In the early hours of November 23, 2022, we, ANAMED fellows, woke up at the shaking of an earthquake. Not long after that, the first message vibrated my mobile phone. More and more messages would follow, as we immediately rushed to check on each other and calm down the ones most upset by this violent, uncontrollable shaking of the earth. The earthquake that had given us such an unpleasant early morning had a magnitude of 6.0 according to the Observatory of Boğaziçi University; its epicentre was in the Düzce Gölyaka area, some 200 km away from Istanbul, and its depth was estimated at 10.6 km from the surface. A total of 93 people were injured, and two died under conditions related to the earthquake: one of a fear-induced heart attack and the other while trying to climb down a staircase to exit the building where the earthquake had found him. The severity of this shake was such that a special page is dedicated to it in Vikipedi, the Turkish-language version of Wikipedia (https://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/2022_D%C3%BCzce_depremi).
Back then, none of us could have imagined that a much worse sequence of earthquakes would hit the southern provinces of Turkey and northern Syria just a couple of months later in the early hours of February 6, 2023. This time, it was Laura, a friend from Greece, who texted me to see if everything was OK, alerted by reports on the news. The Turkey-Syria earthquake, as it would come to be known, had a magnitude of 7.8 and caused a hecatomb of victims—men, women, and children sleeping peacefully in their houses. It will be long before affected local societies are able to mend their wounds. Even for those of us who did not wake up in fear of that distant tremble, it is still hard to cope with the shock caused by footage from the ground and the news conveying the number of dead. This earthquake, too, found its way to Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2023_Turkey%E2%80%93Syria_earthquake).
I take it as a “normal” human reaction that both earthquakes were documented in this online encyclopaedia of human experience and knowledge. Earthquakes can be so destructive that they leave an indelible mark not only on people who experience them directly but even on future generations. The historical record attests to this, as in the case of an Ottoman Greek, Anastassia Andreadake, from the village of Lithri (present-day Ildır), not that far from Smyrna/Izmir (Folder on Lithri, Oral Tradition Archive, Centre for Asia Minor Studies, p. 156–57). Interviewed as late as 1961 in Greece, where she resettled after the Exchange of Populations, she recollected not her own memories of an 1882 earthquake that had hit her native village but the memories of older people who—unlike her—experienced the shaking first-hand. Such was the impression that their memories of the quake made on her that her own turbulent and traumatic life as a refugee did not make their words fade away. Anastassia started her narration as such: “I was not born in 1882 but I heard from the old ones that all houses collapsed. Our village was ruined. Many died and many more were injured.” We also learn from her that it was not long before aid came to their village. The Ottoman government in the capital sent a representative with provisions. “Dressed in gold,” he left the hard-hit villagers in awe. Here is what they said to Anastassia:
And the Turks back in our earthquakes sent us aid from Constantinople. There came a grand one. He was dressed in gold. He brought along with him timber so that we could build shacks, tents, medication and food. And he told us, “Don’t lose hope. The Sultan is committed to you. Say altogether, ‘Long live the Sultan.’” And we said, “‘Long live the Sultan.’”
Greece, too, out of solidarity with its neighbour but also with a population with which it felt strongly connected, sent men, provisions, and money:
The news of the calamity travelled to the end of the world. From Greece, there came military officers who were doctors and nurses. To tend to the people, they brought with them food, medication, bandages, tents, and they also left a lot of money when they left so that we could build our school. The money was a lot. And there was even a left over. With that we built the fountain of our village. [..] We too though gave [money] for the Greek School. It made my father happy to give some [money] to help at such moments.
Thanks to Anastassia Andreadake, we can get a closer look at responses to earthquakes in the late nineteenth-century Ottoman Empire. But aid translated in medical personnel, material, and financial provisions from the central government and abroad was not the only response to earthquakes back then. An article by Amit Bein documents how Ottoman society changed its understanding of earthquakes in the aftermath of one that hit the Marmara region hard in 1894 (“The Istanbul Earthquake of 1894 and Science in the Late Ottoman Empire,” Middle Eastern Studies, 44, no. 6 (2008): 909–24).
Beit gives the following description of this shaking of the earth so close to the capital:
The most devastating earthquake in more than a century hit the Marmara region and the Ottoman capital shortly after noon on 10 July 1894. The effects of the tremor were felt over a radius of more than 400 kilometres, with aftershocks following both on the same day and again twice in the following week. Damage was extensive throughout the capital, but particularly in the historic city, where most of the population and centres of government were concentrated. Many minarets, church towers, synagogues, government offices and private dwellings crumbled or were severely damaged. A significant portion of the Grand Bazaar collapsed. Water systems were disrupted and all but one telegraph lines, to Russia, were damaged. The Reuter’s news agency reported from the scene that ‘there is scarcely a street in the city which does not show signs of the destructive effects of the earthquake’. The Ottoman government later estimated that more than 10,000 buildings were damaged by the seismic disturbances. Official figures put the number of dead and injured in the hundreds, but contemporaries and later historians agreed that the true number was most likely in the thousands. (p. 916)
Fig 2. Damage caused by the earthquake in 1894 to the Grand Bazaar (Source: Ataturk Library, IBB, İstanbul Tarihi website: https://istanbultarihi.ist/396-a-seismic-cityscape-earthquakes-in-istanbuls-history).
The earthquake seems to have produced the same reaction across the city’s multi-ethnic population, one sanctioning greater devotion. Halide Edib (Adıvar) recollected in her memoirs how she, then a ten-year-old girl, and other members of her family felt the need to connect deeper with God. Muslims on the streets would, from time to time, groan “Allah, Allah.” Armenians were reported to group together in open-air public spaces to pray and offer sacrifices to God. Greek women were seen “barely dressed, walking down the street holding crucifixes or images of the Virgin while beseeching the heavens and crying aloud.” (p. 917)
Yet, if the streets of the Ottoman capital became scenes of devout expression linked to the irrational fear that earthquakes bring about, the Ottoman press served a different purpose. Materialist and positivist Ottoman Muslim intellectuals found in it a medium to impress a rational understanding of earthquakes among the people. Thanks to their writings, Bein argues, in the early twentieth century, hardly anyone among the educated in the Ottoman Empire would question the then-known scientific explanations of seismic activity.
In the aftermath of the Turkey-Syria earthquake, a Turkish friend of mine who came to the assistance of a friend of his who lost his wife in the rubble told me how he flirted with the idea of becoming more pious. Although a fully rational university professor, desolation made him look for metaphysical ways to deal with the tremor in his soul that that other tremor had caused. I really felt for him… I could see how looking for one you care for in the rubble in the earthquake-hit south could be such an overwhelming experience.
But if we are to follow the path of the Ottoman intellectuals discussed above, it is elsewhere that we should look for a solution. These Ottoman men paved the way for a scientific understanding of what causes an earthquake. Our duty lies more with ensuring that our built environment poses no risk to us, our families, our friends, and our colleagues. Speaking at a seminar with the pertinent title “Deprem ile Yaşamak”—which can be loosely translated as “How to Live with Earthquakes”—that was organized by the Faculty of Engineering and the Civil Engineering Club at Afyon Kocatepe University in late December 2022, Japanese engineer Yoshinori Moriwaki stressed the importance of prevention. His wisdom is summed up as follows: earthquakes don’t kill; unstable buildings do (“Deprem öldürmez çürük yapılar öldürür”) (https://haber.aku.edu.tr/2022/12/28/japon-mimar-ve-muhendis-moriwaki-deprem-ile-yasamayi-anlatti/). Let there be no need to remember this the next time a strong earthquake hits our region. Let there be no need to mourn innocent victims again. Please, build safe buildings!