Earthquakes are a fact of life in Istanbul, and have been so throughout its long history. The city’s location in one of the world’s most seismically active regions has made it vulnerable to earthquakes since the beginning of urban settlement. Earthquakes are quintessentially urban disasters: their destructive force is the product of the natural hazard posed by seismic activity and the vulnerability of the built environment. Because its written history stretches back more than 20 centuries, Istanbul offers an unusually rich historical record for examining the role of earthquakes in shaping the urban landscape and the lives of urban residents. As the city has grown, from Byzantium to Constantinople to Istanbul, its material and social structures have been shaken by earthquakes over and over again, leaving physical as well as historical traces. Today, Istanbul’s growth into a global megacity of some 15 million people has further magnified the risk posed by seismic activity.

Istanbul is located close to the Marmara Fault system, part of the great North Anatolian Fault line, which stretches from Bingöl Province in Eastern Anatolia to the Aegean Sea, forming a transform boundary between the Eurasian and Anatolian plates. Like California’s San Andreas Fault, which it closely resembles, the North Anatolian Fault is a strike-slip fault, produced by the lateral movement of two sides in opposite directions, as the Anatolian plate slowly turns counterclockwise, squeezed between the Arabian and Eurasian plates. In the Marmara Sea basin, the North Anatolian Fault line fractures into a complex fault system, which has produced at least 34 earthquakes of estimated 7.0 magnitude or above over the last 2,000 years—an average of one serious earthquake every 60 years. Some of these earthquakes have triggered tsunamis in the Marmara Sea—most of them small, but a few large enough to cause wave heights of 6–10 meters in some locations. Hundreds of smaller earthquakes happen on the Marmara Fault system every year, and it is not uncommon for residents of Istanbul to feel one or two of these small earthquakes in any given year—a regular reminder of the region’s seismicity. Damaging earthquakes are less frequent, but still occur often enough to persist in public memory as well as historical records.

During the 20th century, the North Anatolian Fault saw an east–west sequence of major earthquakes, from Erzincan in 1939 to İzmit in 1999—a pattern that some seismologists interpret as evidence of progressive stress building along the fault line and triggering one earthquake after another, like a set of falling dominoes.1 This pattern suggests that the next major earthquake is likely to occur somewhere west of İzmit, closer to Istanbul. Earthquake risk forecasting is an inexact science, as the timing of earthquakes cannot be predicted before they occur, but recent seismological research estimates that there is a 60–70% probability of an earthquake of magnitude 7.0 or above striking Istanbul within the next three decades. Such estimates are based not only on current models of fault activity but on the frequency of earthquakes in the past, as determined through paleoseismological evidence and historical records. Assessing earthquake activity from historical accounts is a difficult task: systems of dating vary, and some written descriptions of earthquakes may be exaggerated or altogether false.2 Without seismic instrumentation, it is impossible to determine the precise location and magnitude of earthquakes; for this reason, many earthquake catalogues use seismic intensity (a measure of the observed effects, such as perceived shaking or damage to buildings) rather than estimates of magnitude. Many of the less destructive earthquakes reported in Istanbul’s history could therefore have been smaller earthquakes close to the city, or large earthquakes that occurred far away in less densely inhabited areas.

Earthquakes in Byzantine Constantinople

There are intermittent references to earthquakes in the historical records of Greek and Roman Byzantium, including significant earthquakes at Nicomedia (İzmit), the former eastern capital of the Roman Empire and Constantine’s interim capital during the construction of Constantinople, in the years AD 121, 180, and 268. However, the historical record becomes more detailed after the consecration of Constantinople as the new capital of the Byzantine Empire in 330. Byzantine Constantinople suffered from frequent earthquakes, and the use of brick, stone, and lime mortar as the primary building materials in the city made it vulnerable to the effects of the shaking. Byzantine attitudes toward earthquakes were complex: classical naturalist accounts of the causes of earthquakes, including Aristotle’s theory that they were caused by subterranean winds, were widespread, but so were interpretations of earthquakes as signs of divine wrath. As the author of a 13th-century Byzantine chronicle wrote, “although the scientists believe that earthquakes are caused by the movement of air in underground caverns, in truth, earthquakes are sent by God in order to teach human beings the fear of God.”3 The liturgical calendar of the Byzantine Church commemorated every major earthquake that had struck Constantinople, holding a public procession and mass on each anniversary. In the aftermath of major earthquakes, the residents of Constantinople often turned to prayer and penance, and on some occasions they interpreted the earthquakes as the results of political and military events. These social and political effects, combined with the destruction, plague, and famine that followed many large earthquakes, may have contributed to depopulation of the city and other changes in settlement patterns.

