Julian Sayarer is a long-distance cyclist and travel writer. He has circumnavigated the world by bicycle, writing books about roadside anthropology across Europe, Palestine, China and the United States.
Riding The Fault
Last autumn, uncomfortably close to the hard Anatolian winter, I set out to cycle across Türkiye with the goal of writing a roadside account of the country going into its centenary year. I departed from the house where Atatürk was born, in what is now the Greek city of Thessaloniki, and after about a month and 2,000 miles, I left the Mediterranean coast and moved northwards. In the small city of Osmaniye, I checked into a hotel. I slept poorly. A racket clamored over in the next room, or perhaps the next building. I stuck my head out the window to look for the origin of the noise, and I could see the concrete shell of a building perhaps seven stories high. Unwalled floors were strewn with piping, cans of paint and debris — the project was either incomplete or abandoned altogether.
Skyscrapers rise across Türkiye nowadays, and construction is a prominent backbone of the economy, but it is a common sight to see buildings in such semi-finished states. For many projects, the builder sells units from the bottom up and uses the revenue to pay for the completion of work through the remaining floors, and thus the building grows above its first inhabitants.
The next morning, the sun shone bright, and my view from the same window was a beautiful one. Behind me were the flat, well-farmed fields of the Adana Plain, and ahead the flat, well-farmed fields of the Jabbul Plain stretching towards the northwestern Syrian city of Aleppo. But in between, looking as bracing as it had in the contours of my map, was a narrow spine of high mountains that ran perfectly north-south. This ridge promised a single but big day of riding going west-east.
Five months after I crossed, in the early morning hours, the plates of the East Anatolian Fault slipped and two enormous earthquakes of 7.8 and 7.7 magnitudes reverberated outward. Adana, Osmaniye, Nurdağı, Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, Diyarbakır: The route I rode reads like a checklist of the cities on the path of the tremors. I had ridden through the epicenter. To the south of that mountain spine, the cities of Hatay and Antakya, two hubs of astounding cultural and historical richness, were devastated.
In the history books, the centenary so celebrated by the AKP government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — a hundred years since the Turkish victory in its independence war against colonial powers — will now also be remembered for this disaster. Some 50,000 people were killed in Türkiye and millions more remain homeless, living in tents or containers. Across the border in Syria, another 5,000 died in an area already devastated by war and U.S. sanctions. The destruction spread across some 500 square miles, an area larger than Portugal. A disaster management plan existed, but in the final reckoning, the municipalities that had been envisaged as the rescuers themselves needed to be rescued.
No event has ever filled me with such grief. The sense of loss has been amplified in a very online country by the sharing of scenes and news; it was as if we all lived each other’s emotions over and over again. I think often of the good-natured but unmistakable swindler who ran that Osmaniye hotel, offering me a crummy price for a crummy room but immediately reducing it by a third when the call to prayer rang from a minaret nearby, as if Allah had tugged his conscience. All I can do is hope that he made it. A man from Gaziantep I met the next day, with whom I’d exchange numbers, messaged to say his house and his mother were gone, father in hospital, and he in a tent with his family. A friend of a friend, tired that evening, made the ordinary but tragic decision to let his children stay an extra night with their grandparents in Gaziantep, intending to pick them up the next morning instead. Nobody in all Türkiye or its large diaspora seems to have been spared proximity to the heartbreak of such stories.
On Sunday, Turkish voters go to the polls in an election that already felt like a referendum on two decades of rule by Erdoğan and the AKP. Since the earthquake, the vote has become a test too of how much blame people place on the government for the devastation, any inadequacies in disaster response and who they most trust to rebuild.
The expression “earthquakes don’t kill people, buildings do,” has become a cliche since February, but in a very real sense, the culture and history of Turkish construction, housing and even ideas about property are integral elements in what happened, as well as the country’s wider political environment. In its buildings, you see past and future versions of Turkish society, and it is in this landscape that the record of many a government has been written.
Throughout my ride across Turkish town and country, I often passed a style of informal dwelling known as a gecekondu. The word itself gives an indication of the construction style: It pretty much translates to “put up overnight.” According to an old Ottoman custom, if you could erect your dwelling between the hours of dusk and dawn without getting caught, then it could stay.
Even among the mansions of Istanbul billionaires nestled in the trees on the banks of the Bosphorus, there stand also the occasional gecekondu: small brick huts with washing lines and neat gardens behind tiny fences. In discreet clusters, gecekondu can be found on the edge of villages and towns through Thrace and Anatolia, with empty sunflower oil tins cut open and turned into plant pots, and pebbles set into ornamental concrete courtyards.
