Antakyans Fear Their City’s Soul Will Not Rise From the Rubble

A year after the quake, traumatized and angry residents are desperate to save a unique local culture the Turkish government appears not to value

Antakyans Fear Their City’s Soul Will Not Rise From the Rubble
Residents walk through Antakya’s historical old city, which was almost entirely destroyed in the 2023 earthquake. (Nick Ashdown)

“The last thing I remember saying was ‘Please, God, take my life,” recalls 27-year-old Havva Nur Kosar, who was rescued by a Swiss team after being buried for 72 hours and losing two brothers in the massive double earthquake of Feb. 6, 2023, that tore much of southern Turkey apart. “I thought I was saved when I got out of the rubble, but that’s when real life begins.”

One month later, Kosar found a new job and moved to Gaziantep, three hours away, but she was emotionally shaken. Furious at the poor government response, she longed for her brothers, hometown and lost cat, Alfa. Her self-assurance was shot, and being away from her beloved city, Kosar lost her sense of belonging. “I became so fragile that after going to work, I’d just go to the bathroom and cry.”

For a long time she felt guilty whenever she laughed or smiled, as though it were a betrayal of Antakya and her brothers. Months after the quake, she returned to her neighborhood to see her home. As she stood there staring at what remained of her family’s apartment, she burst into tears, unable to fathom that she had been pulled out of this smashed wreckage. When she visited again later, she couldn’t even find her home, because all that was left were giant, open spaces after bulldozers had demolished the ruined buildings.

All Antakyans, whether they had dramatic rescues and lost their closest loved ones or not, are still traumatized one year after the earthquakes, but that pain is more acute and intricate here than elsewhere across the earthquake zone, for two reasons. The first is that most people find their grieving process complicated by the fury they feel over the government’s late, slapdash response and a sense that they have been abandoned because of their marginalized minority identity and oppositional politics. In addition to Sunni and Christian communities, Antakya includes a substantial Arab Alawite population, an ostracized community who tend to be secular and left-leaning, largely opposing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s religious-conservative government and Sunni majoritarian policies.

The second is that Antakyans have a uniquely intense bond to their region. They are keenly aware of a distinct history predating both the Republic of Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, going back millennia to ancient Antioch. But more important, Antakyans tend to embrace the cosmopolitanism of their region in a way that would be taboo in most of the rest of Turkey, which has long been shaped by nationalist, homogenizing policies that erase minorities. For people here, Antakya is not just a city but a civilization, and many are terrified that they’ve lost it.

“I can’t believe my eyes. Oh, my God.” It’s 25-year-old Selim’s first time back in Antakya in several months, since moving away after the earthquake that left an open gash the length of Portugal across Turkey and a zone of ruin the size of Germany, with many demolitions since then. It is after dark, and Selim keeps getting lost in the ghostly streets of the hometown that he knows so well because there are so few landmarks left, but he finally spots a small electricity shack he recognizes. When we spoke on the phone a month earlier, he had warned me, “You’re never ready for what you’re going to see.”

In this devastated city in southern Turkey near Syria, it looks like the earthquake was one month ago, rather than one year. The worst-affected city, the center of Antakya is a barren wasteland of empty spaces strewn with rubble. Fourteen million people across Turkey were affected and 3 million displaced. Two-thirds of residents were displaced in Hatay, the worst-off of 11 provinces in the earthquake zone, and the official death toll in this province is 23,000, though most Antakyans balk at such a low number. Over 80,000 buildings in Hatay, of which Antakya is the capital, collapsed or were destroyed beyond repair.

“Every empty place you see, there used to be a building there,” Selim reminds me. We drive down Ataturk Avenue, the main thoroughfare of this city of 200,000, once lined with buildings that are almost all gone, replaced with posters promising to rebuild. “You see, there’s nothing. This was such a busy street.” We spot a solitary kebab place still standing, which Selim declares as proof of Antakya’s legendary food culture. “Kebab never dies in Antakya!” He carefully navigates past Kurtulus Avenue, promoted as the world’s first illuminated street, now shrouded in darkness.

On the other side of the Orontes River wending through Antakya, the historical old town resembles ground zero of a nuclear blast site, full of the skeletal remains of historic churches and hotels that haven’t been demolished yet. A swanky hotel and an upscale wine bar in a historic building have somehow survived unharmed, two jewels in a wreckage full of journalists and residents who have come for the one-year anniversary. Nearby, several mobile studios have been set up amid the debris, flooding the dark ruins with overhead lighting as a man warms his hands over a barrel fire just out of the camera’s shot. The media, accused of largely ignoring the aftermath of the earthquake in Hatay, have turned the anniversary into a news spectacle dubbed “The Disaster of the Century,” sure to score high ratings.

