Gaziantep Castle: How a historical site is remembered changes with each calamity

Only last year, the tower was turned into the Gaziantep Defence and Heroism Panoramic Museum

Getty Images
Getty Images

Rishitha Shetty

In Gaziantep of south-eastern Turkey, a stone castle from the Hittite Empire stood alone; its sand-coloured exterior having withstood many a battle in the Ottoman days and French invasion during the great war. This second millennium BCE marvel was severely damaged by the devastating earthquake that hit Turkey and parts of Syria early on Monday morning.

But minutes before it was struck, perhaps up until the very last second, the Gaziantep castle had had a different set of histories attached to it. It had been rebuilt by the Romans and expanded upon by the Byzantine emperor. Only last year, the tower was turned into the Gaziantep Defence and Heroism Panoramic Museum.

This is what strikes me as most tragic when a historical site gets torn down by a calamity.

A calamity not only violently restructures the contours of the site, but it also changes its story. After all, monuments are an extremely powerful source of collective memory, both real and imagined. But when the earthquake struck, meanings changed and we were left with a very different story.

“Some of the bastions in the east, south and southeast parts were destroyed; the debris was scattered on the road. The iron railings around the castle were scattered on the surrounding sidewalks. The retaining wall next to the castle also collapsed. In some bastions, large cracks were observed,” the reports say.

The ruins of the castle have now obtained the porosity that a historical site attains when tragedy strikes. They absorb a number of new descriptors—debris, collapse, crack—and with them a whole new meaning. Not to mention, the scale of this earthquake, the spine-chilling number of casualties, ineptitude on the part of governments, thereby leaving survivors to fend for themselves and the general helplessness that we are collectively experiencing at its sheer magnitude.

“Next to the castle, the dome and eastern wall of the 17th century Sirvani Mosque have reportedly partially collapsed,” the reports continue. Further, the Cathedral of the Annunciation in the southern Turkish city Iskenderun has almost completely collapsed. The Catholic church was originally built between 1858–71 and, after a fire, was reconstructed in 1901.

In Syria, UNESCO has expressed grave concern about the situation in the Ancient city of Aleppo, which is on the List of World Heritage in Danger due to the Syrian war. Significant damage has been noted in the citadel. The western tower of the old city wall has collapsed and several buildings in the souks have been weakened, UNESCO reports.

The destruction of the Gaziantep castle comes on the heel of the war that has been raging in Ukraine, and according to UNESCO reports, as of 8 February 2023, a record 238 sites have been damaged since 24 February 2022, among which are 105 religious’ sites, 18 museums, 85 buildings of historical and/or artistic interest, 19 monuments, and 12 libraries.

Amongst the first cases of reports was the destruction of roughly twenty-five paintings by the Ukrainian artist Maria Prymachenko, which were burned as a result of an attack by Russian forces on the Ivankiv museum, housing precious Ukrainian folk art. Further, who can forget Joshimath in our own backyard, precariously balancing Char Dham and the UNESCO's heritage site, Vale of Flowers, now rapidly sinking amidst cracks that showed up in several hundred houses across the region?

The great misfortune of the destruction of a heritage site is that it flattens the multi-layered narratives of the place. For instance, the irony of Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s paintings is that many of these artefacts are connected to Russian culture. “It looks like we have to hide Russian paintings from Russian shells,” Valentina Myzgina, the director of the Kharkiv Art Museum, had said after the museum’s windows were blown out on 8 March. 

Laments about forgetting or overlooking sites of historical ruin are aplenty. The great artist and writer, Robert Smithson himself in his essay A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey, wrote about the monuments of Passaic as an example of the overlooked or forgotten ruins of the modern era. In his writing, Smithson was critical of the way that historical ruins were often seen as mere remnants of the past. He saw sites of historical ruin beyond the rusting, crumbling, fading picture of decay as sites of interplay between physical and cultural elements.

This is to say also that when we let a ruin become just that, a ruin, we minimise the grave human tragedy that led to it. Take for instance how the domicide of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent distancing that was undertaken from the violence that led to and followed its ruin, has opened the floodgates on historical sites being weaponised across India to settle some past scores.

Whether it is calls for reciting the Hanuman Chalisa inside the Shahi Masjid Idgah in Mathura or a yatra trying to force its way into Jama Masjid in Srirangapatna in Karnataka, the silence surrounding the injustice of Babri has allowed certain groups of people to think they can do what they please with historical sites.

The founding father of renaissance architecture, Filippo Brunelleschi, accompanied by the sculptor Donatello, ceaselessly studied the ruins of Rome, to such a degree that his biographer Vasari wrote, “his studies were so intense that his mind was capable of imagining how Rome once appeared even before the city fell into ruins.”

His goal in doing so it appears was to “rediscover the fine and highly skilled method of building and the harmonious proportions of the ancients.” This it appears is how we can preserve, if not the site itself, then the stories swelling up within their walls.

I’m reminded of Italo Calvino’s postmodern novel Invisible Cities, in which the court explorer Marco Polo regales the elderly king Kublai Khan with stories about the cities within his empire.

I was particularly struck by the description that Calvino provided for the city of Fedora. In the middle of the city is a metal building with a crystal globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see the model of a different Fedora, one that could have been.

“Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe,” Calvino writes. These other possible Fedoras, the toys in the glass globe kept in the middle of the city in a metal building is what we need to do to disallow a historical site from becoming yet another ruin with a grainy past. But where do we find these glass globes in which to stash this history?

When the dust settles on Gaziantep, we must start to look for glass globes.

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines