Turkish heritage sites remain under threat despite positive government PR campaign

There have recently been a number of high profile examples of threats and damage being done to heritage sites in Turkey. At the same time, the Turkish Culture Ministry and Tourism Promotion Platform are launching a new PR campaign to promote cultural heritage sites.

As is often the case, it seems that the Turkish government only takes an economic interest in the rich heritage of Anatolia, while at the same time, its economic development programme is damaging vulnerable sites and causing environmental concerns.

On August 12, footage showed workmen drilling at the foundations of Istanbul’s Galata Tower as part of a ‘restoration’ project by a company owned by a former government official.

On September 1, the St. Georgios Greek Orthodox Church in Bursa, built in 1896 and restored by the local municipality between 2006-9, was destroyed after being transferred to an Islamic religious foundation and neglected for the past seven years.

In the southeastern Gaziantep province, the construction of a lagoon threatens to destroy the 3,000-year-old Hittite site, Yesemek Quarry and Sculpture Workshop. This case is similar to the destruction of the ancient town of Hasankeyf in Batman province, with the construction of a dam flooding the area at the beginning of 2020. The UNESCO listed Göreme national park, heavily promoted in tourism campaigns, was suffering from over-construction of hotels and floods of tourists who go to take hot air balloon rides.

The Turkish government and its media organisations often hold up particular examples of heritage sites which have been protected, such as the Armenian church of Aghtamar on Lake Van, or Greek Orthodox Sumela Monastery in Trabzon - reopened recently after a three-year restoration project.

In a speech at the reopening of Sumela Monastery, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan rejected criticism of the recent re-conversion of the Hagia Sophia into a mosque, saying, “If we were a nation targeting the symbols of other beliefs, the Sümela Monastery which we have had for the last five centuries, would be gone forever,” he said.

In some cases it is not that the Turkish government is purposefully targeting Christian or non-Turkish heritage sites, as much as it is neglecting them in favour of economic development. Where the preservation of heritage conflicts with the desire to build a dam, or to pour concrete around the ancient Göbekli Tepe UNESCO World Heritage site - possibly the first temple humans built on Earth - so tourists can get better access, the economic and touristic concerns always trump those of heritage preservation. Corruption also plays a role in areas blighted by poorly-thought-out construction.

There are many neglected heritage sites in Turkey such as the Mren Armenian Cathedral in Kars, many on the verge of collapse after being neglected for such a long time. Other examples include the continued collapse of buildings like Trotsky’s House and the Greek Orphanage on Büyükada in the Prince’s Islands, Istanbul.

The British-Armenian historian Ara Sarafian, whose work I made a film about in 2016, told me that when it comes to Armenian sites in Turkey, destruction and erasure by the state has been going on since 1915, but that it is more visible now due to the internet and a progressive movement in Turkey drawing attention to it.

“There are examples of local authorities taking the initiative and looking after some of these structures, but the norm is to remain indifferent and allow vandals, treasure hunters and the elements to do their job”, Sarafian said.

“In the case of Ani, the medieval city became a bargaining chip [with the Armenian government], with some initial work, and then very little. If you look at Kharpert, where there were 5 churches and a sizable Armenian presence, today you see an Islamic city that was renovated in line with Turkish nationalist ideology.”

Sarafian says that Kharpert in particular is a good example of an ongoing process of Turkification which took place for years under secular nationalist Turkish governments. When Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) entered government in 2002, they initially tried to take a less nationalist approach, but since the success of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in 2015 elections, the AKP has replaced the support it previously received from Kurds with nationalist votes, and its rhetoric and policies have followed suit.

Sarafian did point to more positive examples of heritage preservation, such as an Armenian church in Kayseri which had been converted into a library. There are so many heritage sites in Turkey that municipalities often don’t know what to do with them, and it would be better for them to be used as sports centres or mosques than left to fall down, Sarafian says.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that Erdoğan himself championed the restoration of Aghtamar church, and that of the Armenian city of Ani when Turkey was seeking rapprochement with Armenia. At the opening ceremony of the restored Aghtamar church, Erdoğan said, “The mass in Aghtamar is a statement of our world view. I hope it will not remain unanswered.” But that process too has stalled, and the border between the countries remains closed. 

While Turkey promotes its most famous UNESCO heritage sites in commercials for its tourism sector and flag carrier Turkish Airlines, there is a lot more that could be done to improve the situation. There is still no reliable list of heritage monuments produced by the Turkish government, with Turkish Culture Ministry’s inventory portal envanter.gov.tr website even remaining blocked to IP addresses outside Turkey.

A serious and politically neutral commitment to Turkey’s rich and diverse cultural heritage is badly needed from the government, with funding going to areas where heritage is in the most danger of being destroyed. The Turkish government cares a lot about the country’s tourism sector, but is doing long term damage to that sector by failing to protect sites of cultural interest. There are many people who would like to help protect the heritage held in Turkey’s cultural landscape, and the Turkish government would find support even from its critics if it committed itself to this task.