In other places, the gecekondu are indistinguishable from the city, including major Istanbul neighborhoods such as Zeytinburnu or Sultanbeyli. In Western parlance, these places might be termed somewhat pejoratively as “slums” or “squatters.” In Türkiye, once-makeshift areas were incorporated as settled towns and communities, and politicians out to earn votes steadily ensured that the people who lived there had amenities and public transport, integrating them into the wider state.
As Bülent Batuman, an associate professor of architecture at Ankara’s Bilkent University, explained, these precedents created a country with remarkably low barriers to homeownership, a place where “gecekondu allowed people to move to cities while they maintained ties with hometowns and their place of origin. Families helped manage this movement by traveling with seasonal supplies from their villages to support the adjustments of urban migration and the settling of public land.”
The institution of the gecekondu in the Turkish political imagination is as old or older than the republic itself, with roots reaching back to Ottoman law and attitudes to land and property found long ago and from far outside modern Türkiye. For centuries, Ottoman land codes formalized the idea of mewat — land that was uncultivated but could be used or grazed — as holding recognized status. The growing pressures of European colonialism, for which shared land and pastoral or Indigenous communities were not important concerns, eroded this tradition, particularly in the Levant and Palestine.
Attitudes to unused property or space proved relevant again following the Russo-Turkish War of the late 1870s, when Russian and Bulgarian forces drove Turks from the Balkans, and Sultan Abdul Hamid II issued laws requisitioning empty buildings in Istanbul to house the vast numbers of refugees who walked hundreds of miles back to safe territory. As the Syrian Civil War escalated brutally after 2011 and some 4 million Syrians moved to safety across the Turkish border, provinces such as Hatay and Gaziantep offered homes, welcome and cultural connections that helped them begin new lives.
This informal openness to people in need is loosely tied to shared religion or kin or simply centuries of mixed heritage. In times of crisis, political rules as well as national and community boundaries have tended to loosen. Society remembers quickly how to extend a hand.
The early state response to the earthquake tells a different story. Particularly in the province of Hatay, which protrudes from the south of Türkiye like Florida does from the United States, people found themselves severed from aid. Highways collapsed, an airport runway split in two. Why was an airport runway so close to a fault line? How could a state so vocal about humanitarianism abroad find itself so exposed, so beset with shortcomings, when required to provide for victims of disaster inside its own borders? How could apartments advertised as earthquake-proof be flattened in a tremor that everyone knew would eventually strike?
While many historic centers in the impacted regions remain standing, in cities that expanded onto nearby farmland, new developments crumbled into loose earth that should never have held them, a painful metaphor for the dangers of an unplanned acceleration from rural to urban. Gecekondu — seldom professionally constructed — were at least often small enough to be resilient. But the turbocharged growth of a Turkish property market worth billions welded the informality of the gecekondu into high-rise apartment buildings, resulting in ambiguous legality and standards while sacrificing the social merit of the original housing model. A key mechanism in this process has been the use of building amnesties, which retrospectively legalize constructions that may violate regulations, allowing the exchequer to gain revenue and the developer or homeowner formal status.
It would be ahistorical to blame this practice on the AKP. Batuman told me how the amnesties predate its existence by decades. Though large earthquakes were certain to cause considerable damage, Türkiye’s most recent major amnesty was voted through parliament in 2018 with the support of members of the opposition, formalizing millions of buildings, the low quality and fake promises of which doubtless exacerbated the death toll. Just as a city can take on a textured skin of differing styles and eras of construction, so too can politics enmesh the state and the informal.
A common sight in Türkiye, particularly in offices or public settings, is a “No Smoking” sign on a wall next to a table with an ashtray. I remember the first time I remarked to someone on the contradiction. His reply, with a knowing roll of the eyes, was typical to the country: “burası Türkiye.” “This is Türkiye.” It is a sort of amused but tired resignation at the state of such things, but also a good illustration of where the law ends and the community begins.
In its refusal to take things too seriously, the relaxed nonchalance of “burası Türkiye” can help build social resilience, a robustness even in crisis. But if it leads to indifference in the face of rules designed to prevent crisis, it becomes a culture capable of enacting great harm upon a population with the right to expect better.
When I asked Batuman about this interplay between bottom-up and top-down forces and how they shaped the impact and response to the earthquake, he cautioned against separating the two. “The roles of informal culture or state control in the earthquake and its response are not necessarily mutually exclusive,” he told me. “There is an integration of forces, and in a corrupt policy environment, it is possible for everything to look legal.”