During the day, the center still bustles with activity, as pedestrians traverse across the rubble fields and slosh through the mud streets. Some buildings, particularly single-story shops, survived and are still operated by their owners, desperate for income. In other places, lonely kiosks selling flowers, mixed nuts or newspapers have held out as tiny islands in a giant sea of rubble. Elsewhere, orphaned shop signs survive, their shops long gone. On the roadside, an old man trolls through the rubble, collecting items into a plastic bag. Trucks carrying twisted rebar resembling rice noodles splash through giant puddles past Romanis on horse-driven carts. Empty buildings are spray-painted with their assessed level of damage and messages to ward off demolition crews, as their owners await court decisions deciding their fate.

“I thought in the beginning that time would heal some things, but it doesn’t,” says Selim, who wasn’t there the day of the quake but lost his grandmother, aunt and Arabic tutor. “Every day, I’m learning more about how to live with it, but it doesn’t get easier. Especially when the city isn’t getting any better.”

Two local men warm their hands over a makeshift fire in Antakya’s devastated center. (Nick Ashdown)

Losing loved ones is agonizing enough, but a city is something most people see as eternal and indestructible, and Antakyans struggle to wrap their heads around how to grieve for their homeland. “When you walk by these buildings, you believe they’ll always be there. You can’t imagine that they’d be gone one day. It’s not just a tree or a building; it’s your childhood that’s in ruins in front of you,” says Berk, a graduate student who lost his parents in the quake even though they lived in a large, expensive new building and never recovered their bodies. He feels as though he grew up together with his city, growing and changing alongside Antakya. His identity was so bonded with that of the city that he wonders if he lost a piece of himself in the earthquake.

Selim too grieves the loss of the home where he grew up, still carrying the key as a vestige wherever he goes. He ponders the many layers of lamenting a birthplace as precious as Antakya, of mourning its memories, its culture and the sense of belonging it bestowed. “I think we’re mourning our past, present and future,” he says. For Selim, Antakya was Turkey itself, his homeland, and losing it felt like losing his country. “Now I feel kind of stateless.”

In Antakya’s Harbiye neighborhood, less damaged than the center, Orhan, a middle-aged, Arabic-speaking kebab seller, recounts the night of the quake, which struck at 4:17 a.m. and lasted a seemingly never-ending 80 seconds. “It was raining, and people were outside crying, screaming, calling out. We were at a loss over where to go. That day, it was still dark at 9 a.m. Morning never came,” he says. “Look, as I’m telling you this, the hair on my arms is standing on end. I can see it right before my eyes. God spares no one.”

It has been raining again recently, and this triggers many people’s memories of that day as they prepare to observe the anniversary.

“People will take to the streets; they’ll commemorate that day,” Orhan says. “Some will go to their dead, to the grave. They’ll lay down flowers. So it’s a very painful day.”

His old restaurant in the center was obliterated, and we’re sitting in his tiny new prefabricated place. Orhan still makes an incredible kebab, and he offers homemade village raki on the house. His emotions are still raw, his eyes filling with tears the second I mention the earthquakes, but they quickly flicker from heartbreak to rage at the government’s response.

A couple of days earlier, Erdogan had come here and made comments that enraged many locals. “If central and local governments don’t cooperate, nothing will arrive in that province,” he said, calling Hatay “garip,” a word that usually denotes a stranger, or someone who is poor, wretched and alone. Hatay’s local government is from the opposition, and apoplectic locals took his words to mean that the price of state support in a disaster is personal fealty to Erdogan.

“Is that something a president says? What do you mean if your party doesn’t win, no aid will come here? Why? Are we not human beings?” fumes Orhan. He tells me no one came from the government for three days, something many other people confirmed, but ordinary citizens rushed to the earthquake zone from all over the country. Orhan, like many others here, is convinced that Erdogan’s religious-nationalist government abandoned Antakya because of its diverse, oppositional reputation.

“We’re all brothers here,” Orhan says. “We don’t have this ‘You’re Sunni, you’re Armenian, you’re Jewish, I’m Alawite’ business. We’re brothers sitting at this table together. We eat, drink, laugh, have fun. If there’s a problem, we fix it. That’s how it is.” He pulls his fingers one by one to represent each of Antakya’s different groups, drawing them together to represent how they live in harmony. “That’s why they don’t like us much,” he says, referring to the government, something echoed by nearly everyone I spoke to in Antakya.

