Istanbul’s heritage UNDER ATTACK

ECONOMIST: How mosques and other new buildings may damage one of Europe’s finest cities

Dec 1st 2012 | ISTANBUL | from the print edition

                                                                                                                    Old sight under new threats



TURKEY’S first Islamist prime minister, Necmettin Erbakan, came to power in 1996 vowing to put a mosque in Istanbul’s main square. In the heart of the old European quarter, Taksim Square, with its monument of Ataturk and his revolutionaries, remains a symbol of the secular republic. Mr Erbakan was ousted a year later.

Now a successor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is making his former mentor’s dream come true. Secularists have taken to the streets in protest at what they call the Islamists’ “revenge” against the republic. Yet the bulldozers have moved in. Hundreds of trees are to be felled to make room for a replica of the Ottoman army barracks demolished by Ataturk’s successor, Ismet Inonu. The city’s mayor, Kadir Topbas, who comes from Mr Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development (AK) party, insists that the complex will house art galleries and cafés, but secularists say this is just window-dressing for the new mosque.


Some fret that such outbursts will bolster Mr Erdogan’s pious base. The real concern should be that the project was rammed through with “zero” public debate, argues Betul Tanbay, a member of the Taksim platform, a lobby group. Korhan Gumus, an architect, says that one effect of the project will be to trap motorists in long tunnels full of toxic fumes. Another is that neither revellers nor demonstrators will be able to mass around the square.

Much of this is in keeping with Mr Erdogan’s growing propensity to meddle with Turkey’s social and cultural fabric. His calls to criminalise adultery and abortion have been shelved. But his orders for the destruction of giant statues of an Armenian and a Turk in Kars were carried out. This week he called for legal action against a television series that depicts Suleiman the Magnificent as a seducer more than a warrior. Mr Erdogan complained that “30 years of his life was spent in the saddle, not in a palace as you see in TV shows”.

Until recently, Mr Erdogan was hailed as Istanbul’s saviour. After being elected mayor in 1994 on Mr Erbakan’s ticket, he sought to help the poor and relieved the city of 12m-plus from chronic drought, mountains of refuse and rampant crime. This boosted Mr Erdogan’s career but also drew the ire of the army, who egged on prosecutors to strip him of his mayoral seat, ban him from politics and send him to jail for reciting a nationalist poem.

Yet even Mr Erdogan’s staunchest supporters are doubtful about his plan to build a giant mosque on Istanbul’s tallest hill, Camlica, on the Asian side of the city (close to his Istanbul home). Again, ordinary citizens have had no say on the mosque, which will house up to 30,000 worshippers and, with six minarets, dominate the city skyline. “Mosques need to have congregations,” notes Mahmut Toptas, a popular imam. Few will scale the hill, a rare green space, to get there. Ducane Cundioglu, a columnist for the Islamist-leaning daily Yeni Safak, calls the mosque “a nightmare that will descend on Istanbul”. A design competition yielded no winner, so the job was awarded to the runners-up, two female architects.

UNESCO may rescind Istanbul’s world heritage status and move it to “endangered” because it is building a suspension bridge across the Golden Horn. The bridge’s masts obscure the silhouette of the 16th-century Suleymaniye mosque, a masterpiece by the Ottoman architect Sinan. Skyscrapers have already blighted the silhouette of Sultanahmet, the Blue Mosque. The city has pushed out old encampments of gypsies, transvestites and minorities. In the words of Ms Tanbay, Istanbul “is being robbed of its soul”.

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