The first earthquake struck less than 30 years after the construction of Constantinople began. This earthquake, in 358, destroyed much of Nicomedia, and caused considerable damage in Constantinople as well. In April 407, an earthquake in the Sea of Marmara killed a number of people in Bakırköy. Earthquakes in 412 and September 437 damaged the city walls and led many inhabitants to flee the city due to continuing aftershocks. A much stronger earthquake in November 447 flattened Nicomedia again and caused severe damage to many buildings and structures in Constantinople. In the aftermath, Emperor Theodosius II walked barefoot and without his crown in processions with members of the clergy and the Senate to signify penance and pray for relief. This earthquake destroyed a long segment of the Theodosian walls, which had been constructed only 34 years earlier, and toppled 57 of their towers. The damage to Constantinople’s defenses was particularly threatening due to the proximity of the armies of Attila the Hun, and as a result the government mobilized the city’s inhabitants to rebuild the walls in less than three months. Further deadly earthquakes affected Constantinople in September 477 and the eastern Marmara in September 478. The latter caused severe damage in Nicomedia and killed many people in Constantinople, where it also destroyed a length of the Constantinian walls.

In the mid-sixth century, Constantinople experienced three strong earthquakes in close succession, in August 542, August 554, and December 557. Agathias, a contemporary chronicler and eyewitness, described the latter: “Towards midnight when all the citizens were sleeping peacefully in their beds disaster suddenly struck and every structure was instantly shaken to its foundations.…large numbers of ordinary people perished in the disaster.”4 In addition to killing and injuring many inhabitants, these earthquakes destroyed houses, churches, and baths, and damaged the city walls once more. The shaking caused cracks in the dome of the Hagia Sophia, resulting in its collapse (possibly due to an aftershock or subsequent earthquake) in 558. Emperor Justin II ordered the architect Isidore the Younger to oversee the reconstruction of the church, and Isidore rebuilt the dome in a different form, using lighter materials and raising it to its current height. Recent archaeological studies have suggested that a debris layer discovered during the excavations of Theodosius (Yenikapı) Harbor may have been caused by a tsunami associated with the 557 earthquake.5

1- An engraving depicting the 1509 Istanbul Earthquake known as “Little Doomsday” in Ottoman history

In October 740, an earthquake in the eastern Marmara Sea destroyed many buildings in Constantinople, including the church of Hagia Eirene, and caused an unknown number of casualties. Emperor Leo III levied a special tax to rebuild the city walls. A subsequent earthquake in January 869 damaged many churches and caused a half-dome of the Hagia Sophia to collapse, and Emperor Basil II ordered its repair. Two decades later, on 25 October 989, a major earthquake struck Thrace, causing shaking strong enough to be felt throughout much of Greece. This earthquake damaged many houses and buildings in Constantinople, and may have caused a tsunami that destroyed the tower of Eutropius at the entrance of the Golden Horn. A dome arch in Hagia Sophia also collapsed in the 989 earthquake, and was subsequently repaired under the direction of the Armenian architect Tiridates.

Earthquakes strong enough to cause structural damage and casualties affected Constantinople in 1010 or 1011, 1063, 1231 (during the Latin occupation following the Fourth Crusade), and 1296. On 18 October 1343, two concurrent earthquakes struck the city, causing a tsunami that sent waves as far as two kilometers inland. Constantinople’s major buildings and walls were badly damaged, and cracks appeared in the main dome of Hagia Sophia. The destruction was further compounded by another earthquake in March 1354, which caused the city walls to collapse in several places. This was the last seriously destructive earthquake of the Byzantine period, although a strong earthquake in Bursa in December 1419 reportedly affected Constantinople as well. And in the waning years of the Byzantine Empire, as Ottoman armies laid siege to the city, the historian Kritoboulos of Imbros recorded the occurrence of “unusual and strange earthquakes,” which the people of the city took as “divine portents” in the face of the Ottoman conquest.6

