Istanbul's Unesco World Heritage status under threat

View of Istanbul

Istanbul is facing an ultimatum - protect the city's architectural treasures properly, or be "named and shamed" on Unesco's Endangered Heritage list.

The city would have suffered that humiliation already if it had not been for some strong last-minute lobbying by the Turkish government, and the fact that this year Istanbul is one of three official European Capitals of Culture - losing its Unesco status this year would have been a huge blow.

So what has gone wrong with conservation in the city? For the big monuments that most tourists know, not much.

Eighteen tons of scaffolding has just come down inside the great 6th Century cathedral of Hagia Sophia for the first time in 16 years, after some painstaking renovation of the remaining mosaics.

Work continues on the most comprehensive restoration of the Suleymaniye Mosque, the masterpiece of the great Ottoman architect Sinan, in its 454-year history. Protection of these monuments has never been better.

Houses in ruins

But the World Heritage Site designated by Unesco in 1985 includes many of the areas around these monuments, including the old cobbled streets and characteristic wooden buildings of the Ottoman period. Wood was chosen because of its greater effectiveness against earthquakes.

Image caption Many of Istanbul's historic wooden houses are in a state of disrepair

Many of those buildings are still in a shocking state of disrepair. All around the Suleymaniye Mosque, and on the next hill, the neighbourhood surrounding the Byzantine church of Christ Pantocrator, wooden houses are in ruins, their old cladding completely rotten, their interiors often filled with rubble.

I walked into one that was just starting to be renovated. The builder told me the owner - an architect who desperately wanted to restore the house - has waited more than 10 years to get the necessary papers processed by the city authorities.

Emine Erdogmus, a campaigner who has spent years trying to save the city's wooden buildings, took me for a tour of Zeyrek, one of the protected areas. She pointed out large gaps where three wooden buildings had simply been torn down, instead of being renovated. She showed me other houses, shiny in their new paint, which she said were mere facades the local authorities had stuck on houses rebuilt inside with concrete.

"They think tearing it down, and making an exact duplicate, is going to be even better than the old one. It cannot be better than the old one - the object is very simple, to save the historic building," she said.

Her organisation has managed to renovate a few houses, at a cost of just 15,000 Turkish lira ($10,000, £6,500) each. But she says commercial considerations often sway the city councillors to take short cuts.

Pressure to build

The Mayor of Fatih, Mustafa Demir, acknowledges shortcomings, but he blames the owners. Most of them don't live in their old houses, he says, and they are occupied by poor families, or squatters, who care little for their upkeep. The city government, he says, can do little for buildings which have been allowed to decay beyond repair.

Image caption The Mayor of Fatih, Mustafa Demir, says owners must take responsibility

But Istanbul is in the dock for more than just the failure to protect its historic domestic buildings. The city government's plan to build a new suspension bridge across the Golden Horn - already under construction - has been strongly criticised by Unesco, because its masts would obstruct the characteristic silhouette of the Suleymaniye Mosque.

The UN has repeatedly called for a proper environmental impact assessment to be made - it has given the city until October to do this, or it will put the city on the Endangered Heritage list.

The concept of historic preservation is a relatively new one in Turkey.

Istanbul was neglected for decades after the establishment of the modern Turkish republic.

There is immense pressure for new buildings and houses from the 15 million inhabitants, and the current government has in the past been accused of being more sympathetic to property developers than conservationists.

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