History Suggests Antakya Will Come Back to Life

The sedimented layers of historical Antioch tell us that the modern city will regrow after its recent earthquake damage

History Suggests Antakya Will Come Back to Life
Gokhan Ergin, an architect specialist on ancient buildings, inspects earthquake damage in Antakya. (Ozan Kose/AFP via Getty Images)

I recently burst into tears as I sprinkled a generous pinch of zaatar on my breakfast veggies. I had bought the spices during a trip to Antakya, known in ancient and medieval times as Antioch, a city in the south of Turkey on the border with Syria. When the earthquake of Feb. 6, 2023, struck, it leveled 11 cities in southeastern Turkey and neighboring regions in Syria. Media footage that circulated soon after showed the world how severe the situation was. I was born and raised in Malatya, one of the cities that were badly affected. I spent hours and days on the phone and social media, checking on relatives, friends, colleagues and students. My heart sank when I learned my relatives had barely left their houses safely in Malatya. I found out about my students losing their parents, siblings and partners in Antakya and Maras. I was in deep shock.

Earthquakes and their effect on human life and urban frameworks are central in my line of work as an archaeologist and architectural historian. In my previous studies, I have sought to understand the impact of the 1855 earthquake that hit Bursa, the first capital of the Ottoman Empire, and how it shaped the city’s urban identity. I worked on restorations and searched for buried remains using cutting-edge archaeological scanning methods. My work in Bursa identified a 3-foot-deep destruction zone, starting at 1.5 feet below ground. I now wonder whether Antakya and the other cities in the region will bear such a destruction zone a century from today.

The effect of earthquakes on Turkey’s urban landscapes has always fascinated me. This was why, in September 2022, I traveled to Antakya with two colleagues to look for evidence of historical layers destroyed by earthquakes in the classical, Byzantine, Islamic and Crusades periods and to study the resilience patterns in Antakya’s urban fabric. We looked at old and new maps, browsed through museum collections, studied excavation photos and took thousands of steps daily. The three of us were fascinated by the accumulation and juxtapositions of layers and where we could identify hidden remains.

Like any word ending with “cide,” urbicide — the death of a city — is evocative. It is widely used to denote cities destroyed by fires, earthquakes or man-made interventions. When it was first coined by the science fiction writer Michael Moorcock in 1963, the term hinted at an urban restructuring, but over the years its meaning has evolved immensely. In the aftermath of the earthquake, everyone I spoke with who is based in Antakya said the same thing: that Antakya as we know it is now dead.

But can a city like Antakya die? How can a city of that urban caliber be killed? Throughout its history, Antakya was always seen as “the city.” In the Peutinger Table, the Roman road map produced in the fourth century and reproduced in 1265, it was depicted in size and glory as rivaling Rome and Constantinople, though it was widely acknowledged to have often been dented by earthquakes.

Take the earthquake in 526, for example, as reported to us by John Malalas, a native of historical Antioch and a famous Byzantine historian. Scholars today estimate that the magnitude 7.0 earthquake claimed about 250,000 lives. Malalas tells us that the disaster, followed by a fire, brought a complete breakdown of the local government, and raiders and thieves began stealing from the survivors trying to escape. He reports that the survival window for those trapped beneath the rubble ranged from 20 to 30 days, but I am unsure how realistic this is. The earthquake of 526 took place in May, making it different from the recent one that took place on a freezing evening in February. The survival rate was high — I couldn’t help but think of the reports of pregnant women and kids surviving under the rubble for more than a week. Irrespective of the neighborhood, news reports showed survivors often couldn’t get help and worked to rescue their trapped family members. The damage was significant, but Antioch didn’t die after the 526 earthquake or subsequent invasions and, despite the consequential loss and trauma, I don’t think it died with the 2023 earthquake either.

My last trip proved that Antioch has always been a resilient city. Take, for example, the excavated grounds of the Museum Hotel, where we examined a deep stratigraphic record showing occupations and disruptions from Roman to modern times. The display showed us the world’s largest mosaic floor (9,000 square feet) with undulating surfaces revealing how earthquakes were part of daily life. Next to it is a bathhouse complex with attached rooms and areas decorated with mosaics filled with mythological figures and nautical personifications. Nearby, we saw a cobble-paved street running between public and residential buildings of the Roman period, juxtaposed with a set of Islamic-period houses and shops encroaching on it. Here, as we walked through the viewing platforms, surrounded by the jumble of the present represented by the container-like floating hotel rooms rising above the chaotic traffic, the lost and the living Antakya revealed itself to us as a “multi-synchronic city.”

