In Istanbul, the Süleymaniye mosque district threatened by a construction site by Erdogan’s son

En contrebas de la mosquée de Süleymaniye, le projet de construction a été arrêté par la municipalité d'Istanbul.

The wild multiplication of real estate projects in the historic districts of the city is causing a general outcry, up to and including among the supporters of the Turkish president.

The skyward-stretching minarets of the Süleymaniye Mosque have graced the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn since the 16th century. That this icon of Istanbul is today threatened by a construction site causes a storm in the Turkish megalopolis.

The construction of a concrete cube, owned by a religious foundation, at the foot of the site is the latest attack to date on the silhouette of the city, left to the appetites of developers despite its glorious past. “Such disrespect… there are no limits”chokes Esin Koymen, director of the Istanbul Chamber of Architects, contacted by theAFP. “Many recognize that this new construction alters the silhouette of Istanbul. But it’s quite infuriating to see the casualness persist for such an emblematic site. It has to stop”she adds.

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The great mosque of Süleymaniye was built in 1550-1557 by Sinan, a star of Ottoman architecture in the historical peninsula. Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mosque, which suffered from earthquakes and fires, represents the Golden Age of the Empire under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent. It is not the first time that the “skyline” of Istanbul is turned upside down by the appearance of towers that spoil its postcard views. Heritage defenders have often mobilized in vain, as during the construction in 2013 of the three skyscrapers in the Zeytinburnu district, which continued despite a court decision and the opposition of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then first Minister.

Several modern building sites stand directly alongside the centuries-old domes of the Süleymaniye Mosque. Ozan KOSE / AFP

With the mosque of Süleymaniye, the controversy took a political turn last week when the municipality of Istanbul – of opposition – sealed the access to the site which it considers contrary to the land use plan. “We will not make any concessions to preserve the historical and spiritual capital of Istanbul”, tweeted Mayor Ekrem Imamoglu. Yusuf Kaplan, columnist for the pro-government daily Yeni Safak, called in early February to protect “the soul of Süleymaniye”. “We are the only country in the world that destroys its cities”he wrote, qualifying as “revolution” the ongoing debate and calling for “to clean” the surroundings of the mosque.

The Foundation for the Propagation of Knowledge, owner of the decried building and whose board of directors is chaired by Bilal Erdogan, the president’s son, assures that the construction of his dormitory is not “not illegal”. But she backtracked and halted the work in the face of outcry, even in conservative circles. “We will not take part in any activity that may harm the soul of Süleymaniye”the director of the Nurettin Alan foundation told the press last week. “Süleymaniye is our soul, we will do everything to protect it”he said, accusing Istanbul City Hall of wanting to politicize the case.

Mahir Polat, the municipality’s director of cultural heritage, compares before-and-after photos of the construction site. Ozan KOSE / AFP

According to Cultural Heritage Director of Istanbul Municipality Mahir Polat, the foundation’s dormitory was six meters taller than the originally approved project. He had already sounded the alarm in 2020 on the restoration work – with hammer blows – of the Byzantine tower of Galata, built in the 13th century.and century. “Compare the photos from 2016 and those from 2022. Anyone who looks at the Bosphorus from the domes of Süleymaniye can clearly see that (this building) was not there”he tells theAFP. Locking down the site had, according to him, “nothing” to do with politics or ideology.

“Read what has been written about Istanbul by past travelers as well as by contemporary authors, all describe it as the city of domes . And it is exactly this front that is threatened today.. Mahir Polat further argues that the foundation building is not the only threat to the site, denouncing the many buildings built in the 1970s and 1980s. The municipality, he explains, has established that only 50 of the original 525 historic buildings that surrounded the Süleymaniye Mosque remain. “We are going to save Süleymaniye”he launched.

Esin Koymen regrets that cultural affairs are taking a political turn. “When you protect the past, if it’s a mosque, you’re pro-government”. “But if it’s a Byzantine site, you’re in opposition”she continues. “This polarization ignores the universal principles of heritage protection”.

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