Is Istanbul prepared for another earthquake?

While communities in southern Turkey try to restore cultural sites devastated a year ago, irreplaceable heritage in the country's biggest city remains at risk

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A year on from the earthquakes that struck southern Turkey and Syria, the ongoing reconstruction efforts have prompted a question: what is the value and role of the country’s rich and varied cultural heritage? What is worth saving and what is not?

According to the UN Development Programme, 3,752 of the 8,444 structures categorised as cultural heritage by the Turkish state were damaged or destroyed as a result of the earthquakes. In December, the UNDP launched a global crowd-funding campaign to help reconstruct a handful of the most famous of these, including Gaziantep Castle, an imposing Roman hilltop fort with origins dating back to the ancient Hittite Empire.

Other destroyed or damaged buildings include Gaziantep’s 17th-century Sirvani Mosque, Adiyaman’s Grand Mosque and the Habib-i Neccar Mosque in Antakya, the first to be established in Anatolia.

It may seem insensitive to fret over their fate while many in the region are still struggling to access basic amenities such as electricity, clean water and housing but their resurrection might be the key to healing these devastated communities.

That’s a view expressed by many within the disaster zone itself, where heritage reconstruction efforts are being planned not only by international organisations, the Turkish state and local municipalities, but also by grassroots campaigners.

Nowhere is the cultural destruction wrought by the earthquake more evident than in Antakya. The ancient city, founded in 300 BC by a general of Alexander the Great, was a major trading hub through Classical times and an early centre of Christianity. The province of Hatay in which it stands also has a unique history and character within Turkey.

It joined the republic following a plebiscite in 1939 and is distinctive in preserving elements of the multicultural society that once characterised much of the former Ottoman Empire. It has a large population of Alawite Arabs, as well as small Syriac Orthodox, Catholic, Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Jewish communities.

Religious buildings belonging to almost all these communities were damaged or destroyed, and large parts of the city’s picturesque old town were levelled.

It may seem insensitive to fret over buildings' fate while many in the region are still struggling, but their resurrection might be the key to healing these devastated communities

Last month, several civil society groups in the city released a statement calling for the authentic reconstruction not just of prominent monuments, but also more humble local landmarks and vernacular buildings, arguing that their preservation is necessary to draw people back and to preserve its collective cultural memory and identity.

Sule Can, an anthropologist who grew up in the city and has studied its cultural heritage, describes seeing this destruction for the first time “as the most difficult encounter of my life”.

“I felt physically broken,” she said. “I felt like I was in pieces just like the buildings … like my whole world had collapsed – our world, our past, our childhoods – everything along with those buildings and those people who died …

“It’s not only about losing certain cultural heritage sites. We are talking about all our memories and shared identities being destroyed by losing whole streets, cafes, social gathering places. You’re losing a sense of place.”

Buse Ceren Gul, an architect from Antakya who is involved in community-rebuilding efforts, is currently drawing up and fundraising to restore 27 buildings in the city’s historic core.

“It’s not just about historical memory, it’s about life,” she says. “These are not just residential buildings, but they are also shops, restaurants, religious buildings, cafes. It’s the heart of Antakya, and when you go anywhere you pass through that way. If we restore that area, people can go through it and find their memories from their past life.”

She hopes the project will serve as an example of how to balance faithful restoration with effective earthquake-proofing.

It’s an issue that resonates across Turkey, because the country is haunted by another disaster: the inevitable earthquake that geologists predict will strike Istanbul in the near future. “I am scared to think what will happen when Istanbul is hit,” Ms Gul says.

In theory, Turkey been preparing for that since 1999 when an earthquake struck Izmit, roughly 100 kilometres from the city. It claimed about 18,000 lives, although the devastation caused by last year’s earthquake has cast doubt on the effectiveness of those efforts.

Since 1999, measures to safeguard Istanbul’s major monuments have been stepped up, says Zeynep Ahunbay, an architectural historian who has directed restoration work on many of its most famous landmarks.

Some of these have talismanic significance for Istanbul – and Turkey’s – identity, not least the Hagia Sophia, the basilica built by the Roman Emperor Justinian, which served as the chief cathedral of Orthodox Christianity for a millennium before Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II converted it to a mosque on his conquest of the city in 1453.

It has suffered damage many times in the past: in 558 AD, about 30 years after its construction, when its dome collapsed due to flawed design; as a result of fire in 859, and earthquakes in 869, 989 and 1354.

In November, the Birgun newspaper published CCTV footage that seemed to show plaster or masonry falling onto worshippers from the dome of the great edifice, which was re-converted into a mosque in 2020 after serving as a museum for most of the 20th century.

According to Ms Ahunbay, who has led restoration projects on the Hagia Sophia in the past, the building has been the subject of constant survey, analysis and repair work since the 1980s. However, the effectiveness of this oversight will only become clear after the next disaster strikes.

For visitors, part of the wonder of the building is its combination of extreme antiquity and apparent fragility: from the inside its vast dome, like a soap bubble of masonry, seems to be sustained by the air itself.

Its survival over its long lifetime in a city plagued by earthquakes reflects its continuing centrality to the spiritual life of Istanbul.

What is striking in Antakya, however, is that those fighting to rebuild many shattered houses of worship come from outside the now-miniscule non-Muslim communities that worship in them.

Among them is Ms Gul, who surveyed the city’s Greek Orthodox church only two years before its collapse in the earthquake and is now working with the World Monuments Fund to renovate it and four other churches around Hatay.

Last Christmas, she strung up lights on the cypress that still stands amid its tumbled masonry so that the city’s Orthodox congregation could hold a service there. For both her and Ms Can, the anthropologist, the city’s precious diversity is a key part of its identity.

“We are the same as that tree,” she says. “Outside everything is damaged, but it didn’t die. In Antakya we are in a really bad situation, but we are still trying to continue. A lot of people want to die, actually … I thought that if I did something to bring that community [together] and they can believe that that building can come back again, that our Antakya will come back. Then we will be stronger.”

Published: February 02, 2024, 6:00 PM