This trip made me think about Antakya both vertically and horizontally. I observed the static quality of the architectural legacy in the city as I went to the rooftop of the Museum Hotel to enjoy the city view. There it was, the Church of St. Peter clinging to the foothills of Mount Stauris. After the catastrophe, it made it into the news as the “world’s first cave church,” miraculously surviving the earthquake. Originally a grotto and now fronted by a 19th-century facade, it is attributed to the apostle’s early years of ministry in the city. Carved into the hewn rock, this building provided a refuge for the Christians in the city to worship freely during the Roman persecutions.

Today, the frescoes and mosaics that are partially visible and the ever-running fresh water seeping through the rocks into the altar wall, likely used for baptism, are a reminder that Antioch was home to early initiations into Christianity. When the Crusaders took over the city in 1098, they appreciated its importance and lengthened the building by adding an extra vault and rebuilding the facade. The site’s sacred connotations were strengthened by the addition of tombs belonging to the Crusader rulers of the city in the following centuries. In the 19th century, under the auspices of Pope Pius IX and Napoleon III, the Capuchin friars undertook another restoration for which the foundations of the columns are still visible in the courtyard, even after the most recent earthquake. The Church of St. Peter’s survival is a testimony to Antioch’s power as a resilient city, where we can observe not only the original building but also its transformations and appreciate the ever-evolving Christian heritage in the city.

In this accumulative jumbling at the Museum Hotel or the Church of St. Peter, there has always been room for reworking, erasure and promotion under different cultures and religions — Antioch is not just about the classical world or Christianity. The absolute continuity in using, reusing and attributing other functions and meanings to the spaces coming from the past is a sign that Antioch is made up of healthy “tissue” that allows an evolution of growth, injury and regrowth. For example, in the aftermath of the earthquake in 115, instead of repairing the old colonnaded street, the city officials decided to build the street wider and from scratch, which resulted in clearing out the structures along the line of the cardo, the north-south street.

Antioch’s reworkings can also be seen during times of invasion. As reported by Procopius, Justinian’s court historian, we see that the emperor rebuilt the city by adding a new cardo, porticoes, churches and fortifications, as well as a new course of the Orontes River. In the aftermath of the earthquakes that took place in the 12th century, sometimes only the religious and defensive buildings such as churches and city walls were rebuilt, while the rest was left in a damaged state, due to a lack of available funds. After the siege of the city in 1268 by the Mamluks, there was not much interest in reviving its glorious past. Instead, the city was rebuilt internally, keeping its urban core contracted, a feature that remained constant for the next five centuries. We see that Antioch kept growing and revived after every injury — earthquakes, fires, sieges and lootings — and never became a Pompeii. As one of the leading historians working on Antioch in the past decade said, the city officials and its inhabitants kept the city alive by not turning “a flourishing city into a failed one almost overnight.”

When I traveled to Antakya in September 2022, I arrived a couple of hours before my colleagues. This gave me a chance to spend some time on my own in the city and to have a calm Antiochene breakfast with hummus, zaatar bread, local cheese and olives, washed down by numerous glasses of “tavsan kani cay,” an expression that the Turks use to describe a slow-steeped tea with a deep reddish-brown color similar to rabbit blood. This was served in the courtyard of the cute boutique hotel we were staying at, adorned with olive, laurel, lemon and bergamot trees. While in the city, I noted the sign plates for businesses with non-Turkish names. I appreciated the beautiful facades of the houses of worship opening onto the streets.

Being situated in the greater Syrian region, Antakya feels more Syrian than a typical Turkish city. I heard Arabic spoken more than anything else. It is a city of diverse inhabitants and thickly sedimented layers. By a deeply sedimented city, I mean that in Antakya we see time compressed in place, with 20th-century creations colliding with ancient and medieval ones. Yet observing these layers is not always easy. Often, one must peel them back to fully understand the city.

For example, in my travels before the earthquake, I noted a privileged Islamic/Turkish layer highlighted at almost every corner, whereas the edifices belonging to the other ethnic and religious groups were tucked away at the back of walled-in courtyards. In the names of the non-Muslim houses of worship, one always finds the prefix “Turk,” which was added amid the Cyprus conflict in the 1960s and ’70s as a way for each community to claim their loyalty. To see other layers, anything besides what is Turkish, you need to know your way around the city. This was why I took my colleagues to a rooftop restaurant, where the food was mediocre but the view into the courtyard of the Orthodox church in the old city was breathtaking. That same church was destroyed by the earthquake and so has been erased, for now.

