Topkapı Palace risk of collapse ‘the result of years of neglect of historical heritage’
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Both the current government and previous administrations have failed to protect Istanbul’s historical legacy, according to Ömer Erbil, the journalist who broke the recent story about the risk of collapse faced by Topkapı Palace, after one of its pavilions was closed to visitors due to a risk of collapse after the discovery of large cracks in its walls.
“There is growing awareness among ordinary citizens, but politicians remain the major threat to historic richness,” daily Hürriyet’s Erbil, who frequently reports on the subject, told the Hürriyet Daily News.
I generally see two types of news on Turkey’s historic richness: Either about new discoveries or about restoration and conservation problems. Is that right?
Indeed, we sit on historic lands that have hosted several civilizations. We come up with some archaeological finding wherever we lay our hands. For example, Göbeklitepe [near Urfa] is the oldest Neolithic settlement in the world.
But as you mention there is a second type of news: The problems. Over the past decade, more restorations have been done than in the history of the republic. A huge campaign for restorations has started but we have not had enough experts to carry out so many restorations. The work of restoration was handed to regular constructors. That brought with it many problematic restorations. We published a lot of news on this.
We now have many more restoration experts than before, as over the course of these years universities started setting up relevant departments to educate experts. But with the current slowdown in the Turkish economy, we are now facing budget problems. In 2015 the money allocated to Istanbul for restoration work was around 80 to 90 million Turkish Liras but this year it is down to around 15 million liras.
Give us some examples of good and bad restoration work in Turkey.
Restorations undertaken by the Culture Ministry are generally good. That doesn’t mean they have never made mistakes; for example, the restoration of the antique theatre in Antalya’s Aspendos was very wrong. But the most problematic restorations are the ones undertaken by the Directorate General of Foundations and local municipalities.
There is one thing we should be happy about: Municipalities have started to give due value to many historical buildings that had been in a miserable state. But several historical buildings that were in ruins have been restored in a mistaken way. You almost have to start saying it would be better to have not even done it in the first place.
Is the interest of municipalities motivated by attributing due importance to historical and cultural heritage or do they see it as a business opportunity for the companies they favor?
Both are true, but there is more of the latter. I think municipalities should not be responsible for restoration work. It should be under the control of the Culture Ministry.
Do you think there is discrimination in terms of giving priority to the restoration of Islamic works?
I don’t think so. The budget allocated by the Culture Ministry to archaeological excavations until 2005 was around 3 or 4 million liras each year. After 2005 the number started to rise to 6 or 7 million liras and even reached 11 million liras at one point. Last year, 30 million liras were spent on archaeological excavations.
More money is being spent on the restoration of Ottoman works but that’s because usually more money is allocated to works that are on the surface, while older works tend to be more underground, slower and less visible.
One of the challenges in the conservation of historic heritage seems to be the requirements of modern day life. People want to see more highways and more metro lines that may come at the expense of ruining historical heritage.
I can only talk for Istanbul, but we have not succeeded in striking a balance between modern life and the historical legacy of the millennia-old civilizations that have lived in this city. We have simply failed to protect Istanbul’s historical legacy. Neither the current government nor past governments have succeeded in conserving this legacy. I’m not just talking about archaeological works: More than 100 mosques, madrasas and shrines were demolished during the construction of Vatan Street in the 1950s. Istanbul has never to this day been governed with a conscience that it is a historic city, a historical legacy.
There are UNESCO rulings that there should be no heavy construction equipment in Istanbul’s historic peninsula. But when you go there you can see that construction is going on every day. Generally if there is an archaeological discovery during construction with a high value, it gains importance. But if they come across a historic wall, they don’t know much about it and no one gives it any importance. Bulldozers continue their work and the wall is just destroyed. This is the case with all municipalities, even those run by opposition parties.
The members of all political parties need a serious awakening on the importance of conserving historical heritage. They need to acquire awareness that destroying historical heritage is detrimental to the country. Often locals have better awareness than politicians. Ordinary citizens call us and tell us, “There is a construction site next door and there is probably a historical finding, but there are no experts around.” Around 70 percent of my stories are based on information that I get from ordinary citizens.
One of my purposes in doing the reporting on this subject is to raise awareness among people. I have spent 23 years in journalism. When I took these stories to the newsroom 23 years ago, editors used to complain, “Have you brought us another story about stones?” But today a lot of importance is given to news coverage on historical and cultural heritage. All newsrooms have become much more sensitive. I should also recall the late Oktay Ekinci, the former head of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, who gave a tremendous struggle for conservation efforts.
We have come to a point where we now see how the latest news about Topkapı Palace is all over the media. So awareness in Turkey is getting greater, while politicians remain the biggest problem.
Can you tell us briefly about that recent news coverage on Topkapı Palace.
During work conducted in May in the depots of the Topkapı Pavilion, which showcases world-renowned treasures, experts found serious cracks when they removed concrete from the walls. The news coverage in May was based on their report underlining the risk of collapse. The ministry said it formed a team to find a scientific remedy to the problem.
These cracks are the result of decades of indifference and lack of conservation. Mistakes made in the 1950s or 60s were found by coincidence. Cracks were just covered over with concrete.
In the old days, these cracks would again be covered up by concrete and no one would have realized it. Fortunately, the ministry has now endorsed the correct way of finding a scientific method to solve the problem.
Historic heritage in Turkey also faces threats from earthquakes. Where do you place earthquakes in the list of dangers that historical heritage faces?
Archaeologists say that if you can’t protect something, you shouldn’t bring it to the surface. You should let the soil protect it. The real disaster for historical heritage is a bad administrator, not a natural disaster. Unconscientious interventions in conservation are the biggest threat.
Who is Ömer Erbil?
Ömer Erbil was born in 1971 in Tekirdağ in Turkey’s northwestern Thrace region.
He graduated from Istanbul University’s Department of History in 1993 and he started to publish articles during university, writing extensively on the protection of archaeological sites, the smuggling of archaeological artefacts and conservation of cultural heritage.
Erbil later worked for several newspapers and TV channels, and was awarded five times by the Journalists Association of Turkey.
He has prepared several documentaries, among them a 26-episode documentary on the historic works smuggled abroad throughout Ottoman and republican history.
Erbil broke a number of important stories like the theft of the “winged sea-horse” in 2006 from Uşak Archeological Museum, and later the construction of tall residential towers disrupting the silhouette of Istanbul’s historic peninsula.
He works currently for daily Hürriyet.