The Yedikule saga continues. Although there has hardly been a peep out of Turkish media this week, some international proponents are expressing their concerns – good, they need to be heard. I went to check out what has been happening to the Yedikule bostans since the construction trucks rolled in, and the sight truly choked me up. The smells emanating from the patches of fresh herbs, the farmer ladies collecting lettuces, the young men and teenagers selling the bostans’ goods, all remind you of their status as an agricultural treasure and their importance within the community. Now placards showing the future development are proudly displayed, with some green areas already replaced with piles of rubble.
As Andrew Finkel writes in his latest Latitude blog: ‘Last month, at the peak of the standoff between demonstrators and the police over the fate of Gezi Park, the mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas, assured a TV interviewer that the municipal authorities had already learned their lesson. Future urban development would only take place after wide consultation. “We won’t even change a bus stop without asking local people first,” he declared.’
Yes, it would be nice if the mayor consulted with people in the know. As has been said elsewhere on this blog, if only the council made informed decisions based on opinions of both academics and those responsible for the practical side of urban planning, then maybe things would be different. But, as Finkel says, the mayor’s words turned out to be 'empty promises… Just a few days later Topbas warned that the words shouldn’t be taken too literally. The governing Justice and Development Party, or AKP, reserved the right to do what it pleased.’
As I walked around, construction workers asked me what I was doing there. ‘Just walking,’ I replied. They eyed me strangely, as if to say, 'Why? There's nothing to see here.' After reading Finkel’s blog, I realised there might be another explanation for their suspicious looks. Finkel continues: 'The people who are being evicted from their land, along with about a hundred historians and activists, tried to arrange a protest just after the bulldozers appeared. But according to Gunhan Borekci, a historian at Sehir University, this may have only encouraged the municipality to speed up destruction. “I imagine they were afraid of a Gezi-style backlash,” he told me last week.’
Even though the council says that it wants to ‘convert the land into a park’, some groups and individuals, such as the newly formed Initiative for the Protection of Yedikule Vegetable Orchards, are not convinced. ‘Any new park, it argues, would be much richer if it encompassed the ancient gardens; these could be a laboratory of biodiversity for schoolchildren and an attraction for tourists,’ Finkel points out.
And what about the question of archaeological preservation? Well, there have been reports that ‘the Istanbul branch of the Association of Archaeologists has warned that excavations within the historical Yedikule gardens are destroying the remains of Istanbul’s old town’. The association’s report said the following: ‘This area lies in a protected strip of land walls that are on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and is also a part of the historical peninsula, which is protected. The excavations within the historical peninsula should be conducted under the guidance of the museum in accordance with the science of archaeology’.
As ‘various statutes require archaeologists to supervise construction on Istanbul’s peninsula, while others protect historical orchards and market gardens’, will the Archaeological Association or their report have any effect? ‘Even if they are right, there is always the danger, of course, that the municipality will dig first and suffer the legal consequences later. Getting a court to issue an injunction in favour of conservation is a race against time,’ argues Finkel. Wise words.
What a sad, sad state of affairs. Something that is such a sacred part of the city – not only to today’s communities but to the last 1,600 years of the city’s history – is facing extinction. Maybe it is time UNESCO got properly involved.