Relief From Authoritarianism
There is a commonality between buildings and political cultures whereby an earthquake-proof building is not so much strong as smart, capable of moving and flexing rather than falling under its own weight when the Earth shakes. Likewise, the successful strongman also knows how to move with political forces. He knows where to give and where to remain immovable.
Erdoğan, once a bus driver from a working-class Istanbul neighborhood, understands first-hand the social fabric of his country, an intimacy he has deployed to masterful effect through his years in office. Clearly, like everyone, he was shocked and humbled by the scale of the catastrophe; on a visit to the rubble of Adıyaman, in a rare moment of contrition, he asked forgiveness for the state’s slow response.
But was a growing culture of authoritarianism in the AKP to blame for either the building collapses — a flippant use of construction amnesties, a silencing of critics — or the sluggish rescue efforts? A full 72 hours elapsed before aid convoys reached the city of Iskenderun, where even the state hospital was destroyed. Stories abound of aid trucks dispatched by organizations across Türkiye but stopped at checkpoints near the earthquake zone, their cargos confiscated in order to centralize the distribution of goods. Locals with motor scooters often resolved instead to coordinate directly with aid organizations, meeting trucks on the edge of the region and driving cargo to where things were required, a good example of the innate agility of informal networks.
There is an irony in the fact that better enforcement of building regulations could have benefited from a stronger centralized authority but was weakened by informal networks, while informal networks could nimbly distribute relief but were ignored or hampered by a centralized authority.
Though Erdoğan is easily depicted as an authoritarian, authoritarianism is far more nebulous than any single individual. We typically assume authoritarianism is an overbearing executive branch headed up by one man. But many forces can comprise authoritarianism. A parliament can be authoritarian in its ability to impede, dilute or obfuscate responsibility, a key failing of democracies. Representatives of the main opposition party, the CHP, voted in favor of the AKP’s 2018 construction amnesty, while the smaller, left-wing HDP have received scant credit from either party for being the only ones to oppose it wholesale. Meanwhile, the construction economy, with its constant need for cheaper land and near-pathological pursuit of profit, also becomes authoritarian when an entire society is laid at its mercy.
Resilient systems — states or communities — are generally made of overlapping networks and fibers. There is seldom a single authoritarian so much as a harmony of interests, whether those interests are positive or negative, and while it is easy to assume that the informal world is soft and the state hard, this too is not so simple. Assertive enforcement of building regulations is not an authoritarian trait. What is authoritarian is the use of personal and informal power or connections to skew justice, thereby weakening the rule of law.
Among the many terrible statistics of collapsed buildings since the earthquake, one figure has been conspicuous and much-touted by the government. The official state housebuilding association, TOKI, has been able to boast an astounding 0% fail rate in its structures in the impacted region.
Cycling toward towns on my ride, I would see signposts pointing the way to new TOKI development communities. These are so uniform compared to the rustic, visibly ad hoc nature of gecekondu constructions. As a man I met remarked, “Maybe they have space for a family, they have new boilers and appliances — but they are not cheap.”
As I rode, I thought of the British writer J.G. Ballard and his suggestion that the suburb might yet escape its unenviable reputation for drabness and offer society a mix of both the urban and rural from which new ways of living might develop. Sold off the shelf to aspiring new homeowners, could this model of housing, professionally built, be what the state needs to improve on the traditional gecekondu model?
When asked about this, Batuman was more pragmatic about the reasons behind the TOKI success rate, as well as the problems its buildings leave unresolved. “They are not a solution in the post-disaster moment. They performed well because they were mostly not high-rise and they were constructed outside city centers. In these areas, it becomes possible for TOKI to build on earthquake-resilient geography: on rock. But this isn’t a model to resettle millions of people. The TOKI structures might be earthquake resilient, but they are culturally remote. Their architecture is unimaginative.”
The notion of a trade-off — between architectural solidity or collapse, between community fabric or state fabric — is itself a false choice that Türkiye in its second century needs to rise above.
The dedicated efforts of communities and the diaspora to rebuild, as well as the contractors who built by the book even where profitable shortcuts existed, share a common thread of a universal moral law, of doing right for its own sake and the greater good. Although humans in times of disaster consistently show themselves to be altruistic and compassionate actors, this cannot be relied upon as a substitute for state policy. At the same time, a society need not sacrifice its social fabric to get a more effective state one.
Informalism And Mutual Aid
In the weeks after the earthquake, I spoke to a family friend named Nur who lives on the Aegean coast. She explained how one man, originally from Malatya but working locally in a hotel, brought his family to stay in rooms that during the off-season stood empty. With millions homeless, and in a country with no shortage of hotel rooms, more resorts followed this example, until all the town’s hotels and holiday rentals were full.
