Preservation efforts showcase 'unknown' pages of history

Istanbul and Athens are working to ramp up public recognition of lesser known monuments.

By H.K. Tzanis in Athens and Menekse Tokyay in Istanbul for SES Türkiye -- 02/04/12

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A handful of long overlooked Ottoman-era monuments in central Athens' old quarter district of Plaka have recently re-emerged on the Greek capital's cultural heritage landscape, greatly aided by one facet of the unique Balkan Tale project -- namely, historical walks for local residents to learn about the sites.

  • The eponymous Orthodox Church dominates Monastiraki Square, which is officially known in Athens as Abyssinia Square. The church dates from the 9th to 11th century. [H.K. Tzanis/SES Türkiye]

    The eponymous Orthodox Church dominates Monastiraki Square, which is officially known in Athens as Abyssinia Square. The church dates from the 9th to 11th century. [H.K. Tzanis/SES Türkiye]

It was one of those tours, conducted by a trained archaeologist, which brought together roughly 50 Athenians on a chilly Sunday morning in early March outside the Monastiraki metro station in central Athens.

The event marked the fourth tour of Ottoman and modern Greek era monuments of Plaka, the district that borders the Acropolis in central Athens to the north and east of the hill, and whose monuments are considered the quintessence of Classical antiquity.

A Goethe Institute project, the Balkan Tale is best known as a photo exhibit of shared historical cultural heritage, with five award-winning photographers from Athens, Belgrade, Prizren, Skopje and Tirana providing photo images of Muslim, Christian and Jewish monuments in the Balkans.

In Greece, according to organiser Sofia Efthymiou, this project also boosts efforts to rejuvenate Athenians' interest in their own city's centre. The success of the initiative also means that it will be continued, the organisers said.

On a broader scale, greater sensitivity to sites and monuments regardless of the era or the civilisation that produced them is an objective for the entire Balkan region, too often plagued by historical, political and even religious rivalries.

In Istanbul last February, when media reported that the walls of a medieval imperial Byzantine palace in a first-degree protected zone of the famed Sultanahmet district were demolished to construct a five-star hotel, breaching a law conserving cultural heritage sites, archeologists and academics alike were outraged.

The incident generated a debate in Turkey on better preservation of all facets of the metropolis' nearly two-and-a-half millennia of history.

In one particular case, a draft report by experts at the Istanbul Archeology Museum prompted the ministry of culture and tourism to announce a ban on such construction in the city's historic centre.

The effort didn't end there. Dozens of history, architecture and art scholars from several Turkish universities also published a joint declaration protesting the destruction and expressing concern over what they described as ignorance of the city's 1,000-year Byzantine heritage. They reminded that the historic peninsula, where the Byzantine capital of Constantinople reigned, is also on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Zeynep Ahunbay, a professor of architectural restoration at Istanbul Technical University, told SES Türkiye "if someone fearlessly demolishes a historical monument protected under the world heritage status, then we should assume that this person is either ignorant or defiant."

The issue of preserving well-known Byzantine monuments is not limited to such cases. While a number of Byzantine-era cathedrals in Istanbul acquired an Islamic identity after being transformed into mosques during the Ottoman period, a handful of prominent examples, such as the Hagia Sophia and the Chora (Kariye Camii), were turned into museums after the establishment of the Republic of Turkey.

Others have acquired a "dual identity" on historical maps, such as the church-mosques of the Church of the Pantocrator, known also as the Zeyrek Camii. The Ottoman monuments in central Athens have gone the same route, now serving as museums.

Back in Athens, historian Christina Koulouri, who heads the Balkan Tale programme's research effort, told SES Türkiye that greater awareness in Greece of Ottoman-era monuments, for instance, is in large part due to the EU's policy on cultural heritage, a policy indelibly linked to EU financing.

"Within this [EU] policy, the Ottoman era [monuments] also benefit, as there's no distinction between Byzantine and Ottoman monuments. The way in which we view this era hasn't really changed so much. However, I must emphasise that it is incorrect to link all things Ottoman, as many people do, with Turkish. The Ottoman Empire not exclusively Turkish, but a multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious state," she said.

"A basic problem is lack of information on this era. Everyone knows the Acropolis, even if they haven't visited the site, but very few knew of the [Ottoman] hamam in Plaka, or even its purpose and era. There's a total lack of knowledge, not necessarily prejudice. [The historical walks] effort is to learn better learn our city," Koulouri added.


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