In Antakya, residents mourn the dead and their city

Locals grieve for part of their history in area wiped out by deadly earthquake

Displaced family return to destroyed home in Antakya

Yasmina and Andar stand in front of their destroyed home in Antakya, Turkey on 10 February 2023, four days after catastrophic earthquake. Matt Kynaston / The National
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Abdullah, 49, contemplated with sadness the entry of what used to be the old souqs of Antakya, the capital of Hatay province in Turkey.

“I will be long dead before the city is rebuilt,” he said.

The historic city, known as Antioch during the ancient period, has been wiped out by the 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit south-east Turkey in the early hours of Monday. By Sunday, the death toll in Turkey and neighbouring areas of northern Syria had passed 25,000.

Once popular with tourists, the old town has been reduced to dust. One of the alleys leading to the old souq looks like it might collapse at any time.

“I advise you to stay away from there,” Abdullah said, pointing at the narrow passage filled with broken glasses.

“My brother and his family was stuck in the shop just right next to this entrance,” he said.

“It was before the rescue teams reached the city. We managed to get him out with some friends and the help of the Turkish military, after 36 hours. We could hear their voices the whole time.”

His brother is now safe, but Abdullah lost several of his family members.

“I lost not only some of my loved-ones but also my past: this is the place where I grew up, and there is nothing left of it”, he said.

In Antakya, residents are mourning their cherished city as much as the dead.

“We lost our history as a city,” he added.

Antakya is known for its rich heritage — it was one of the Roman Empire's biggest cities, and was ruled by the Greeks, the Byzantines and the Ottomans. It is a multicultural and multi-religious place, home to Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs and Jews.

The earthquake caused colossal architectural damage, partially destroying or flattening iconic landmarks, such as the Habib-i Najjar Mosque, the 19th-century St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church and the city's main synagogue.

Dubbed “the cradle of Christianity”, it is host to St Pierre Church, one of the religion's oldest. The entry is locked, but, from afar, the church did not suffer major damage, The National can confirm.

For Abdullah, there is no coming back from the disaster. “This is not the first time Antakya has been destroyed, we have learnt that in history classes but I won't be around when they rebuild it,” he said.

His family has fled to safety and does not plan on coming back.

But others can't resolve themselves to leave, despite the situation. Andar, 51, lost his house in the disaster. “Three of my relatives died in the house next to mine,” he said, pointing at a wrecked building.

“We buried them yesterday,” he said.

He estimated that 70 per cent of the city was gone, but does not see himself living anywhere else.

“This is my city, where I was born, where else am I supposed to go?” he said.

Standing in front of their destroyed house, his wife Yasmina nodded. “We want to stay here, we hope we can rebuild our house with some help,” she said.

Updated: February 13, 2023, 2:47 AM