2- The three volume earthquake album prepared to determine the damage in the  1894 Istanbul Earthquake (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Atatürk Library)

Earthquakes in Ottoman Istanbul

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Sultan Mehmet II spearheaded an ambitious effort to rebuild and repopulate the devastated city, transforming it into the new capital of the Ottoman Empire. The first five decades of Ottoman rule were untroubled by earthquakes, aside from a small one in 1500 that caused some walls and buildings to collapse. But on 10 September 1509, the first great catastrophic earthquake of the Ottoman period, and one of the largest in recorded history, laid much of the new capital to waste. The 1509 earthquake was so destructive that it gained the epithet kiyamet-i suğra (küçük kiyamet in modern Turkish) or “the little apocalypse.” The phrase evoked a tradition of Islamic eschatology that associated earthquakes with the apocalypse, making reference to the 99th sura of the Qur’an, Surat al-Zalzala (The Earthquake), in which a terrible earthquake announces the arrival of the Day of Judgment. Like the Byzantines before them, the Ottomans explained earthquakes both with reference to naturalist theories (including Aristotle’s) and in religious terms, as signs of divine punishment for sins or as warnings of the judgment to come. A later account of the 1509 earthquake, written in the 17th century by Solakzade Mehmed Çelebi, contended that Sultan Bayezit II told his viziers and military commanders that the earthquake had been a punishment for their failings.7

The 1509 earthquake destroyed a thousand houses in the city—reportedly, not a single house in Istanbul or Pera was left untouched—and killed some 4,000 to 5,000 people, injuring perhaps twice that number. If estimates of the city’s population at the time are correct, the death toll amounted to one in every 40 people. Structural damage was widespread: the city walls were badly damaged from Eğrıkapı to Yedikule, and 49 of their towers destroyed, including the İsa Kapısı, the last major remnant of the Constantinian walls. As many as 109 mosques suffered significant damage. The minaret added to Hagia Sophia when it was transformed into Aya Sofya Mosque after the conquest toppled over, and the plaster covering the Byzantine mosaics within crumbled. The Fatih and Bayezit Mosques were both badly damaged, with their main domes cracked open, and other parts of their complexes collapsed completely. Topkapı Palace was damaged and its sea walls were breached. The Valens aqueduct near Şehzadebaşı was also affected. Nor were the effects limited to the Historic Peninsula: the Galata Tower and Galata walls were also damaged, as were many structures along the length of the Bosphorus, including Anadolu Hisari and Rumeli Hisari, and Yoros Kalesi at Anadolu Kavağı. To repair the city, Sultan Bayezit II mobilized as many as 66,000 laborers and levied extra taxes in 1510 to fund the reconstruction.

There were intermittent aftershocks and smaller earthquakes in the years after the 1509 disaster, but none with serious effect until 10 May 1556, when an earthquake damaged the Aya Sofya and Fatih Mosques, Topkapı Palace, and parts of the city walls along the Haliç. The number of casualties in this earthquake is unclear, and the worst impact may have been farther east along the Marmara Sea. Further earthquakes were felt in the city in 1577, 1597, 1625, 1633, 1642, 1644, 1669, and 1688 or 1689, but all were either too small or too distant to have a serious effect. However, an earthquake in May or June of 1648 caused some roofs and walls in the city to collapse, and one in 1659 damaged the Suleymaniye Mosque. Another in July 1690 left cracks in the domes of the Fatih Mosque and ruined part of the land walls near Topkapı. Several instances of seismic shaking were recorded in the subsequent decade, causing alarm among the city’s inhabitants but no significant damage. A more violent earthquake in 1712 damaged many houses and mosques, and Katip Çelebi wrote that the imperial divan assembled outdoors in the days afterward, due to the fear of aftershocks.

3- A scene from one of the sides of the little han in the Earthquake of July 10,   1894 (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Atatürk Library)

In 1719, two earthquakes struck Istanbul. The first, in March, was probably a foreshock of the second and ruined two mosques, killing a small number of people. Then, on 25 May, a much stronger earthquake occurred in the eastern Marmara, badly damaging İzmit, Düzce, Yalova, and Karamürsel and killing thousands of people throughout the region. A contemporary Ottoman account reported that in Istanbul, “there was not an undamaged house or chimney. In the market of the handkerchief sellers an arch collapses and 10 men died under it. The caste walls and towers were demolished in places. The domes of the mosques of Sultans Mehmed and Bayezid and Mihrimah Sultan, inside Edirne Kapi, cracked. Many minarets collapsed. The city wall adjoining the Galata gaol was demolished and of the 4 men in the kebab shop under it, three were lost and one was saved.”8 The earthquake ruined 40 mosques and 27 towers, the destruction stretching to Üskudar and the Princes’ Islands. The city walls were also damaged, and the repairs were not completed until 1724.

