Republic of Turkey was founded on a vast space of historical heritage circa a century ago in Asia Minor. Connecting western and eastern hemispheres of civilizations, the region is the classical melting pot of different aspects of Hellenism, Roman might, Caucasian and Middle Eastern culture. From the beginning of this Republic, however, instead of melting the remnants and continuation of this cosmopolitan civilization, the new state chose to disregard and even replace this form with a new superstructure one might call superficial. Influenced by the then-popular perception of space in the mode of rising fascism in Europe, many public spaces were domineered by colossal forms of buildings overlooking limited plazas as previously defined by predecessors.
In this limited but ongoing effort of the state to redefine the perception of its people, many existing forms of public symbols such as school buildings, townhouses, concert halls, cinemas and most prominently churches were either rebuilt to the new standards or plainly destroyed. The first classification was witnessed basically in public buildings such as schools, government buildings and several auxiliary forms like addendum units to the previous. Numerous churches turned into mosques during pre-Turkish Ottoman period were further tampered with, to now turn them into museums with little respect to the original form or function. And yet, many more in cosmopolitan centers, as well as the periphery, were merely destroyed. One might feature several school buildings and government structures in central Smyrna (Izmir) or elsewhere in Aegean and Marmara Regions of Turkey. All Orthodox Christian churches in the same city were razed to the ground during the first years of the Republic, whereas more significant ones such as Agia Sophia in Istanbul or Trabzon were rebranded and restored as museums. Hundreds of churches throughout Asia Minor still serve as mosques today.
The current Islamist government in Turkey has a slightly different perspective on the matter. Already dwarfed by 80 years of arbitrary toying with public space by the previous mechanisms of state and an expansive real estate market, surviving samples of a few traditional and local pieces in metropolitan centers are now in danger of further abuse by “Islamization” of their being. Public space is being the subject of an uneducated, to say the least, fervor of the AKP which tries to redefine it by adding one structure after another to overwhelm the existing form, or by totally demolishing defining compositions and rebuilding them in inanimate replicas with plaster-cast façades.
Recent tremor of Gezi Park which they wanted to replace with a long-demolished Ottoman military barracks (you may read The Globe Times articles “Turkey: The vanity of opression in three acts” and “#resistgezipark: alternative and International media for more media transparency” on Gezi events), demolition of Greek/Armenian Tarlabasi district in Istanbul to be replaced with residential and shopping communities, demolition of Greek neighborhood in Nyssa (Nevsehir or Muskara) in 2013 and finally the work to reopen Agia Sophia Churches in Nicea (Iznik) and Trabzon as mosques are just a few examples.
In Nyssa, the touristic center of Cappadocia, the whole Greek neighborhood has been demolished except for a church and a mosque. The official reason was a nationwide project called “urban transformation” in which many neighborhoods including Istanbul’s famous Tarlabasi district and its turn of the century Greek & Armenian apartment buildings were leveled to the ground. In Cappadocia Greek architecture is unique to the area. It consist of cave dwellings most of which have been destroyed through usage and houses built with stones particular to the region. Many were habitable and the rest needed restoration but every one displayed the characteristics of a cultural heritage hundreds of years old. In Greek quarter of Nyssa in addition to homes, commercial buildings, fountains and school buildings were the victims of so-called urban transformation that started in 2009 in the city. Stone buildings of the past will be replaced by look-alike concrete replicas. Two churches, one of which was used as a prison for decades are both in ruins now neglected even by the infamous urban transformation project.
In Mush (Muş) a whole Armenian district was leveled within the realm of the same project. Homeowners who carry Ottoman old deeds for their house are kicked out of their houses. State claimed those were slums. A slum-house whose title older than the Republic itself! All of them gone now. The quarter looks like a war zone except for one house which still stands thanks to a stubborn owner who refused to vacate it.
The work to reopen Agia Sophia in Trabzon started a few months ago. Following the footsteps of the transformation of Agia Sophia of Nicea in 2011, Agia Sophia in Trabzon went through the covering of its mosaic floor and walls full of icons with wood planks. It’s ceiling was covered with curtains fitted on moulding screwed on top of frescoes. Chief of Trabzon Foundation Bilgin Aygul:
…this is a work of art of 800 years, this is common heritage of humanity…. On top, we respect the history and culture of the city, therefore we are against that reformation.(1)
Aygul also adds none of the necessary permits to rectify the historical building were legally obtained and the transformation was purely a fait accompli. Many CSOs have already petitioned to cancel the exercise although the damage has been already done to Agia Sophia in Trabzon.
Governing AKP has other plans. Somehow their Islamist agenda is troubled extensively by the Christian heritage in Asia Minor, their self-perception threatened. They seemingly aim to redefine and contour public spaces by various buildings they deem predominantly Ottoman, hence Islamic. However, the problem lies in the fact that the process has not been part of a well-organized plan, or a strategy which entails an environmental, or city planning scope. It merely rails into action when the Prime Minister himself or any top brass public official feels intimidated by the presence of a public item, and when there is huge amount of profit to be made by replacing the premium land with purchasable commodity no matter the cost to urban space and well-being.
Pera, the light of Constantinople and now Istanbul, is being torn down to provide opportunities for the lifeline of Turkish economy; the construction industry. But also one of the earliest and most prominent living urban heritage of Europe is being destroyed coarsely.
This author is extremely scared that the next step will be the Agia Sophia of Istanbul, the ancient seat of Greek Orthodox Church and humbling giant of architectural and urban history. Action is needed to stop the vulgarization of public space in Turkey as well as preservation of human heritage.
With gratitude to Başak Güçyeter for her valuable insight.
(1) Statement translated from Agos Weekly article “Ayasofya’da cekic sesleri” published online on July 5, 2013.