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  • Writer's pictureJason Borges

The Future of Antakya?

Since the earthquake hit southeast Turkey in early February, I have talked with people who visited Antakya (aka Hatay, Syrian Antioch). They all spoke about the unfathomable damage of a city reduced to rubble. The destruction was difficult to grasp from pictures and oral reports. But last weekend, I visited Antakya on a service trip and saw devastation firsthand.

(The NYTimes has an immersive article comparing streets before and after the earthquake. My recent post provided the historical accounts of two Roman-era earthquakes that devastated Antioch. Mark Wilson, my AMRC colleague, has an article at CT about the city's religious history.)

I drove along Kurtuluş Caddesi, which has several historical landmarks. The Antakya Archaeology Museum is standing but has large cracks and a staircase tower separated from the building. Online articles report that none of its artifacts were damaged. The new Museum Hotel was also standing and looked fine. But upon closer inspection, several crossbeams connecting the pillars had cracked. Hopefully, they can repair the structure and reopen the hotel and mosaic museum. St. Pierre's Church, the medieval church purportedly where Peter and the first Christians gathered, is fine. We would expect this since it is not a built structure but a natural cave.

The downtown area, which had all the restaurants, boutique hotels, and shops, looks like a pile of Lego pieces. Most buildings have collapsed. In addition to all the collapsed buildings, far more standing buildings are compromised and must be demolished. Most buildings in Antakya have large cracks running down them or collapsed side walls. No houses collapsed in the neighborhood where I worked, but all the families moved into tents in their gardens because the houses were not inhabitable.

At this point, people are still in relief mode in Antakya. Many are still looking for their relatives, whether in the rubble or at mass graves. The Turkish government and various organizations are building communities of relief shelters for people.

The city itself feels like a massive demolition project. Antakya is being gutted. Buildings are getting stripped of metal and demolished; rubble is getting cleared at a massive scale. The city is teaming with dump trucks and backhoe tractors. I was surprised so many existed in a single country. There were also countless moving trucks. Families were getting their belongings out of apartments.

Backhoe Tractor in Antakya

Once people have gutted the city and moved out, what happens? What and who will remain? At this point, it feels like very little.

The future of Antakya is obviously unclear. The Turkish government has promised to rebuild the city, and glitzy TV ads show their early efforts. But the scale is enormous, and the state budget is limited. Like most people, I hope the city is rebuilt. But even if it is rebuilt, the feel will be different. Once rebuilt, the old downtown area visitors enjoyed will no longer have its historical charm.

Ancient Antioch rivaled Ephesus and Alexandria as the second most important cities of the Roman empire. But in terms of historical remains, Antioch resembles Alexandria (few remains) more than Ephesus (abundant ruins). Besides the mosaics found in elite Roman houses, Antioch has surprisingly little to show from antiquity. Even the number of ancient inscriptions from Antioch is sparse. The main reason is that Antioch has been a continuously inhabited city until the present era. So all the Greco-Roman era remains have been built upon several times over.

So, as the downtown area is cleared out and the city gets rebuilt, what historical artifacts might they find? Antioch was a wealthy city, as it controlled trade between Mesopotamia and Rome, so the city had impressive structures and objects. Over the next 10-20 years, so much may be unsurfaced that a new city history may need to be written (even though Andrea De Giorgi and Asa Eger have recently published a magnificent volume Antioch: A History [Routledge, 2021]). And how will the local government handle the antiques? Overall, Turkey does a good job of preserving and maintaining historical sites, not allowing them to be built over. They may develop an open-air archeology park in the downtown area. This is just a historian wondering about the future. No one knows how it will develop. For now, there are certainly more significant issues facing the people of Antakya than historical remains.


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