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Antioch, wounded city / Türkiye / areas / Home

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Antioch, wounded city / Türkiye / areas / Home

The Orthodox church of S. Paolo in Antioch – A. Lazzaroni

City with a thousand faces, with a thousand-year-old and very rich history: Antioch, Hatay in Turkish, was razed to the ground by the earthquake of February 2023. Today the city lives in a suspended climate, between resignation and hopes. Our reportage

Antioch is a city with a mild climate that lies in a valley on the banks of the Orontes river, with an ancient and fascinating history, the center of Christianity and conquered by multiple empires: from the Byzantines to the Rashidun caliphate, reconquered by Byzantium and then in the hands of the Seljuks, later the Crusaders, the Mamluks and from 1516 under Turkish-Ottoman rule, as part of the province [divisione amministrativa dell’Impero Ottomano N.d.R.]of Aleppo.

From 1921 to 1938 Antioch was part, at various levels of autonomy, of the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon; in this period the newly formed Turkish republic and its founder went to great lengths to appropriate the Sanjak of Alexandretta, whose population was at least a third of Turkish ethnicity and language.

To give further weight to the claims of the newly formed republic Atatürk renamed the city Hatay, inspired by Hatenna, the toponym with which the Hittites defined the region. He also made this clear to the French ambassador Henri Ponsot in one of the talks in which Turkey and France discussed the future of the aforementioned sanjak: “Hatay is a personal matter for me”.

However, Atatürk did not have time to realize this last dream, in fact he died just under a year before the referendum of 29 June 1939, with which Turkey definitively annexed the Republic of Hatay, an outcome which was never accepted by the Syrian state.

The city, in particular the historic center, was almost destroyed by the earthquake that hit southern Turkey and northern Syria on 6 February 2023, causing tens of thousands of deaths and more than one million displaced people.

The tragedy of the century

Fatma and her two brothers – A. Lazzaroni

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I wander hesitantly among the rubble and ruins, the air is heavy and full of dust, in the background the incessant noise of bulldozers and cars that carefully advance along the bumpy roads. The flocks of white-plumaged birds that fly over the mountains and the flowering orange trees that appear here alleviate the vision of this gloomy and desolate landscape. Everyone I meet seems to want to have a chat or get lost in some pleasantries.

“I can’t stay in the tent city, that’s why I come here every day”, says Süleyman, a middle-aged gentleman who is busy bricking up the windows of his home to prevent criminals from taking away what little of value there is. remained. He takes me inside and proudly shows me the walls that withstood the impact of the earthquake. Despite the partial usability of the building, it is not certain that Kemal and his family will be able to live there again in the future.

An elderly couple intent on chatting invites me to join them. “We don’t know what will happen to our homes,” they report despondently. The walls of the few buildings left standing are marked with red writing, which in Turkish reads “slightly damaged”, “very damaged”, “in dispute”, or “trial in progress”. They explain to me that it is not the diligent state workers who mark the remaining houses, but the residents themselves in a desperate attempt to delay the inevitable.

“We were born and raised here, we don’t want to leave”, says Fatma, sitting between her two brothers, with a strong sense of belonging that I have often found among the inhabitants, after all Antioch is one of the most cosmopolitan urban centers in Turkey. Turks, Alawites, Sunni Syrians, Kurds, Catholic and Orthodox Christians, apostolic Armenians coexist there; a city that is more Levantine than Anatolian, as evidenced by the presence of places of worship of all the religions of the book.

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“I live there, come and visit me”, insists Emir, among his friends he is the most talkative and darkest-skinned. After school they run around this expanse of boulders playing as they can: football, bikes, chasing each other. They look like street urchins, so young yet already savvy, they ask me to teach them some bad words and they have a lot of fun repeating them.

The teapot

In the streets of Antioch – A.Lazzaroni

Looking for a place to have dinner, I ask the trader who runs a small shop in front of the hotel where I’m staying for advice. He advises me to leave the center and move towards the Harbiye neighbourhood. At a good pace I head towards the destination, it’s a short walk, the lights are dim, you can see the silhouettes of the buildings still standing, all around only rubble, debris and stray dogs, the silence is almost total.

The place is spartan and it couldn’t be otherwise, it’s a container converted into a restaurant, a few plastic chairs, a simmering teapot and little else. Despite the time there are more customers waiting and the manager is busy. I order a dsuggest [panino ripieno di carne di manzo o agnello e condimenti vari N.d.R.] of chicken Antioch style and I sit down. Being the only foreigner I immediately attracted the attention of the other diners and the conversation did not take long to spark.

I have people in front of me who lost a lot during the earthquake: some their homes, some their loved ones, some their place of work; with dignity they are trying to get their lives back on track. We tend to react in two radically opposite ways after such a tragedy, we persist in staying in our native places or we abandon them forever, for some the earthquake was a temporary caesura, for others a watershed.

Two Kurdish truck drivers who have just arrived in the city sit at the table. They ask about rents, salaries, economic opportunities, the picture that emerges does not bode well, but on the other hand the economic crisis and inflation are also putting the rest of the country to the test. Tea is served and after drinking it I take the opportunity to settle the bill, but not before purchasing a bottle of olive oil.

The departure

Before heading to the airport I go early to the covered central market which is teeming with people. Aromas of spices, butchers at work, bakers busy baking and restaurateurs inviting customers into their premises: life restarting after the earthquake.

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Elderly in Antioch – A.Lazzaroni

I arrive well in advance and sit on a bench outside the airport entrance. A baggage handler sits next to me and immediately strikes up a conversation. He is close to retirement and lives in a village near the airport.

The earthquake is always in people’s minds, and even in this conversation we end up talking about February 6th last year. I tell him about my wanderings in the historic center and point out my perplexity at the sight of the neighborhoods perched on the hills, whose buildings, although of similar or even lower quality to those below, have not collapsed.

My interlocutor is not at all surprised and provides me with an explanation that he deduced from a verse of the seventh sura of the Koran, in which Allah advised humanity to dig houses in the mountains. I don’t dare oppose it, it seems like a candid interpretation, a good way to combine faith and ungrateful fate, I take my leave and walk towards the waiting room, it’s time to go back.

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