Conservators in Istanbul are racing to safeguard scores of at-risk heritage sites in the wake of Turkey’s deadliest earthquake in modern history, bracing for the probability of an even greater disaster in a city straddling an active faultline.
But the effort to protect the 8,000-year-old city’s treasures was already complicated by the country’s fractious politics, with the opposition-controlled municipal heritage department frequently at odds with culture authorities from president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s government.
The massive earthquake that struck near the Syrian border in February killed more than 50,000 people and wrecked half a million homes. Nearly 2,000 historical sites, from a medieval mosque to a Bronze Age settlement, were damaged or destroyed.
Seismologists are warning that a quake of similar magnitude is all but inevitable within the next two decades in Istanbul, home to 16 million people and a huge depository of cultural heritage. The North Anatolian Fault runs just 20km south of the Historical Peninsula, the Unesco World Heritage-listed district dotted with palaces, mosques, churches, an aqueduct and more.
The city has around 35,000 registered heritage sites, and more than half sit in a belt that would be hardest hit by a quake, says Mahir Polat, who runs Istanbul’s municipal heritage department, Miras.
“The Istanbul earthquake keeps me up at night,” he says. “We are not ready. The fundamental issue is a lack of earthquake regulations specifically for cultural heritage. We urgently need emergency protections just to do seismic reinforcement, because it is not technically possible for Istanbul to restore this many buildings in time.”
A statement from the culture ministry pointed to a 2021 update of the government’s disaster action plan as the framework for cultural heritage, which guided its rescue after the February quake. “We have been implementing earthquake precautions for years in museums and structures affiliated with our ministry throughout the country, especially in Istanbul,” the statement said.
Polat, a former museum director, uses “triage” to describe his mission. How long he can continue was thrown into doubt in December, when a court barred Istanbul mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu from politics for allegedly insulting state election officials. The unprecedented ban was widely viewed as an effort to curtail the popular politician’s potential aspirations of one day challenging Erdoğan. İmamoğlu and Polat remain in office during an appeal of the sentence.
Heritage as flashpoint
On Sunday, Erdoğan, who has ruled Turkey for two decades, was re-elected after a polarising presidential election. İmamoğlu ran as a vice-president on the losing opposition’s ticket.
In Turkey’s culture wars, heritage is a flashpoint, with battlelines drawn across its most iconic monuments. The election campaign was no exception: the day before a first-round vote, Erdoğan’s centre-left opponent, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, visited the tomb of Mustafa Atatürk, the founder of the secular Turkish Republic, while Erdoğan, a conservative populist, prayed with thousands at the Hagia Sophia, Christendom’s greatest cathedral when it was built in the sixth century, then converted to a mosque during Ottoman rule before Atatürk made it a museum in 1934. In 2020, Erdoğan ignored objections from Unesco and made Hagia Sophia a mosque once more.
Miras has taken an ecumenical approach to conservation, working across the city’s palimpsest. Among the more than 600 sites it has repaired since İmamoğlu was elected mayor in 2019 are the last extant Byzantine palace, an Armenian church and an Ottoman fortress.
Last month, it opened the restored Casa Botter, Istanbul’s first Art Nouveau building, which was built by Sultan Abdülhamid II’s Dutch tailor, Jean Botter, in 1901. Adorned with forged-iron flowers and reliefs of Demeter, it sat derelict on the high street of İstiklal for decades. It now serves as a public art and design centre. Thousands of people visited Casa Botter during its restoration on tours Miras organises to foster a bond between Istanbul’s residents and their heritage.
“In this city with a multicultural heritage, preserving as well as making it a part of everyday life is the most important way to sustain it,” says Paolo Girardelli, a professor of architectural history at Istanbul’s Boğaziçi University. “The municipality’s commitment to reuse sites for cultural purposes makes heritage more public, more visible, with the rationale of avoiding every historic place from becoming a café or a hotel. That commericialisation destroys the urban and contextual heritage.”
Elsewhere along İstiklal, historical buildings have been turned into shopping malls. “The tendency until recently has been to save these places by preserving only the facades or by largely remaking and rebuilding them. The Botter restoration is a good corrective,” Girardelli says.
Polat blames a “real-estate mentality that supersedes cultural heritage”. He says political tensions with Ankara, the country’s capital, have slowed or outright halted some of Miras’s efforts, including a two-month delay in winning state approval for the seismic retrofitting of the subterranean Basilica Cistern, built in 532AD by Emperor Justinian. The central government has also take over property under the municipality’s administration, such as Taksim Square and the Genoese-built Galata Tower.
As for the culture ministry, its most important endeavours include the ten-year restoration of Istanbul’s 132-year-old archaeological museum complex, home to an estimated 1.5 million objects. This month, it unveiled a two-year renovation of the medieval Maiden’s Tower, a former lighthouse that is among Istanbul’s most beloved symbols.
The culture minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy had warned that the structure was at risk of destruction in a storm, let alone an earthquake, and still the project fell prey to Turkey’s culture conflict.
Restorers including architect Han Tümertekin removed shoddy 20th-century modifications to return the site to its early 19th-century iteration, while defending their work against false accusations by government critics that they had dismantled the tower all together.
But Tümertekin was philosophical about the outcry, chalking it up to the passion with which the city’s inhabitants guard their heritage. “There’s only one Istanbul in the world,” he says.