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Istanbul's World Heritage status under threat

Istanbul's World Heritage status under threat
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“Hands off my house” warns a home-made sign on an historic dwellings in the old part of Istanbul are still standing – but for how long? The residents are worried, to say the least.

Korhan Gumus is an architect. He is also involved with Istanbul’s year as capital of culture 2010. His involvement with the legacy of historic sites dates back 30 years. He is also a well-known civic campaigner.

“Our cultural heritage should not prohibit development. On the contrary, we need to replicate it to ensure sustainable development.”

As a veteran of the wars of cultural preservation, Gümüs is not surprised that Istanbul is currently at risk of losing its 25-year-status as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

The situation hasn’t come about overnight. Campaigners angry at the uncontrolled urbanisaion, particularly in the old town, began rolling up their sleeves back in 2008:

“This is something which can’t be measured in terms of money, and that is cultural heritage. And, symbolically, Istanbul being downgraded by Unesco would be a disaster, in a way. Because many people would exploit this and so I think it’s an uphill battle.” said Cengiz Aktar, a professor of European Studies and a leading campaigner.

October is the deadline. That is when the UN has told Turkey to produce a report on the environmental impact of its development work. Otherwise it will lose its world heritage status and go onto the endangered list.

The restoration of Fener and Balat is a prime project. At the beginning of the last century there were 100 thousand tradtional wooden dwellings here – now there are only 2000.

“Instead of restoring this valuable examples of traditional Istanbul housing, the council is now developing projects to build what look like new ottoman-style homes, but they are just putting up wooden facades to cover the concrete.” explains campaigner Orhan Sillier.

A pilot project backed by Unesco and the EU got underway in Fener and Balat six years ago. Ten million euros was invested to allow the owners to restore their homes to their former glory.

But the plan didn’t turn out as expected. Many blame the AK-party-run city council, which they accuse of taking over the initiative. Once in charge, the authority began its own restoration project.

Archtects have accused Istanbul’s City Hall of presiding over the “disneyfication” of a once-vibrant ottoman neighbourhood.

But local mayor, Mustafa Demir, says the work carried out was necessary and appropriate:

“Sites which conform to the building regulations will naturally stay in place and be restored. But the others will be demolished. Under the new plan, we will build many more suitable houses and businesses.”

In some cases, however, owners have been forced to sell their property at way below the market value to avoid compulsory seizure by the authorities.

“What we really are trying to do is prolong the life of these historic dwellings. You can see for yourself what state some of them are in – some have been abandoned, others have squatters in them due to rows over rent and tenancies. We want to preserve these houses, along with all historic buildings.” says Demir.

The city’s plans for urban development have also been criticised. Unesco has already voiced disapproval about this suspension bridge being built across the Golden Horn, fearing its masts will obstruct the famous silhouette of the Suleymaniye Mosque.

The Marmaray rail tunnel has also come in for criticism. The 1600 metre long excavation under the Bosphorus will link Europe with Asia from 2013.
Two and a half billion euros have already been spent on this – money the cultural devotees would like to have had a share of.

But as well as words, there is action.Aysegul Kaya is 46. Last year, she decided to give up her career as a lawyer to concentrate full-time on painting.
She has become the spokesperson for the residents in Fener and Balat, and the plight of the families facing eviction has convinced her to re-don her wig and gown:

“This project is dreadful. They want to erase the memory of the city, the people who live here, and the legacy of their culture.There are traces of many different cultures and religions here and we must preserve them.”

Reminders of Istanbul’s ancient heritage are constantly being uncovered during current-day building work. These are Byzantine and Roman remains which the council must wish had stayed buried, as their presence interferes with their construction plans.

Hikmet Yelkanat owns one of the oldest wooden houses in the area, dating from the end of the 19th century. She finds it impossible to envisage that one day it might be seized by officials:

“Will that really happen?“she asks,” I don’t think it will, because we all have the property deeds, no, that’s not going to happen. No one can force us to leave and in any case, when I die, my children and grandchildren will be there to stop it.”

At the age of 82, Ara Güler is an acclaimed photographer. He has immortalised the likes of Pablo Picasso and Jacques Prévert, the images published in magazines like Time and Paris Match. He is the living embodiment of Istanbul – and doesn’t mince his words:

“The place we call Istanbul no longer exists. It has been gone for a long time, but we have only just realized it. Because we are still looking. Which Istanbul are we looking for – the old one? But that is not here anymore.”