I do not know how many of the readers of this article have driven up the road next to the northeastern corner of the Theodosian Walls which encircle the old Istanbul. But if you have, I wonder if you noticed a dramatic change in the landscape recently.
For hundreds of years – since 1270 according to historians – a beautiful old palace was standing on top of the sixth hill of the old city. It was a masterly piece of masonry of red brick and white stone. Unlike its nearby palace of Blachernae and the other Byzantine imperial structures in the historic peninsula, which could not survive the time or human destruction, this one had miraculously remained standing on its four original walls. Only its roof and the inner dividing floors were missing and over the centuries it had inspired numerous travelers who have left us with its drawings. And for historians, archaeologists and art historians, it was the only relatively intact example of Byzantine palace architecture in Istanbul.
I used to drive up that road quite often and the relatively uninterrupted historical landscape of ancient walls, old mosques, and low, old houses used to put my mind at rest. At least in this corner of the old city, history was not being interfered with, I thought. And out of some kind of unexplained indecisiveness, I had never visited the Byzantine Palace of Porfyrogennitos, Tekfur Sarayı, as it has become known.
But whatever strange feeling kept me back from visiting the palace of the Palaeologian dynasty, had to be put away the day I noticed from a distance that the beautiful old relic suddenly was fitted with a roof! I visited the place last weekend and talked to the responsible academic who is involved with the project.
“What is wrong with restoring the palace?” argued Dr. Ferudun Özgümüş, Associate Prof. of Byzantine Art at Istanbul University. “We decided to restore it and renovate it. The mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbaş, spent a large amount of money for the project. The building can be used perhaps for something.” Prof. Özgümüş is very confident that everything was done in the best possible way. I asked him how the restoration was done. He told me that they had model examples of Ottoman architecture from the 17th century. “But this is 13th century Byzantine architecture,” I argued, pointing out to the wooden framed glass windows that have covered the open spaces on all three floors. “And what about the aluminum railings that you now see on the very top on one side of the building?” “There is a terrace there for the visitors,” said Prof. Özgümüş, who insisted that the red roof tiles are of “Byzantine style.”
The building is now disturbingly clean and totally closed. Gone is a small balcony-like structure, as well as a small raised wall which was removed “for excavation.” Entrance is prohibited “until the official opening” and I am in deep disagreement with the professor over the concept of restoration. My archaeology studies background increases my stubbornness that restoration is a very serious business and should be done with extreme care and total respect to the date and historical context of the structure.
But I think there is a deep misunderstanding about the approach regarding preservation work of old architectural monuments recently in Turkey, many of which are part of major costly “restoration” projects. They are seen more as opportunities for “renovation” rather than “restoration.” That means that “filling up the historical gaps” is permitted even if dates do not match. The same trend one can see in the ongoing “Pantocrator Project” or Zeyrek Camii in the Fatih neighborhood. I also understand that the responsible architects working for contracting firms who undertake these projects are not specialized in the restoration of historical buildings. Just for the sake of interest, I am quoting the U.S. Secretary of Interior’s standards, “Restoration is defined as the act or process of accurately depicting the form, features, and character of a property as it appeared at a particular period of time .... Restoration is the action or process of accurately revealing, recovering or representing the state of a historic building, as it appeared at a particular period in its history, while protecting its heritage value. Restoration work is performed to reverse decay, or alterations made to the building[s] … includes preservation, leaving as much material untouched as possible, reconstruction to replace missing elements, and repair work to bring the building to a historically accurate condition in one particular time period.”
I can go on with many quotes from international practices, but I am afraid I am on the losing side.