A vast treasure of cultural riches was jolted by the “disaster of the century”. The country is now healing its wounds and also caring for this heritage.

With eyes wide open, the bust of Hittite King Suppiluliuma watched on as a magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck southern Türkiye.

And as the earth trembled underneath, the 3,000-year-old sculpture stood still on its pedestal at the Hatay Archaeology Museum.

Outside, across 11 provinces and in neighbouring Syria, the world crumbled – towns and cities were reduced to rubble in the twin earthquakes on February 6. At the last count, the number of deaths stood over 52,000 across the two nations.

The statue survived the twin temblors. But many other artefacts and monuments of historical and archaeological importance did not.

As the dust settles over the devastated region, experts are cataloguing the loss and setting out to restore damaged artefacts and monuments.

“The region affected by the earthquakes is home to exceptionally important areas that have been inhabited…since the Palaeolithic Age,” Yahya Coskun of Türkiye’s General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums tells TRT World.

This means that human history in the region dates back to 10,000 BCE, making it home to diverse civilisations, historical sites and an immense cultural accumulation.

The first known mosque in Anatolia, the 14-century-old Habib-i Neccar Mosque, was among some irreplaceable landmarks that suffered heavy damage. Located in the hard-hit Hatay province’s Antakya - a historical melting of different cultures and religions - the dome, minaret, and some walls of the mosque collapsed.

But Coskun believes that “losses are not beyond repair” and adds that most artefacts in museums and archaeological sites were unscathed after the earthquakes, including UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Famed for its colossal megaliths that are the oldest of their kind, the pre-pottery neolithic site at Gobekli Tepe in quake-hit Sanliurfa suffered no damage. As did Mount Nemrut in Adıyaman, which features massive Hellenistic statues of King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene and ancient gods alongside a pair of lions and eagles.

The Diyarbakır Fortress, known for having the world’s second longest and widest defensive walls overshadowed only by the Great Wall of China, and the Arslantepe Mound in Malatya – where the world’s first known swords were excavated – suffered minor damage.

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UNESCO World Heritage Site Arslantepe Mound showed no significant damage after the earthquakes.
UNESCO World Heritage Site Arslantepe Mound showed no significant damage after the earthquakes. (AA)

Some of the 29 museums in the quake-affected area sustained physical damage, but none collapsed, and the artefacts were in good condition, according to Coskun. The Hatay Archaeology Museum, which hosts the world’s largest mosaic exhibition, sustained partial damage. Since then, solar-powered cameras have been installed and security personnel deployed to prevent potential theft.

Aftershocks, which are continuing in the devastated region, didn’t cause additional damage to museum artefacts since authorities had “taken the necessary measures in the initial days,” Coskun says.

“In most museums, artefacts were immediately taken out of display to be boxed and stored or were transferred to other museums.”

Swift response

Teams from Türkiye’s culture ministry were deployed in the region immediately after the earthquake to initiate comprehensive damage assessments and secure the artefacts amid continuing aftershocks.

“Our friends working in the region were on duty from the first moment. Many rushed to their museums without checking on their homes first,” Coskun said.

From the minister of culture to departments and security staff, personnel from around Türkiye have been working on the ground on a rotating basis.

More than 500 experts from different fields are currently on the ground, and damage assessment efforts are ongoing, although preliminary operations were completed around the end of the first week following the quakes, according to Coskun.

A scientific board and advisory committee are also being established to restore registered cultural heritage, particularly in Antakya, one of Türkiye’s most culturally rich areas, where the ancient Hellenistic city of Antioch was located.

“Our aim is to rebuild every demolished monument and repair the damaged ones with the guidance of the scientific committee,” Coskun adds. 

The committee is expected to consist of academicians and scientists from different universities and disciplines and representatives of national and international organisations.

Additional measures were taken to protect artefacts in the Hatay Archeology Museum, which was affected by the February 6 earthquakes centred in Kahramanmaras.
Additional measures were taken to protect artefacts in the Hatay Archeology Museum, which was affected by the February 6 earthquakes centred in Kahramanmaras. (General Directorate for Cultural Heritage and Museums / AA)

Extensive experience

The earthquakes affected more than 13.5 million people in Türkiye, jolting an area that spans 99,362 square kilometres - larger than many countries like Hungary, Portugal or Austria.

“Since the first day of the earthquakes, the calamity has been dubbed the disaster of the century. But when we look at it, what we are going through is one of the biggest disasters experienced in nearly two thousand years,” Coskun says.

Türkiye, located at the intersection of the Eurasian, African and Arabian tectonic plates, is among the world’s most seismically active areas.

“As Turkish museology has been up against natural disasters for many years, its experience is quite extensive,” Coskun says, adding that the country’s cultural heritage didn’t suffer major losses in past disasters either.

Most of the necessary disaster precautions were already in practice years before the February 6 earthquakes, and only a couple more were incorporated into operations afterwards.

“Besides, we have very experienced and skilled restorators. Our damaged artefacts are processed in the best way possible,” he emphasises.

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Ready for visitors 

Recent earthquake precautions in Turkish museums have been focused on museum renovations. In the past two decades, 163 museums under the Ministry of Culture and Tourism have been renovated, featuring warehouses equipped with disaster-resistant smart systems.

Stabilisers were also used for artefact pedestals to prevent them from shifting and causing the artefacts to fall in case of an earthquake. Artefacts displayed without pedestals were secured with stabilisers, such as in the museum wax.

These measures “have been in practice for many years, and any deficiencies will be made up for swiftly. Old buildings are also being renovated and strengthened,” Coskun says.

In addition to precautions, the ministry of culture updated its emergency disaster action plan in 2021, laying out steps such as reaching the museums quickly, establishing security and conducting damage assessments.

The action plan continues with damage assessments in world heritage sites, archaeological sites, excavations, and registered cultural assets.

In the February 6 earthquakes, the general directorate carried out operations “according to the emergency action plan from the first moment, and the plan was successfully implemented,” Coskun says.

Two weeks after the earthquakes, cleanup and restoration efforts had been completed in the Diyarbakır Museum and Sanliurfa Archaeology Museum. Many other museums are currently ready to be opened to visitors again.

“However, given the heavy atmosphere in the region, as well as the continuing aftershocks, we have assessed that time is needed to reopen these museums.”

Source: TRT World