Turkey’s Heritage (Mis)management

Heated debates about heritage management in Turkey over the Mosque reversions of Hagia Sophia and the Chora Museum, and the planned demolition of the Bomonti beer factory expose the tensions that exist between conservation, ownership, use and accessibility.

For a few weeks in July, the reversion of the late Roman building known as Hagia Sophia from a museum to a mosque generated a flurry of articles about the Turkish government’s management of its cultural heritage. The debate was often polarised between those who argue that Turkey reserves the right to dispose of its cultural heritage as it sees fit, and those who saw the move as an attack on the country’s Byzantine past and, more accurately, against the secular modernity pioneered by Ataturk. Yet the exhaustive debate over Hagia Sophia is obscuring other – and often more destructive and exploitative – forms of heritage (mis)management that are going on in Turkey.

The spin put on Hagia Sophia’s re-conversion to a Mosque by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s spokesman, the Islamic scholar-turned-diplomat Ibrahim Kalin, was a ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative, with Europe opposing local demands for a mosque, deploying an old orientalist trope about Eastern Mediterranean people as disinterested in cultural heritage beyond their narrow community interests, such as the conservation of places of worship belonging to that community.

As such, the government-led control of the discussion surrounding the move hid the contentious online debates that have been going on among Turkish people on the topic; the work by Turkish students and academics in researching their country’s Hellenistic, imperial Roman and Byzantine past; and the collective actions and participation of Turkish people in preserving and defending their diverse cultural heritage by taking heritage management into their own hands.


The reversion of Hagia Sophia in July was a major accomplishment in Erdogan’s de-secularisation agenda – a stridently anti-Kemalist political program which has included the reversion of several Byzantine buildings/former Ottoman mosques that had been reclassed as museums – and a continuation of the populist politics of his Justice and Development Party (AKP). This involves displaying triumphalism via reference to Ottoman conquest; appealing to base religious, national and ethnic sentiments; and giving the impression of social consensus when it is actually lacking.

It followed other, earlier re-conversions, such as that of the Iznik Hagia Sophia in 2011, and the Trabzon Hagia Sophia in 2013.

Such reversions required building alterations. The Trabzon Hagia Sophia has rich 13th-century frescoes, which were uncovered in the 1960s while the building was still functioning as a mosque. Both the uncovering of the mosaics, under the auspices of the British art historian David Talbot Rice, and the completion of a new mosque nearby, facilitated the founding of the Trabzon Hagia Sophia Museum. However, as a result of the 2013 reversion to a Mosque, in a nod to contemporary politico-cultural sensibilities, the frescoes were initially fully covered by a low-hanging net, then by suspended light fixtures that only partly obscure the dome fresco.

Most recently – following a decision taken in December 2019 – it has been announced that the Kariye/Chora Museum in Istanbul’s Fetih district will become a functioning mosque again. As with the Hagia Sophia, concern was immediately expressed over the building’s recently restored 14th-century mosaics. It is expected that the figural mosaics will be at least partially veiled, even though during the Ottoman period the building was known as the “Mosaic Mosque”.

The obscuring of figural art in the reverted Hagia Sophias aside, their integrity has not been seriously compromised, unlike the total destruction of the world heritage site of Sur, the old town of Diyarbakir, or the flooding of the ancient town of Hasankeyf – actions which have dispossessed and displaced numerous people.

The focus on well-known tourist sites and elite Byzantine structures implies that only what can be ‘museumified’, lionised or exploited for tourism merits heritage status. Although, as seen with the restorations carried out at Gobeklitepe and Galata Tower, monetisation often trumps conservation, just as the preservation of buildings and monuments erected by and for a ruling elite often trumps that of popular ones.

Popular and ecological heritage

This summer, while Hagia Sophia was taking all the international attention, a beloved Istanbul monument was slated for destruction.

The Bomonti Beer Factory, named after the Swiss brothers who set up a brewery in the Ferikoy district of Constantinople in 1890 (moved in 1902), was Turkey’s first modern beer factory. The imposing, disused building was transferred to the Diayanet, Turkey’s highest religious authority and high-spending, ultra-acquisitive public institution, which is planning to build a mosque and carpark in its place.

Beyond its unique architectural value as an early industrial building, the Bomonti Factory is locally cherished, an example of truly popular heritage. This type of cultural heritage engages with and reflects the lives and histories of communities, in this case working-class Turks.

Relatively unknown outside of Turkey, the SeKa Museum (Sümerbank İzmit Kağıt ve Karton Fabrikası/Sumerbank İzmit Paper and Cardboard Mill) in Kocaeli is another such monument.

Locally funded, the SeKa Museum was opened in 2016 to preserve the story of the pulp and paper mill, from its foundation in 1934 to when it was privatised and shut down in 2005. The museum features exhibitions on Turkish manufacturing, the industrial process, and on the social life of the factory, which comprised a school, day-care centre, cinema and sports club. For example, Turkey’s first women’s rowing team was established at the SeKa.

This cultural heritage is truly unique because it reflects the history of the community, which helped to establish the museum and continues to engage with its members, many of whom remember the SeKa as a place of work, socialising and politics. The class dimension is central here, because the discourse around monuments and cultural heritage is one that often excludes sites that commemorate peoples’ day-to-day lives, eschewing inclusivity for the sake of monumentality in the Turkish national story.

It is often non-UNESCO sites that truly reflect popular sentiment, because their unprotected status creates a space for collective action. For example, the 2013 Gezi protests opposing government plans to raze Istanbul’s Gezi Park reflected a cross-section of Turkish society. The cohesive elements were a commitment to ecological conservation, sustainable construction practices and preservation of a public space.

Likewise, last summer, local residents organised protests and collective actions to preserve the Kazdagı National Park, a conservation area near ancient Troy. The site had been opened up for exploitation by the Canadian company Alamos Gold – Canada having some of the laxest mining laws and environmentally destructive mining practices in the world – and its Turkish affiliate Dogu Biga, which are reported to have engaged in excessive deforestation and used the lethal pollutant cyanide for gold extraction.

As the coronavirus pandemic has shown, failure to protect ecological heritage can have lethal consequences for the lives and health of the wider population. That is why recent changes in conservation status have garnered so much attention and direct action from the Turkish public.

Most recently, the Turkish government has removed the Virgin Mary Nature Park near Selcuk from its list of protected sites. Protests are already underway, both out of concern for local biodiversity and for local archaeological sites, such as Ephesus, the Church of the Holy Virgin and the Temple of Artemis Temple. Like Hagia Sophia, Turkey’s ecological heritage is historically layered and currently threatened by unilateral government action. But unlike Hagia Sophia, it has not attracted international attention.

All this begs the question of who cultural heritage is for?

For a few weeks this summer, the debate around the reversion of Hagia Sophia acted as a smokescreen, obfuscating internal conflict and contradiction while projecting the image of a politically and spiritually unified Turkey.

However, the heated debates around heritage management in Turkey – ranging from the reversion of the Chora Museum to the planned demolition of the Bomonti beer factory – have raised very valid questions about Turkey’s heritage management and the tension between conservation, ownership, use and accessibility.

Beyond UNESCO declarations, the most sustainable way for heritage to be preserved is through popular participation. To this end, heritage landscapes and artefacts should not merely function as commodities, to be photographed, archived and reproduced. Rather, through education and awareness-raising campaigns, heritage conservation, in Turkey and elsewhere, should be democratised to engage people and communities.

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