A few weeks ago a traffic jam forced me to walk through Tarlabasi, an old Greek quarter located in Pera district of Istanbul (Konstantinoupolis). While central Pera (Beyoglu) was where the turn of the century bourgeois lived, surrounded by elite stores and chic cafes, Tarlabasi was developed as a residential area around consulates and built over several old muslim cemeteries. Architect Özlem Öğüt writes “consulate workers, shop owners from around Pera became Tarlabasi’s first residents.” She adds the stone and brick architecture of the area was very modest, a product of the Greek masonry tradition and built to accommodate middle classes. First half of the 20th Century saw Tarlabasi emptied of its original inhabitants by nationalistic policies of Turkey to cleanse Asia Minor from its Christian population. The vacuum created by the Greek exodus was filled with the immigration of Kurds from their lands first in search of better jobs, and later just to save their lives. Öğüt concludes: “the rapid increase in the population of Istanbul resulted in the destruction and finally the loss of the City’s historical framework and centers.” Istanbul finally became a sad reminder of a glorious past functioning as an incredibly large provincial town.
The reason for my recent visit to the neighborhood was my curiosity about the new “conversion” project of the AKP government to demolish and rebuild old buildings throughout Turkey affecting Tarlabasi as a whole. Most of the once colorful and rather dangerous (for being a center for all forms of illicit trade) streets now reminds one of a ghost city today. It is clear of all its inhabitants and a large portion is already demolished. Apartment buildings built by Greek architects and craftsmen in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are now but a huge pile of cement and stone rubble. If you look carefully, you may even see pieces of a toy here or a piece from a brass mirror frame there.
This project has examples already completed in many districts in Turkey. Especially in central Pera where a historical building was demolished and then rebuilt as a shopping mall where the first three floors were plastered with a facade reminding the old one. When you replace age old stone with plaster it feels fake if not barely stupid. The extension of this project to Tarlabasi will be a repetition of the same method where facades of the old buildings will be plastered on modern structures that does not reflect history neither in form nor in function.
Architect Özlem Öğüt who has worked with Sisli Municipality on restoration projects on a different Christian neighborhood of Istanbul, namely Sisli area, writes: “Most of the structures in Tarlabasi are in terrible condition due to decades of neglect and misuse by tenants and the local government. Those that present a danger could be demolished and rebuilt. But to replace the whole neighborhood would be a total loss of the metropolitan heritage and architectural history exhibited there since the beginning of the 18th Century. Furthermore architectural heritage does not only represent itself as an element of metropolitan structure but a significant part of our cultural heritage as well representing the development of material preferences and constructive methods. We have lost Armenian and Greek craftsmen integral to their existence already. These buildings are the last citizens left behind to our care.”
In Turkey, denial of everything Ottoman (read non-Turkish) destroyed a great tradition of art, architecture, even religious crafts in Asia Minor for almost a century now. And in the 21st Century, rising Islamic politicians target the few remainders of glory that have surpassed the cultural looting of Istanbul among other metropolitan centers in Asia Minor. Aiming to cleanse the City’s skyline from non-islamic elements new administrators of Istanbul plan to built ‘slum mosques’ with no serious research effort spent on their architectural or structural design.
The social fabric of the pearls of Istanbul like Kadikoy, Yenikoy, Pera, Tatavla or Moda are long gone. ‘Citizens’ replaced by people who had no connection with Istanbul or a cosmopolitan city. So they never had a chance to adapt. There was nothing to adapt to. ‘Citizens’ were long gone. So the newcomers built their structures on top of the existing ones based on their own traditions. Surely that attitude was also shared by the administrators who were mere immigrants themselves and as well alien to the cosmopolitan culture.
Today, rotten and time-worn foundations of the city are crumbling, too. Soon, not only the people but their pain and joy as they are written onto the building walls will be gone. Istanbul will be a mindless cultural desert of shopping malls and humanoids eating tasteless fast food, living in high-rise cells, watching the lucky few shop…. on TV.
That is if International organizations aimed to preserve cultural legacy of humankind keep on doing nothing to change that direction. If they lend a glance to Izmir (Smyrna) today, the first cosmopolitan city of the Globe, they will see how Istanbul will look like in the forthcoming decades. If not worse. If the attitude of the Turkish state would not change soon and drastically, a few reminders of the centuries old legacy that this nation is sitting on will be long gone without a trace.
A famous quote says “to take care of a city is mere civilization.” Architect Özlem Öğüt adds; “there is a city that needs care, that’s for sure, but the civilization to take care of it is nowhere to be found .”
With gratitude to Özlem Öğüt and Ajda Aras. Without whom this article would be an impossibility.
Photography: Ajda Aras. All rights reserved.