İstanbul, the heart of Turkey, has experienced a major change over the past decade as hundreds of restoration and reconstruction projects have been carried out, yet there is still much to be done, experts say.
The İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality has recently published a booklet titled “İstanbul: Rebirth of a Historical City,” listing its restoration and reconstruction projects and planned improvements for the city’s mosques, cisterns, mansions, palaces, pavilions and settlements. The booklet gives detailed information about the many projects that have been carried out so far, as well as information on projects being carried out. The İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality has allocated an ever greater proportion of its budget to preserving İstanbul’s cultural heritage and to promoting tourism, especially over the past eight years. The total cost of investments made in the past eight years amounts to almost TL 2 billion. The municipality has spent TL 262 million on restoring old buildings and other structures of historical value. A total of 98 historical
structures have been restored over the past eight years and 21 are currently under restoration.
TL 32 million was spent on the restoration of the mosques that dominate the İstanbul skyline. The Küçük Aya Sofya Mosque (Little Hagia Sophia), which is just a short walk downhill from the Blue Mosque, was among the many mosques that have been restored. This mosque, which started life as the church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, is one of the most important early Byzantine buildings. All illegal buildings around the mosque were destroyed as part of the restoration.
The Altı Poğaça Mosque, which was built in 1482 and is therefore one of the oldest mosques in İstanbul, was reconstructed within a short period of time. The mosque was gutted by a fire in 1918 and demolished in 1942 to prevent anyone from being hurt by falling masonry. The restoration of several other mosques, such the Ahi Çelebi Mosque and the Molla Zeyrek Mosque, which was originally constructed as the Church of Christ Pantokrator in Byzantine times, are still under way. Cobblestones dating back to the 18th century were unearthed in archeological excavations conducted around the Molla Zeyrek Mosque and put under protection.
The İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality is also set to reconstruct many historical buildings ravaged by various disasters such as fires and earthquakes. Ali Paşa Palace, destroyed by a fire about 100 years ago, is currently being reconstructed. The palace was built on the order of Sultan Abdülaziz I in 1865. The 25-year-old parking lot belonging to the municipal council that was built on the site of the historic structure will be demolished to make way for the reconstruction project.
In another project that will dramatically transform İstanbul’s Taksim Square into an ultimately vehicle-free zone, the municipality is planning to reconstruct the historic Topçu Barracks. The 35,000-square-meter barracks will occupy present-day Gezi Park, which replaced the original barracks after their demolition by the İstanbul authorities in 1940. The barracks will serve as both a cultural center and art gallery.
Although he appreciates the restorations that have been carried out so far, Mücella Yapıcı of the Greater İstanbul branch of the Chamber of Architects spoke critically of the Taksim project in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman. “The history associated with the Taksim Monument and Gezi Park will be destroyed if the plan goes ahead,” Yapıcı said, adding that Taksim Square is integral to Turkish culture and history. Yapıcı said restorations should be meticulously undertaken to preserve the originality and value of historical edifices under the close eye of scientific advisory boards. The quality of restoration materials is also important in reflecting the spirit of the past, Yapıcı further stated.
Professor Zeynep Ahunbay from İstanbul Technical University’s Faculty of Architecture also spoke in critical terms of reconstruction projects in an interview with Sunday’s Zaman. She said public financial sources should be spent on restoring dilapidated structures rather than reconstructing what has already been completely destroyed.
Commenting on the reconstruction of Ali Paşa Palace, Ahunbay said that as there is very limited data about this palace, it will be very difficult to remain true to the original design. “A concrete reconstruction never reflects the historical texture of the original one, apart from being similar in appearance,” Ahunbay further stated.
The impressive Anemas Dungeons located in Edirnekapı are also undergoing excessive restoration and will function as an art gallery once the restoration is complete. Yapıcı said she does not find the idea very positive, explaining that the original, historical texture of the site will be destroyed if it serves as a cultural center. “The motive behind restorations should not be financial benefit, but to pass cultural heritage on to future generations,” Yapıcı said, adding that a historical site belongs to all of humanity.