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Fabled Antakya fears losing its ‘soul’ in Turkey’s earthquake ruins

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As they left Antakya, Turkey’s earthquake-shattered home of ancient civilizations, its anguished residents scribbled farewell messages on the ruins: “We’ll come back” and “Don’t lose hope.”

Last month’s deadly 7.8-magnitude quake and its aftershocks came down hard on Antakya — a fabled city near Syria once known as Antioch — ravaging centuries of treasured history.

Now, its residents fear the city they eventually return to will lack the vibrance and tradition of cultural acceptance that distinguished Antakya from the rest of Turkey until disaster struck on February 6, claiming more than 50,000 lives.

“In Turkey, those who are not Turkish and Sunni Muslim are seen as rare objects worthy of a museum. But in Antakya, it was different,” said Emre Can Dağlıoğlu, a volunteer for Nehna, an online platform dedicated to Antakya’s Orthodox Christian culture.

Emre Can Dağlıoğlu (L) and Anna Beylunioğlu, both natives from Antakya who are now uniting efforts the Nehna platform dedicated to preserve Antakya’s Orthodox culture, speak together in a tea house in Istanbul on March 3, 2023.
Eylül YASAR / AFP

“The church was at the center of daily life, just as much as the synagogue was. Your tailor could be Jewish or Christian, and your grocer could be Alevi or Armenian,” he said.

“They lived their identities openly and celebrated their holidays together.”

Rush to rebuild

Framed by mountains running between the Mediterranean Sea and Turkey’s border with Syria, Antakya was home to Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Arab and Ottoman empires over more than two millennia.

It was even briefly placed under a French mandate, before becoming part of modern Turkey in 1939.

Arab speaking Muslim and Christian communities lived in harmony with Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Greeks and Jews.

This multicultural life and attitude — its “soul”, according to some residents — is now in peril.

Some point with worry to Diyarbakır, a mostly Kurdish city further to the east.

Its historic Sur district was destroyed during clashes between the Turkish army and outlawed militants in 2015-16. Locals lament that the rebuilding project failed to recapture the charm and spirit of what was lost.

Under fire for his government’s slow response to the disaster and facing a difficult re-election on May 14, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to rebuild the entire quake-hit region within a year.

He has issued a decree giving his government the right to take ownership of the destroyed property and adopting urban renewal projects that cannot be discussed or appealed by residents of the affected provinces.

Moving to the mountains

“We are going to rebuild Antakya on the outskirts of the mountains,” Hüseyin Yayman, lawmaker of the ruling Justice and Development Party(AKP) told the private CNN Turk broadcaster.

“We will rebuild a new city there.”

Antakya’s cultural heritage sites will be restored but residential buildings will be moved out of the historic city center, Yayman said.

The locals are unimpressed.

“Experts say that we can rebuild Antakya safely, without having to move it,” said Anna Maria Beylunioğlu, a political scientist who was born in the city and is now trying to arrange shelter for earthquake survivors.

“We must listen to them, as well as the inhabitants. But with such haste, I fear that it will be impossible.”

Beylunioğlu is also part of the Nehna platform, which is helping deliver aid to the disaster zone.

“The historic mosques, churches and synagogues will certainly be restored,” added Dağlıoğlu.

“But if we depopulate the city center, it will lose its soul. It will be like a museum.”

Documenting the past

The platform reflects the fears of people such as Yakup Cemel, who penned an article for the online magazine Avlaremoz about the destroyed Jewish quarter of the city he loved.

“There is nothing left of my synagogue, of my alleys, of my favorite restaurant, of my childhood,” Cemel wrote.

“The construction companies are rubbing their hands.”

Erdoğan’s close relationship with the construction sector has been a point of endless concern for his critics, who fear that developers will put profit above all else as they descend on the earthquake ruins.

With this in mind, Nehna volunteers are trying to restore the memory of the old Antakya, creating an online map to which people add pictures and stories of what their lives used to be like.

“We will give a voice to the inhabitants of Antakya, so that the city can be rebuilt as before,” said Beylunioğlu.

“I don’t know if it will be heard, but it will remain as a reference point.”

© Agence France-Presse

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