Literature is one of the most powerful and efficient instruments through which we can express our feelings and thoughts. It may involve experiences or fantasies. In this respect, literature is very important, especially for people who research social history. Incidents, like natural disasters, affect social life providing profound materials to literature because of their deep impressions on people, thus literary works provide important data to the people who are engaged in social history or investigate the effects of social incidents on people. Indeed, most of these data are subjective; but still, in a way they reflect reality. Therefore, a more correct approach is to consider literary works as instruments that articulate the feelings of people rather than historical facts.

As in many post-disaster era, some literary works were also written after the earthquakes that affected Istanbul. As far as we know, the earthquakes that inspired epics and poems in the Ottoman period were the ones that occurred in 1766 and 1894. There are five epics in total about the 1766 earthquake, two of which were written in Armenian language by Armenian folk poet Minas Ceryanoğlu and an Armenian doctor from Kütahya named Bedros or Petro.1

1- Unkapanı Mosque, heavily damaged in 1894 Earthquake (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Atatürk Library, Album no. 184)

On the other hand, the 1894 earthquake inspired two epics, one of them by Halid Efendi, a student at Fatih Military School at the time of the earthquake and the other being anonymous; a poem by Tevfik Fikret, which was dedicated to his son Haluk,2 and a verse by Poet Eşref that satirizes the aftermath of the earthquake. Numerous poems were written about the 1999 Earthquake, which is the last great earthquake that affected Istanbul.3 However, those do not specifically mention Istanbul.

2- The elementary school in Sultan Hamamı, completely destroyed in 1894 Earthquake (Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, Atatürk Library, Album no. 184)

The most prominent matter in the earthquake epics and poems are the experiences during and after the quakes. These works, some of which involve the day and time of the earthquake, try to narrate the shock and panic state that dawned upon people from the earthquake and the pain that followed it. Minas Ceryanoğlu, who narrates the 1766 earthquake effervescently, expresses that “everyone rushed out to the streets with bare feet and without headscarves”, that many people had “lost their minds” and gone crazy.” In the second epic that he wrote in Armenian, he says that everyone sat together, cried and mourned their loss by throwing dirt over their heads. On the other hand, Bedros depicts what people went through and suffered on the 22nd May 1766 earthquake that occurred on the 11th day of May in 1215 according to Armenian calendar as follows:

From all around, cries and wailing arose
Mothers and children suffer beyond words
Praying to God, “Please show mercy to us”

I looked at the mansions at the shore
Many people got in their boats in shock
Wondering where to go, the sea or the land?

So many people perished, lamenting in anguish
So many animals perished, dropping like flies
As we were all being sunk into the earth

The dead rotted away without gravestones
Many local, many wretched perished away
People filled with agony, wandering around

Many homes, many arches perished
Many people perished into the afterlife
Gracious Lord turned away from us

An unbearable wailing gathered above
And like the petals of a faded rose
Shed over this lovely precious city

A similar picture is drawn in the epic about the 1894 Earthquake in Halid Efendi’s Hareket-i Arz Destanı (The Earthquake Epic). This epic involves the date and time of the earthquake and details of the aftermath. One third of this epic which consists of 21 verses tells the moments of fear, panic and the sufferings endured during the event:

During our class in Fatih Middle School
Everything started to shake, we all froze
As it got thunderous, fear possessed us
And we cried for Allah, our gracious Lord

Officers say “What a disaster!”
Is there any safe place for us?
Only through the grace of God, I said
Everyone would find some peace

We gratefully got out the school
All, worn out and exhausted
We went to see how our parents were
We were ready for a divine firman

Some left their books behind
To save themselves
They ran off to see their homes
All bursting into tears

The schoolyard turned into a wreck
Student officers filled the streets
Thank God, they all survived
Rams were sacrificed to our Almighty Lord

We saw the Fire Brigade came to the fire
They dove into the fire like moths
Saved lots of places, but there were casualties
Yet they praised Almighty God with gratitude

Chests were brought over from the other side
Lots of places were saved by the Lord, the Creator
He kindly granted diligence to humankind

Again, in the anonymous epic, which describes the 1894 earthquake, the tragedy is revealed from the perspective of a student named Salih. Fifteen-year-old Salih, who was exposed to the earthquake, while he was reading in the school’s cafeteria, was seriously injured by the pieces of rock that fell on him while he was running outside. He was brought to the hospital amongst the cries and wailings of his friends, however he could not survive. Afterwards, the epic sorrowfully depicts his corpse being taken to a public bath, kept there for a night, being washed and then buried.

