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The devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria
And how you can help support relief efforts in the region
Six whales were found dead on the north shores of Cyprus last Thursday, one of the ominous signals of the absolute devastation following the earthquake in Turkey and Syria last week.
The destruction in Turkey and Syria following the earthquake is truly hard to fathom. The 7.8 magnitude quake, followed by a 7.5 magnitude aftershock, was centered in Gaziantep, a city in the Turkish province of Hatay. The consequences have been devastating, toppling many high-rise buildings in Hatay and northwestern Syria. More than 36,000 have lost their lives, though the complete toll is expected to be much higher.
The disaster has added consequence for the two nations, both dealing with ongoing crises of other dimensions. For the past couple of years, Turkish citizens have been suffering from runaway inflation (lately, a rate of 58%). As for Syria, the country has been in a state of civil war for more than a decade.
In this newsletter and in my other work, I write a lot about the history of the Mediterranean and the Near East, and in the aftermath of this tragedy, I thought it would be worthwhile to briefly discuss the earthquake history and culture of Hatay Province. I have included photos that show what Gaziantep looked like in the years before the quake, to help demonstrate what has been lost (and to provide an antidote to the images of destruction circulating the web).
In this post, I will also suggest the names of several NGOs operating in the region to provide disaster relief. The suffering as a result of this disaster is truly heartbreaking, but we can all lend our sympathy and assistance, even from a distance. Please consider donating to the relief efforts, as even small amounts will go a long way toward helping out those in need.
A seismically active region
Earthquakes have long been a calamity besetting this part of the world, where African plate, Anatolian plate, and Arabian plate meet and rub against each other along the East Anatolian fault. In antiquity, there are many stories of ancient cities in Greece and Anatolia that were leveled by earthquakes, and some never recovered. Such dramatic examples include the Hellenic and Roman city of Smyrna (modern-day İzmir) on the west coast of Anatolia, which experienced extreme damage nearly two thousand years ago by earthquakes, and was rebuilt by Emperor Marcus Aurelius (178 C.E.).
In 1999, a 7.6 magnitude quake struck the Istanbul region (near the North Anatolian fault), leading to massive destruction and loss of life, provoking a modernization of the country’s tectonic construction codes. These codes, however, are not always implemented in practice, contributing to the contemporary disaster.
Gaziantep, culinary capital of Turkey
Gaziantep is part of Hatay Province, a region in the corner of Anatolia and the Levant where cities such as Antioch (Antakya) and Alexandretta (İskenderun) formed important centers of the ancient world. In medieval times they changed hands between the Byzantines, Islamic empires, crusader kingdoms, until eventually being incorporated under Ottoman rule. In 1918, with the Ottoman Empire’s collapse, Hatay Province was briefly part of the French colonial Mandate of Syria before being re-annexed by the modern Republic of Turkey in 1939.
Today, Gaziantep is renowned for its food, and it even has the label of a “UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy.” Gaziantep is the capital of baklava. If avocados are associated with California, then pistachios are the avocado of Gaziantep, forming the cornerstone of many dishes, including baklava.
According to the Gaziantep tourism site, beyran soup, a labor-intensive soup cooked with lamb’s neck, originated from Gaziantep. Licorice sherbet is another local favorite. Overall, Gaziantep is known for 500 dishes; 35 are specifically registered as hailing from the city.
In Cyprus, I encountered Turkish bakeshops bragging that their baklava and pastries were made in the Gaziantep style.
An historical cataclysm
This earthquake was so powerful that many ancient structures that had survived centuries of wear and tear collapsed. These included the castle of Gaziantep, dating back to the 6th century (but whose site had been used by the Hittites in the Bronze Age). As many outlets have reported, the castle was partially destroyed. This example demonstrates how the magnitude of this earthquake in this region was truly a catastrophic event, even when going back to the limits of recorded history.
The disaster has had a large impact on neighboring communities as well, including a heartrending tragedy for Cyprus. In Gaziantep, a Turkish Cypriot children’s volleyball team was staying in the Isais Hotel for a tournament in the city when the tremors began. The hotel collapsed, and the 35 members of the team, including their coaches and parent chaperones, did not survive. Vigils have been held across the island in their memory.
How to help
There are many places to donate to organization that are providing relief on the ground, whether that is rescuing people from rubble or providing assistance to the survivors.
I chose to donate to the Turkish Philanthropy Funds, a tax-deductible American community fund that in turn allocates its resources to Turkish NGOs like AKUT Foundation (rescue teams and humanitarian aid) and the AHBAP Foundation (humanitarian aid to survivors). You can also donate directly to AKUT or AHBAP. In Turkey, you can also donate directly to AFAD, the state disaster relief organization, with the caveat that they currently only accept donations by money transfer.
I also chose to donate to the White Helmets, a volunteer group in Syria (Syria Civil Defence) that has been rescuing people from collapsed buildings in the country since 2014. Their efforts in the Syrian Civil War were memorialized in a 2016 short documentary film available on Netflix which won the Oscar for Best Documentary (Short Subject).
For Syrian assistance, you can also support the Karam Foundation, an established charity which assists Syrian refugees and people recovering from the earthquake, and 100% of your donations go to Syrians in need.
A group of American Fulbright English teachers in Turkey have started a crowdfunding page for funds which they will in turn donate to the White Helmets, AHBAP, and the Karam Foundation. I admire their efforts.
Other international NGOs with earthquake donation funds include the Red Crescent (the equivalent of the Red Cross), Doctors without Borders, the International Rescue Organization (IRC), the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), Oxfam International, and many more.
If you are able, please consider donating to one or more causes. We all can help.