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Istanbul teeters on brink of UNESCO's troubled list

Threat Istanbul is placed on its List of World Heritage in Danger

Published on 25 June 2010

Author(s): Hürriyet Daily News/Isil Egrikavuk

Type:  News

Experts point to the continuous absence of a substantial operation plan for the area and the lack of dialogue among state institutions

Some of Istanbul’s historical treasures, such as the 6th century Hagia Sophia and the 16th century Süleymaniye Mosque, again face the threat of being removed from UNESCO's World Heritage List. Experts point to the continuous absence of a substantial operation plan for the area and the lack of dialogue among state institutions.

Istanbul’s historical sights, from the ancient Hippodrome to Ottoman-era mosques, are among its biggest tourist draws, but the city’s negligence of its past has it again risking relegation to the United Nations’ endangered heritage list. “UNESCO officials were shocked when they saw that so many buildings under protection were either damaged or gone,” architect Korhan Gümüş, the urban-practices director for the Istanbul 2010 European Capital of Culture agency, told the Hürriyet Daily News & Economic Review in an interview this week. “They made a warning about removing Istanbul from the list but Turkish officials asked for time to work things out. Yet things haven’t changed; they have even gotten worse.”

So bad, in fact, that if a June 1 report by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization is accepted during the group’s July 25 to Aug. 3 meeting in Brazil, Istanbul’s historic peninsula – the site of 2,000 years of political, religious and artistic history – will be dropped from UNESCO’s World Heritage List and placed on its List of World Heritage in Danger.

“Most likely the report will be approved and Istanbul will be removed from the World Heritage List,” said Cevat Erder, an architecture professor specializing in historic preservation at Middle East Technical University. “It would be a shame for us. All of the places on that list have prestige. I am sorry we will lose that,” Erder said.

Sulaymaniye Mosque Istanbul.jpg

Süleymaniye Mosque

“If the same thing happened in Rome, the government would have to resign, let alone the municipality,” Gümüş said. “But what is more important is not the final decision. It is the fact that Istanbul has become a city like this.”

Istanbul faced the same threat in 2004 when UNESCO officials reported that sites exhibiting traditional architectural values were not being administered and protected properly. According to Gümüş, the U.N. group had previously identified as problems Istanbul’s lack of an administrative strategy for its historical areas and the lack of professional planning for their protection and renovation. The 25-kilometer-long walls that once delineated the city limits are a case in point.

  • About the World Heritage List. The World Heritage List includes 890 properties forming part of the world’s cultural and natural heritage. Turkey currently has nine sites listed under this criteria:Göreme National Park and the rock sites of Cappadocia; the Great Mosque and hospital of Divriği; the historic areas of Istanbul; the Hittite capital of Hattusha; Mt. Nemrut; Hierapolis-Pamukkale; Xanthos-Letoon; the city of Safranbolu; and the archaeological site of Troy. Istanbul has been on the list since 1985.

One of the features designated on the World Heritage List, Istanbul’s city walls were damaged as the result of a careless restoration project. In 2006, UNESCO warned the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality that it should continue with the restoration only if it abided by the wall’s original construction. But once again the restoration project was opened for bidding, which according to the law ensures that the project will go to the bidder that says it can do the work most cheaply.

“Turkey’s challenge is how to reconcile modernity with preservation of authenticity,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova told the Daily News. “We are not against the modernization of the city and having all this drive to modernize. But what is extremely important is to preserve the authenticity of the World Heritage site.”

Other major problems mentioned in the UNESCO report include the metro construction around the Golden Horn and the Marmaray project, an undersea rail tunnel that will link the European and Anatolian sides of the city. Although both projects will help ease travel between the two continents, experts are concerned about the increase of traffic on the historic peninsula as well as the environmental dangers posed by the construction work.

Erder, who attended the biannual UNESCO meeting in 2006 as Turkey’s spokesman, said he gave a presentation along with officials from the Foreign Ministry and Culture and Tourism Ministry. “They promised we would solve all the problems. When we came back, we spoke several times to the metropolitan municipality. Yet the recent report shows none of the promises were kept,” he told the Daily News.


Hagia Sofia

The Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism did not respond to the Daily News’ request for comment for this article. “There is a major lack of communication between state institutions,” said architect Gümüş. “If you search for a responsible party, they can point you in 50 different directions but none takes responsibility for what happened.”

Others are more charitable about the country’s preservation efforts. “Turkey has an immense number of sites to be protected and it is not easy to manage them all. If you travel around Anatolia, you see an archaeological site every 45 kilometers,” tourism expert Saim Turhan told the Daily News. “Turkey is doing its best, and it is not an easy task.”

Whether Istanbul has done enough to keep its historical sites on the World Heritage List will be determined next month during the UNESCO meetings in Brazil. “We will wait and see,” said Francesco Bandarin, the director of UNESCO’s World Heritage Center. “The decision will be public soon.”

* Daily News reporter Erisa Dautaj Şenerdem contributed to this article.

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