Rabbi in Turkey saves Torah scrolls in Antakya, a city 'gone for ever' after earthquake

Antakya survivors face 'breathtaking' devastation in country's worst-hit province

Powered by automated translation

Follow the latest on the earthquake in Turkey

In a Turkish city engulfed by grief and destruction, Rabbi Mendy Chitrik has found a ray of light.

In a damaged synagogue in earthquake-stricken Antakya, in southern Hatay province, Torah scrolls dating back 500 years were saved as volunteers from Turkey's small Jewish community raced to save their heritage after Monday's earthquake in the country.

Hatay was the province hit hardest by the earthquake, which has killed more than 15,000 people in Turkey and Syria. It is the biggest quake to strike Turkey since 1939.

The provincial capital, Antakya, was known for its multiculturalism — it is home to Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs and Jews. It has been largely destroyed.

Rabbi Chitrik travelled to Antakya immediately after the quake hit and arrived to find 60 per cent of the city was reduced to rubble.

"It's a very, very scary situation," he told The National from Istanbul, before returning to Antakya. "It's surreal."

The 500-year-old Torah scrolls were handwritten and served the community of 25 people.

"We wanted to save the holy books from destruction," said the rabbi, also the chair of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States.

"They don't have monetary value, but they are treasures of the beautiful Jewish community that has practised here for 2,500 years uninterrupted.

"People have lived here for thousands of years, together. People speak different languages — Arabic, Turkish Kurdish, everyone lives together."

Israeli rescue teams have been sent to aid the search for survivors in the cities of Gazantep and Kahramanmaras, but the rabbi said they had not yet arrived in Antakya.

'Why did I survive?'

Augustin Debsi was asleep when the quake struck in the early hours of Monday.

He crawled through the darkness as neighbours cried for help from the next room.

After the ground stopped shaking, he raced back inside his home to grab his grandfather's engagement ring, a memento of the man who motivated him to return to Antakya in 2021, when he visited to reconnect with relatives.

Out in the street, he walked from one mosque to another seeking shelter, but all were full. He passed injured people, as well as groups digging through the rubble in the search for survivors.

"I felt as if I didn't know the town, and at the same time was hit by an enormous sadness that took my breath away," he told The National. "This is my grandfather's hometown, and his home is completely destroyed.

"The mosques, the bazaar, all the places I went to when I lived there have been reduced to pieces."

He is now in Ankara, having travelled for hours through Hatay province, passing through flattened villages and long queues for food.

"Between Antakya and Belen, every village was destroyed," said Mr Tanriverdi, who plans to fly to France.

The National covers a miraculous rescue 60 hours after the earthquake in Turkey

The National covers a miraculous rescue 60 hours after the earthquake in Turkey

"The situation seemed better in the mountains, but there was no food or electricity.

"I feel empty and powerless. I have been hit by a wave of guilt.

"Why did I survive and not others, including my family members?

"Antakya.. is nothing more than a pile of ruins with people wandering the streets and ghosts sat on the rubble."

Other survivors in the city have said Antakya as it was has disappeared for ever.

Residents have described desperately appealing for help to use equipment including cranes to sift through the rubble.

"I saw Harbiye Street all in ruins in my nightmare. That street completely vanished yesterday," said Selim Bora.

"I don't have a place to call home any more.

"The most beautiful piece of my heart is gone now. We're just the memories of [Antakya]. The city will live on forever in our memories."

Updated: February 11, 2023, 12:42 PM