The cobbled streets of the Osmangazi neighbourhood of Bursa, a city in western Turkey, are lined with buildings dating back hundreds of years. Along with traditional inns, or caravanserais, there are historic hamams and mosques, and many local and international tourists come here to enjoy the atmosphere, drink tea and shop at craft stalls.
But recent plans for the renovation of the district by the municipality, run by Turkey’s governing Justice and Development Party (AKP), have sparked local opposition.
A plan to pave the cobbled street in front of the Koza Inn, one of the city’s best-known historic caravanserais, was cancelled in January after protests by residents – and resulted in the cobblestones being put back. Most recently, residents have been upset by cooking smells coming from a restaurant set up in another caravanserai, the Balibey Inn.
“Balibey Inn wasn’t like this before,” Gülhan Türkmen, a 59-year-old Bursa resident who lives nearby, told Inside Turkey. “We come down here to have tea. We can’t sit here anymore because ventilation pipes cross where we used to have tea, and the smell is directly in your face.”
Despite the AKP’s focus on history and tradition in its political campaigning, local historian Raif Kaplanoğlu said that the Bursa municipality had a track record of inadvertently harming historic buildings under the guise of restoration work.
“They have a desire for the new that replicates the old. They tear down the old to replace it with the new, but they don’t base it on the old form and devastate the historical nature,” he told Inside Turkey.
Kaplanoğlu previously helped design an action plan to preserve Bursa’s Grand Bazaar, home to many historic buildings. However, he said, only some of his recommendations were adopted.
“Long term projects concern the beautification of the inns district, the destruction of concrete constructs in the area and the enforcement of the Grand Bazaar. However, the latter is also subject to gradual renewal, which concerns me. Every good deed carried out by the municipality is received with suspicion that it’s motivated by profit,” he said.
According to Kaplanoğlu, the plans for Koza and Balibey Inns were two examples where a desire to increase the sites’ commercial potential had overridden other concerns. Balibey Inn, he said, was one of the worst examples of restoration work in Bursa, with the Ottoman structure undergoing dramatic transformation.
“Some say it looks similar but it doesn’t look like an Ottoman inn. It was reformed but the restoration was highly erroneous. They literally handed the inn over to smells [from the restaurant],” he said. Kaplanoğlu said that he had not been consulted during the restoration works, and questioned whether any other historical experts had either.
Kaplanoğlu said that Turkey’s Preservation Board, which monitors historic monuments and gives approval for restoration work, is supposed to be composed of independent experts. “That’s no longer the case,” he said. “The board just enforces whatever the government wants.”
Inside Turkey asked for a comment from the Preservation Board but there was no response.
Selçuk Türkoğlu, chair of the Bursa branch of the opposition Good Party (İYİ), was one of the first politicians to voice criticism of the planned restoration of Koza Inn.
“A historical inn was practically turned into a construction site under the guise of restoration, with the ground dug up extensively without proper regulation. A site visited by thousands of domestic and foreign tourists, the gift shops, silk vendors and businesses were all rendered inaccessible due to the construction,” Türkoğlu told Inside Turkey.
At the end of December 2020, Bursa’s mayor, Alinur Aktaş, responded to criticism by saying that the existing stonework would be preserved, and that the restoration plans were in line with the Preservation Board’s guidance. Türkoğlu described this as “misleading”, however, claiming that the municipality only changed its plans after public protest.
More than 100 politicians made statements in support of the protests against the work at Koza Inn. The main opposition party, the Republic People’s Party (CHP), drew public attention to the issue by holding press conferences and ‘inspections’ of the Inn.
“The municipality makes these mistakes and corrects them after receiving pressure from the public. They never mention the costs or apologise. This is a condescending attitude that has no respect for the history or nature of Bursa,” Türkoğlu said.
Bursa’s municipality did not respond to a request for comment. However, in December 2020 Aktas promised that the cobblestones at Koza Inn would be reinstalled. He said that the plans aimed to remove a more recent concrete floor from the inn and replace it with natural basalt and other stones.
“It’s not fair to say so early on that we’re destroying Koza Inn,” the mayor said. “What we’re removing is pressed concrete, which has no authentic value culturally. Not a single person could prove the removal of ancient stones. The protection board will decide on which of these projects can be carried out, so nobody should worry.”