Besides the physical city, there is also another Antioch based on texts. The Roman, Christian and Crusader Antiochs can be considered conceptual cities because we have no standing remains to speak for these periods. This leaves us with the limited image of a city created from discrete and decontextualized remains, representing a distilled core of Antioch’s glorious past. Thus, although these periods have been studied extensively and we know much about the city in specific terms, we know very little in general. Because the city has never witnessed a thorough attempt at urban archaeology, the essential elements of the previous layers remain all but unknown. One exception to this was when Princeton University conducted excavations from 1932 to 1939 searching for the Hellenistic and Roman city and focusing on the discovery and interpretation of residential complexes with mosaic floors. The priority was unearthing the classical legacy of the city, and the way the excavators focused on digging the prime stratum shaped our understanding of the afterlife of classical Antioch. A generation of scholars in the early 2000s made an immense contribution by going through these excavation archives and presenting the evidence they found for what is Byzantine, Islamic and Mamluk about the city. For example, they revealed a superimposition of four different medieval layers near the Habib-i Neccar Mosque, the lowest one, possibly contemporaneous with the mosque itself, sitting atop the remains of an early Byzantine fountain.

More recently, a hotel was commissioned by an affluent local family and, as the foundation was laid out, a fascinating range of remains was detected. The project design was reframed to house and display the remains at the ground level and have a hotel on the top, which became the Museum Hotel. The salvage excavations conducted at the area known as the island have also been focused on examining the urban core’s Hellenistic and Roman imperial architecture and revisiting the interpretations of previous scholarship.

The archaeological evidence gathered before the earthquake speaks of losses, erasures and reworkings. Antakya appeared as a city where the vital signs of the present were read together with selective, conceptual evidence of the past, where surviving structures were often studied in isolation without attempting to situate them in a broader urban context. Now, after the earthquake, many of those structures are lost forever.

For example, the Mosque of Habib-i Neccar was almost destroyed in the recent earthquake. The mosque is believed to be one of the oldest, if not the oldest, mosque in Anatolia, built in the early decades of the seventh century CE, after the Islamic conquests. It is important to both Christian and Ottoman traditions and showcases the reworkings of the city. While the history is speculative, it is believed that the earliest building in this locale was a temple, later replaced by a church dedicated to a Christian carpenter who sacrificed his life for his faith. The church was subsequently turned into a mosque with the Islamic conquest of the city. It was remodeled extensively under the Mamluks and Ottomans, keeping its earlier connotations, such as the tombs of the mythical prophetic figure Jonah and St. John the Baptist.

Occasionally, things were left as they were. In the aftermath of the 1303 earthquake and the strong winds of 1319, the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited the city and spent time with the sheikh of Habib-i Neccar. He commented on the city walls that were famed for being so durable that they had not been repaired since the siege of Baybars, the Mamluk ruler, in 1268. While the walls are dilapidated, they nevertheless became physical landmarks that help us to visualize what once surrounded them. Take the 1359 “waqf” (endowment) document written for the Mosque of Sultan Hasan in Cairo, built from 1356 to 1361. From this document, we imagine the Muslim neighborhood as confined to the southwestern part adjoining the “kharab” (crumbling) walls, yet it is a thriving area with multiple rebuildings going on, such as mosques, shrines, bathhouses and a marketplace, while the Christian neighborhood is surrounded by bare lands and orchards and mulberry trees, which are mentioned as abutting older, early Byzantine churches.

Concomitant with the relief efforts, a discussion on rebuilding Antakya has begun. Some have claimed that this will expedite the healing process. But what will the healing process look like? After running an initial damage assessment, the government has acted swiftly to push ahead with a reconstruction plan. Several teams of archaeologists, art historians and restoration architects have examined the state of the historic buildings and evaluated what they would require to be preserved and rebuilt. This will be followed by meetings with national and international teams of scholars working on different periods of the city as well as specialists on cultural preservation. The priority will be the public monuments; privately owned areas will be reconstructed and managed to a lesser extent. Yet scholars have shared concerns over how the municipalities and local authorities hand out most restoration projects to construction companies, who may not be well-versed in historic preservation. In addition, just like any city in Turkey, Antakya has pro-government and pro-opposition districts. There is considerable concern that this could affect which districts will get the lion’s share of the restoration funding.

