Four weeks after the natural disaster that cost over 50,000 people their lives and millions their homes, Antakya faces another battle: to retain its essence. Here in the heavy-hit capital of the Turkish province of Hatay, eighty-five miles from the epicenter of the earthquake that struck on February 6, the government seems compelled to inventory the damage as quickly as possible. Inspectors go through the streets and alleys of the historical city to record—often without properly assessing the exact damage—which houses they deem lightly damaged, heavily damaged, or completely destroyed.
Certainly, many poorly constructed post-WWII buildings have been damaged beyond repair, as have quite a few of the French colonial buildings from the first decades of the last century. But, as specialist architect Deniz Emir argues in a recent post, many of the buildings from the Ottoman period (before 1923) may be damaged but are by no means unsalvageable. They may not qualify as the highest category of historical monuments, but they make the city what it is.
That leads to an urgent question for the local authorities, those whose key priority is clearing rubble: should they take the easy road and level an essential part of the 2,500-year history of Antakya, or use specialist knowledge to preserve the original stones and ornamentations of historical buildings so they can be used for restoration? The former will probably be a quicker route to an inhabitable city center. But the price of giving up on ancient buildings is significant both from both a historical and a social perspective.
Historically, Antakya has frequently and justifiably been called one of the cradles of civilization. Stone Age people settled there around 100,000 years ago, followed in recorded history by Hittites (seventeenth to sixteenth century BCE) and Persians (sixth century BCE). The city, then called Antioch, was formally established around 300 BCE by one of Alexander the Great’s three generals, and it grew into one of the three capitals of the Roman Empire, along with Rome and Alexandria. During this time, the word “Christian” was coined there. This era was followed by a sequence of Egyptian, Mongol, Arab, and Ottoman rulers, Crusaders (from 1098), and twenty-one years under French supervision, after World War I, before becoming part of Turkey in 1939.
Over the centuries, the city was destroyed by natural and human forces multiple times, but it always rose from its mud, rubble, and ashes. The Hatay Archaeology Museum in Antakya shows how these various periods are literally in the soil under the ancient city center: layer after layer of historical buildings and artifacts, including harbors, defense walls, and some of the most impressive Roman mosaics in the world.
As I found as a new member of the community who has lovingly restored a historical house, the people of Antakya are proud of this amazing history. Understandably, many are in shock at present. There seems to be almost no one who has not lost close relatives, friends, or colleagues in the earthquake and its aftermath. Many want to leave the place where they experienced so much trauma and grief. But surprisingly, even more expressed to me that they want to stay in Antakya and rebuild this remarkable city, in the same way it has been rebuilt dozens of times throughout history.
There are churches, mosques, and synagogues in Antakya, illustrating its history as a meeting point of cultures and religions over centuries. Many of these need to be restored, as do the narrow winding alleys scattered with konaks (characteristic Ottoman courtyard houses) and other historical buildings that give the city its soul.
It is easy to ignore this in the rush to build new and safe housing, but we should never forget that rebuilding a traumatized community requires more than putting up dwellings: it needs people sensing the cultures around them, understanding how their history—both the good and the bad—make up who they are now, and seeing how this ancient city is the legacy of their ancestors, part of a present they help shape, and the cultural and spiritual basis for the future of their children.
“We need to actually not only build back the buildings, but also bring back the communities, because without them, there is no continuation of cultural life,” echoes Krista Pikkat, director for culture and emergencies at UNESCO, in a Washington Post article from February 23. “This is a source of their identity. This is where their roots are, and they need to find and recognize themselves in this heritage.”
Those words resonate with the local architects, who argue for a careful restoration program, improving the infrastructure and traffic flow but keeping the unique character of the place. Without that, Antakya risks becoming a place where a few numbers on the tourist map guide visitors to the Roman mosaics under the Museum Hotel; to St. Peter’s, the first-century Christian church hewn in the rocks; to Habib-i Neccar, the first mosque in Anatolia dating back to the seventh century; to the fountain where Suleyman the Magnificent drank; and to various Ottoman courtyard houses that survived the earthquake. But they would miss the winding alleys, the little treasures around every corner, the living history that is Antakya. Already, there are initiatives planning to welcome back the people with cultural activities to heal the trauma of homes and people lost, to rebuild communities, and to reconnect them with a sense of place.
For now, soldiers prevent anyone from entering the city for fear of aftershocks and unstable buildings—and to keep out looters who have flocked to the city like vultures. Many of the residents live in tents around the town and in surrounding villages, waiting for container homes to tide them over until their homes are rebuilt. Those who are more fortunate in means and connections have spread out to nearby cities: Adana, Mersin, Antalya, Ankara. Most of them have registered there so their children can go to school and regain some sense of normalcy. But from my conversations with friends and neighbors, almost all seem determined to return as soon as they are allowed to—students, adults, the elderly, businessmen.
Prominent businessman Ufuk Akıllı advocated from the first days of the disaster that everybody should return to Antakya and rebuild. I asked hotel owner Mehmet Ali Boğday last week whether the bungalow he moved to in Antalya wasn’t a better place to settle after what his family had experienced. He responded with almost a sense of indignance.
“As soon as I can go back, I will,” he said. “We are very lucky to be here and safe for now, but our hearts and lives and souls belong in Antakya: the mix of people, the historical buildings, the wonderful food, the smells and sounds. Antakya is down now, as it has been down many times before. But we will return and rebuild it, and we will rebuild it better than it was before.”
Huib Schippers is the former director and curator of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, a former Regents’ professor at UCLA, and a cultural heritage professional with a background in working with communities, NGOs, governments, universities, and other educational institutions across five continents.