Frequent earthquake shocks were reported over the next several decades, but none of them was particularly destructive, except for an earthquake on 2 September 1754, which seriously damaged the city walls and many other masonry buildings, including mosques, hans, and baths. The towers of the land walls shattered from Edirne Kapısı to Yedikule, and at least two of the latter’s seven towers were partly demolished. Several mosques were damaged, including Aya Sofya, Kücük Ayasofya, Bayezit, and Fatih, and seven minarets collapsed. The Galata Tower and some of the buildings in Topkapı Palace were also damaged. Reports of the number of fatalities varied widely, ranging from 50 to 800. Aftershocks continued for weeks afterward, leading many inhabitants, including Sultan Mahmud I, to flee the city. Repair work began almost immediately, and several thousand laborers took part in the effort. The Italian architect Espinelluza was hired to design the parts of Topkapı Palace that had to be rebuilt due to earthquake damage. The imperial household returned to Istanbul in early October, and in December Osman III acceded to the throne upon his predecessor’s death, and oversaw the continued reconstruction of the city in 1755.

In 1766, two large earthquakes occurred in the Marmara Fault system. The first struck the eastern Marmara Sea on 22 May, causing a tsunami that stretched to the Bosphorus and Gulf of Mudanya. The second earthquake struck farther west, on 5 August, and extended and exacerbated the effects of the first. The first earthquake occurred on the third day of Kurban Bayrami (Eid al-Adha), shortly after morning prayers. Had it struck earlier, when the mosques were full, the casualties may have been even higher. As it was, the death toll was in the range of 4,000–5,000, with many more injured. The earthquake reportedly caused widespread panic and disorder throughout the city, and Sultan Abdulhamid I ordered the streets patrolled due to the fear of insurrection. The earthquake was widely reported in both Ottoman chronicles and the correspondence of European embassies and traders, and many of the latter compared it to the catastrophic earthquake that had destroyed Lisbon a decade earlier, in 1755.9

4- A destroyed section of Great Market (Büyükçarşı) in the Earthquake of July 10, 1894 (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Atatürk Library)

The May 1766 earthquake caused extensive damage throughout the inhabited areas of the city, including Üsküdar and villages along the Bosphorus. Galata and Pera were also affected, although not as badly as the old city. The land walls were partly ruined, and Yedikule and several city gates saw significant damage. Several hans and markets, including the Kapalıçarşı, collapsed partly or fully, resulting in many casualties. The Fatih Mosque was largely destroyed: its main dome, imaret, asylum, and medrese all collapsed, the latter killing a hundred students. One of the minarets of the Sultanahmet Mosque fell down, and several other mosques also suffered damage, including Mihrimah, Bayezit, Eyüp, Çorlulu Ali Paşa, Ibrahim Paşa, Firuzağa, Koçamustafapaşa, and Haseki Sultan. Churches, dams, and aqueducts, the imperial mint, and several military installations were also damaged or destroyed by the shaking. The damage to Topkapı Palace was severe enough that the sultan lived in tents for several days afterward. The second earthquake, in August, shook the western Marmara region as far as the Dardanelles, and caused further damage to Istanbul, destroying buildings that had probably been weakened by the first earthquake, and killing about 30 people. Many of the city’s inhabitants lived in the open for some time thereafter. The reconstruction process was lengthy, as many public buildings that had been damaged were pulled down and rebuilt entirely.

