The construction of tourist facilities on two beaches that were part of the ancient city of Phaselis – a tentative nominee for Unesco world heritage status – has caused outrage at what is claimed to be the latest example of the Turkish culture ministry sacrificing heritage for tourism.
The Alacasu and Bostanlık beaches, on Turkey’s southern Mediterranean coast in the province of Antalya, were part of Phaselis, a Greek and Roman settlement thought to be the birthplace of Plato’s student Theodectes. Despite having ruins dating back to the second century BC, the beaches have never been subject to an archaeological dig.
In January, however, state surveyors declared the beaches to be of no substantial value. The ministry for culture and tourism then approved the construction of more than £1m of visitor amenities such as toilets, cafes and changing rooms with a view to turning the area into a holiday hotspot.
As sky-high inflation and a plummeting currency exacerbate an economic crisis, Turkey sees tourism as a lifeline. The industry made up about 10% of GDP before the Covid pandemic, and advertising campaigns have been launched with the aim of attracting 90 million visitors by 2028.
Critics note that the infrastructure required to host so many people frequently comes at the expense of the cultural heritage that attracts tourists in the first place.
At Alacasu and Bostanlık, a report compiled by the Antalya branch of the Turkish Association of Archaeologists (TAA) identified “the potential to offer up significant archaeological information”. Surface studies have already revealed the remains of amphoras and steles (jugs and commemorative slabs), as well as architectural structures, at Bostanlık. An ancient road at Alacasu shows evidence of having been used by forces under the command of Alexander the Great.
The culture ministry spent just 60,000 Turkish lira (£1,700) on archaeological research in the area in 2022, compared with more than 50m lira on construction.
According to a local activist group, concrete and heavy machinery have already harmed artefacts including coins, seals and ceramic fragments, and disrupted the chronological layers below ground. The Don’t Touch Phaselis campaign (Phaselis’e Dokunma Hareketi), set up by local people and supported by organisations including the TAA and World Wildlife Fund Turkey, took legal action and in June succeeded in temporarily halting construction.
“If we cannot stop this development of a first-degree archaeological conservation area, then the future of our country’s cultural assets is bleak,” said Erdal Elginöz, a spokesperson. The group believes that if the court rules in the ministry’s favour, other projects in protected areas elsewhere in Turkey could follow.
“Phaselis is so valuable it deserves to be listed as a Unesco world heritage site,” said Dr Sevgi Temiz, the president of the TAA Antalya branch. “If the court rules in favour of this plan, it will set a precedent. It will pave the way for public beaches to be created within any ancient city situated on the shoreline.”
It is not just cultural heritage at risk. Bostanlık cove is a breeding ground for sea turtles, and is classed as a protected area during their nesting season.
Turkey is a signatory to the Barcelona Convention, an international agreement to protect the environmental and cultural assets of the Mediterranean Sea. “Legally, the area is highly protected,” Elginöz said. “If permission is given to continue the development, then any internationally protected space could be built on. None of Turkey’s cultural heritage sites would be safe.”
Last year, the culture ministry authorised a new road to be built through the Unesco world heritage site of Cappadocia without receiving permission from Unesco itself. Activists say the road harmed many of the region’s unique “fairy chimney” structures, as well as early Christian chapels and monasteries, and that vibration and exhaust fumes from cars and heavy vehicles are further eroding the fragile structures. Unesco has said it is investigating the situation.
The Chamber of Architects of Turkey (CAT) lost a legal case in the capital, Ankara, to close the road after the state surveyor declared it had caused no harm. The CAT argued that ground-penetrating radar should have been used to measure the extent of the damage, and described the survey as “unscientific”. It is appealing against the decision.
“If the government damages cultural and historical aspects of Cappadocia, it will form a foundation for other developments,” said Tezcan Karakuş Candan, the president of the Ankara architects’ chamber. “Unfortunately, Turkey’s natural and cultural heritage is being destroyed for financial gain and will be lost for future generations.”
In 2020, the 12,000-year-old city of Hasankeyf in Batman, south-east Turkey, was completely flooded to make way for the Ilisu dam and hydroelectric power plant. In Aspat, on the country’s south-western coast, court cases have been swirling since 2021 around the construction of tourist accommodation and a marina on the site of a seventh-century Byzantine settlement.
“Turkey is home to some of the most important ancient civilisations in the world,” said the TAA’s Temiz. “We all have a responsibility to protect that history.”
Source : VOANews