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Turkish Government Moves to Restore Ottoman Monuments in Macedonia

December 2, 2005

By Christopher Deliso

An ambitious 7-point plan agreed with the Macedonian Ministry of Culture foresees the restoration, and in some cases complete reconstruction, of some of the most important Ottoman monuments in the Balkans, as well as projects to benefit today’s living Turkish culture in Macedonia.

While the Turkish legacy in Macedonia goes back more than 500 years, when the descendents of the House of Osman began their aggressive expansion into Europe, the physical testaments to Ottoman culture have been relatively ignored. Crumbling, grass-enshrouded ruins linger on in villages and cities alike.

And when they have been restored, as with the unfortunate renovation of Skopje’s Stone Bridge, the results have been disastrous. Further challenges have come more recently from two outside forces. Albanian chauvinism for political purposes has been used to “correct’ history (as well as census figures), while Saudi religious expansionism has seen the widespread construction of modern and very un-Ottoman mosques across the Balkans. Macedonia has not been spared either.

However, the main problem, most agree, is a lack of funds and willpower. Until recently, these impediments may have seemed insurmountable, at least insofar as the Turkish legacy is concerned. However, long discussed but delayed plans for renovating Ottoman monuments were agreed upon during October meetings in Skopje between Turkish Minister of Culture and Tourism Atilla Koc and his Macedonian counterpart, Blagoja Stefanovski. The two ministers signed a 7-point protocol for selected restoration projects. Now the Turkish government, which will fund the work, is waiting for action from the Macedonian side, which must come up with the project proposals.

The first item of importance for the former is the construction of a Turkish Cultural Center. According to Hidayet Bayraktar, a consular officer at the Turkish Embassy in Skopje, the center will be housed “preferably one of the Ottoman-era buildings, perhaps the large yellow villa close to us that used to be the regional office for the Uskub (Skopje) area.”

Such a center is vital for preserving the Turkish living legacy in Macedonia and can only be a positive contribution to Skopje’s cultural life. Other countries, most notably France, have established cultural centers in Skopje and hopefully more will do so in the future.

The yellow building mentioned, well known to all who have visited the upper reaches of Skopje’s old town, lends a welcome splash of color to its surroundings. Nearby it is the second project on the list: the renovation of the 15th century Mustafa Pasa Mosque, a majestic example of Ottoman architecture and one of Skopje’s premier landmarks.

According to Mr. Bayraktar, “the project has been accepted and only minor details remain.” For the refurbishments — mostly touch-ups here and there in a mosque that is in generally good working shape — the Turkish government is donating $100,000, while another $200,000 will come from al-Waqf, an Islamic group in Turkey. Since the Mustafa Pasa, built in 1492, is a “top priority” for the Turks, restoration work will start as soon as possible.

According to a representative of the Macedonian Ministry of Culture, the contract has been made and an expert team assigned, and “now we are making preparations for the start of conservation work, once we get the approval of the Republic of Turkey.”

A third project involves the Kursümli Han, a 16th-century former caravanserai thatonce provided lodging for Ottoman merchants and storage for their goods. It was probably named for its leaden roof (removed during the First World War). Today, it is part of the Archaeological Museum of Macedonia. According to the Ministry of Culture, renovations to be undertaken here include “the reconstruction of the fountain, roof and horticultural arrangement.” Mr. Bayraktar adds that after the structure has been cleaned out and restored, they may well put in a small museum in the interesting but unexplored basement.

In addition to Turkish government money, the official adds, private Turkish donors have expressed interest in sponsoring restoration work. The Koc Company , which opened Skopje’s first modern shopping mall Ramstore, also pledged funds this summer to the project.

The work on Kursüumli Han is to be carried out by the Conservation Center of Skopje, with cooperation from the National Conservation Center. This group will also take part in restoration work on another famous landmark, the Stone Bridge (Taš Kopru, in Turkish) that spans the River Vardar in the heart of downtown Skopje. In what has to have been one of the worst renovations carried out since the Taliban went to work on the Bamiyan Buddha , workers inexplicably destroyed the bridge’s tower and Ottoman insignia, while eliminating its quaint cobblestone surface in favor of concrete. According to the Turkish Embassy’s Bayraktar, replicas of the tower and insignia that once adorned the 15th-century bridge will be created according to the existing documentation.

Recourse to the history books will be taken again with another project the Tetovo clock tower and Ter Gozlu Kopru (“One-Eyed Bridge’), both of which need total reconstruction. The clocktower once stood in front of a small park and the Saat Mosque; in the original documents, says Mr. Bayraktar, a bridge is also attested in the sources, over the small River Pena.

According to the Macedonian Ministry of Culture, significant input from the local government in Tetovo is required before these projects can be realized. This input includes detailed urban planning and project proposals. Considering the multiple levels of government involved and the scope of the works, it is likely that the Tetovo projects will not be carried out overnight.

Another Ottoman reconstruction project in one of Macedonia’s peripheral cities is the Hajibey Mosque in Bitola, which unlike Tetovo does not have a significant Muslim population. According to the Ministry of Culture, an expert team from the National Conservation Center has documented the state of the mosque complex, which also includes a medresah and mektebi. Reconstruction work here will also be conducted with assistance from the Museum of Bitola, which is already at work on several buildings within the mosque complex. Once again, the Turkish government will provide the funding.

The final project for enhancing Turkish culture in Macedonia, and probably the one dearest to the heart of Minister Stefanovski (a former theater director) is the expansion of the Turkish theater in a new location. According to Hidayet Bakraktar, the Turks in Skopje are currently sharing a theater with Albanians and other minority groups in Bit Pazar, the run-down open market on the outer edges of the city’s old quarter.

However, this arrangement (and resulting budget wranglings) has proven restrictive, and the Turks made the unusual but intriguing decision to seek accommodation for the theater on the other side of the river, adjacent to the cultural offerings of downtown Skopje.

It was recently decided that the Turkish dramatists would be given the building of a former ballet school, to be reconstructed and adapted for the purposes of a modern theater. According to the Macedonian Ministry of Culture, the bilateral cooperation on this front includes the engagement of actors from Macedonian theatres in Turkey and Turkish theatre in Macedonia.

“There are many planes for promoting Turkish theater, which enjoys great popularity in Macedonia.” The ministry also points to the collaboration with the Turkish theater of well known Macedonians directors such as Vladimir Milchin and Aleksandar Popovski.

Ottoman monuments make up a very important part of Macedonia’s rich cultural heritage,” says the Ministry of Culture. One of the government’s stated priorities for the period 2004-2008 is cultural tourism. “In all the brochures handed out at international presentations, the monuments from the Ottoman period are mentioned on an equal footing [with others].”

As Turkey moves closer to the European club, it can also take pride in stressing its contributions to European history in the Balkans. Castles, mosques and bridges are just the most well known of the tangible Ottoman legacy. However, Ottoman influences are found even in traditional houses, examples being some of the most distinctive houses in Ohrid, which bear a striking resemblance to those found in far-off central Anatolia.

Projects such as the Macedonia restoration works are not only good example of successful neighborly cooperation. They are also proof of Turkey’s European gestation, and as such represent compelling evidence against claims by EU naysayers that Turkey has no real European past. But whether or not the Turkish government decides to utilize such a strategy, it is certain that the Macedonia cultural projects will benefit everyone, from local residents to foreign tourists, and thus the country itself.

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