There were a number of additional earthquakes, probably aftershocks, during the following year—one of which, on 30 January 1767, struck on the first night of Ramadan: “while the muezzins … were establishing the appearance of the Ramazan moon, there was an earthquake … and those in the minarets were so afraid that their gall bladders split.”10 Over the next century, several earthquakes shook Istanbul, causing property damage but not casualties, in 1776, 1790, 1806, and 1837. During this period, the population of Istanbul continued to grow, and with the advent of the Tanzimat period in 1839, major modernization and urban planning projects began to transform the built environment. One significant change was the shift from traditional wooden architecture to kârgir or stone and brick-and-mortar construction. Although the transition was incomplete, due to the higher cost of masonry materials, it was the fruit of a deliberate policy to reduce the risk of another kind of disaster: fire, which had repeatedly devastated the city. But while kârgir structures are less flammable than those made of wood and plaster, they are also considerably less flexible, making them more vulnerable to seismic shaking. The last major earthquake of the Ottoman period therefore found the city more technologically developed than ever before, but just as fragile.

5- The street of jewelry stores in Great Market (Büyükçarşı) in the Earthquake of July 10, 1894 (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Atatürk Library)

At half past noon on 10 July 1894, an earthquake with an estimated magnitude of 7.3 occurred in the Marmara Fault system, causing shaking felt over a radius of 400 kilometers. A series of aftershocks later that day and in the following weeks compounded the destruction. The official death toll was in the hundreds, but unofficial contemporary reports and subsequent historical analysis suggest it may have been in the thousands. Istanbul suffered extensive damage, with mosques, churches, synagogues, public buildings, hospitals, schools, markets, and homes affected throughout the city.11 The government estimated that some 10,000 buildings were damaged. The worst destruction was concentrated along the Marmara coasts and in the Historic Peninsula, especially in Fatih, Edirnekapi, Topkapı, and the neighborhoods along the Golden Horn. The Princes’ Islands were also badly affected, with most stone buildings damaged or destroyed, including the Church of St. George on Büyükada and the Greek Orthodox Seminary and Naval College on Heybeliada. Parts of the Kapalıçarşı collapsed, and many mosques in the old city were damaged, among them Fatih, Nurosmaniye, Mihrimah, Sokullu Mehmet Paşa, Atik Ali Paşa, Davut Paşa, and Küçük Ayasofya. The Aya Sofya suffered minor damage, and the dome of Hagia Eirene cracked. The Armenian cathedral in Kumkapı and St. Benoit Church were badly affected. The railway station at Haydarpaşa was damaged, as were the ministries of finance, war, and foreign affairs. The effects were less severe in Galata and Pera and along the Bosphorus, but some buildings in these districts also collapsed. All but one of the city’s telegraph lines were disrupted, and many water conduits broke, causing contamination that increased the risk of disease in the devastated city.

During and immediately after the earthquake, people fled outside, many initially congregating on the bridges across the Golden Horn. The fear caused by the earthquake and the frequent aftershocks led many of the city’s residents to construct makeshift shelters in parks, squares, cemeteries, and other open spaces, where they remained for some time. Muslims and Christians alike interpreted the earthquake in religious terms, and responded with prayers and public gestures of penance. The writer Halide Edip Adivar, who was 10 years old at the time, recalled the fear she felt because of religious associations of the earthquake with the apocalypse, and noted that her family became more devout in the aftermath.12 But while religious interpretations of the disaster were widespread, the earthquake also sparked interest in emerging scientific explanations of seismic activity. The discoveries and debates of the emerging discipline of seismology had been filtering into Ottoman intellectual circles from the mid-19th century onward, and in the aftermath of the 1894 earthquake, many newspapers and journals printed articles discussing the causes of earthquakes in scientific terms.

6- Osmaniye Printing House and the buildings in its yard in the Earthquake of July 10, 1894 (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Atatürk Library)

7- The coppersmith stores around Beyazıt tramway in the Earthquake of July 10, 1894 (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Atatürk Library)

The 1894 earthquake served as a major impetus for the development of seismological research in the Ottoman Empire. Sultan Abdülhamid II commissioned Demetrius Eginitis, the director of the Greek National Observatory, to come to Istanbul and produce a report on the causes of the earthquake, which Eginitis completed in August. Ottoman ambassadors in Europe were ordered to write reports about the state of seismological research and instrumentation in the countries where they were posted, and a committee in Istanbul drew on this information to plan the creation of a local seismological service.13 Shortly thereafter, the government authorized funding for the foundation of Istanbul’s first seismological observatory, in Maçka, and hired the prominent Italian seismologist Giovanni Agamenonne to be its director. Agamenonne’s successor, Salih Zeki Bey, and the group of researchers they trained became the founding scholars of seismology in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic. The seismic observatory was eventually relocated to Kandilli after the founding of the Republic, and is now the Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute.

