Chronicle of the Middle East and North Africa

Antakya: A Cultural Jewel, Lost

A city known for its cultural diversity and rich history, Antakya is now facing unprecedented hardships with irreversible losses.

This photograph taken on February 19, 2023, shows a collapsed building in the city of Antakya. Sameer Al-DOUMY / AFP

Dana Hourany

On Monday, February 6, 2023, Antakya – a bustling Turkish city – was ravaged by an immense 7.8 magnitude earthquake.

At the first rumble, many residents found themselves in a desperate situation as towering apartment blocks crumbled and flattened, trapping them as they were sleeping.

The devastating natural disaster and its violent aftershocks left over 41,200 people dead across southeastern Türkiye and northern Syria at the time of writing. United Nations children’s agency spokesman James Elder said 4.6 million children live in the 10 Turkish provinces affected by the disaster, while 2.5 million live in Syria.

The earthquake was one of the most devastating natural disasters to affect Türkiye in recent history. Rated at 7.8 on the Richter scale, the recent quake is believed to be the strongest to hit Türkiye since 1939, when an earthquake of the same magnitude killed 30,000 people, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS). Among the most affected provinces in Türkiye were Gaziantep, Kahramanmaras, and Hatay.

Drone footage showed hundreds of destroyed buildings in Antakya, the capital of the Hatay province, which bore the brunt of the destruction.

A city known for its cultural diversity and rich history, Antakya is now facing unprecedented hardships with irreversible archeological, physical, and emotional losses. To restore the city to its former glory, experts expect years of work.

For the time being in many years, its residents remain without electricity, water, or toilets, with a risk of a cholera outbreak. Their only means of protection from the bitter cold are tents, and they continue to rely on local and international help for food and water.

A brief history

Alexander the Great established Antakya, which is the Arabicized version of “Antiocheia,” built on the ruins of Samandağ and other nearby cities, at the direction of Emperor Seleucus I. In contrast to Rome, which was partitioned in 395 BCE, Antakya was given to the Byzantine Empire and grew quickly to become one of the top three cities in the empire, along with Alexandria and Rome. Muslims arrived in the area after a protracted siege by Islamic forces during the Battle of Yarmouk, converting Antakya into a frontier (thaghr) and military base under their dominion.

In 878 CE, Ahmad b. Tūlūn, governor of Abbāsid Egypt and founder of the short-lived Tūlūnid state (868–905), annexed Northern Syria along the rest of the region – including Antakya – keeping it in his possession until 898. Sayf al-Dawla, ruler of northern Syria who was the founder and the most prominent prince of the Arab Hamdānid dynasty of Aleppo, took charge of it in 944 before it was seized by Byzantine general Michael Burtzes in 969 and governed by Byzantine dukes until 1084.

In its prime, the city was a flourishing center under the Byzantines until it was rocked by seismic activity in the 4th century CE resulting in the death of 200,000 inhabitants. During the 16th century, the Ottoman Empire attempted to restore the city’s previous glory, but the city was reduced to a single small town.

In February 1919, French troops invaded the city after World War I, annexing it to Syria, which was at the time under French rule. In 1938, a separate government called the Sanj̲ak of Alexandretta was established and chose Antakya as its capital. The French then ceded the Sanjak to modern-day Türkiye on June 23, 1939.

Due to its unique heritage, Antakya has earned a distinctive position in Christian history. Since the apostle Paul and Barnabas both preached in the city, religious influences can still be seen today.

The Antakya Synagogue, the Habib’i Neccar Mosque, and the Hatay Archaeology Museum – all key tourist destinations – made the city stand out.

A cultural loss

The city has always been home to a vibrant, diverse culture. In reality, the population is composed of Turks, Arabs (who practice a wide variety of faiths, including Sunni Islam, Alawism, Greek Orthodoxy, Judaism, and Catholicism), Syriacs, Kurds, and Armenians.

A classic example of peaceful coexistence, the oldest part of the city, where historic mosques, churches, and even a synagogue stood, is now destroyed.

The 250-year-old synagogue in the city was partially destroyed by the earthquake as Jewish clergymen raced inside to save the ancient Torah scrolls, which were also listed as antiquities in museums.

With only 14 members still residing in the city, the Turkish Jewish community confirmed the passing of Saul Cenudioglu, the head of the Jewish community in Antakya, and his wife, Fortuna (also known as Tuna).

“Along with our [destroyed] Antakya Synagogue, the 2500-year-long Jewish life has come to an end with great pain,” the community lamented on Twitter. “We are in deep pain from losing the veteran president of our Antakya Jewish community, the city’s elder brother, symbol, our elder, the exemplary Saul Cenudioglu and his wife, Tuna Cenudioglu, in the Antakya Earthquake.”

