Cultural Postcards + [Turkey]

Near East: Byzantine monuments in Istanbul neglected
Many of the historic edifices that lie within İstanbul's old city walls that have managed to stay standing until today get little respect from the municipal workers and residents who pass them every day. Never mind the very basic protection that these structures deserve; many of these edifices -- relics from earlier civilizations and states that occupied this city -- are unable to escape the damage done to them through careless and even intentional actions.

Byzantine monuments in Istanbul neglected
Boukoleon Palace [Credit: periclesoftyre/Panoramio]

Many of the older edifices and artifacts in the old city -- all vulnerable to meddling by ignorant people in the position to do so -- only have their true value realized when they are stolen or destroyed. Many historic structures in the Fatih district today await rescue and the recognition they actually deserve.

The Şehzadebaşı district, situated right across from the İstanbul Metropolitan Municipality buildings, is just one of many examples of an area filled with mistreated ancient edifices. Here, Byzantine remains are truly unfortunate; built in the sixth century, Hagios Polyeuktos Church has, for years now, been a target of local residents' careless actions. The courtyard of the church is filled with unkempt, overgrown grass, with no attempts to pick up trash that has collected there. Stopping to look through the doorway of ancient church's courtyard, we were truly shocked. Trash has built up between the columns and arches emerging from the ground, not to mention a widely used shortcut that winds its way to the theology faculty of İstanbul University.

Byzantine monuments in Istanbul neglected
Substructure of Hagios Polyeuktos Church [Credit: vittoriosa/Flickr]

The fact that the doors to this historic prayer spot are constantly left open has also led to drunks and drug addicts gathering there. But perhaps the most stunning aspect of what we observed in terms of this ancient spot is that it is being used as a public toilet -- even some formally dressed, respectable people were using this spot as such. In fact, the strong odor of urine that is evident here can even be smelled in the park next to the church. The situation becomes even more serious when one considers that all of this has unfolded in a historic edifice that sits practically in the shadows of the municipal buildings across the street from it.

Hagios Polyeuktos Church was, as far as we know from historic archives, built sometime between 524-527 in the name of Roman soldier Polyeuktos. Before the Hagia Sophia, it was one of the largest basilicas in the city. It was at this point that work done by British and American archeologists wound up revealing the real treasure here.

Byzantine monuments in Istanbul neglected
Foundations of Hagios Polyeuktos Church [Credit: vittoriosa/Flickr]

It is said that when the Crusaders pillaged much of the city in the 12th century, this church was also swept up in the devastation. Those who follow this sort of history closely believe that San Marco Church in Venice has pieces that originate from this Byzantine structure.

Abandoning Philanthropos Monastery to paint-thinner addicts

In the eastern parts of the old city walls on the eastern shores of İstanbul, there is a hidden monastery. One part of this monastery was sacrificed when İncili Köşk, which sits right next to it, was built. This monastery is said to have been built in 1307 and ascribed to Saint Philanthropos. Though it is now dilapidated, the church that sits on the shoreline has different sections for men and women. It is also said that at one time, there was a spring that originated here. Members of İstanbul's Greek community used to pray here on special religious days; nowadays, the tiled fountain, right under the large “köşk” (mansion) that was built here, is darkened from car engine exhaust.

As one might expect, the inhabitants of this ancient church these days are largely drug addicts looking for an out-of-the-way place to stay. Those determined enough to check out the interior of this church for themselves report that there are still many columns and decorated panels here, and even a passageway that runs from here to atop the old city walls. The same situation is true for the nearby Palace of Boukoleon.

Byzantine monuments in Istanbul neglected
Bukoleon Palace wall [Credit: TheRomanticTraveller]

When one walks down the street towards the shoreline from the five-star Büyük Saray hotel, one encounters a cafeteria in front of which can be seen a small sign written in English announcing “free historical site.” Head inside and notice, among the chairs, that you are walking on glass panels lying over the ground. Head down the stairs to one part of the Great Palace of Constantinople (also known as Palatium Magnum), which was built between A.D. 324-337 and used by Byzantine dynasties between the fourth and 11th centuries. The business that runs this cafeteria used its own efforts to oversee digs that wound up with 600 truckloads of gravel being brought out of this site.

The famous History Channel even did an episode that put the spotlight on this section of the Byzantine palace, noting that more people needed to know about such an important site.

Roman aqueducts fight off asphalt in Fatih

Fatih is one of the oldest districts in İstanbul. But though the Zeyrek neighborhood in this district has experienced many earthquakes, fires and other natural disasters, perhaps the most dramatic damage has been done by human hands. To wit, the Roman aqueducts on İhvan Street are perhaps the most striking example of the carelessness with which local residents have treated ancient edifices. A report done by travel writer Uğur Meta spotlights the asphalt sea that now engulfs the originally brick spans here. The construction in 1994 of a large apartment building on this spot put the final cover on these precious historic remains. All that remains now are just two spans of the aqueduct. The same vista is apparent just two streets down from here, too. It is still possible that the remains that lie between Gelenbevi Street and Şebnem Street can be protected.

Byzantine monuments in Istanbul neglected
Blachernae Palace [Credit: TheRomanticTraveller]

Bulldozers used to commit archeological massacre

Let us recall that in a speech made on April 29, 2013, then-Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan criticized a newly emerged decision from the Council to Protect Cultural and Natural Resources with regards to the Marmaray construction project, saying: “We have already done the Marmaray project some four years late now because of a handful of earthenware pottery. Is this not a shame, is it not sinful?”

The same thing is now unfolding with regards to historic Beyazıt Square. There appears to be no need to feel for the work of an archeologist when it comes to the square's historic necropolis, or cemetery area. The construction area, which is of course surrounded by metal walls, has subcontractors working in it. It was only a matter of time until news came out that one of the bulldozers had hit something hard underground. As it turned out, the objects, which were just 1.5 meters underground, were the stone covers. Carried away to the Archeological Park, the marks left on these historic stone covers by the bulldozers were visible to the eye. But just imagine all the marks that we didn't see.

Byzantine monuments in Istanbul neglected
Walls of Byzantium taken from the battlements of Yedikule Castle 
[Credit: Louis Counter/Flickr]

Victims of bureaucracy

The construction of the courthouse in Sultanahmet also involved the sacrifice of one part of İbrahim Paşa Palace, as well as various Byzantine remains. Though it now lies dilapidated, this judicial complex actually sits like a rusty old nail in the middle of the historic peninsula area. There is one spot that was successfully protected within this courthouse complex; known by international historians and smugglers alike, it is one wall left of the Ruins of St. Euphemia Martirionu. The wall -- which is today surrounded by a protective wall itself -- depicts scenes from the torture and killing of St. Euphemia, who was martyred for being Christian.

According to what art historian Haldun Hürel says, this spot is an open invitation to art thieves or looters. If we don't want to see this special wall in some foreign museum in the future, let's not entrust its protection to two rusted locks and a small plastic doorway.

Author: Erkam Emre | Source: Sundays Zaman [September 20, 2014]