The devastating earthquakes that hit Turkey and Syria last week brought death to more than 40,000 people – a number that continues to rise – and homelessness to at least a million. Rescue and recovery efforts, while hampered by weather and logistical issues, have been ongoing. The United States, European Union, Red Cross, and numerous other countries and organizations have sent aid, rescue teams, food, shelter, and other forms of assistance to the region.
The earthquakes also caused severe damage and destruction to roads, buildings, and important historical sites. Among those sites was a nearly 2,000-year-old Roman-era fortress called the Gaziantep Castle, regarded as “one of the most beautiful examples of surviving castles in Turkey.”
The 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck last Monday could be felt as far as Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. The quake’s epicenter was in the southern part of the country, in the Gaziantep province, about 75 miles north of Aleppo, Syria. Nine hours later, another massive quake registering a magnitude of 7.5 struck about 60 miles north of the first. As the name suggests, the Gaziantep province – the epicenter – is home to the Gaziantep Castle.
As one of the deadliest natural disasters this century, the earthquake caused severe damage and partial destruction to the Gaziantep Castle. Sections of the ancient castle’s iron railings and stone walls have collapsed, and large cracks have been observed in some bastions, according to a report by the state-run Anadolu Agency. The retaining wall has also collapsed. Much of the damage, which came from the south, southeast, and eastern parts of the castle, caused debris to be scattered on the sidewalks and streets below the hilltop the castle is perched on. Before and after pictures paint a dark picture of the state of the historic site.
While there is no definitive account of when Gaziantep Castle was built, it was likely constructed during the second and third centuries to be used as a Roman watchtower.. Though the mound the castle is built on dates to the Chalcolithic period — also called the copper age — about 6,000 years ago, according to the Gaziantep website. The site has also been traced back to the ancient Hittite Empire, where it was likely used as an observation point.
It was Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-565 A.D.) who greatly expanded the castle in the sixth century A.D., though many repairs and overhauls have occurred since. During Justinian’s fortification, the structure took much of its current form of an irregular circular shape with towers and a surrounding moat. While today there are 12 towers, at one point there may have been up to 36, according to Ottoman explorer Evliya Çelebi’s travel book. Turkey’s General Directorate for Cultural Assets and Museums says the castle’s perimeter is nearly 4,000 feet and has a diameter of about 330 feet.
While the recent earthquakes caused great damage and destruction to the ancient castle, it had largely remained intact throughout the last 2,000 years, even in the face of conquest and battle, changing hands from empire to empire and dynasty to dynasty.
After the Roman Empire split, the Byzantines took control of Gaziantep. The reign of Justinian, who was emperor during the first major revitalization of the castle, brought great territorial expansion to the Byzantine empire, and his goal was to return the empire to its ancient glory. Justinian was known for his prowess in architectural production, waging a campaign to remake the ancient capital Byzantium, according to The Met Museum.
Being under the Christian control of the Byzantine empire, the castle then passed to the Islamic hands of the Umayyad dynasty in 661 A.D. After remaining in Islamic hands for the next 300 years, the Byzantines retook Gaziantep in 962. Just over 100 years later, the Seljuk Empire took control of the city.
Following the Seljuk conquest, the city changed hands multiple times in a period of great uncertainty. Christian Crusaders captured the castle in 1098, and it became part of the Crusader state County of Edessa. After the Crusaders, the city went to numerous groups before 1181, when the Ayyubid dynasty took control. During the time of the Ayybuids in the 13th century, Malmuks, Dulkadir Principality, and the Ottoman period the castle largely came to resemble what was seen prior to the quakes, according to the Turkish General Directorate for Cultural Assets and Museums.
Control of Gaziantep flipped frequently between the Ilkhanate, part of the Mongol Empire, and the Mamluks leading up to the capture by the Ottoman Empire. The castle lost much of its military significance when the Ottoman Empire took it in 1516.
In recent years, the castle housed the Gaziantep Defense and Heroism Panoramic Museum, a popular tourist attraction. The site was included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites tentative list.
Beginning in 2020, archeologists with the Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality Protection and Implementation Inspection Office began studying over half a mile of underground tunnels and caves to find the source of “fresh-brackish water” that had previously been an urban legend. Two years later, they found the tunnel exits. Additionally, crosses believed to be from the Romans were found throughout the tunnels, Daily Sabah notes. These new discoveries were set to be exhibited to the public sometime near the end of 2022.
While the total cost of these earthquakes is still unclear, a report from the nongovernmental Turkish Enterprise and Business Confederation estimates that quakes cost the Turkish economy $84.1 billion. And with Turkey and Syria being well-known for their ancient history, it’s clear that Gaziantep’s iconic castle was not the only major historical site damaged or destroyed. A UNESCO survey notes the organization is “particularly concerned” for Aleppo, Syria, which was already on the World Heritage in Danger list due to the ongoing Syrian civil war. The citadel in Aleppo has sustained significant damage, according to the organization.
UNESCO also mentions the “collapses of several buildings” at the Diyarbakır Fortress and Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape in Turkey, a fortified city and place of importance during various times in history, including the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods.
At least 1,700 buildings in ten cities in Turkey sustained damage, according to Turkish Vice President Fuat Oktay. But even with the death toll surpassing 40,000 and severe destruction felt in the region, there are still hopeful stories being reported of rescue – over a week since the disaster.