IN Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, where eager traders usually hawk their wares to passersby, an entirely different noise echoes through the old shopping street.
An angry crowd of shopkeepers has gathered to protest about pending evictions. The general directorate of foundations, their landlord, has sold a long-term lease to a new owner, resulting in rent increases that make trading in the bazaar unaffordable to most of its tenants.
The Grand Bazaar, one of the largest covered markets in the world, houses more than 3,000 shops and attracts up to half a million visitors each day. Now the Fatih municipality has set out to mine the 550-year-old bazaar and large swathes of the historical peninsula for profit, and many fear no stone will remain unturned.
With historical buildings being turned into hotels, the pursuit of tourist dollars will destroy what visitors come to see, say tenants of ancient market
Ilyas Ozturk, 35, rents a small shop where he sells leather bags. He has been working in the bazaar since he was 12. “I have spent all my money on this shop, and the summer season has just begun,” he says through the thick wooden door behind which he and other shopkeepers have locked themselves away to resist eviction. “We have always paid our rent; we are not criminals. They cannot just put us out on the streets.”
The same evening, units of riot police break open the doors of Sandal Bedesteni, the old textile market inside the bazaar. The next morning, the 80 shops are emptied under the watchful eyes of the municipal authorities.
“I have debts; I have bought merchandise for thousands of dollars,” says one merchant who declines to be named. “What am I supposed to do? Where am I supposed to go?”
The shopkeepers evicted from the Grand Bazaar last week will not be the last. Mustafa Demir, the mayor of Fatih, which covers large parts of the peninsula, last month announced ambitious renovation plans for the entire Ottoman market and its environs.
The 250m lira project envisages more than 1,700 historical buildings being turned into hotels, including several of the old inns around courtyards, called han, where merchants used to store their wares. Most were dedicated to a particular craft, and many still house craftsmen and small workshops. More than 25,000 people are employed inside the Grand Bazaar.
In leafy Cebeci Han, the metallic sounds of coppersmiths at work reverberate through the courtyard. Master coppersmith Abdullah Eryilmaz, 65, who has worked in the han for almost a decade, is angry about the municipality’s plans.
“They should go and build their hotels elsewhere. We don’t want them here. Their only worry is what else they can sell, after they have sold everything else already,” Eryilmaz says, adding that he tried to move his workshop to a more industrial zone on the outskirts of Istanbul, without success. “Our customers come here; they know where to find us. There are no places left in this city where I can even find a space for the work I am doing.”
Despite Turkey’s increasingly bad press and the turmoil across the region, tourism in Istanbul is booming, with 11.8 million people visiting the city in 2014, 13.1pc more than the year before. According to data published by the association of tourist hotels and investors (Turob) in 2010, the number of licensed hotels increased from 283 to 766 in only four years, and many more projects are in the pipeline. Demir recently valued the tourism potential of the historical peninsula alone at $38bn.
|MUSTAFA Demir, the mayor of Fatih municipality, last month announced ambitious renovation plans for the entire Ottoman market and its environs.|
But critics warn that brutish, top-down tourism development will have a disastrous effect on the social fabric of the city.
“This is very short-sighted planning that is entirely profit-oriented,” says Mucella Yapici, of the Istanbul chamber of architects. “It destroys the history and the culture of Istanbul. They chase out the original residents, small businesses and traditional trades. In the end, tourism will kill itself, because tourists don’t come here to see luxury hotels, shopping centres and glitzy residences. But there will be nothing else left.”
Ugur Tanyeli, an architectural historian, accuses the Turkish government of turning the city into a soul-less theme park for the sake of ever more tourism and construction-generated profit. “So much of the historic peninsula has been developed for tourism already,” he says. “It’s a terrible loss for Istanbul. The whole city is being eaten up by tourism development and is turned into a lifeless place with no culture of its own. Little by little, it becomes like Las Vegas.”
Demir has promised that renovations would return the bazaar to its original state. “The infrastructure, the piping and telephone lines will be renewed,” he says. “The water tanks, antenna, air conditioning units and cables on the roof will be removed. Sale space inside the bazaar will be regulated.” Nobody, he adds, will be forced to open a hotel.
But tenants and shop owners in Cebeci Han, among them carpet and textile traders, sellers of artistic woodwork, jewellers and tailors for belly dance costumes, are worried the renewal project will spell a substantial rise in rent and, for most, eviction.
“We are not against renovations,” says Aziz Ozcan, 45, a trader of central Asian textiles and pottery. “We have asked the municipality to renovate here many times, but they always refused. They now use renovations as a pretext to throw us out and raise the rent.”
|ISTANBUL’S Grand Bazaar attracts up to half a million visitors each day.|
Like many other property holders in the bazaar, Ozcan holds no official title deed for the small shop that he bought from its previous owner 25 years ago through an informal contract. “But I have been paying property taxes, rubbish taxes and all my fees to the municipality,” he explains. “Yet on paper I look like a squatter. If they want to, they can throw me out any day, and there is nothing I can do.”
About 70pc of all shopkeepers in the bazaar are tenants without any rights to resist eviction, but even those who hold title deeds for their shops are not safe. The Grand Bazaar, declared an urban renewal zone in 2010, falls under the same disaster prevention laws that forced residents in Sulukule or Tarlabasi from their homes.
Traders in several of the hans say municipal workers came to take photographs and measurements of all buildings, but none of them explained what the work was for. “I have never seen a government that looks down on its citizens like this,” said 65-year-old Hamza Kenan Kaya, master leather dyer. “We are completely excluded from decisions about our livelihoods.”
Muhcu criticises the lack of transparency for most construction projects in Istanbul. He points out that Demir and the Fatih municipality were implicated in the corruption scandal that rocked the governing Justice and Development, or AK, party, in December of 2013. “Ankara protects them, so often court decisions are simply being ignored by the municipalities,” he says. “This way the mayor of Fatih has destroyed so much of this historical neighbourhood already.”
Istanbul changes at a breathtaking pace, and many fear the city might soon be lost entirely to rabid development, leaving a sanitised, uniform backdrop, void of life and its original inhabitants. “What people will be able to see is not Istanbul, but an illusion of Istanbul,” said Tanyeli. “It is now possible to visit Istanbul without ever having seen it.”
—By arrangement with the Guardian
Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2015