As the humanitarian response continues into a third week after earthquakes rocked Turkey and Syria, another kind of recovery effort is circling the region’s millennia-old cultural landmarks.
This week, UNESCO is assessing the extent of damage to World Heritage sites from afar, but officials are prepared to hit the ground, the agency told The Washington Post. Castles from the Crusades era, a fortress that hosted the Romans and the Ottomans, and a citadel in one of the oldest inhabited cities on Earth are among the disaster’s rubble. When teams reach the sites, the goal will be to rebuild them for future generations in a way that honors the present and past.
UNESCO assists with the necessary renovation and reconstruction work, said Krista Pikkat, director for culture and emergencies at UNESCO, but it also attempts to rebuild what the agency calls “intangible cultural heritage.”
“We need to actually not only build back the buildings, but also bring back the communities, because without them, there is no continuation of cultural life,” she said. “This is a source of their identity. This is where their roots are, and they need to find and recognize themselves in this heritage.”
The Feb. 6 earthquakes — of magnitudes 7.8 and 7.5 — killed more than 46,600 people and displaced thousands across Turkey and Syria. More than 93,000 buildings are completely or partially destroyed.
The full extent of damage in Syria and Turkey is not understood yet. “It’s too fresh for us to have very concrete elements of information,” Pikkat said.
Right now, humanitarian aid is the priority in Turkey and Syria. In the meantime, the group is collecting whatever information it can, Pikkat said. The agency remotely monitors damage in disaster zones by pulling satellite images to assess cultural sites’ status. If local authorities give the greenlight, the agency could be on the ground in a matter of days.
Preliminary reports show that in Turkey, buildings crumpled across the city of Diyarbakır, home to the Diyarbakır Fortress and Hevsel Gardens, a World Heritage site that transcends the Roman, Sassanid, Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman periods.
Important sites not on the UNESCO list also suffered damage.
Much of the 2,000-year-old Gaziantep Castle crumbled. The structure sits atop a hill in the city of Gaziantep, and carries both Roman and Byzantine history. Local media reports also show that numerous mosques and churches of historical and cultural significance have been impacted in the cities Antakya, Gaziantep, Malatya and Adıyaman, said Oya Pancaroglu, a professor of history of Islamic art and architecture at Bogazici University.
Many sites hold meaning across religions and speak to the country’s multifaith history, Pancaroglu said, pointing to the Habib-i Neccar Mosque in Antakya, which was reduced to rubble in the quakes.
“The site of the mosque is associated with a legendary local figure believed to have lived at the time of Jesus Christ and persecuted for his conversion to the Christian faith,” said Pancaroglu. “It is thought that a mosque was built at this site in the period of the early Muslim conquests to recognize it as a site of monotheistic significance.”
There’s heightened concern for cultural sites in Syria, due to the damage wrought by the years-long civil war, as well as the earthquakes. Preservation of Aleppo will be a priority, according to UNESCO. Aleppo is considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It’s been on the World Heritage List since 1986 and on the List of World Heritage in Danger since 2013.
“The impacts of the earthquakes were very heavy there, because of the fact that already many of the buildings were in a very fragile state because of the conflict,” Pikkat said. “Once we get the possibility to go there and actually get a sense of the real situation on the ground, we will be able to better understand what needs to be done, but I anticipate that the needs will be enormous.”
The 13th-century Citadel of Aleppo saw significant damage to its walls and towers, including its Ottoman Mill tower and surrounding Ottoman-era streets and dwellings.
Areas throughout Aleppo suffered as well, according to UNESCO. Early reports showed that the city’s historic markets — Souk al-Hamediyya, Souk al-Mahmas, Souk al-Haddadin — were compromised, and parts of the Old City Wall collapsed. Satellite images retrieved by UNESCO also detected severe damage to the city’s Bayt Ghazalah Palace, a sweeping structure from the Ottoman era.
About 100 miles southwest of Aleppo, the World Heritage sites Crac des Chevaliers and Qal’at Salah El-Din, castles that have stood since the Crusades, now have cracks across the walls and collapsed towers. The Syrian cities of Hama, about 84 miles south of Aleppo, and Tartous, about 70 miles west of Hama, are home to cultural sites that may be listed as World Heritage sites one day, and UNESCO is also concerned about them.
UNESCO and its officials will conduct thorough damage assessments in coming days, and then develop response plans. This can mean determining if quick intervention is necessary to prevent further damage to a site. UNESCO has a Heritage Emergency Fund for this purpose, a resource pooled through member country contributions. The agency also helps determine long-term needs, build budgets for the sites and fundraise if necessary.
UNESCO’s current project in Iraq provides a potential blueprint for what renovation work in Turkey and Syria may look like.
The initiative in Mosul aims to rebuild the ancient city’s structures, including a mosque, a church, minarets and shrines, which were destroyed during the Islamic State’s occupation. The project amassed $105 million in international donations. The work in Mosul involves a web of architects, engineers, construction specialists, U.N. officials, international experts, the local community and Iraqi youth, Pikkat said.
“We try to engage and empower local communities. So these are also the projects that allow us to provide jobs for local people, to provide training to them, because we engage them in these reconstruction efforts,” she said.
And preserving as much of the original structures as possible is key. This means determining what parts of a building can still be used: does a foundation remain stable enough to build on? Should a cracked wall be torn down or mended with plaster?
For structures that require an overhaul, Pikkat said it’s vital to use similar techniques and materials, if possible.
“It’s really a question of finding a balance between the remains and the new additions, or the reconstruction, of the building,” she said.
Pancaroglu stressed a desire to see a balanced reconstruction effort for the countries’ historic sites that honors both what is new and what is ancient.
“One size will not fit all,” Pancaroglu said.
The recent destruction becomes part of the historic landscape, too.
“This is not the first time these sites have been impacted by earthquakes. They reflect a kind of cultural resilience in the face of natural disaster,” Pancaroglu said. “‘Loss has been an intimate part of this heritage, which is not to minimize the impact of this last disaster on these sites, of course. We need to ask ourselves how we can preserve these sites for the future without erasing or camouflaging their complicated and cyclical histories.”