Earthquake at Antioch

Katherine Pangonis

Antioch (modern-day Antakya) has suffered terribly from earthquakes throughout its history.
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Earthquake at Antioch

Six months following the devastating earthquake of February 6th  2023, the dust has finally settled across Southern Turkey and Northern Syria. Rescue efforts are over and the attention of the Turkish government and international aid community is now focused on aiding and resettling the survivors, clearing debris and rebuilding. The combined impact of the earthquakes has been horrific. More than 55,000 people have lost their lives, while over 100,000 were injured. Six months on, more two million people are still living in tents in both formal and informal camp settlements. Twenty-six million people across Turkey and Syria are estimated to have been impacted by the disaster.

The scale of the tragedy and damage done is still hard to fathom. Along with the thousands of lives and homes that have been torn apart, there are also countless historic monuments that have been brought down. Crucibles of civilisation, memory and religion that have survived centuries of war and political turbulence, have been reduced the rubble.

The region affected by the quake hold huge cultural significance with regard to human heritage, encompassing portions of Mesopotamia and the Fertile Crescent – commonly considered the cradle of human civilisation. It is home to Gobekle Tepe – the earliest known site of human worship – whose rings of ancient megaliths predate Stonehenge by seven thousand years.

Gaziantep Castle, which dominated the skyline of the modern city and was a draw for tourists, was heavily damaged by the earthquakes, and images of this were quick to circulate on social media. The structure dated back to the Roman period in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, but was significantly enlarged and fortified during the reign of Byzantine emperor Justinian I, and again during the rule of the Ayyubids in the 12th and 13th centuries, and during the Ottoman period.

A spokesperson for ICOMOS Turkey said ‘We are still grieving for the great loss of life. Now that the works to clear the debris has started we are concerned to safeguard the remains of heritage buildings. Settlements such as Antakya are built on layers upon layers of history.’

Antakya – known in ancient times as Antioch – was among the cities worst affected by the earthquakes.  Before this disaster, Antakya was beautiful. At its heart was an old city of winding streets, designed in Ottoman and French styles. Boutiques sold mosaic art, traditional clothing, Turkish ceramics and the Künefe for which the city is famous. The population was multicultural, predominantly Alawite Islamic, but also with significant Christian and small Jewish communities, that have continued in the city for over two millennia – since the days of Antioch’s founding.

In the golden days of Antioch, the city was a crossing place on the greatest trade route of the age – the Silk Road. This brought it inestimable wealth. It was the gateway to the Levant, and a major city in the eastern Mediterranean. Following the fall of the Seleucids, it became in turn the capital of the Roman Orient, the cradle of Christianity, an Islamic stronghold, a Byzantine trading centre and a crusader capital, before beginning a process of slow decline under the governance of the Mamluks. For a brief period of almost a year from 7 September 1938 to 29 June 1939, it was the capital of Hatay State – an independent state, attached to no country. In 1939, it was controversially annexed by modern Turkey.

In February, much of this vibrant city was flattened and left unrecognisable. Across the city, historic buildings collapsed, and the city’s archaeological museum sustained significant damage. The Turkish government had to instal solar powered cameras to maintain security amidst power outages, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) sent secure containers to preserve priceless treasures from looting.

In these disasters many of the city’s historic buildings were destroyed, including the Habib al-Najjar mosque, which contained the relics of Habib the carpenter. The Greek Orthodox Church was also reduced to rubble, and the synagogue was also damaged. A video emerged of surviving members of the city’s small Jewish community retrieving the ancient Torah scrolls from the velvet draped Aron Hakodash. The leader of the community and his wife, Saul and Fortuna Cenudioglu lost their lives, and the rest of the community were swiftly evacuated to Istanbul, ending a two millennia tradition of Judaism in Antakya. Alongside the buildings that have been destroyed are communities of historic significance, and efforts to preserve cultural heritage in this region must focus as much on reviving communities, as reconstructing buildings and monuments.

Antakya is just one of many ancient cities of great significance to suffer such damage. Aleppo, one of the world’s most ancient cities, sits at the crossroads of several historic trade routes and like Antakya its architecture bears witness to the successive regimes and empires that have flourished and declined in the region. The Citadel- which showcased Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Ayyubid structures, has suffered damage, with one of the towers collapsing and with significant damage to the walls. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism lists 8,444 historical structures of cultural heritage across the 11 provinces struck most severely by the earthquakes.

In the immediate aftermath of the earthquakes, shell-shocked victims in Antakya huddled for warmth and wandered among the ruins, as rescue workers and aid organisations trickled in. Refugees took to sleeping in the mountain caves, once inhabited by furtive early Christians. The scenes were eerily reminiscent of one nearly 1,500 years ago, when survivors of another earthquake roamed the desolate remains of ancient Antioch after it was laid low in the time of the Byzantine emperor Justinian.

There is a long history of earthquakes in this region. In 115 AD, the emperor Trajan escaped through a palace window as the capital of Roman Syria collapsed around him. The earthquake that struck the city then was estimated to the same magnitude as the one that hit Antakya on February 6th 2023.

The descriptions left by Dio Cassius are hauntingly reminiscent of modern reports of the destruction: “While the emperor was tarrying in Antioch a terrible earthquake occurred; many cities suffered injury, but Antioch was the most unfortunate of all… First there came on a sudden, great bellowing roar, and this was followed by a tremendous quaking. The whole earth was upheaved, and buildings leaped into the air; some were carried aloft only to collapse and be broken in pieces, while others were tossed this way and that as if by the surge of the sea, and overturned, and the wreckage spread out over a great extent even of the open country. The crash of grinding and breaking timbers together with tiles and stones was most frightful; and an inconceivable amount of dust arose, so that it was impossible for one to see anything or to speak or hear a word. As for the people, many even who were outside the houses were hurt, being snatched up and tossed violently about and then dashed to the earth as if falling from a cliff; some were maimed and others were killed… And as Heaven continued the earthquake for several days and nights, the people were in dire straits and helpless, some of them crushed and perishing under the weight of the buildings pressing upon them, and others dying of hunger….”

Visiting Antakya myself  two weeks after the initial disaster, on February 20th, I was caught up in the third earthquake to strike Antakya – measuring 6.4 in magnitude. The sound was like thunder, but coming from below, rather than above, and we were thrown about as the earth lurched. I was struck by how similar my experiences, and the scenes of destruction I saw, were to those recorded by Dio Cassius in the 2nd century AD, or by John Malalas in the 6th century. Down the centuries, Antakya has been destroyed many times, but has always risen again from the ashes. We can only hope that such a revival is possible this time.

Katherine Pangonis is a historian and the author of Twilight Cities: Lost Capitals of the Mediterranean.