Istanbul’s archaeology in danger

The World

This story was originally covered by PRI’s The World. For more, listen to the audio above.

By Julia Rooke

When construction began on an underwater tunnel below the Bosporus strait dividing the European and Asian halves of Istanbul, workers uncovered the ancient port of Constantinople.

It was no real surprise, perhaps — Istanbul is an archaeological treasure trove, with historic sites from the Hippodrome of Byzantine times to the Ottoman era Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace.

All these architectural riches have earned Turkey’s largest city a World Heritage Site designation from the United Nations. But Monday, the city is in danger of being struck off that list.

Turkey has until Tuesday, February 1, to submit plans to upgrade the protection of its cultural heritage.

And the new tunnel is part of the problem.

Archaeologist Zeynep Ahunbay, an advisor to the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said the prospect of traffic from the tunnel flooding the historic region is unthinkable.

“Seventy five thousand cars will pass from this tunnel,” Ahunbay said. “That’s the daily traffic. And you can imagine how much pollution and noise it will cause.”

Its not just pollution that has UNESCO concerned about the city’s architectural and archaeological heritage, the agency says scores of Ottoman villas have been destroyed, and that the fifteen hundred year-old walls of the former Constantinople are being left to crumble.

Not just top tourist spots

And it’s not just Istanbul’s top tourist spots that are being neglected. The story is the same with many of the region’s lesser known treasures.

In the western suburb of Kucukcekmece, for instance, plastic bottles, broken bricks, cigarette packets, and other rubbish litter a swath of land that was once the partially excavated ruins of the ancient city of Rhegium. Retired General and archaeology enthusiast Haldun Solmazturk grew up exploring the streets, Agora, chapel, and palace of old Rhegium.

“But then for some reason it was abandoned,” Solmazturk said. “And gradually it turned into a kind of rubbish dump.”

Who’d imagine that a Roman summer palace and a city the size of two football fields could lie beneath a dump? Locals tend to deflect blame from themselves.

“Yes, it’s a shame,” one passer-by said, “but it’s not my fault. It’s a crime by those people who are at higher levels.”

Gen. Solmazturk said he’s spent years battling with local and national authorities. He said he wrote to mayor, the minister of culture, and the Governor of Istanbul.

The only outcome so far, he said, is that they have stopped dumping more rubbish.

Solmazturk recently brokered a deal with Istanbul University to survey the area. His dream is to see Rhegium once again excavated. But there are local residents who prefer the past to remain buried.

Building on top of archaeological sites

Around Istanbul, tens of thousands of small houses have been built illegally, many of them on archaeological sites. The shanties were built by migrants from the provinces.

Over the years, the residents have become a political constituency. And they don’t want to move.

One who’s been living on an ancient ruin for more than forty years says she would not be happy to see archaeologists start digging again.

“This is a very nice neighbourhood here,” she said. “We know this is not a legal settlement so we’re afraid of being kicked out.”

Sismek Deniz is an official responsible for preservation in Istanbul, and the person who takes the flack for the dismal state of its antiquities.

At a nearby Byzantine-period ruin, Solmazturk explores a set of stairs that once led to a chapel. The stone walls are daubed with red paint advertising a local ice cube store.

“People once came here to worship,” Solmazturk said. “Today, they come to dump their rubbish.”

The UNESCO threat

Deniz said the rubble will soon be removed. And he puts a positive spin on UNESCO’s threat to put the city on its “endangered” list. He said it’s a useful bargaining chip with the National Government in Ankara.

“We use UNESCO criteria for legitimating our demands for budgets,” Deniz said. “Their visits, their criticism, always had favorable effects on preservation of Istanbul and archaeological sites.”

But for how much longer will UNESCO keep nudging Turkey along with threats? It would be a humiliating blow for the government if Istanbul’s tourist spots are moved to the “World Heritage in Danger” list. Dr. Ahunbay hopes that the Bosporus tunnel will finally be the catalyst for real change.

“Heritage in danger is the warning stage,” Ahunbay said. “This tunnel is like the last drop. There has to be some care from the government and the municipality to stop these unacceptable projects.”

PRI’s “The World” is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. “The World” is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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