As Orhan is speaking, the power flickers out for a second and spooks him. There have been thousands of aftershocks over the past year, some quite large, and people remain on edge. “When the earthquake happened the power went out. I’m living through that moment again. I feel like something’s going to happen. I’d like to talk to you, but now —” he trails off and stares into the distance for a while, dabbing his eyes with a napkin from the table.

“The worst thing is the voices coming from under the rubble. It’s the worst thing in the world,” says 54-year-old hotel worker Yilmaz, whose building was the only one left standing on his street. In rainy weather, the temperature was a frigid 39 degrees Fahrenheit when the first quake struck, and Yilmaz, who had suffered a broken pelvis, was caught in his pajamas — a tank top with shorts and no shoes.

“At first you don’t realize the magnitude of it, how big the disaster is. You’re shocked when you go out, because the buildings around you are all gone. There are people digging around, under the rubble. All you hear is the calls for help: ‘Save us!’ You’re not strong enough to lift the huge rubble, but you try, you try to lift it up, to lift tons of weight with your bare hands.”

After ensuring that his family was all right, Yilmaz went to the municipality to ask for help, but most of the workers were dead. Later he went to the hospital to get his pelvis looked at and saw things that still haunt him. Everyone was being treated outside the severely damaged building. “On the ground, there were just people, dead people. Their clothes were torn. None of them even had a sheet covering them. And I think there were only two or three nurses, or orderlies.” Yilmaz immediately felt ashamed for seeking treatment while surrounded by so many dying people. “Everyone was saying to do artificial resuscitation or CPR. But that was just to console people, because most people brought in were already dying. I saw a man massaging his mom’s heart for half an hour. Half an hour. But she was dead.” Yilmaz’s deep, raspy voice fades to a whisper at this point, as he puffs on a cigarette.

The worst part is the feeling that most people under the rubble could have been saved if someone had come to rescue them within a day or two. But no one came.

“Let me put it to you this way,” Yilmaz explains. “People were trapped in some buildings for three days. It would have actually been really easy to get to them, if help had come. Really easy.” Like many others, he says he saw soldiers and state rescue workers only at the end of the third day, when most people under the rubble were already dead. Their families sat helplessly next to the rubble, listening as their voices faded away, waiting for help that came too late.

Turks know very well that their buildings aren’t built up to code because of widespread corruption and negligence, which results in concrete that crumbles to dust in a person’s hands and all kinds of dangerous construction practices.

“There has been a lot of negligence,” Yilmaz seethes. “The buildings were very bad, very bad — new ones too. It’s not because the building is old or new. It’s because they’re rotten. Stolen materials, incomplete construction. Everyone blames contractors, engineers. Actually, they’re not the ones I blame. A contractor can be an asshole, a thief. But there’s someone who allows it,” he says. “That’s why people died: state negligence.”

Yilmaz is equally furious over the lack of progress in reconstruction. Erdogan had promised 319,000 new homes by February 2024, but only 46,000 have been completed. One year after the quakes, 215,000 people in Hatay are living in containers, with others still in tents. “Whenever it rains, it floods. The power can go out for a very long time, up to a week,” he says. He lives in a container, and the hotel where he works is also composed of containers. Yilmaz’s colleague Sidika, chimes in: “We use electricity for heating, so our kids get cold [when it goes out]. We freeze. There’s also no running water.”

In November the government declared 270 hectares of Antakya and the surrounding vicinity, where 50,000 people lived before the earthquakes, as “reserve areas” and took possession of the land, which will be subjected to the government’s controversial “urban transformation” program. “People’s lands are being expropriated and we aren’t being told what’s going to happen,” Umran Buyukasik, a psychological counselor and local activist, tells New Lines. She’s worried that the real goal is to push out minorities and change the social fabric of the neighborhoods, a longstanding criticism of the urban transformation policies, which go back two decades.

Emre Can Daglioglu, a doctoral student at Stanford University and editor of Nehna, an online platform publishing articles about Antakya and its region, has a dim view of the government’s plans. “Ostensibly coordinated, the reconstruction feels more like a scramble, with various interests vying for a piece of Antakya, turning it into a battlefield for opportunists. Amidst the rush to pass decrees and regulations favoring construction, the fundamental needs and voices of Antakya’s residents have been starkly overlooked. It’s become increasingly evident that the city being rebuilt will not embrace its inhabitants nor reflect their desires and needs,” he writes via email.

Antakya, founded as a Greek enclave in 300 BCE by Alexander the Great’s General Seleucus I Nicator and named Antioch after his father, became the capital of the Seleucid Empire. It later became capital of the Roman province of Syria, eventually populated by as many as half a million people. Antioch was behind only Alexandria and Rome itself in size and grandeur, its torch-lit streets full of theaters, baths, temples and aqueducts. Located in one of the earliest strongholds of Christendom, its church was founded by the Apostles Peter and Paul, and it was here that Jesus’ followers were first called Christians.

