6th February 2023

The horrific, heartbreaking scenes reaching us from southern Turkey and northern Syria speak of unimaginable tragedy in a corner of the world that has seen more by far than its fair share.  To Russia’s war (its previous one), to displacement, political unrest, minority oppression, brutality and poverty we may now add the earthquake which struck in the early hours of 6th February, the worst time of day at the worst time of year, making it the biggest and deadliest to hit the region for centuries.

I know these places, some of them well; I last stayed in (Gazi)antep and (Sanli)urfa in May 2022 while visiting the region with a tour group, having long considered Antep and Urfa, as most Turks know them, among my favourite cities in Turkey.  Our tour began with breakfast, typically outstanding, on the top floor of Antep’s highrise Kule (Tower) Hotel where we had far-reaching views over this city of two million people.  As far as I can ascertain, the hotel is not numbered among the 5,000-plus buildings that have so far collapsed; but I have no doubt that plenty of them will be all too visibly no longer there in those top-floor views.

We visited because it happens that this corner of southeast Turkey, once synonymous with Kurdish unrest, has emerged as a major tourist draw in recent years, both among Turkish and overseas visitors, and deservedly so.  (Only a few weeks ago I contributed a piece to the Guardian on the region for an item entitled ‘Great travel ideas for 2023.)  Antep is considered Turkey’s premier foodie city, not least for its baklava, and is also noted for its wonderful old market and artisanal quarter, for its fine stone buildings and for its world-class collection of Roman mosaics rescued from the frontier city of Zeugma, now largely submerged beneath the dammed waters of the nearby Euphrates River.  Urfa, supposed birthplace of the Prophet Abraham, has a rich Christian and Islamic history but is best known as the epicentre – if we may still use the term – of the astounding neolithic discoveries that have been made across the region, not least at the World Heritage site of Gobekli Tepe.  It also has a fabulous museum (home to the world’s oldest statue) and the most atmospheric market area in all Turkey.  As if all that were not enough, the remarkable mountain-top tumulus at Nemrut Dagi lies within easy reach.

I do not know what still stands of these cities – of their hotels, mosques and museums, of Gobekli Tepe’s 10,000-year-old megaliths and other wonders.  Nor should I care – at least not until the work to rescue the trapped and injured is completed; or, given the freezing temperatures, redefined as a mission to recover the dead.  For now I find myself thinking of all the wonderful people who have fed, housed, entertained and otherwise served us in the course of numerous visits to the region over the years.  My heart goes out to them, to their families, friends and neighbours, knowing that all I can do is reach into my pocket.