The Unfulfilled Promise of a Turkish City’s Post-Quake Rebirth

One year on from the devastating catastrophe, Antakya residents are challenging Erdogan's reconstruction plans

The Unfulfilled Promise of a Turkish City’s Post-Quake Rebirth
Historic houses on Kurtulus Street in Antakya. (Ylenia Gostoli)

From the top of a hilly street overlooking the Orontes River, which cuts across the earthquake-hit city of Antakya, the sound of excavators and diggers nearly drowns out the muezzin’s call to prayer.

A year after twin earthquakes leveled much of the city to the ground, they are laying the foundations of new buildings along the west bank of the river, just across from the cobbled streets and stone houses of the old city of Antakya on the east bank.

The construction barrier that fences in the work in progress promises, “Hatay [the province of which Antakya is the capital] will come to life again,” and carries images of attractive new neighborhoods with four-story buildings and shopping walks.

“The land here is very problematic because it is near the banks of the Orontes River,” says local lawyer Ecevit Alkan. “But from an economic perspective, this is the most valuable location in Hatay.”

A view of the new construction site along the Orontes River. (Ylenia Gostoli)

Approximately 280,000 buildings in 11 provinces of southern Turkey collapsed or were severely damaged in the earthquakes last year, with the country’s official death toll exceeding 53,000. Hatay, which sits along the northeastern Levantine Sea and is the country’s southernmost province, experienced about 20,000 deaths, according to local authorities.

The disaster triggered an exodus from Antakya, by far the worst-hit city in the region, as surviving residents sought shelter in towns surrounding the destroyed city or other provinces across Turkey. Thousands currently live in container camps that dot the city’s landscape. According to official figures from Turkey’s disaster agency, AFAD, nearly 700,000 people are housed at more than 400 such sites across the earthquake-hit region.

Before the earthquake, the west bank of the Orontes River was occupied by mostly residential high-rises constructed in the 20th century — before the adoption of Turkey’s new building codes following the last catastrophic earthquake in Izmit in 1999.

Today, the neighborhoods to the west of the river — once one of the city’s most densely populated areas — are little more than a barren plain where the occasional cluster of buildings sticks out of the landscape like teeth in a toddler’s mouth.

Poor building design, as well as shoddy construction practices and the use of substandard materials, combined with the area’s geographical vulnerabilities — its proximity to a seismic fault and position along the course of the river whose sedimentary soil is particularly unstable — to create a death zone.

“The problem is we don’t know much more about what is being built other than what we see on those posters,” says local resident Ihlam Yesilcay, referring to the images plastered around the construction sites.

Yesilcay, 38, has set up a neat flower store in a small container in front of the building where he used to live with his wife and daughter, who have moved more than 600 miles away to the city of Bursa in order to allow the child to continue her schooling. From here, he can keep an eye on the building and protect it from looters as well as the bulldozers that demolished most of the heavily damaged buildings in this area over the past year. The words “do not destroy: moderately damaged” are sprayed in capital letters on its facade.

“In the beginning we thought we would restore and live in the building, but now that the neighborhood has been declared a ‘reserve area,’ I don’t know what will happen to it,” says Yesilcay, who currently lives with his mother in a container just outside the city.

An amendment to the 2012 urban transformation law enacted last November allows for the reclassification of already built-up areas into “reserve areas” for construction — not only in the earthquake region but across the country. Critics including the Union of Turkish Chambers of Engineers and Architects have called the new law an “expropriation plan.”

For Yesilcay, the new law means that he can no longer get permission from the local municipality to retrofit the building, as the Ministry of Environment, Urbanization and Climate Change is now in charge of rebuilding this area, which comprises 207 hectares on the west bank of the river. According to the Hatay Bar Association, an estimated 50,000 people lived in this area before the earthquake last year.

“The designated reserve area is extremely vast,” says Alkan, who is assisting some of the affected survivors with court cases.

“People in that area have lost everything, from jobs to family ties. Not only is the city practically destroyed, it is also economically ruined,” he says, noting how construction costs have increased in recent years due to rampant inflation, recorded at 65% on an annual basis in December. The Turkish lira hit a new historic low against the U.S. dollar in early January. In April 2023, the building construction cost index had increased by 55% annually, according to the Turkish Statistical Institute.

“Even in big cities like Istanbul and Ankara, people cannot afford to buy homes anymore,” Alkan says. “Asking earthquake survivors to pay an unknown price for new buildings is cruel and against human rights.”

A master plan for the revival of the area has not yet been made public, and the environment and urbanization ministry did not respond to a request for further information.

According to a map of the reserve area seen by New Lines, 14 renowned architecture firms are working on the redevelopment of various land plots within the reserve area. A spokesperson for the company planning construction along the river bed, DB Architects, also declined to comment.

Yesilcay knows that the safest option would be to apply for the social housing projects that the state housing agency has been building on the hills around the city — new satellite neighborhoods built in rural areas 20 minutes from the city, accessible through bumpy roads. Once these are ready, the government will hold lotteries whose winners receive an initial grant and can move in while repaying a low-interest loan. The first was held in Hatay just a few days ahead of the anniversary, when more than 7,000 homes were assigned to survivors amid much fanfare.