Given that the amount of rubble is estimated to be about 1.6 million tons and associated with hazardous construction materials, it will require an enormous effort just to safely clear it as part of a sustainable reconstruction plan. Natives of the city are concerned that the reconstruction plans should be laid out carefully and only after hearing the opinion of all involved. In my conversations with many people from Antakya, both natives and those from other cities, all underscored that the reconstruction plan discussions have not been inclusive and have involved only a limited number of stakeholders.

The larger question is how we choose to remember this catastrophic event and what we can do when a city gets injured. Can we draw parallels to war- and earthquake-stricken locations such as Warsaw, Berlin, Osaka and Port-au-Prince? For example, in the aftermath of World War II, Varsovians used pre-earthquake photos and architectural drawings to reconstruct Warsaw’s public and historic monuments. Berliners transported the rubble and debris to a safer location and used it to create the Teufelsberg, a man-made hill now situated in the city’s western suburbs. In Osaka, the postwar rebuilding took four years to complete. Its first step involved laying out the infrastructure. Once the land was prepared, building construction was decided hand in hand with the private sector, including landowners, building owners and residents. Even though this was done step by step and not implemented from the top, the reconstruction plan sometimes received criticism from citizens, especially over the land readjustment policies. Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, was hit by an earthquake in 2010. It suffered from weak recovery and rebuilding efforts even before being hit by yet another earthquake in 2022, which slowed down the process and disrupted such progress as had been made.

One clear conclusion from such examples is that we must remember the burden and sacrifices made by citizens during the reconstruction process. The city’s inhabitants are survivors and victims of this natural disaster. While considering the recovery and reconstruction management process, a thought-provoking remembrance or warning site needs to be crafted to acknowledge the atrocities and the lives lost, rather than the place being sanitized with fake monuments or hollow memorials. In “On the Natural History of Destruction” (2003), W.G. Sebald, the author famous for his elegiac works on personal and collective loss and decay, discusses how Germans had to wait 30 years before grieving the loss of their destroyed cities. Not rushing to clean the rubble, and carefully inventorying the loss and damage, would be an alternative way to approach the healing process in Antakya.

In the case of Antakya, my students who witnessed the loss and trauma told me they do not want to leave the city. Instead, they want to stay and be part of the healing process. This reminds me that Antakya will not die from this massive injury; this is temporary, and it will come to life again. I recall a conversation with a local vendor who sold beautiful silk scarves, soaps and textiles in a shop near my hotel. He offered me coffee and wanted to give me a bar of laurel soap, for which Antakya is famous. I told him I do not accept shoes, soaps or knives as gifts as they might invoke walking away, washing away or loss in relationships, and he made fun of my superstition. I did not want to be rude, so I told him I would take it and use it as a decorative item. Now I cannot face that bar of soap. It is like the zaatar jar that is tucked away in my pantry. When I purchased the zaatar, I realized the spice shop owner was giving me way more than I requested, and I told him it would be too much for me to consume. He jokingly said, “Abla, you won’t be disappointed. Who knows when will be the next time you come, and even if you come, if I would still be here!” Now, I wonder if he and his family are safe and sound. The same goes for the joyful waitress at my hotel who served me breakfast and replied with the welcoming “Hos geldiniz” every time I thanked her for refreshing my tea or coffee or serving me more bread. I reached out to her to see if she and her loved ones were safe, and it was heart-rending to hear about her parents and aunties losing their lives.

These stories and memories emphasize the truth that the Antakya we knew is gone and not to be retrieved. Its stone houses with beautiful inner courtyards opening onto narrow maze-like streets in the old city are lost altogether. The rooftops that once offered the best views of the synagogues, mosques and churches that defined the old city’s skyline are all demolished. Many lives were lost, and many monuments are gone. At best, they have become another hidden layer in the sedimentation. As much as it hurts to think about the Antakya that was destroyed overnight, history has shown us that the city is resilient. It will regrow new tissue and continue the processes of both erasure and reworking after a loss. With its multiple personifications, such as celebration (epicosmesis), health (soteria) and enjoyment (apolausis), as depicted on the beautiful mosaics that once adorned the public and residential settings of ancient and medieval Antakya, I am sure the city will revive again. It will take time, but it will happen. Until then, I won’t use the zaatar or the laurel soap.

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