Jews and Muslims once had a close relationship that included visiting and congratulating each other during religious celebrations, according to Cenudioglu, who is believed to have made this statement prior to his death.

The city was also a hive of commercial activity, encircling Independence Road, the first lit street in history. The street, which once housed a diverse array of retailers and eateries, including kebab restaurants, hotels, spice shops, candy shops, tailor shops, pharmacies, and hair salons, is now desolate.

Processing the losses

Hasan Al-Mossa, a nine-year resident of Antakya and a Syrian activist who founded the nonprofit Kids Paradise, told Fanack that the bulk of the city’s residents are currently either sleeping in their cars or makeshift tents.

For the first twenty-four hours, according to Al-Mossa, rescue teams were unable to arrive promptly. Aid began to arrive the following day.

“Regrettably, a lot of people had already passed or were still trapped under the rubble at that point.”

Before the earthquake, Antakya was blanketed in a lush vegetation that the activist likens to the Mediterranean scenery of Lebanon and Syria. Antakyan kunefe was one of his favorite delicacies – something that once reminded him of a home that too is destroyed.

Now that much of the city has been leveled, he says the losses are irreparable.

“I’m sure the government will rebuild the city at some point, but our individual and emotional losses will never be repaired,” he said, lamenting the passing of his sister-in-law, nephew, and niece, as well as many of his friends.

The looming catastrophe is the final number of fatalities, he says.

“Turkish emigrants returned home to look for family members, parents and siblings, and many continue to do so today,” he said. “Because of the sheer scale of the disaster and the first delay in the arrival of rescue crews, people resorted to digging through the rubble using only their hands. Many continue to believe in miracles,” he told Fanack.

Al-Mossa is working with his team to provide assistance within Türkiye and Syria in the form of food, transportation, psychological support, and physical support. He still sleeps in his car.

“As Syrians, we evacuated Syria after years of war to seek asylum in Türkiye, and now we must leave once more to seek safety elsewhere,” he continued.

A dark, cold, traumatic new reality

Barş Yapar, a 27-year-old local, says he and his parents have only just received a tent from a friend, and they struggle to stay warm in subzero temperatures.

“We lost our grandparents as we were waiting for the rescue teams and eventually had to bring the rescue tools ourselves,” Yapar told Fanack.

He says that for Antakyans, emotions are too difficult to process.

“Even as we worked to rescue those trapped in the rubble, dread overwhelmed us at the thought of them succumbing to hunger or cold,” he said. “Simultaneously, concern for ourselves compounded; how do we find food? Where do we sleep? How do we get by without help?”

Grief is a luxury not afforded to them just yet, he added.

Yapar’s mind wandered back to his time growing up in the city as he sat outside, cautious of break-ins targeting shops and the remaining homes. Children from very diverse racial and religious backgrounds would create a colorful mix in this environment. Each culture brought with it its own traditions and customs that had some things in common but also stood for something different, he reminisced.

But children are now facing compounded risks. “There are people who will prey on this vulnerability and will exploit these children at a time when they most need support and protection,” World Vision warned in a statement. Some parents in the region have even expressed alarm to AFP over rumored child kidnappings. According to official media, Turkish police have arrested a man who was attempting to abduct a newborn from a hospital in southern Türkiye. This comes after the devastating earthquake that struck the area, al-Arabiya reported.

“Nevertheless, Antakya is the only place we call home and it is where our roots lie,” Yapar said. “Despite the tragedy and the compounded ripple effect, nothing compares to our upbringing and way of life here.”

Years of damage

A resident of Türkiye for over a decade with a home in the town of Samandağ, south of Antakya, art critic and curator Arie Amaya-Akkermans told Fanack that the city was a “mosaic”, still in the process of developing and weaving a complex identity before the devastating earthquake occurred.

He asserts that while it did not receive the same level of attention from the Turkish state as other regions, it nevertheless played a significant role in safeguarding the cultures of minorities in the Levant.

“It’s a ghost town now, with people starting fires with anything they can find to keep warm,” he told Fanack.

As for the aid currently being distributed, he says large scale support is still needed and that the government was slow to issue an adequate response.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s handling of Türkiye’s response to its earthquake has been called into question by those who are opposed to him. His critics contend that he did not take sufficient precautions in order to be adequately prepared for such an occurrence.

Government officials responded by saying that no amount of preparation could have adequately prepared for the crisis. They maintained that being ready for an event of this scale was simply impossible.

Amaya-Akkermans believes the city will take many years to recover after such substantial damage was done to its already inadequate infrastructure.
“Retrieving the bodies alone takes a considerable amount of time,” Amaya-Akkermans said. “But we hope the city will one day regain its glory as its resources are abundant and its destruction is a devastating loss.”