Don't Touch My Monuments

Cover, Akbaba #213, 1938. It reads"İstanbulun imarı karşısında: Evkaf -- Yooook... Asarı kıymettarı eslafın tahribü imhasına zinhar müsaade edemem!"
I was having a conversation today with someone who was explaining to me the reasons why -- in his opinion -- Eyüp hasn't changed that much. "Of course," he said, "there are the boulevards now, but if you look at the back streets, they're more or less like they have been. One of the reasons is the number of mosques and medrese in Eyüp -- they weren't able to change it because they couldn't touch those properties."

That incident came to mind while I was flipping back through some photos I had taken last week. In this cover -- from sometime in 1938 -- a türbedar, or tomb attendant, is coming out to confront a man with a pickaxe. From the "Architectural Plan" tucked into the man's pocket, we know he's a representative of the municipality; 1937, we know, is the first year in which the Prost Plan begins to be implemented. The plan envisioned broad boulevards, littoral roads, and -- most pertinent to my work on Eyüp -- the zoning of the Golden Horn for industrial purposes and is widely understood to be one of the first moments in the destruction of 'old' Istanbul.

The tomb attendant also speaks for the evkaf, or pious foundations, which still controlled substantial tracts of land in and around the city of Istanbul. In theory, those foundations -- and more specifically the land dedicated to their upkeep -- could not be bought or sold. Though they had been incorporated directly into the Prime Minister's Office in 1924, the exact status and function of these vakıf properties was -- I think -- still rather fluid in 1928.

He's yelling to the man with the pickaxe, "Against the construction of Istanbul: Noooo... I can never permit these preparations for the ruination and destruction of valuable monuments!"

One of the many things that interests me in this cover is the exact attitude of Akbaba towards the past. I spent part of Thursday at an interesting conference entitled, "Whose Heritage? Preservation and Destruction of the Cultural Heritage of Historic Neighborhoods" at the Netherlands Institute here in Istanbul. Because my work is interested not only in the contemporary dynamics of urban transformation but also in the genealogy of those debates in the city, this cover might offer one way to begin to reconstruct the context within which debates of the 1920s and 30s were taking place.

One tentative analysis of the cover might be this: That this whole discussion of the "valuable monuments" is in some sense ironic; the vakıf, envisioned as a reactionary institution, is seen as an impediment to the progress that the "İmar Planı" represents. But the important point to take away is this: That the contemporary attitude towards monuments in Turkey -- that the 'historic' nature of some monuments justifies their 'preservation' (in some form or another) -- is not fixed. There are always multiple ways of relating to the past; to borrow a phrase from a former teacher of mine, what matters is not so much the pastness of a thing as the ways in which that past is brought forward.

Anyways, I hope to keep exploring in this direction.


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