Another point that stands out in the epics about the earthquakes is the reason of their occurrences. In this respect, epics become useful instruments in terms of understanding how people interpreted such natural disasters. For instance, the epics about the 1766 earthquake put forth that the earthquake was a holy warning and the wrath of God rather than a natural disaster. Minas Ceryanoğlu in the epic he wrote after the first quakes in May 1766 states that the earthquake occurred because of people’s sins. He tells about halal and haram going hand in hand, people felling into blasphemy, and increase of fornication. Seventy two nations had lost their way and the wrath of God abided upon Istanbul because of all these sins. Bedros, who shares very similar opinions, share them in different phrases:

Some rely on science and some on skills
Some neglect God and rely on possessions
Do not ever give ear to His holy words

Neither wise nor ignorant follows the Book
Unbelievers and faithless are beyond count
I wonder, don’t they ever dwell on demise?

Who gave this wrath, where did it come from?
It was the God, showing us our sinful ways
So always keep this in mind, do not ever forget

Even though Thou have every right to punish us
We, your servants, beg you to take pity on us
And to let us prostrate before Thy holy grace

Another common point in these epics is the need to repent in order to absolve from sins and be saved from this wrath. Bedros expresses this opinion in his repentance refrain:

Let us all repent, repent, repent, repent, repent
Before Gracious God, for a thousand times repent
Those who see and not see, let them all repent

One-verse poem by Poet Eşref, who was the master of satire at the time, which can be interpreted as a warning for those who did not learn their lesson from the 1894 earthquake, expresses similar feelings with the above:

It had been a rendezvous point for fornicators
The frivolous and the flashy exchanged glances;
Don’t think the quake caused the domes to collapse
That was the Hatmaker, putting on a punishment hat!

Another point that was mentioned in the literary works about the earthquake was the collapsed and ruined places and the people who were struggling for their lives. In his epic about the 1766 earthquake, Bedros states that city walls were collapsed and numerous mosques, minarets, poorhouses, inns and public baths were ruined. On the other hand, Ceryanoğlu does not mention the damaged structures from the same earthquake; however he says in one of the epics written in Armenian that several people were lost; and moaning and sometimes screams of the injured could be heard under the debris. Another epic written in Armenian and another one in Turkish by Ceryanoğlu tells the tragic death of an Armenian preacher called Kevork, who lost his life under the debris of Vizier’s Inn. Another person who tells about the struggle of life and death and the ruined places in the aftermath is Halid Efendi. He attempted to depict the scene in the aftermath of the 1894 earthquake, telling that the corpses, which were pulled out of the Grand Bazaar debris, were laid out in the city squares, there was a fire in the vicinity of Fatih and the firefighters put it off by “diving into the fire like moths.” He also stated in a very simple style that the minaret of Edirnekapı Mihrimah Sultan Mosque and the finial of Fatih Mosque were collapsed, walls of buildings like barracks and police stations were cracked and city walls of Istanbul, several public baths and lots of inns, Grand Bazaar in particular, were damaged.

However, Tevfik Fikret adopted a different approach to the 1894 earthquake, which was the last great earthquake of the 19th century, and its aftermath. He actually wrote his poem named Zelzele (Earthquake) in order to portray the political structure of the period. However, he depicted this political scene by identifying it with the earthquake. The figures used by the poet are the figures created by the earthquake. He told that the earth, which he compares to a raged and feverish patient who suddenly started to shake, flounder even; these flounders destroyed whatever there was on earth and the earthquake dragged people to sorrow and desperation. The impact of the 1894 earthquake on Tevfik Fikret must have played a great part in his choice to portray the political scene in this way. Thus, afterwards, the poem named Aydın Felâketzedegânı İçin4 (For Aydın Survivors) that is believed to be written by him in the aftermath of Aydın earthquake in 1895 or 1899 and another poem named Verin Zavallılara5 (Help the Wretched) that he wrote after the Balıkesir earthquake in 1898 are different from Zelzele. Because these poems invited people to help the survivors and were written in order to ignite the sense of cooperation amongst the people of Istanbul. However in Zelzele, the sufferings endured as a result of the earthquakes in the past were told and people were invited to take a lesson from all that had happened.


1 Kevork Pamukciyan, İstanbul Yazıları, İstanbul: Aras Yayıncılık, 2002, pp. 65-74.

2 Sema Küçükalioğlu Özkılıç, 1894 Depremi ve İstanbul, İstanbul: Türkiye İş Bankası, 2015, pp. 278-287; Sadri Sema, Eski İstanbul Hatıraları, prepared by Ali Şükrü Çoruk, Istanbul: Kitabevi, 2002, p. 177.

3 (20.07.2018); (20.07.2018); (20.07.2018).

4 Meral Demiryürek, “Tevfik Fikret’in Bilinmeyen Bir Şiiri”, İlmî Araştırmalar Dergisi, 2003, vol. 15, pp. 167-172.

5 Nesimi Yazıcı, Ocak 1898 Balıkesir Depremi ve Sonrası, Ankara: Ankara Üniversitesi İlâhiyat Fakültesi, 2003, p. 62.

This article was translated from Turkish version of History of Istanbul with some editions to be published in a digitalized form in 2019.

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