Earthquake Turkey, epicenter Gaziantep: the city transformed by war in Syria

Once called Antep, the Turkish city devastated by the earthquake is located about 90 kilometers from the border with Syria

The conflict in Syria has changed the face of Gaziantep, the city in southern Turkey where the epicenter of the devastating earthquake that claimed thousands of lives was registered. Once called Antep, the city is located about 90 kilometers from the border with Syria. And precisely from Syria, because of the war, an estimated 500,000 refugees have arrived in recent years. Renowned for its cuisine – many believe the best ‘baklava’ in the country is prepared here – Gaziantep has historically been a crossroads of histories and ethnicities. Turks, Kurds and Arabs have coexisted here for centuries.

Its Syrian ‘sister’ city, which is 120 kilometers away, is Aleppo. Both were part of the same region under the Ottoman Empire, but the war somehow brought them together, also thanks to the policy of the municipality of Gaziantep focused on integrating refugees in urban areas rather than refugee camps.

Even before the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011 and the flight of almost 4 million people to Turkey, Gaziantep was one of the fastest growing urban areas in the world, having grown from a population of 120,000 in the 1970s to over a million. Since then, it has become an important center for the distribution of humanitarian aid and a magnet for refugees from Aleppo who have managed to find work and build a new life.

Not all residents, however, have welcomed the wave of refugees arriving from Syria, and this sentiment has been accentuated lately with the economic crisis that has hit Turkey, where inflation is skyrocketing and there is a housing emergency. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan visited here last November 5, in view of the elections, and in his rally he promised more investments. But some residents have not spared criticism of the government for having, from their point of view, left too much freedom of maneuver to the Syrians, who have taken root here.

The historic center of Gaziantep, with its narrow streets full of copper-working workshops and blacksmiths, which rises around the Unesco World Heritage castle – unfortunately seriously damaged by the earthquake – reminds many of pre-war Aleppo . The Syrians then built schools, shops and restaurants. The result is streets where shop signs in Arabic meet alongside those in Turkish, and where Syrian fast food outlets that prepare shawerma share the same space with those selling kebabs. In some neighborhoods, the residents are 90% Arab.