Wednesday, April 29, 2009

don't blame the squatters

When I was in Istanbul for the first time, in 1995, families were living in the crumbling walls of the almost completely ruined Byzantine-era Bukaleon Palace near Sultanahmet. I watched them from the balcony of my cheap hotel, and, on one of my free days, poked around the rubble of the palace walls.

Now, as Istanbul pretties itself in preparation for its 2010 designation as European Capital of Culture, the press has discovered the squatters--and it wants them out. Hurriyet offers, in English, an elaboration of a story that apparently ran first in Milliyet.

Yes the palace is historically significant, built in 842 on order of the Byzantine Emperor Emperor Iustinianus II.

But the government demolished the main palace almost a century ago to make way for the central train station. And it allowed the insanely luxurious Four Seasons Hotel to encroach on top of significant portions of the outbuildings and grounds.

If the government has had no interest in this place for decades, why blame the squatters now? Perhaps the government should look inward, at its economic policies, which still deny the mass of people a chance at legal housing.

One of the great things about Istanbul is that it hasn't completely fetishized its incredible history. The great buildings are there--in all stages of preservation and decay. I remember stumbling on a massive commercial building on a back street in Galata. It was crumbling, home to maritime and industrial firms--businesses selling anchors and lengths of chain and supplies for ships. Yet it was clear the building was significant. To enter was to be exalted. Back home, I looked in my architectural guide and discovered that it had been designed by Mimar Sinan, whose work is the root of Ottoman architecture. It was still being used by firms that were probably not all that different than the ones that used it in Sinan's time. It was refreshing to see a great building that was still quietly fulfilling its original function almost five centuries on.

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