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In Turkey's ancient capital, developers put profits before preservation

A corruption investigation rocking Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan has revealed Istanbul's urban heritage as a victim of rapid development that enriched political insiders.

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The Ottoman-era Suleymaniye mosque and skyscrapers behind its minarets seen from the Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul November 17, 2013. Vast real estate projects showcase Turkey's rising prosperity and serve as a vehicle for spreading wealth. But the rusk for development has led to a massive corruption scandal that threatens the rule of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan.

Murad Sezer/Reuters

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On the winding, cobbled streets below Istanbul's towering Suleymaniye Mosque, rows of wooden 19th-century mansions are being torn down and built anew.

City officials say this restoration project will protect the neighborhood's Ottoman heritage, but critics say the real motive is financial, namely the graft that attaches itself to big-budget urban development projects.

As the largest corruption scandal in Turkish history continues to shake the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Istanbul's rich history has emerged as one of the victims of a construction boom that greased the wheels of political insiders.

Since last month, more than 100 members of the prime minister's inner circle have been detained on corruption charges, while three cabinet ministers have resigned over the scandal. Mr. Erdogan has sought to derail the investigation by removing hundreds of police and investigators from their duty. On Tuesday he described the investigation as "black stain on Turkey's democratic history" and compared it unfavorably with previous military coups. 

Among other allegations of foul play, investigators allege that a network of bribery has underpinned Turkey's decade of runaway development, enriching members of an Islamic political party that styled itself as a pious, technocratic steward of a dynamic economy.

Within the Byzantine walls of Istanbul's old city, historic neighborhoods and archaeological sites have proven particularly vulnerable to unchecked development.

“Historical areas are the 'low hanging fruit' of development,” says Azat Yalcin, a city planner turned whistleblower who worked for the municipality of Fatih between 2009 and 2013. “It's because laws that should protect historical areas very easily flaunted.”

When renovation work began in 2012 on the tumbledown streets of Suleymaniye, planners were told to bypass inspections of historic buildings so they could be destroyed, said Yalcin. Mandatory archaeological digs were cancelled and demolition work began before a lawsuit could be filed.

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Today a lawsuit has largely halted the project, and Suleymaniye is a wasteland of half-demolished homes and gravel pits. Around 80 percent of the neighborhood's families have left, while destitute Syrian refugees seek shelter in condemned buildings.

Heavy-handed development

Preservationists say it is only one example of heavy-handed development in the old city. In 2011 and 2012, the neighborhoods of Sulukule and Yedikule, which lie next to the city's hulking Byzantine landwalls, were demolished to make way for rows of luxury townhouses. Those projects are widely believed to have benefited members of Erdogan's ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP).

The projects have earned the city warnings from UNESCO, which said the historic peninsula risks losing its world heritage status. Fatih’s AKP mayor, Mustafa Demir, had championed these projects as a “facelift” for the district. In October, he boasted that 12 percent of land in the old city has been redeveloped over his ten years in office.

Last month, Mr. Demir was detained on charges of accepting bribes from developers and selling off heritage sites. His case was quickly lost in political drama, however, when Erdogan attacked the corruption case as a plot to bring down his government. Erdogan's son has been cited in reports as a target in a second round of anticorruption arrests. Earlier this month, police defied orders from prosecutors to carry out a second wave of arrests. 

Beyond the political grandstanding, attention has focused on the murky world of real estate and public contracts. Among those arrested were Ali Agaoglu, a billionaire construction tycoon, and the son of Urban Development Minister Erdogan Bayraktar, who resigned and sought to implicate the prime minister in the scandal. “The majority of construction plans in the current investigation were carried out with the approval of the prime minister,” he said.

The government's public housing authority, known as TOKI, reports directly to the prime minister. It has underwritten many of Turkey's largest building projects over the last decade, including those that critics say are tarnishing Istanbul's historic neighborhoods.

In the neighborhood of Tarlabasi, a predominately Kurdish neighborhood of neoclassical buildings, hundreds of homes were demolished to make way for a shopping center. The project was run by TOKI, which subcontracted the construction to Calik Holding, a conglomerate run by Erdogan's son-in-law. The company has not been accused of any wrongdoing.

Favoritism in public works

Former urban planner Yalcin says favoritism “has become the rule” for projects in the old city. He says he was fired after confronting Demir, the district mayor, over corruption in public works.

Prosecutors have not revealed details of the charges against Demir. Turkey’s media have reported that he allegedly solicited bribes for the construction of a hotel atop a tunnel that is part of an undersea rail network. Engineers reportedly warned that the hotel would compromise the integrity of the tunnel.

In the Suliyemaniye district, much of the rebuilding has been carried out by Kiptas, a company favored by the government for building mass housing. Their website makes no mention of prior restoration work. “If the aim was preservation, this is the last company you could choose,” says Korhan Gumus, an urban planner.

He compares photos of Suleymaniye's intricate, genteel homes with rows of vastly simplified houses in a municipal diagram. “The soul of this neighborhood is being erased, not revived,” he says. According to Turkish media, Kiptas executives were reportedly among the targets of a botched second wave of arrests.

Sweetheart deals have also threatened the city's more ancient history, says Zeynep Ahunbay, a representative of the International Council on Monuments and Sites. She recently led a restoration project on the former Byzantine church of Christ Pantokrator, a sprawling 12th-century structure. But her contract was abruptly cancelled last year and transferred to Tasyapi, a firm that advertises itself as a builder of public housing and luxury apartments. The CEO of Tasyapi has since been detained as part of the corruption investigation. 

Recent excavations in the old city have revealed neolithic remains from 8,000 years ago, underlining the stakes for urban heritage in this ancient crossroads. “Archeology and history shouldn't be seen as an annoyance," Ms. Ahunbay says, "but as an immense privilege.” 

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