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Anchoring Memory in the Face of Disaster: Technology and Istanbul’s Cultural Heritage Preservation Regime


I. Introduction

Istanbul, the largest metropolitan area in Turkey with a population exceeding 12.5 million, is one of the world’s great cities—a meeting place of cultures, religions and continents. Given its long, rich and tumultuous history, Istanbul’s core serves as an urban palimpsest that anchors the memory of past cultures to present generations. One has simply to look at the massive Roman acqueduct built by the Emporer Valens (AD 378) straddling the major arterial thoroughfare of Atatürk Boulevard to see how strands of the city’s past have been woven into its modern fabric. Indeed, Istanbul’s four World Heritage Sites—(1) the Archaeological Park at the tip of the historic peninsula including the Hippodrome of Constantine, Justinian’s Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace; (2) the Suleymaniye quarter with Suleymaniye Mosque complex, bazaars and vernacular settlement; (3) the area of settlement around the Zeyrek Mosque (former medieval church of the Pantocrator); and (4) areas along both sides of the famous fifth century Theodosian land walls—form the foundation of contemporary downtown Istanbul.

Istanbul’s cultural heritage is also a critical component to the overall economy of Turkey’s financial capital. Istanbul was declared the Cultural Capital of Europe in 2010 and heritage tourism, with its direct and indirect stimuli to local businesses and services, comprises a significant part of Istanbul’s economy.1 According to a major credit card index, Istanbul ranks as the sixth hottest global tourist destination and is expected to host 10.4 million tourists in 2013, generating approximately $8.6 billion dollars in tourism income—a 5.5% increase from the year before.2 And a 2012 study by Turkey’s Culture Ministry’s General Directorate of Cultural Heritage and Museums concluded that the Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace in Istanbul were the two most visited tourism attractions in Turkey that year.3

Yet despite its storied past and bright present, Istanbul’s cultural heritage faces several risks from natural disasters. The best known and most researched risk is earthquakes, as Istanbul sits atop one of the world’s most active fault lines. Indeed the two major earthquakes that struck Turkey in 1999 prompted the creation of national, provincial and municipal disaster management agencies along with a series of government reports and independent research on earthquake prevention and mitigation.4 The latest estimate is that there is a 50% probability that a 7.5 Richter scale earthquake will strike Istanbul within the next 30 years, leaving tens of thousands dead and large swathes of Istanbul’s physical infrastructure, including many historic sites, in shambles.5 Other risks to Istanbul’s cultural heritage (some of which are linked to earthquakes) include fires, tsunamis in the Sea of Marmara, acid rain and sea-level rise.6 Thus, the question is not if Istanbul will lose vital clusters of its cultural heritage, but when.