Earthquakes in Republican Istanbul

There were a number of sizable earthquakes in the Marmara region during the 20th century. A magnitude 7.3 earthquake at Ganos near Tekirdağ in 1912 created a small tsunami and caused minor damage to buildings in the Beyoğlu, Topkapı, Unkapanı, Kasımpaşa, and Ortaköy neighborhoods of Istanbul. There was a 7.0 magnitude earthquake at Hendek in 1943, a 7.1 magnitude earthquake at Yenice-Gönen in 1953, and a 6.8 magnitude earthquake at Manyas in 1964, all of which were felt in Istanbul but caused little or no damage there. A 7.2 magnitude earthquake at Mudurnu in 1967 caused some damage in Istanbul, and resulted in the death of a young woman in Çemberlitaş when the Vezirhan collapsed. On 24 April 1988, a 5.1 magnitude earthquake in the Marmara Sea, about 70 kilometers from Istanbul, resulted in very minor damage (broken glass and cracks in walls), but caused considerable public alarm in the city. This concern was justified, because Istanbul’s transformation over the preceding decades had substantially increased the risk posed by seismic activity on the Marmara Fault system.

Istanbul’s population increased from 1 million in 1950 to at least 10 million by the end of the 20th century, as rapid urbanization and labor migration brought waves of new inhabitants to the city. Many of them lived in unplanned and often unauthorized shantytowns called gecekondu, which sprouted up around the city’s periphery to meet the growing need for housing. The urban fabric in the heart of the city was transformed during this period, as multistory concrete apartment buildings replaced houses made of wood or brick. Legal standards for earthquake-resistant design were introduced in 1944 and updated in 1953, 1968, 1975, and 1998, but the application and enforcement of these building codes varied considerably. Corruption and cost-cutting meant that many new buildings, even those with official permits, were designed with insufficient structural reinforcement or constructed using substandard materials. As a result, many middle-class neighborhoods were just as vulnerable as gecekondu areas—in some cases even more so, since they were more likely to consist of taller multistory apartment buildings.

The consequences of this transformation of the built environment became abruptly and terribly clear on 17 August 1999, when four segments of the North Anatolian Fault line ruptured along the eastern edge of the Marmara Sea, causing a 7.4 magnitude earthquake. The earthquake’s epicenter was at Gölcuk, about 80 kilometers from Istanbul, but it is often referred to as the İzmit or the Kocaeli earthquake, after the city and province where the worst devastation occurred. The 1999 earthquake killed more than 20,000 people, injured or left homeless hundreds of thousands more, and caused billions of dollars worth of destruction to Turkey’s industrial and economic heartland. Nearly a thousand people were killed in Istanbul itself, and several districts of the city—especially Avcılar and other suburbs on the Marmara coast, as well as the Princes’ Islands—suffered considerable damage.

The social and political aftershocks of the earthquake were far-reaching, especially after another deadly earthquake struck the city of Düzce three months later. The 1999 earthquake led to public outcry, both because of the Turkish state’s slow and ineffective response to the disaster and because of anger over the systemic problems that had allowed so many unsafe buildings to be constructed. The earthquake also sparked an unprecedented mobilization of civil society, as volunteers and nongovernmental organizations took the lead in organizing grassroots rescue efforts and relief work. One of the most lasting effects of the İzmit earthquake was the anxiety it generated about the prospect of a future earthquake in Istanbul. During the following years, state and local institutions responsible for disaster management were reorganized and expanded, and the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality developed an Earthquake Master Plan that laid out a road map for seismic risk assessment, risk mitigation, and disaster preparedness projects that continue today. Historical monuments, public buildings, and infrastructure such as bridges and viaducts have been retrofitted over the last decade, and many residents have taken measures to strengthen their own buildings. Nonetheless, a significant portion of Istanbul’s built environment remains vulnerable to future earthquakes.