Nur and her husband converted the ground floor of their own house to a separate flat some time ago, and they joined this mobilization of empty spaces, offering it to another family from Malatya who lost their home. Two daughters, one who was trapped beneath a falling cupboard that mercifully then provided shelter, are adjusting to the town, and their father, a farmer, has taken up gardening jobs for nearby families.
Such nationwide commitment to supporting victims of the earthquake no matter their geographic distance apart hints at a potential future improvement for Turkish society. If the state and the public can remain committed to rebuilding the affected cities and aiding their populations, Türkiye may yet find its diverse society and regions have been drawn closer together through tragedy.
“Despite the difficult economic situation, people were adamant about helping,” Nur told me. “This calamity has, I think, once again shown people how much they value solidarity, and that when we are in need of solidarity, all differences disappear.”
As the election nears, it feels impossible to say which political party best represents the ideals of formal state bodies and which its informal communities. In the wake of the earthquake, the AKP made cash payments to survivors. Erdoğan promised to swiftly rebuild stronger cities, and where getting things built is concerned, his party commands a high degree of trust. New natural gas fields in the Black Sea recently came online, and there have been announcements that they will be used for a period to provide free household gas nationwide, easing the cost-of-living crisis the disaster exacerbated. Thus, informal ideas can exist not only on the community level, but also on a national and international one.
The AKP, which earned a reputation for welfare through such policies as delivering sacks of coal to poor communities during winter, has proven increasingly unafraid to bend the most cherished rules of neoliberalism. The government and the Turkish Central Bank in recent years flouted economic orthodoxy by refusing to hike interest rates beyond their longstanding station in the region of 10%, and as a result, the stock market has remained one of the few places where Turkish capital can hope for a return, leaving investment to continue apace.
The Turkish economy has maintained growth while many rate-hiking economies have begun to stagnate. Taking the opposite tack, Erdoğan and the AKP have repeatedly lifted the minimum wage instead of interest rates. While the AKP approaches the Turkish economy with an informal attitude at odds with orthodox economic doctrines, the CHP promises voters a return to the strictures of the IMF.
This election’s significance is well understood, but the terms on which it is contested are not, and they are historic. The AKP swept to power 20 years ago on a promise, implicit in a man like Erdoğan, to represent the more socially conservative, less-Westernized voters of Türkiye, particularly Muslims, in a country that in its foundation had often excluded them. In central Anatolia, and the Kurdish populations of eastern Anatolia where communities were similarly pious and live on lower incomes, people trusted this offer and hoped it would bring them development too.
If it is to appeal to the entire Turkish electorate, the CHP-led opposition now must reassure Kurdish voters that it will not repeat the repression of their identity that it once did. The CHP must also reassure Muslim voters that their faith is welcome, that their daughters will still be free to attend university in hijab. Many Kurdish voters now see the CHP as the best hope to de-escalate a conflict between the state and the PKK, the Kurdish militant organization in eastern Anatolia, one that resumed with awful gusto in 2015 and has been exacerbated by the war in Syria.
Meanwhile, the AKP, which once swept power with a deft command of the common touch, is now often viewed as entwined with the corruption that has enriched many prominent figures. If this sense of corruption is regarded by voters as causative in the extent of earthquake devastation, then it will doubtless hit the AKP vote at the ballot box.
All this certainly makes for a fraught electoral map, but one in which all constituent parts and demographics of the Turkish population are very much in play. All groups are being appealed to by both main parties, and their votes are being regarded as unprecedentedly up for grabs. It is hard to recall Turkish democracy so wide open.
Nur and I also talked of the many community-led ventures that are bringing support to the impacted regions. She told me about a man from Antakya who once ran a bus company but, after the earthquake, opened a kitchen, water purification system and community laundry of 60 machines. We talked of the new tent schools and classrooms, and of the mosque soup kitchens and large Ramadan iftars that have always nurtured both the instinct and know-how to feed a community. We talked of the very real fear and risk that concrete and other chemical dust from an entire landscape of cleared rubble will contaminate waterways and crops.
Nur has lived through three military coups, and I asked her how or if the recent experience of hosting a young family from Malatya changed her perspectives on a country where change can seem like the only constant.
“I’m still learning,” she said. “We’re all still learning. It is important for us to cohabit in this way, and it is a mind-opening experience. The husband from the family we are hosting is now gardening here. He is planting here, much as he would back home, and teaching us about planting and seasons. We are learning to live together.”
I asked about the election, if that too holds this promise of renewal. “Let’s see,” she said, and in her voice was a softness that sounded like optimism.