“If you don’t pay the loan, you lose the right to transfer your inheritance,” Yesilcay explains. Asked what he would do in the worst-case scenario, he looks over at the hills where work on some of the five-story buildings is almost complete.

“We will not leave,” he says.

After coming under fire for the government’s lackluster initial response to the crisis and facing an election just three months after what government officials dubbed the “disaster of the century,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to rebuild more than 300,000 homes within a year across the earthquake region. According to a tally by the news agency Reuters, by August construction had begun on 123,000 housing units. The environment and urbanization ministry said in December that construction has begun on 307,000 homes, but only 46,000 would soon be ready to be delivered. The improbable target appears to have been missed.

Another important election will be held at the end of March — when Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party will try to wrestle the leadership of the country’s largest cities, including Istanbul and Ankara, from the opposition in countrywide municipal elections. With scientists saying a strong earthquake will inevitably hit Istanbul — a mega-city of more than 15 million — the country’s earthquake preparedness and safe housing have been at the center of electoral promises. Experts are calling on politicians to listen to the science before it’s too late.

“More than 10 years ago we knew that those buildings would collapse if the expected earthquake would come,” Cemal Genes, a professor of civil engineering at the Eastern Mediterranean University in Cyprus who is originally from Hatay, tells New Lines.

From 2006 to 2011, he was part of a team of experts from the region who carried out a study of the soil and buildings’ characteristics in the area along the river in Antakya and found the city to be at high risk in case of a strong earthquake. He says the team alerted the municipal authorities and the governorate of the risk people faced.

“We informed all of them,” he says, adding they organized workshops and drew maps. “We shared our worries with them. But they told us: We don’t have that budget, and we cannot take the risk to go to the people and tell them your building is risky. You have to demolish and reconstruct.”

As for the medium or lightly damaged buildings, he says that they should be checked again and can be strengthened where that can be done safely.

“We need more detailed checks now and expert analysis,” he says. “If they can be strengthened, they should stay where they are.”

Not far from the busy intersection where Ihlam Yesilcay sells his flowers, Ridvan and Nazire Topuz, a couple in their 70s, can hardly recognize the street they used to live on. The building where they used to live is one of only six left on their block.

“I worked for 45 years and this is all my savings,” says Ridvan, a retired truck and bus driver. “I went everywhere from Britain to Europe and Siberia. Unfortunately, now it is gone, or it is about to be gone.”

“If only they could give us clear answers. All we know is that we have to wait,” he says as the two wander inside the building, scanning the debris strewn on the ground as if looking for something they left behind.

Amid the torn mattresses and other possessions they couldn’t salvage, Nazire finds a photo of their neighbor and puts it in her pocket.

“If we could work, it would be different; if we had another piece of land, we would place a container there,” Nazire says, explaining that they currently live in an apartment just outside the city and that despite state subsidies, they struggle to pay the rent.

“Every time I come here, it takes me three weeks to recover,” she says in Arabic, her first language.

Proud of their diverse cultural heritage, the residents of this region bordering Syria, home to many of Turkey’s minorities, now fear that a mosaic of coexisting cultures could be lost to processes of gentrification that could be accelerated by post-disaster reconstruction.

“Our main concern as architects and citizens is that life returns to Antakya, that people can return to a city that is more beautiful and more earthquake-resistant,” says Mehtap Aslanyuregi of the Hatay Chamber of Architects and Engineers.

The state housing agency “builds sturdy buildings,” she says. “But the houses here should be more in line with the style of Hatay’s old dwellings, so that people will want to live here and return.” While members of the chamber were able to attend some initial presentations in June on reconstruction plans, the firms contracted so far are renowned international companies that will involve local architects only on an ad-hoc basis.

“At the moment, the government and the local authorities are not talking to each other,” she says. “There is no coordination.”

On the east side of the river lies ancient Antioch, with its stone houses, Byzantine mosaics and churches turned into mosques. A couple of historic hotels on Kurtulus Avenue, known as the world’s first illuminated street, have timidly turned their signs back on. Restoration and redevelopment work on some historic buildings has been initiated or is in the planning stage.

As the dust settles on the beleaguered city, it becomes easier to imagine a future where Antakya could once again rise to be a key cultural and commercial center in the region, as well as a sought-after tourist destination.

In the lively bazaar, many shopkeepers have decided to reopen despite the mass exodus from the city and widespread destruction. Some have installed makeshift stalls among the ruins of their former stores so that their customers — far fewer than they used to be — can find them where they have always been. But here, too, the future is mired in uncertainty, as many shopkeepers don’t know what will happen after the bazaar is rebuilt.

“The [authorities] offered us shops close to here,” says Yusuf Altok, 51, who runs a small spice store where he has worked for nearly four decades. “I won’t go anywhere,” he says, echoing the words of most people here who, after losing their homes and loved ones, are determined to hang on to whatever of their former lives the earthquake has not destroyed. If Antakya will be rebuilt, then they want it to be for them.

“The social and psychological aspects should be taken into account,” Alkan says. The authorities “came here as if the only problem was building a house and handing over the keys.”

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