In Gaziantep

Harriet Rix

One of the most striking images of the earthquakes has been the destruction of the castle in Gaziantep, the huge stone blocks tumbling down the dirty snow slopes of the citadel onto the paved street which surrounds it. It is not a tragic image, as so many are, but it suggests how momentous such events as this are in human history. The citadel is ancient: first inhabited by the Hittites four thousand years ago, it was used by the Persians, Greeks and Romans, and the castle built on top has survived countless power struggles. It was restored by Justinian in the sixth century, almost completely rebuilt by the Seljuks in 1070, and was being restored again when I lived in Gaziantep in 2016. I have a bleak snapshot of it in the snow that year, with blue plastic and mud around the excavations, and a sheepskin hanging off a breeze block on a half-built wall. Now much of it has fallen down.

When I saw the photo of the ruined castle in the snow I thought of the polystyrene figures of soldiers that had been on display in a tunnel in the castle walls. The exhibit told the story of the castle’s role during the Franco-Turkish War in 1920-21. After independence Antep was renamed Gaziantep, ‘Veteran Antep’; Maraş, seventy kilometres to the north-east, became Kahramanmaraş, ‘Heroic Maras’. The polystyrene soldiers are now presumably crushed in the rubble.

A few years ago almost half of Gaziantep’s population were refugees from Iraq and Syria. They used to say the city was like Casablanca; refugee or journalist or businessman, everyone was passing through on their way to somewhere else. It wasn’t true, of course; there are plenty of people who were born in Gaziantep and want to stay there, and plenty of others who found a home there, a place of greater safety. When I lived there, I shared the eleventh floor of a newly built high-rise with a Sunni Arab family from Mosul who ran a successful business making fake-leather car seats. I have no idea whether the building is still standing; the same few images appear and reappear on the internet, and in most of them I can’t recognise the city I lived in.

My other neighbours were Gaziantep Turks, firm believers in Kemalism, whose family had lived and worked in the city for generations, manufacturing silk, cotton and tyres, though they had more recently developed the land where their factories and pistachio orchards once stood to provide a booming city with housing stock.

Gaziantep sits in a bowl in the hills that long prevented urban sprawl. The old town of limestone buildings around the citadel and the river Sajur rose and spread a little in the 19th century, and some concrete blocks went up in the 1960s. From the 2000s, though, the city swept out across the plain in a sudden rush of development, rising higher to get above the clouds of coal smoke.

I went back to Gaziantep last May to look for plants (Iris histrio var. aintabensis, Iris aucheri and Fritillaria arsusiana), driving around İskenderun and İslahiye, up to Kahramanmaraş and Malatya, past Nemrut Dağ and across to Diyarbakır. New construction covered many of the sites where plants would once have been,and if the building regulations introduced since the earthquakes in İzmit and Düzce in 1999 have not been followed we will see the human cost.

The shopkeeper across the road from my flat once complained to me about her house. It was only two storeys, she said; she’d love to live higher up, get more sun, cleaner air, maybe a balcony. She asked me what I did, if I was married. I told her I read Ottoman history. ‘That explains the chocolate you buy,’ she said. ‘You should go into the old town instead, and eat katmer pistachio and buffalo cream pastries. There is a strong tradition of communal eating in the city: taking your chicken to the local bakery to cook it in the stove; fresh bread delivered daily to all the houses in the neighbourhood. Twitter is full of messages from bakeries that are open, offering pide and bread to people huddled out in the cold.

As the aftershocks continue and the official death toll climbs higher into the thousands, many of the survivors are camping in parks in the snow, or sleeping in cars. Some families have taken refuge in sturdier office buildings. The roads are jammed with thousands of cars, heading to friends in the countryside or other cities less badly affected, but with cracks in the walls as far away as Erbil it isn’t easy to find a place that feels secure.

For some in Gaziantep, bombed out of Syria, this is the second or third time their home has fallen down around them. The 17th-century Ottoman traveller Evliya Çelebi called Gaziantep ‘the poppy of Arabistan’. It was closely linked with Aleppo in the Ottoman period, and for some of the millions of refugees who have arrived from Syria since 2011, Gaziantep felt like an echo of home. In the old city the houses, as in old Aleppo, are based around garden-courtyards with pools, fountains, cypresses and hibiscus. They have metal doors set deep into lintels carved with flowers and birds, and on the ceilings are painted arabesques, carved wooden scenes, Armenian prayers.

The İki Şerefeli mosque, originally built in the 14th or 15th century as a Mevlevi dervish lodge, was remodelled in the 17th century by Şirvani Mehmet Effendi. The mosque’s name came from the twin balconies on the minaret; this has now collapsed, smashing half the dome as it fell. The hans, silk-road trading inns which dealt in silk, cotton or leather, consist of stone rooms around large courtyards. The 18th-century Saint Bedros church is now a cultural centre. Surely these strong stone structures, made of havara limestoneand black basalt, will not have collapsed; surely the kabaltı passages, the covered stone streets of the old town, will not have fallen down? But if they have, will they be restored? And which traces of the past will be left to crumble?


  • 10 February 2023 at 10:34am
    Robin Gutch says:
    I found this intimate and detailed miniature portrait very poignant and moving. Thank you for writing it.

  • 10 February 2023 at 9:30pm
    Gardiner Linda says:
    I was in southeastern Turkey in September, visiting Gaziantep, Adana, Adiyama, Sanliurfa, and the sites at Nemrut Dag, Gobeklitepe and Karahantepe. One of the highlights was the mosaic museum in Gaziantep, opened in 2011, which contains mosaics from the nearby ancient town of Zeugma, rescued just before the entire site was drowned by the Birecik dam on the Euphrates. The mosaics survived primarily because the town was destroyed by an earthquake in the mid-3rd century AD, and then abandoned; they were buried in the rubble, which protected them. Apart from the part-collapse of the castle in Gaziantep, I've seen no news of the survival (or not) of the ancient sites or museums. The living matter more than the dead, but like Harriet Rix I'm hoping that the old low-rise, stone-built structures have survived, along with the excellent new museums in Adana, Gaziantepe and Sanliurfa.