Antioch had long suffered through various withering calamities — plague, flood, famine, fire, invasion and, of course, earthquakes. Nearly 60 temblors shook Antioch throughout its 2,300-year history, 10 of which were major ones. After the city reached its Roman zenith in the fourth to fifth centuries CE, a major fire in 525 followed by two earthquakes in 526 and 528 overwhelmed the city, leaving it more vulnerable to Persian sieges. Antioch was finally annexed by the Arab Rashidun Caliphate in 638, which pared it down to a small town. After passing to the Byzantines and Seljuk Turks much later, Antioch was burned to the ground by the Mamluks in 1268, its most catastrophic defeat. But even then, it was never abandoned, as many other classical cities were.

In the Ottoman period, Antakya had a substantial Arab Alawite population that venerated the Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and fourth caliph of Islam, Ali, and prayed for blessings at special shrines to their saints. Alawites lived on the outskirts and were seen by many as country bumpkins. Their neighborhoods didn’t have mosques and Alawite women eschewed the veil, adorning themselves in bright colors.

Antioch’s local nobles who ran the city always fought to preserve its distinct character and a degree of autonomy. During its Islamic periods, it was venerated by Muslim scholars as “the mother of all cities.” Aside from hosting notable communities of scholars over the ages, Antioch has long been defined by its cosmopolitanism, being historically populated by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Arabs, Orthodox Chaldeans, Syriac Melkites, Armenians and Jews. It’s this rich history that has given rise to a distinct regional identity and intense relationship between Antakya and its residents, and this has made mourning its destruction all the more traumatic.

“Antakya stands out as a unique microcosm in Turkey, a place where people can largely live out their ethno-religious identities with a degree of freedom that’s rare outside of Istanbul,” explained Daglioglu. “This freedom has given rise to a robust urban culture, deeply cherished by its inhabitants. The connection people from Antakya feel to their city, its cuisine and its community is profound and often irreplaceable.”

Daglioglu, a Christian whose family is from Hatay, spent his childhood summers in Altinozu and Samandag, near Antakya. “Growing up in [Turkey’s capital] Ankara, these places felt like an entirely different universe to me. There, Arabic was the language that filled the air, and my Christian identity was known and visible, contrasting with the secrecy and concealment I experienced in Ankara,” he recalls, stressing that Hatay is nevertheless not a utopia — there’s still marginalization of women, LGBTQ communities and refugees.

Many Antakyans displaced by the earthquake find it unbearable being away from their homeland.

“I stayed in Ankara for three and a half months,” says Sidika, Yilmaz’s hotel co-worker. “When I came back, I kissed the soil in my village, because I missed its smell, its air and warmth so much. The air here is different, the water is different, the food is different, everything is different.”

“People of Antakya actually talk about it as if it’s a person,” Selim explains. “Months after the earthquake, I interviewed my grandfather about Antakya, and when I asked him to describe it in one word he said ‘mother,’ and then said ‘mother of the world’ in Arabic.” Antakya makes up a fundamental part of Selim’s identity, a place where he has always felt a deep sense of belonging and a place that reflects his own multicultural background. “Antakya plays a huge part in the way I approach the world. Growing up in a multicultural city gives you a whole other perspective.” When he would live abroad for brief stints, he would sometimes get homesick and open up Google Maps just to peruse through the streets of his hometown again, zooming in and out.

Selim grew up in a much smaller, less developed Antakya, traveling to the larger city of Adana or else across the Syrian border to Aleppo or Latakia to go shopping. His family lived in a house in the mountains with a view of all of Antakya, in the district of Defne, named after the mythological Greek naiad Daphne whose river-god father transformed her into a laurel tree to escape the unwanted advances of Apollo. On weekends, he would go with his family to nearby places such as the seaside in Kapisuyu, which had the best nature, the Musa Dagi mountains, or to Vakifli, Turkey’s last Armenian village. When he got older, he spent more time in Antakya’s magical old town, with its churches, mosques and synagogues, its stone buildings with courtyards and labyrinthine streets, and immersed himself in the forgotten history, taking photos of the elaborate old doors. “I was mostly interested in the lost stories of the buildings.”

Selim used to love shared holidays like Jan. 6, when Armenians and Arab-speaking Greek Orthodox communities celebrate Christmas and the Epiphany, while Alawites celebrate the Nativity. During Ramadan, churches would hoist a banner expressing their good wishes, and mosques would do the same on Christian holidays. Friends of different backgrounds would call one another to wish them well on their respective holidays.

