The story behind Turkey’s expensive and fairytale ghost town

Halfway between Istanbul and Ankara, in one of the most historic and beautiful regions of northwestern Turkey, lies a deep valley covered with dense pine forests and endowed with thermal springs. And in that valley is something that looks straight out of a Disney movie: rows of identical, castle-like, turreted castles. When the occasional morning mist envelops the blue towers, it’s a dream scene, but when you look a little closer, something seems off. The roads between them are unfinished. Construction debris litter the ground. And there is not a soul in sight. It is a fairytale ghost town, an ambitious and luxurious development project that has fallen victim to mismanagement and global financial currents.

Burj Al Babas, as the place is known, is located a few kilometers from the historic town of Mudurnu, once at the crossroads of the Silk Road and the Crimean Road. Over the years, it lost its position as a trade hub, became the center of Turkey’s poultry industry, and recently turned to tourism to boost the local economy, in part through the efforts of the Management Directorate of the Mudurnu Cultural Heritage Site. The Turkish authorities have even proposed to make the city a UNESCO World Heritage Site, including its characteristic Ottoman mansions in black and white.

The historic Ottoman center of Mudurnu (not shown: turrets). Suat Eracar / Alamy

By the early 2000s, Mudurnu and its thermal springs had, as one would expect, attracted the attention of real estate developers and investors, including the Sarot Properties Group, which had already built two thermal hotels in the area. . Sarot has gone big with his next idea: Burj Al Babas, a collection of luxurious vacation homes aimed at wealthy Arab clients. There would be an opulent Turkish bath, a shopping and entertainment center, and more.

Immediately, the development drew fierce opposition from several groups of Mudurnu residents. Although some people saw the development as a source of jobs that could boost the local economy, many regretted its almost complete disregard for the region’s existing cultural heritage and the impact it could have on local infrastructure. . “They planned something that they thought would appeal to their potential clients, regardless of the cultural conflict with the history of Mudurnu,” ​​says Ayse Ege Yildirim, city planner specializing in heritage conservation and consultant to management, “It is not. It does not matter that this monster is not in Mudurnu’s direct line of sight as there is a hill covered with woods in between.

Despite opposition, Sarot’s plan got off the ground in 2014, with some $ 200 million spent on the construction of 587 of the planned 732 villas. But when financial catastrophe struck in 2018, as the housing market and the global economy deteriorated and the Turkish lira lost value, Sarot declared bankruptcy. Stop of work on the ground. Although many villas are finished – or at least seemingly from the outside – none of the other infrastructure has been completed.

Global economic trends have interrupted work.
Global economic trends have interrupted work. Chris McGrath / Getty Images

Now it looks like Burj Al Babas has turned into a different kind of tourist attraction, a curious stop for those who come to see historic Mudurnu and the idyllic Suluklu Lake nearby. But the story doesn’t end with an expensive ghost town. In 2020, Sarot emerged from bankruptcy confident that he could sell enough villas – 100, according to their estimate, to pay off their debt and continue development. More recently, the entire project was acquired by NOVA Group Holdings, an American multinational. Mujat Guler, CEO of NOVA Turkey, said: “Yes, we have acquired this project and some others from Sarot. We will continue as planned and, like Sarot, we are actively looking to the Gulf countries for future clients.

Yildirm believes that there are a few possible scenarios for what could happen next. Burj Al Babas could, according to NOVA’s plan, remain a ghost town and a weird and expensive tourist attraction for that reason alone. Alternatively, NOVA could decide to go ahead and complete all parts of the massive development. And finally, she wonders if she could proceed with what he calls a ‘rehabilitated design’, with surplus units demolished and architectural changes made to mitigate the ‘kitsch effect’. It is still unclear whether the project can be saved or if it should be.

The development was designed to attract wealthy vacationers from across the region.
The development was designed to attract wealthy vacationers from across the region. ADEM ALTAN / AFP via Getty Images
The owners now say that the sale of 100 of the more than 700 villas will be enough to get the project started.
The owners now say that the sale of 100 of the more than 700 villas will be enough to get the project started. Chris McGrath / Getty Images
Most of the villas are at a previous state of construction.
Most of the villas are at a previous state of construction. Chris McGrath / Getty Images
A local heritage expert recommends modifying the plan to make it less dense and less kitsch.
A local heritage expert recommends modifying the plan to make it less dense and less kitsch. Chris McGrath / Getty Images

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