How can cultural sites be saved after the Türkiye-Syria earthquakes?

View of a mosque which collapsed in the earthquake, in Antakya, Turkey, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023.
View of a mosque which collapsed in the earthquake, in Antakya, Turkey, Saturday, Feb. 11, 2023.   -  Copyright  Hussein Malla/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved.
By Sergio Cantone

Another terrible repercussion of earthquakes like those experienced by Türkiye and Syria this month is the destruction of cultural heritage. Sergio Cantone has examined Italy's areas hit by devastating quakes and their efforts to protect and preserve history.

When an earthquake strikes, the priority for rescue teams is to save as many lives as possible.

But there is also the need to preserve historical heritage. And the way in which ancient buildings survive can also provide many lessons as authorities look to rebuild.

According to many international experts, ancient historical buildings have shown a surprising capacity to withstand the devastating earthquakes on 6 February, far exceeding the modern constructions built in Türkiye in the last three decades.

The Antakya-Aleppo area has suffered hundreds of extremely intense quakes even worse than the recent one

Dr. Emanuela Guidoboni, an Italian historian of seismology, formerly Senior Scientist at the Italian National Institute of Seismology and Volcanology, said: "even the Romans had knowledge of the strong seismicity of the Anatolian and Syrian area - currently known as the Dead Sea and the Anatolian faults". 

“That’s the reason why they used to build constructions with higher anti-seismic standards in Anatolia and Syria than in the Italian area. These techniques have ben highlighted by the archeologists” Dr. Guidoboni told Euronews Culture.

An example is the Roman-Byzantine fortress of Gaziantep, which is in the heart of the earthquake zone.

There is no precise confirmation about the degree of destruction suffered by the Roman-Byzantine fortress of Gaziantep. Yet despite the damages suffered, the 2,000-year-old military citadel has not been completely razed by the quake.

The UN's Cultural agency, UNESCO, cannot confirm the reports concerning the Gaziantep Castle since “it is not listed among our heritage, so we don’t have any further information about the level of its destruction” explained a spokesperson for the organisation.

The UNESCO speaker however laments the collapse of several buildings in Diyarbakır - especially to the Diyarbakır Fortress and Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape - an important centre from the Roman, Sassanid, Byzantine, Islamic and Ottoman periods.

AP Photo
A destroyed residential building in Gaziantep, southeastern Turkey, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.AP Photo

Syrian Heritage

Syrian historical sites seem to have suffered much heavier damage than Turkish ones, especially in the area of Aleppo.

Aleppo is a major historical site, inscribed on the World Heritage List since 1986 and also on the List of World Heritage in Danger since 2013 because of Syria's civil war.

According to UNESCO’s first assessments: “The Western tower of the Antakya Gate at the ancient walls of Aleppo has collapsed, while the old Souks al-Hamediyya, al-Mahamas, and al-Haddin have been partially damaged.”

There is a lot of concern also for the Great Mosque founded under the first caliphate of the Umayyads dynasty. Dr Emanuela Guidoboni says that "the Mosque has been heavily hit, even if it has not collapsed. Some minarets are seen standing". 

The massive Crak des Chevaliers, a huge Crusaders’ military citadel in the district of Tartous, has been heavily damaged.

Saving cultural heritage is considered part of the emergency
UNESCO

“There are some visible and concerning cracks on its walls.” UNESCO officials confirmed. They are also monitoring some other Syrian sites that applied to become part of its heritage, like the Norias of Hama that have collapsed.

The “Monuments Men” of natural catastrophes

UNESCO has a special rapid response art and culture team, but at the moment the mission is still under discussion, “because the support and relief for the population is the absolute priority” explained an official of the UN cultural agency. “Our office in Beirut is in charge of the interventions. In such cases we send experts for a risk assessment.”

When it comes to Syria, the official government of Bashar al Assad is still under embargo and isolated from many European countries, Japan, the United States and the wealthy monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Gulf - the usual donor countries that can pay for reconstruction and restoration projects.

According to a UN Security Council resolution, Syria is entitled to receive humanitarian and emergency aid. “Cultural heritage is considered part of the emergency” according to UNESCO.

Ghaith Alsayed/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved
People walk past collapsed buildings following a devastating earthquake in the town of Jinderis, Aleppo province, Syria, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023.Ghaith Alsayed/Copyright 2023 The AP. All rights reserved

This kind of cultural intervention requires the deployment of personnel and sophisticated machinery. At this stage such an operation could create a kind of logistic traffic jam hampering the priorities of saving lives and giving people shelter.

