Turkey's Antakya is in ruins after the quake, erasing cultural and religious heritage
ANTAKYA, Turkey — Yusuf Kocaoglu, a professional guide, leads us on a tour he never wanted to give.
The site of ancient Antioch — a crossroads of civilizations and a modern tourist and religious pilgrimage destination in southern Turkey — is one of the cities left most devastated by the Feb. 6 earthquake that killed tens of thousands in Turkey and Syria.
For 10 years, Kocaoglu, a native of the city, led tours of its historical core, guiding visitors from around the world. It has now suffered near-total destruction. The bazaar, the breakfast place he'd take tourists, the local hangouts — all are decimated.
"There is no place now I can take you because all of them are destroyed," he says. "Most of the people left the city."
Built around 300 BCE, the city, now called Antakya, has survived several previous calamitous earthquakes. Now, Turkish military vehicles, on patrol to keep the peace, roll past entire streets reduced to rubble. Bodies are still believed to be rotting under the debris.
The Feb. 6 earthquake and aftershocks wiped out monuments of world heritage and religion in the city, an early cradle of Christianity and significant in the Roman Empire. Historical sites throughout the region suffered.
"The earthquakes damaged structures spanning centuries and cultures, from Roman forts to historic mosques to churches holy to a number of Christian denominations," Bénédicte de Montlaur, president and CEO of the World Monuments Fund, tells NPR. "We have no doubt that the heritage lost in these tragic events will take years to repair and that we will need a large international mobilization to support the local efforts."
The city's centuries-old kaleidoscope of peoples — Alawites, Alevis, Armenians, Christians, Jews, and in recent years Syrian war refugees — has now scattered. There were more than 200,000 people living in the city before the quake, but now survivors who have remained in the surrounding district are living in tents, Kocaoglu included.
"Antakya and the surrounding region has a deep, diverse history and has long been home to people speaking different languages and practicing different religions," says Jennifer Stager, a researcher of ancient Antioch at Johns Hopkins University. "It is vital that our focus remain on the living people in need, while recognizing that these monuments are a significant part of the region's history and contemporary life."
The mosque that Turkey claims is the oldest in the Anatolia region has caved in. Habib-i Najjar Mosque was built as a church in 638 CE and converted back and forth over the centuries from a church to a mosque. It was destroyed in an 1853 earthquake and rebuilt during the Ottoman period, but its 17th century minaret remained. After this month's earthquake, the minaret and the mosque's domed roof are gone.
The Sermaye Mosque, built in the early 1700s, was unique in mosque architecture for its entrance built through the minaret. Now the minaret is a stump. Other mosques in Antakya are complete piles of rubble, like the Ottoman-era New Mosque, known as Yeni Camii.
The Ulu Mosque, built in the 18th century, used to broadcast the call to prayer five times a day in the center of the city. Now it is completely gone. Loudspeakers attached to street poles now carry the prayer call — a symbol, Kocaoglu says, that life in Antakya clings on.
Churches in ruin
The Apostle Peter brought Christianity to ancient Antioch in the first few decades after Jesus' death. The New Testament says this city is where Christians were first called Christian.
The Orthodox Church in Antakya, the headquarters of the Greek Orthodox patriarchate until the 14th century, was decimated in the quake — its façade now a jumble of iron and cement debris.
A newer Protestant church, housed in a building built in 1860 and previously the site of a French consulate, was also crushed. Run by a Korean Methodist group, its South Korean pastor, Yakup Chang, led Sunday worship services in the street outside the church. One of his congregants was missing in the quake.
"It's very hard," the pastor sighs. "Can I do something? No. We just lean on each other. Stick together. That's what I should do."
A Jewish community grieves
Ancient Antioch was also a major hub of Judaism outside the Holy Land. The Jewish community remained in the city for 2,300 years. By the time of February's earthquake, it numbered only a dozen or so members.
The Antakya synagogue is still standing, having sustained minor damage. Its ancient Torah scroll, written on antelope vellum, was taken out of the city for safekeeping after the earthquake.
After the quake, the community's surviving members moved to Istanbul. Antakya's Jewish community president, Saul Cenudioglu, and his wife Fortuna, were killed when their apartment building collapsed.
"He was really hospitable," says Kocaoglu, our guide. "He used to like helping people."
It's unclear if the city's few surviving Jews will return to live there after the earthquake.
Beer among the ruins
The Lonely Planet guide to Turkey summarizes Antakya's charm in a sentence: "Atmospheric old-town fragments cling on amid the modern hubbub." Today, a narrow street of bars and restaurants lies in waste.
For the first time on the tour, Kocaoglu turns away to cry.
"This is the heart of Antakya," he says. "We had lots of memories here with my friends, with my guests from different countries. I remember them."
A bulldozer has paved a hilly path through the wreckage. Amid rubble stands one of his favorite old haunts, the Pasha Restaurant, sliced down the middle. Owner Orhan Uyanik, salvaging crates of beer from the ruins, wonders about the fate of a couple who got engaged here recently.
Despite the cataclysmic loss, Kocaoglu, and all those we meet along the way, cling to the Turkish government's promise to rebuild Antakya and its historic sites - and take solace in how the city has rebounded through the ages.
The city "was ruined by the earthquakes six or seven times. Maybe this is the eighth. It doesn't matter," says Kocaoglu. "We will try to do something for our city again and again."
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