TURKEY

Istanbul’s historic Galata Tower is being 'renovated', one jackhammer blow at a time

Screengrab of an amateur video showing renovation work on Galata Tower, a major historic monument in Istanbul.
Screengrab of an amateur video showing renovation work on Galata Tower, a major historic monument in Istanbul.

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Each year, thousands of tourists visit Istanbul’s Galata Tower, which is one of the city’s most well-known historical monuments. Restoration work on the medieval tower began in mid-August, but some are concerned that the project is being done carelessly. In one amateur video shared by the political opponents of the municipality, workers are using a jackhammer to knock down a wall.

Galata Tower stands guard over a historic neighborhood in Istanbul, Turkey’s economic capital. It was built in the 14th century by the Genoese, who had colonized the area. Over its long history, the tower has been used as a lookout point, a astronomical observatory and a prison. Today, it is a tourist hotspot that attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Recently, the Ministry of Culture and Tourism initiated a renovation project for the tower. But people across Turkey have reacted with shock and outrage after a video shared on August 12 showed workers using a jackhammer to knock down a wall.

Mahir Polat is the director of the cultural heritage department within Istanbul’s city government. The government is currently run by the secular center-left Republican People’s Party (known as the CHP). Polat posted this video on Twitter along with the following message:

I’d immediately like the relevant authorities to draw attention to the shocking operations occurring at Galata Tower, one of the most important historical landmarks in Istanbul. A team from the city’s cultural heritage department went to the site to evaluate the situation and immediately put a stop to these criminal activities.

Polat then stated that he and his team hadn't been allowed access to the construction site and consequently published documents that appear to indicate that reconstruction on the tower began before the permit request was submitted to the Committee for the Conservation of Cultural Heritage. The document that Mahir Polat shared [below] is a permit request for renovations dated August 12, the day that the video was published online.

Galata Tower has been a point of conflict between the national government and city officials in Istanbul since Ekrem Imamoglu was elected mayor on June 23, 2019. Imamoglu, a member of the secular opposition party CHP, beat former Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, a member of AKP, the conservative Islamic party of President Recept Tayyip Erdogan. Imamoglu’s election marked a massive change for Istanbul, which had been run by AKP since 1994.

When Imamoglu was elected, the government fought to maintain control of the tower's management. In April 2020, after a long legal battle, they succeeded. Galata Tower is now under the control of the Ministry of Culture and has been undergoing renovation work in preparation for its scheduled reopening in September 2020.

"History is complaining about us again,” writes one social media user, who superimposed an image of Galata Tower by night with a screengrab showing the renovation work

 

Expected sanctions

Faced with the scandal generated by this video, Culture Minister Mehmet Nuri Ersoy declared:

The allegations circulating on social media that "the walls of Galata are collapsing" are false. The parts that were demolished had been constructed after the tower itself, and these walls were damaging the tower itself.

However, the minister didn’t approve of the methods shown in the video, instead stating that “necessary sanctions would be imposed on the company in question."

The Ministry then stated that the aim of the reconstruction project was to demolish newer additions to the tower, including offices and a restaurant inside the historal site. They will be replaced with a museum.

Vibrations could compromise "the tower’s health”

According to Oktay Özel, director of cultural heritage projects for the city government, the main issue is the use of jackhammers. "The vibrations and ensuing destruction are not the right method if we want to preserve the 'health' of the tower," he told Milliyet, a media outlet with close ties to the government.

On Thursday, August 13, an opposition member of parliament, Turan Aydogan, (CHP) brought up the subject in the National Assembly, stating that Turkey is rich in cultural heritage, but that a number of sites have been damaged after so-called “restorations.” As examples, he mentioned "the restoration of the Genovese castle on Ocakli island, the archeological museum in Hatay, and the Roman mosaic and the glass ceiling of the Ishak Pasha palace." He then questioned the government about the competency of the contracted company.

This photomontage includes photos of botched restorations carried out on historic Turkish monuments.

According to Bianet, a Turkish media outlet tied to the opposition, the company contracted to carry out these restorations is owned by Sevilay Tuncer Uludag, an architect who was formerly a member of the ruling AKP party. Uludag even sat on the administrative council for the province of Istanbul. He has been awarded several contracts over the past few years, including several restoration projects overseen by the Ministry of Culture.

"Projects are aren’t awarded to the most competent but to those with the best network.”

Our Observer Devrim K. [name has been changed], is an administrator for the Twitter account Cirkin Istanbul (Ugly Istanbul). The account is dedicated to documenting some of the worst architectural eyesores and bungled projects in Istanbul over the past few years. He has reported on several different mismanaged renovations.

 

It’s sad, but when I saw the video, I wasn’t really surprised. I know that this kind of thing happens. But it still enrages me to see the brutal way that these construction workers operate. They aren’t even wearing hard hats. It looks like a video showing people doing work on a house without any kind of permit when, in reality, they are working on one of the city’s crown jewels. It’s really a scandal. We should have the very best architects and the very best artisans working on it.

This isn’t the first time that restoration work on a cultural heritage site has been carried out in this manner, sometimes with catastrophic results, but for once, there is a video documenting the damage.

The French passage in Istanbul is a "classic example of restoration in Turkey,” according to Devrim K. When it was restored, the passage was updated with a modern addition that Devrim K. says is tasteless and disrespectful to the historical site.

 

This happens because the projects aren’t awarded to the most competent people, but to those with the best connections. That’s what people say about the company currently working on Galata Tower; it has close links to the party in power. The result is that these renovations are causing our cultural heritage sites to lose their souls bit by bit. When I go into an ancient mosque that has been renovated, I don’t feel like it is a historic monument. It’s lost its charm.

READ ON THE OBSERVERS >> “Ugly Istanbul: An activist fights the eyesores of urbanisation”