Earthquakes in Istanbul’s Future

In an essay titled “Earthquake Angst in Istanbul,” the novelist Orhan Pamuk depicted the fears that the 1999 earthquake evoked among the residents of the city, describing a wide range of responses, from helpless resignation to vigilant preparation. As Pamuk wrote, “the millions of Istanbullus living in unsound buildings on unsound soil have come to understand that they have to find their own way of fending off terror.”14 The increased anxiety about earthquake risk has affected settlement patterns in the city, as real estate values fell in areas closer to the fault line or built atop poor-quality soil, and rose in new neighborhoods constructed farther up the Bosphorus and on solid bedrock. Earthquake awareness increased again in October 2011, when a deadly earthquake struck the city of Van in eastern Anatolia, killing several hundred people. The familiar images of collapsed buildings and homeless survivors living in tent cities served as a powerful reminder of the vulnerability of other Turkish cities, including Istanbul. In response to the Van earthquake, the Turkish parliament passed a wide-ranging and deeply controversial disaster risk reduction law in May 2012. The law gives the state broad authority to conduct sweeping urban transformation projects in areas it designates as disaster risk zones, and provides limited compensation and no effective legal recourse for the owners and residents of the buildings to be demolished. The implementation of the disaster risk reduction law began in early 2013, guaranteeing that the specter of earthquake risk will play an important role in the transformation of the urban landscape over the coming decades. No one knows when the next earthquake will strike Istanbul, or with what effects. But it is certain that earthquakes will continue to shape the city’s future, as they have its past.


1 Aykut Barka and Ali Er, Depremini Bekleyen Şehir: İstanbul. Istanbul: Epsilon, 2006.

2 This article relies primarily on the dates given in N.N. Ambraseys and C.F. Finkel, “Long-term Seismicity of Istanbul and of the Marmara Sea Region,” Terra, 1991, vol. 3, pp. 527–539; N. N. Ambraseys and C. F. Finkel, The Seismicity of Turkey and Adjacent Areas: A Historical Review, 1500-1800, Istanbul: Eren Yayıncılık, 1995; Mevlüde Bakır, “Impact and Consequences of Earthquakes in Byzantine Constantinople and its Vicinity, A.D. 342-1454” (M.A. Thesis), Boğaziçi University, 2002; and Murat Utkucu, Zakir Kanbur, Ömer Alptekin and Fatih Sünbül, “Seismic Behaviour of the North Anatolian Fault Beneath the Sea of Marmara (NW Turkey): Implications for Earthquake Recurrence Times and Future Seismic Hazard,” Natural Hazards, 2009, vol 50, pp. 45-71.

3 Bakır, “Impact and Consequences of Earthquakes in Byzantine Constantinople”, p. 108.

4 Bakır, “Impact and Consequences of Earthquakes in Byzantine Constantinople”, pp. 39-41. Some interpretations related earthquakes to political or military events. People turned to prayer and penance in the aftermath.

5 Guénaelle Bony, Nick Marriner, Christophe Morhange, David Kaniewski and Doğan Perinçek, “A High-Energy Deposit in the Byzantine Harbour of Yenikapı, Istanbul (Turkey),” Quaternary International, 2012, vol. 266, pp. 117-130.

6 Bakır, “Impact and Consequences of Earthquakes in Byzantine Constantinople”, p. 181.

7 Amit Bein, “The Istanbul Earthquake of 1894 and Science in the Late Ottoman Empire,” Middle Eastern Studies, 2008, vol. 44, pp. 909-924.

8 Ambraseys and Finkel The Seismicity of Turkey and Adjacent Areas, p. 106.

9 Deniz Mazlum, 1766 İstanbul Depremi: Belgeler Işığında Yapı Onarımları, Istanbul: Suna ve İnan Kıraç Vakfı İstanbul Araştırmaları Enstitüsü, 2011.

10 Ambraseys and Finkel, The Seismicity of Turkey and Adjacent Areas, p. 150.

11 Fatma Ürekli, İstanbul’da 1894 Depremi, Istanbul: İletişim Yayınları, 1999.

12 Halide Edip Adivar, House with Wisteria: Memoirs of Halide Edib. Charlottesville: Leopolis Press, 2002, p. 131.

13 Bein, “The Istanbul Earthquake of 1894 and Science in the Late Ottoman Empire,” p. 920.

14 Orhan Pamuk, “Earthquake Angst in Istanbul,” in Other Colors: Essays and a Story, translated by Maureen Freely, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007: 94-104, p. 99.

This article was originally written in English for History of Istanbul and its Turkish translation was published in 2015.