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ISTANBUL – Istanbul’s Ambitious Plan to Preserve Its Cultural Heritage

Istanbul is undergoing a significant cultural and heritage restoration campaign, unveiling previously overlooked aspects of this globally renowned city. This initiative, led by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB), aims to breathe new life into neglected historical sites and create new public spaces.

Reviving Historical Landmarks

For many years, the dome-topped turret of the Bulgur Palas in Istanbul’s Fatih district was barely visible over the high walls of this century-old mansion. Now, fully restored and reopened as a cultural center in February 2024, Bulgur Palas offers panoramic views of the Marmara Sea and Istanbul’s skyline. This transformation includes a 150-seat library, exhibition space, garden café, and observation terrace.

Bulgur Palas is just one of many sites that have been restored and opened to the public over the past five years. These sites range from Byzantine-era fortifications to late-Ottoman-period factories, revealing little-known historical and cultural layers of Istanbul.

A Sustainable Tourism Strategy

Mahir Polat, deputy secretary-general of İBB, has been leading the restoration efforts since 2019. He emphasizes that these projects aim to create new public spaces and revitalize historical sites at risk of earthquakes and urban development. With 20.2 million international visitors in 2023, a 26% increase from the previous year, Istanbul is under significant tourist pressure. These newly restored landmarks offer alternative attractions, potentially easing congestion at popular sites like Topkapı Palace and Hagia Sophia.

Tour guide Sinan Sökmen highlights the potential of these new landmarks to distribute tourism more evenly across the city. An example is the Gülhane Park Cistern, a 1,500-year-old reservoir restored and reopened in early 2023. Located within a park that was once part of Topkapı Palace’s private grounds, the cistern is part of a vast system of reservoirs that served the city’s residents.

Preserving Multi-Layered History

Founded in the 7th century BCE, Istanbul has been the seat of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. Today, it remains the only city in the world that spans two continents: Europe and Asia. However, rapid urbanization and population growth—from fewer than 1 million people in 1923 to roughly 16 million today—have left ancient monuments surrounded by modern development.

The restoration campaign also focuses on 19th and early 20th-century residential and industrial sites that have been abandoned despite their historical significance. For instance, the Casa Botter, a 1901 building on İstiklal Caddesi, was restored and reopened in April 2023 as a public art and design center.

On the other side of the Golden Horn, a 19th-century weaving factory has been transformed into Artİstanbul Feshane, hosting exhibitions of 20th-century optical and kinetic art. This initiative aims to preserve Istanbul’s industrial heritage, crucial for understanding the city’s transition from the Ottoman to the Republic era.

Embracing Criticism and Engaging the Public

While these restoration projects have been generally well-received, they have not been without criticism. Architecture professor Gülsün Tanyeli argues that some efforts, such as the restoration of Hasanpaşa Gazhane, lack sufficient information about the site’s historical context and production processes.

Despite the critiques, the restoration projects have been embraced by Istanbul residents. For example, Anadolu Hisarı, the oldest Ottoman fortress in Istanbul, has become a popular spot for families and couples since its reopening in May 2023. On summer nights, the fortress’s illuminated towers provide a dramatic backdrop for free open-air concerts organized by the municipality.

Conclusion

The restoration of Istanbul’s historical landmarks is a testament to the city’s commitment to preserving its cultural heritage. By making these sites accessible to the public and integrating them into daily life, Istanbul not only honors its past but also fosters a deeper appreciation for its rich history among residents and visitors alike.

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