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Eyüp Sultan: Here lies the neglected cemetery

ISTANBUL - Most cemeteries in Istanbul are scattered around the city having witnessed the many civilizations the city has hosted. Yet the cemeteries lack attention and protection. Drunks and beggars most of the time bother visitors. Eyüp Sultan cemetery, dating back to the Ottoman Empire, is one of those in need of attention.

by Aslı Sağlam
Cemeteries are symbols of civilizations. Istanbul, which has been home to many established and collapsed empires, has hundreds of cemeteries. Most of them are located in beautiful spots around the city, yet others disappear in the dust clouds of development.

While the cemeteries in Western countries are green and well maintained, in Istanbul they are screaming for attention. The scattered cemetery in Eyüp Sultan district, dating back to the Ottoman Empire, is one of the cemeteries in Istanbul in need of attention.

A group of people, including writers, researchers and imams, has started a campaign for the cemeteries in Eyüp Sultan. Nidayi Sevim, a researcher of historic cemeteries and a part of the group, said, "The gravestones should be considered as statues. The cemeteries look like a national park in foreign cities. They make the green fields and open area for public. But in Istanbul we can't protect and maintain them."

"Normally each year the state gives 7 million Turkish Liras for the protection and maintenance of cemeteries. The budget was raised to 40 million liras two years ago, yet we still can’t see any noticeable action," said Sevim.

After the activists saw the situation in Eyüp Sultan, they decided to raise awareness of the issue and try to stop the mishandling of the historic sites. They called on non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, to take action. They have visited municipalities and ministers but could not figure out who is responsible of the dilapidation. "When no one takes responsibility things get more complicated. The only person I couldn’t contact was the prime minister," Sevim said.

Names on gravestones
The gravestones have important names on them from Ottoman Turkish times, but are slowly disappearing. One of the leaders of the group Deniz Aslan said, "We believe there is something everyone can do."

After taking many steps, they launched Web sites and published articles, photos and published a book called "Silent Art of Our Civilization." After expanding the topics they researched, they decided to establish an institution.

Noting that the cemeteries are managed mostly by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality’s Department of Cemeteries, Sevim said, "I think there is not only one establishment responsible for the cemeteries. Eyüp Municipality and Tourism and Culture Ministry should also be in charge of the Eyüp Sultan cemetery because it has historic value."

The Director of Cemeteries Adem Avcı spoke contrary to Sevim's words. He said the Department of Cemeteries is not in charge of the Eyüp Sultan cemetery. Accepting that the cemetery is in bad condition and needs work, Avcı said, "It is the General Directorate of Foundations’ responsibility to maintain the Eyüp Sultan Cemetery, but if they did come up with a commission decision offering for the Department of Cemeteries to take care of the cemetery, we would accept it."

Upside down gravestone
Sevim saw a man putting up the laying gravestone just to help. "But it was upside down because he can’t read Ottoman Turkish."

Nidai Selim, a chaplain, a member of the group and also editor for one of the Web sites the group has established, said some people visit the cemetery from time to time. Although there are security men, drunk people still go into the cemetery and pee or sometimes beggars disturb people.

He said their aim is to spurn the municipality. "The municipality does not want to take a step for nonprofit business. They don’t give priority to the protection of the cemeteries, yet there has to be topics in their agenda other than politics."

"Renovating and cleaning the cemeteries is not a hard job and in some ways it is the duty of each citizen to protect them. Awareness of this should be raised," said Selim. The buried bodies belong to important historical names of grand viziers, executioners and members of religious orders.

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