The Syrian civil war is not yet over. It could be dangerous for the experts and the engineers that could be called to operate in a war zone among jihadist and other militias, or simply under the shadow of crumbling buildings.

Inside Italy's heritage rapid response rescue team

Italy is a seismic country. In the Umbria earthquake of 1997, the first span of the central nave of Assisi’s Saint Francis Upper Basilica collapsed and killed two technicians of the governmental agency responsible for the monuments, and two monks.

The heritage rescue teams must cooperate with the fire brigade and the civil protection authority, the latter are the only ones that can decide if a damaged building is accessible or could be dangerous.

“In Assisi, for instance, the two technical experts and the two monks entered into the Basilica after some shakes and died under the rubble of the collapse caused by the stronger earthquake” says Marica Mercalli, director of the department for the safety of the national heritage of the Italian Ministry of Culture.

New seismic sequences are even more dangerous than the first shake. And it is still almost impossible to foresee when exactly they will strike. While the aftershocks, even if they are usually weaker than the first quake, can be lethal for structures that have been already damaged. 

Currently, the rules on when experts can enter a dangerous zone are strict and legally binding having been established by the Ministry of Culture in 2015.

The interventions to save the artworks and the architectural heritage are detailed and updated according to the last quakes that have shaken the Italian territory in the last two decades: L’Aquila, Marche and Umbria, L'Aquila, Emilia and  Amatrice.

The post-earthquake treasure hunt

As soon as the Civil Protection's first aid engineers establish that a damaged building is accessible, mixed staff teams are created. Fire fighters, explorers and heritage experts team up to examine the damage and decide what kind of intervention should be carried out to save the structure. They also recover paintings, statues, ancient furniture and jewels.

The cultural heritage in Italy is vast and scattered across the territory from main city centres to remote villages.

“For example, after the earthquake of 2016 in Amatrice, we still don’t have the full picture about what we lost, because the heritage we are talking about is often kept in small churches on the mountains. Sometimes we know the church, but we don’t exactly what kind of important artworks are stored in the sacristies. We don’t have the exact number of the artworks. And that is a real problem,” said Dr Mercalli. 

Re-building with pieces of the past to preserve historical heritage

Once the building is considered safe and the movable assets have been taken into special storage for their restoration, the reconstruction work can begin. It is an extremely long and painstaking procedure.

“We have cases like the Romanesque-style church of San Salvatore, in the village of Campi di Norcia. It was an example of Umbrian Romanesque style because it had a double nave and a double rose window. It was peculiar. And it was almost completely destroyed. We have recovered the fragments of the frescoes to reconstruct them. This is one of our emergency interventions,” according to Dr Mercalli.

Since 2016, the Ministry of Culture has forced restoration attempts to include recovered fragments in the renovated structures, enhancing the ancient buildings.

“The good news is that in the (EU's post-covid funded) Recovery and Resilience Plan there are relevant budgetary lines for the protection of the cultural heritage. We will spend that European money efficiently, honestly and cautiously” the Italian Minister of Culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano, announced last December.

The recovery fund has been negotiated and adopted by the government of the former prime minister Mario Draghi.

Sandro Perozzi/Copyright 2016 The AP. All rights reserved.
A view of the facade of the Church of Santa Maria Assunta, dating back to 1300, in the small town of Ussita in central Italy, Thursday, Oct 27, 2016Sandro Perozzi/Copyright 2016 The AP. All rights reserved.

According to governmental sources, from an €800 million budget for the preservation of cultural heritage, €240 million has been allocated to finance the seismic engineering strengthening of 257 historical buildings. 

Up to €250 million is to be spent on the restoration of churches and monasteries, and €300 million on the creation of further post-natural disaster “special safety storages” for artworks.

The Church of Santa Maria Assunta, at Castelluccio di Norcia, is an example of this.

“After the first shock, the church was damaged. It gave us the time to remove all the artworks and the furniture, to put them in a special storage. We did it just in time before the second shockwave that caused the collapse of the Church” explained Marica Mercalli.

According to Emanuela Guidoboni, "a total prevention" doesn't not yet exist. 

Italy has officially had seismic prevention legislation since 1909, gradually changed or improved, yet, "it has not always been applied with due rigor" Why? Dr Guidoboni believes that "there is a lack of risk culture and there is no widespread social demand for safety housing. The seismic hazard experts know where the next strong earthquake will happen, but not when. Preventing seismic disasters is extremely difficult for politicians, because the costs to be invested are those of the damages that will not occur."

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