Experts volunteer to save non-Muslim heritage in Turkey
Around 140 'at-risk' churches, schools, synagogues and monasteries across Turkey are being cataloged by international team
By Handan Kazanci
An exciting new project to protect Anatolia’s non-Muslim architectural heritage is bringing together volunteers from Turkey, Greece and Armenia.
Well over a hundred at-risk churches, schools, monasteries and synagogues will be logged and catalogued by experts from the three nations.
The project is being organized by the Association for the Protection of Cultural Heritage, as well as Anadolu Culture – two initiatives that support different communities in Turkey.
Architects, art historians and engineers have come together to review Turkey’s Greek, Armenian and Jewish heritage.
Speaking to Anadolu Agency, project coordinator, Cagla Parlak, said that they aimed to reach an estimated 140 structures across Turkey which are at risk.
According to Parlak, there is not much work directly related to non-Muslim cultural heritage in Turkey. There is a lack of art historians, architects or engineers who know about these special structures, she added.
There are only a couple of people who could be called experts on Armenian art history, she said, pointing to a lack of expertise on art history surrounding restoration projects in Turkey.
For example, she said, when the cultural ministry, municipality or governorship conducts a restoration project, often they do not have an Assyrian architect.
“Also budgets for restorations are limited, so with this project we are specifying which structures are in need of primary restoration,” she added.
The group will document findings from their visits to sites in seven regions across Turkey, including the central Anatolian province of Kayseri, the southern region of Adana and Aegean Izmir.
Financed by the U.S. embassy in Ankara, the project took a year to come together and ran parallel with the foundation of the association in 2014.
The project has publicized its first results by publishing a book called ‘Kayseri: With Its Armenian and Greek Cultural Heritage’ in February.
The team conducted a risk assessment of 18 Greek and Armenian buildings in Kayseri such as the Surp Asdvadzadzin Church, Surp Stepanos Church, Sakis Gumusyan School, the School in Molu and the Agios Georgios Church.
Kayseri, like many other parts of the country, was home to various minorities until the beginning of the 20th century but their numbers fell during republican-era.
The year 1915 saw mass relocations which the Armenian diaspora and government describe as ‘genocide’ and Turkey refutes; 1923 saw the population exchange between Turkey and Greece; 1942 witnessed the ‘wealth tax’ which hit non-Muslim communities and 1955 violence – also known as the ‘Events of 6-7 September’ – saw many minority citizens leave the country.
The new book reviews Kayseri’s multicultural and socio-economic past.
The Armenian population in the city was around 15,000 at the end of the 19th century, the book states. Today only one Armenian lives there, according to local media.
Over 10,000 non-Muslim monuments
The group uses an inventory prepared by the Istanbul-based Hrant Dink Foundation, registration decisions by local heritage Protection Boards and literature reviews, Parlak said.
The Hrant Dink Foundation was founded in the name of a Turkish-Armenian journalist who was assassinated by a Turkish nationalist in front of his Agos newspaper in 2007.
The foundation worked for more than two years making an inventory to gather information about Turkey’s cultural heritage.
It found out more than 10,000 monuments across Turkey. According to the research, there are 4,600 Armenian, 4,100 Greek, 650 Assyrian and 300 Jewish structures across the country.
The team benefited from the Hrant Dink Foundation’s inventory as well as written sources and local historians. NGOs were interviewed to identify the sites, Parlak said.
“The cooperation between the public sector, civil society and universities was important,” Parlak added.
When the group goes to a site, they observe the structure, take photographs and GPS coordinates. An inventory form is filled in and the last part of the documentation consists of a risk report.
“A scoring system has been developed on the importance or the risk each structure faces,” she said.
“Each structure is ranged in according to its risk rating,” she said: “If a structure is at the top of the list, this means that this building should have priority for restoration in that region,” Parlak added.
These reports will eventually be presented to Turkey’s culture ministry.
According to the project, the group will organize four trips with local historians and three with international experts.
So far the experts visited Kayseri, Adana (Armenian and early-Christian structures) and Izmir with a focus on Jewish cultural heritage as well as Greek and Armenian buildings.
The team will visit Mardin in southern Turkey to examine Assyrian heritage at the end of March. An Assyrian expert from Sweden will join the team.
Most the structures are public spaces – such as churches, chapels, monasteries and schools – Parlak told Anadolu Agency.
Civil architecture – such as housing – is not added to the risk analysis, she said, adding if an authentic example has been encountered, these structures are reported separately, such as Izmir’s cortijos – a type of traditional housing used by Sephardic Jews from Spain.
There are buildings which are excluded from the report, Parlak said, such as churches still in use or those turned into a museum or mosque.
“Our main aim is to ensure the protection of ‘abandoned’ structures,” she said.
“At the moment this is just in theory,” she added. “We don’t know if our suggestions will be taken seriously.”
Parlak is hopeful for the future of cultural heritage in Anatolia:
“Last week we were in Kayseri and we visited the governorship, cultural heritage preservation board and municipality. We told them we could support them on experts and our offer was taken positively.”Anadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.