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Interview with Dr. Mariëtte Verhoeven on “Byzantine Architecture and Cultural Memory in Istanbul”

by samblog

Interview: Rahime Aksa Boyraz, İstanbul Şehir University, Undergraduate student in the history department.

Dr. Mariëtte Verhoeven is a researcher and lecturer at Radboud University Nijmegen. She is
also a fellow at the Netherlands Institute in Turkey (Istanbul). Her research focuses on the cultural history of Early Christian and Byzantine architecture; the transformation of architecture and architecture in cultural memory. Her main research question is how historical research can contribute to and influence discussions pertaining to the preservation and presentation of cultural heritage such as ownership, identity formation
and attitudes toward the past.

-Can you tell about your personal background, and what motivated you to study Byzantine heritage in Istanbul?

In 1986 I visited Istanbul for the first time. In that same year, I started studying art history at Radboud University, which I concluded with an MA thesis about the transformations of Hagia Sophia. I also worked as a tour guide in Turkey and got to know my Turkish husband. After a career in tourism, I returned to academia and after completing my Ph.D. research on Ravenna in 2010, in which the relationship with Constantinople was one of the research topics, I decided to focus again on the Byzantine heritage in Istanbul for my postdoctoral research.

-What are the challenges you personally face while studying in this field? Do you regard your Dutch background as an advantage or a disadvantage while studying Byzantine heritage in Istanbul?

I see my Dutch background as a disadvantage when it comes to getting access to the people who are in charge of restoration projects in Istanbul or to get information about projects going on. I see it as an advantage when it comes to my education and knowledge of Byzantine heritage. It is also a big advantage that I can make use of the research facilities and support of the Netherlands Institute in Turkey (NIT) in Istanbul.

-What has been done in Istanbul regarding the preservation of the Byzantine heritage when you consider the past years?

In Istanbul, the last years the focus seems to be more on the restoration and preservation of Ottoman heritage than on Byzantine heritage. This seems also to be the case when it concerns Byzantine churches that have been converted into mosques such as Zeyrek Camii, the former Pantocrator monastery. There was much criticism on the historical accuracy of the restoration and the fact that the Byzantine history of the building was not taken into account. Unfortunately also the recent restoration of Tekfur Saray was qualified as a “fictitious reconstruction” and an improper intervention. according to contemporary conservation principles. Kariye Museum and Fethiye Museum are currently under restoration but it is difficult to get information about the restoration plans. Also, the results and justification of completed restoration projects are not published.

-How would you evaluate the importance of digital techniques in reviving the Byzantine heritage? What advantages can be taken from digital techniques in the case of Istanbul?

The use of digital techniques in Istanbul would mean that the Byzantine heritage can be revived without the need for structural interventions. With the use of projections or apps the Byzantine history but also the Ottoman history of buildings can be made digitally visible. This way you do not have to make a decision about which history should be
preserved and for whom. Especially in the case of Istanbul, with its multi-layered history that is significant.

-You have worked regarding the Medieval religious heritage buildings in both Ravenna and Istanbul. What are the main challenges you face in the restoration processes of heritage buildings in Istanbul and in Ravenna?

Ravenna has a continuous Christian history and many of the churches dating back to the fifth and sixth centuries when Ravenna was the capital of the Western Roman Empire, have been preserved and are still in use. In Istanbul, most of the Byzantine churches have been converted into mosques after 1453. This is, on one side, why these buildings have been preserved, but on the other side, it is also the reason that most of the decoration dating back to the Christian use of the buildings did not survive. Because of its history, in Ravenna, it is easier to decide which heritage has to be preserved than in Istanbul although also in Ravenna later additions to medieval buildings have been erased during restorations.

-How do you evaluate Turkish people’s interest in the Byzantine heritage and its preservation? -In terms of the number of active restoration projects, academics; interest to the field, and people’s day-to-day encounter with the heritage in the street level-

I think that many Turkish people do not view the Byzantine heritage as “their” heritage but as a heritage that is inextricably linked to the city of Istanbul. This is especially true for famous examples such as the Hagia Sophia and the city walls. As for the lesser-known examples, I think that many people do not realize, for example, that many of the mosques used to be a Byzantine church. As far as academics are concerned, there is a great deal of expertise in the field of ​​Byzantine heritage at Boğaziçi and Koç University. It is also important to mention that in 2021 the International Congress of Byzantine Studies will take place in Istanbul.

-Is there anything you would suggest to raise some more awareness of the Byzantine heritage in Turkey? What can be done to draw non-specialists’ attention to the heritage in Turkey?

I can be short about that. What is needed is more education and information, provided by specialists in the field, about heritage in general and the importance and meaning of Byzantine heritage specifically.

= Thank you. 


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