Istanbul’s initiative to preserve its cultural essence

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Istanbul’s central Fatih district, the dome-topped turret of Bulgur Palas once remained hidden behind high walls, a century-old mansion steeped in history. Recently restored and reopened as a cultural hub in February 2024, it now offers panoramic views of the Marmara Sea, the city’s minaret-dotted historical peninsula, and the distant skyscraper-filled business district. This transformation is part of a broader initiative in Istanbul, where numerous previously inaccessible sites—from Byzantine-era fortifications to late-Ottoman factories—have been unveiled to the public over the past five years. These efforts reveal layers of history and culture in a city that draws millions of visitors annually, showcasing Istanbul’s rich tapestry beyond its well-known landmarks.

“Istanbul cannot fit into a single photograph; wherever you go, you can find these little gems,” explains Mahir Polat, deputy secretary-general of the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality (İBB), who has led the city’s restoration drive since 2019. The restoration projects not only aim to create new public spaces in Istanbul’s dense urban fabric but also to revive neglected historical sites vulnerable to earthquakes and urban development pressures. Moreover, they signal a shift towards a more sustainable tourism strategy for Istanbul, which welcomed 20.2 million international visitors in 2023—an increase of 26% from the previous year. Long queues at top attractions like Topkapı Palace, Hagia Sophia, and the Basilica Cistern underscore the need for diversifying tourist hotspots.

“Tourists tend to gravitate towards the same places, which can lead to challenges,” notes Sinan Sökmen, founder of Istanbul Tour Studio. “These newly accessible landmarks have the potential to redistribute tourism more evenly across the city.” For instance, the Gülhane Park Cistern, a restored 1,500-year-old reservoir reopened in 2023, offers a quieter alternative just a short walk from its more famous counterpart. Situated within the grounds of Topkapı Palace, Gülhane Park also features the ancient Column of the Goths and the 16th-century Alay Köşkü pavilion, adding layers to Istanbul’s multifaceted history.

Istanbul, founded in the 7th century BCE, served as the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires successively. Today, it remains unique as the only city to have been the seat of both Christian and Islamic empires and spans two continents—Europe and Asia. The rapid growth of modern Istanbul, now Europe’s largest city with approximately 16 million inhabitants, has often clashed with preserving its ancient heritage. The city’s building boom has left many historical sites surrounded by urban sprawl, creating new challenges for conservation.

Ayşe Övür, recalling her university days in 1990s Istanbul, reminisces about İstiklal Caddesi in Beyoğlu, once a fashionable hub during the Ottoman Empire’s twilight years. Here, the ornate Art Nouveau façade of a 1901 apartment building caught her attention—the former residence and atelier of Jean Botter, the Dutch fashion designer and official tailor to the Ottoman palace. Botter’s influence extended beyond royal circles; he introduced the white wedding dress to Turkish society and pioneered fashion shows in Istanbul, symbolizing the city’s embrace of European trends at the turn of the 20th century.

Despite its illustrious past, the Botter apartment building fell into disrepair over the decades until the İBB embarked on its restoration in 2021. Reopened as Casa Botter in April 2023, it now serves as a public art and design center showcasing Turkish modern and contemporary artists. This transformation reflects Istanbul’s efforts to preserve and repurpose historic buildings, revitalizing them as cultural venues that resonate with both locals and international visitors.

The ongoing restoration projects in Istanbul not only safeguard its cultural heritage but also offer insights into its diverse past. From ancient cisterns to opulent residences, each restored site adds a new chapter to Istanbul’s narrative, inviting visitors to explore lesser-known aspects of this vibrant city. As Istanbul navigates its role as a global tourism hotspot, balancing preservation with development remains crucial to sustaining its allure as a bridge between East and West, past and present.

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