham, an important prophet for Jews, Muslims and Christians. A few kilometres south towards Syria is the town of Harran, noted for its peculiar dome-shaped mud brick houses (mostly home to livestock these days), and perhaps the world’s oldest university. Legend has it that Abe’s son Isaac found his wife-to-be, Rebekah, here as she filled her buckets with water from the town’s well.
Now I want to ask you, whose heritage is all that? Is it Turkey’s? Israel’s? Mine? Yours? The modern Turkish Republic occupies a patch of land that has hosted more diverse civilizations than probably any other place on earth. Whether by good management, good luck, good intentions or simply a slower pace of industrial development, much has been preserved that has elsewhere been lost. In the 21st century, Turkey is starting to take its place among modern developed nations, with all that implies in terms of population growth and construction of factories, dams, nuclear power stations, shopping malls and transport networks. Undoubtedly, gypsy encampments and transvestite bars will give way to urban renewal and gentrification, as in other world cities – and some local colour will be lost.
What can you do? Istanbul is a living city. People need jobs and transport. A metropolis choking with motor vehicles needs a rapid rail system, and one stage in its construction involves building a bridge across the Golden Horn. My understanding is that project engineers have been in consultation with the World Heritage people from UNESCO, and the design has already been modified once or twice. A friend of mine told me he visited Istanbul back in the 1970s, when dancing bears were to be seen on street corners. No doubt they added quaint medieval colour to tourist Istanbul – but the bears are probably happier these days, and we must hope their trainers have found more humane and socially acceptable employment.

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