It’s often when Antakyans leave that they truly realize the uniqueness of their cosmopolitan hometown. Since the foundation of the Turkish republic, presided over by a fervently nationalist ideology and homogenizing policies, minority cultures have been systematically marginalized and often erased, but Hatay has to a great extent stood out as a diverse exception.

When Berk, the graduate student who lost his parents, left Antakya to study in Istanbul, he soon realized that people there, as elsewhere in Turkey, often hide their minority backgrounds, unlike in Antakya. “Then we understood the importance of Antakya. …We realized it’s such a unique thing to have tolerance toward everyone,” he explains. When his Alawite friends at the prestigious and supposedly open-minded Bosporus University sent friends back home holiday greetings in Arabic, classmates would give them weird looks. “You hide yourself a bit, and your identity. You only talk about those things with your friends from Antakya.”

It’s Antakya’s unique urban culture and cosmopolitan social fabric that people are afraid of losing, and few seem to have faith that the government that so badly bungled the earthquake will rebuild the city in a way that preserves this distinct identity, and protects its dwindling minorities. “It’s not just that the buildings are gone. We lost Antakya. Antakya is a place unlike any other in the world,” Yilmaz tells me, raving about the city’s harmonious diversity. “Antakya isn’t just a city. It’s actually a place that sets an example for the whole world,” he says. “What we’re afraid of losing is this.”

The earthquake accelerated the long process of disappearing minority cultures in Hatay over the past century, just as elsewhere in Turkey, a result of nationalist state policies dating to the final days of the Ottoman era. The genocide of 1915 nearly wiped out the Armenians, and perhaps 80% of Christian minority communities left when the region — an autonomous part of the French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon from 1921 to 1939 — was incorporated into the Turkish republic following a dubious referendum.

“With each generation … something from the culture is fading away,” Selim lamented, noting as an example that fewer young people are speaking Arabic.

The Jewish population, which had dwindled to just a few individuals before the earthquake, is now gone, and many Romani and Arab-speaking Orthodox have also left. “For those who have departed, the likelihood of return diminishes in a city that no longer recognizes them. The fabric of these communities is unraveling, a cultural tapestry fading into memory,” Daglioglu says.

At one of the marches on the anniversary of the earthquake, people brandish traditional laurel branches and burn incense.

“It’s very important to commemorate the dead, to experience our pain and mourning,” says Buyukasik, the counselor, who helped organize the event.

Unlike other marches, this one is political, and Buyukasik says it’s important not just to mourn the dead but to express their demands and grievances. Marchers chant that it wasn’t an earthquake, but a massacre, a variation of a common slogan used for the many industrial accidents in Turkey caused by corruption and lax regulations. Placards proclaim, “We won’t forget, we won’t forgive, you will be held to account.”

Dilmer, a hairdresser, is crying, and her voice trembles with rage toward the government. She says she hasn’t slept and is constantly on edge, terrified of another earthquake.

“No one cares about us. We didn’t deserve this,” she fumes. “That’s all I have to say. There’s nothing left to say because no one’s listening to us.”

At a Feb. 6 march in Antakya, hairdresser Dilmer (second from left) carries a laurel branch and a placard demanding the government be held to account. (Nick Ashdown)

Nilay Tiras, whose home was destroyed and workplace looted, explains what she’s feeling:

“It’s a very intricate emotion,” she explains. “I feel anger, I feel great pain, and I also feel mourning, which we can’t fully experience because of this pain and anger inside us.” Tiras says that it’s important to commemorate the earthquake, but it’s not like people have the luxury to forget about it on any other day. “Everybody remembers it every day because we have nothing else in our lives now.” She’s defiant that even if the government doesn’t help Antakya rebuild, the city will prevail, as it always has. “We will continue our struggle for life here despite [Erdogan] and we will rebuild this city.”

This dogged determination to persevere and maintain the spirit of their unique identity persists among Antakyans despite the palpable lack of faith in the government’s sincerity over reconstruction. “One month after the earthquake, I would have said that [Antakya] is gone forever and it’s never coming back,” Berk tells me. But now he realizes the city isn’t just the buildings or historical sites — it has a soul. “Everyone’s trying to preserve that culture.”

Selim says everyone who has been displaced is desperate to come back, but it’s up to the government to help them resettle. He has faith that Antakyans feel an unwavering responsibility to their city.

“Antakya will come back … because we feel like we owe it to the city. We have to rebuild it, and we have to go back. It’s not going to be the same, but I hope I live long enough, and I see that day,” he says. “Maybe I’ll find that sense of belonging again, because losing it is just a feeling I can’t describe.”

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