Ancient city of Antakya struggles to rebuild after being flattened by an earthquake

Locals criticise a slow rebuilding process and fear the loss of the city's unique cultural and religious identity

The National reports from Hatay, one year on from the earthquake

The National reports from Hatay, one year on from the earthquake
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Misel Orduluoglu looks nostalgically at the ruins of Saray Street in the old quarter of Antakya, capital of Turkey's Hatay province.

“We used to eat falafel there with my cousins,” he says, pointing at a pile of rubble where a restaurant once stood before a 7.8-magnitude earthquake flattened large parts of southern Turkey and northern Syria last year.

The February 6 quake killed at least 50,000 and destroyed or damaged at least four million buildings in Turkey. Hatay was the worst-affected province, with a death toll of 24,000.

A year on, most of the debris has been cleared away in Antakya. The ancient city is now a barren wasteland, shrouded in dust from demolition sites and ringing with the sound of heavy machinery.

Mr Orduluoglu, a dentistry student, recalls how Saray Street was once bustling with activity.

“The street shone most colourfully during holiday times; all communities celebrated together,” he says.

Antakya was known for its unique mix of minority communities in predominantly Sunni Turkey – mainly Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam, but also a significant Christian and small Jewish presence – who all lived together in peace.

Mr Orduluoglu, a Christian, says his favourite place was the Greek Orthodox Church, now a ruin, where for centuries his community congregated.

“Important structures across various religious groups in Antakya were damaged or destroyed,” says Katherine Pangonis, a historian who wrote about the effects of the earthquake on Antakya's identity and cultural heritage in her book Twilight Cities, published last year.

She mentioned, among others, the seventh-century Habib-i Neccar Mosque as well as Antakya's synagogue, which suffered significant structural damage.

“Antakya was always a very important city due to its strategic location; it's sort of the gateway to the Levant. It became one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire, the cradle of Christianity, an Islamic stronghold, and it played a crucial role in the Crusader period,” Ms Pangonis tells The National.

“As a result of this history, Antakya had a unique cultural and political identity. Its uniqueness lies in its mosaic-like composition, made up of all these different communities and faiths.”

A consortium of 13 international architecture firms is now leading efforts to rebuild the ancient city and its rich architectural heritage, in collaboration with the Turkey Design Council. Their master plan is expected to be unveiled this year.

But Antakya's residents are critical of the slow rebuilding process, which they say has not been inclusive of its communities, and are concerned about the preservation of its unique social fabric.

A year of uncertainty

The master plan for rebuilding Antakya is eagerly awaited, residents say, because no details of its proposals or timeline have yet been released.

“There's no official information, so I keep an eye on the news every day,” Malik Turunc, the owner of a hotel in the old quarter, tells The National.

Like other property owners in the area, he has put any restoration work on hold for now.

Mr Turunc could reopen his hotel at short notice since he earthquake-proofed the building a few years ago and it suffered minimal damage.

But it is in a part of downtown Antakya that the government declared as “a reserve area”, leaving residents uncertain about whether authorities plan to take over rebuilding of the area and whether they will be allowed to remain there.

“Why pay for the renovation myself if I have to leave?” Mr Turunc says.

For now, he says, he will continue to live off his savings because he has not received any help from the government.

“There is nothing else to do but wait for the master plan.”

'Lack of inclusion'

In the meantime, Antakya's displaced residents are living in container cities set up by the government. About 215,000 of the 700,000 people living in these cities are in Hatay.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to rebuild 319,000 homes within a year of the earthquake, but the first 7,000 were handed over only last Saturday, to families in Hatay selected by lottery.

“People are losing hope. It's been a year, and there has been no decision regarding the implementation of the urban plans,” says Tugce Tezer, an urban planner in Antakya and an independent adviser to the rebuilding effort in Hatay.

“The situation is not sustainable for the residents.”

Ms Tezer says different ministries and institutions are overseeing plans in different areas, including for the old town, the reserve areas, and the permanent housing area; all of which lack co-ordination and consistency.

“For the locals, this results in a lot of confusion around the process,” she says.

Anna Beylunioglu, an editor of Nehna, an online platform for Arabic-speaking Orthodox Christians in Antakya, laments the “lack of transparency and inclusion of the rebuilding process”.

“Some locals don't know about the future of their houses. Protecting cultural heritage involves not only buildings but also the people, their culture, and their language,” she says.

Some minorities are at risk of disappearing completely, such as Antakya's Jewish community, which comprised fewer than 20 people before the earthquake, and whose leader and his wife were killed in the disaster. Some members of the Christian community, which was already dwindling, fear for their future after its members were scattered by the earthquake.

A series of challenges

Part of the challenge of rebuilding is the financial strain it places on a country already grappling with an economic crisis. The earthquake is estimated to have cost Turkey $103.6 billion, equivalent to approximately 10 per cent of the national GDP.

Rebuilding Antakya's Greek Orthodox church alone might cost between $8 million and $10 million, according to Buse Ceren Gul, the Turkish architect leading the project supported by the World Monuments Fund.

Ms Pangonis says rebuilding Antakya will be “a very slow process".

“There’s the double challenge of preserving the soul and heritage of the city while keeping the focus on building urgently needed housing for displaced residents,” she says.

But Antakya has been rebuilt before – the city survived at least three devastating earthquakes in its history.

Life is already returning – the Grand Bazaar, reopened a few months after the quake, is bustling, with shoppers queueing at stalls selling kunafah, the syrup-soaked, cheese-filled dessert, and kombe, a traditional butter biscuit.

Mr Turcun remains hopeful of a revival. When asked if he plans to move, he replies: “Leaving? Of course no. It's my land. I'm confident about the project. I'm sure something will come up.”

Updated: February 09, 2024, 8:24 AM