Dispatch from Antioch: Greek and other minorities in the Turkish earthquake

Arie Amaya-Akkermans, a writer in Turkey, has collaborated with Prof. Joel Christensen in producing a unique report and reflection on the fate of Greek, and other minorities as well as the ancient Antioch (eastern Turkey), after the devastating Turkish earthquake.

One of the greatest myths around Antioch (Antakya) perpetuated by Western archaeologists and Biblical scholars is that the city was destroyed in the 6th Century CE (Christian Era) after a number of earthquakes, and that it was then abandoned. European travelers in the early modern period described it with condescending pity. However, what is most fascinating about Antioch and the region is not its classical past rather, its ability to effect large scale transformations across time, shifting between different cultures, languages and political configurations.

By the time Antioch was founded by Seleucus I Nicator in the 3rd Century BCE (Before Christian Era ), the surrounding Amuq Valley and the Orontes River had already lived many lives in the Bronze and Iron Ages. The city has been Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine, as well as Arab, Ottoman, Syrian, then European rule until it was ultimately annexed to the Turkish republic in 1939. Antiochians carry all these pasts within them. The region is a tapestry of ancient and modern communities. It is an entire world of peoples in one fragile place.

The damaged inside of St Ilyas Photo: Arie Amaya-Akkermans

Mourning the Present

Next Saturday, March 18, will complete 40 days of mourning after the earthquakes that devastated Antioch and large swaths of eastern Turkey and northwestern Syria. In the Orthodox tradition, this day concludes the 40-day memorial period. It is believed in the Eastern Orthodox Church that the soul of the departed remains wandering on earth in that 40 day period, returning to the home where they lived, visiting familiar places as well as their fresh grave.

But what happens when all these familiar places have been destroyed and they’re no longer recognizable? The landscape is now foreign to both the living and the dead. The earthquake was certainly the most massive in the history of the modern Turkish state, even deadlier than the Izmit earthquake 1999 that killed thousands.

The Kahramanmaraș earthquakes of February 6, followed by many aftershocks and another earthquake on February 20, has killed over 50,000 people; ten provinces have been affected; and a dozen cities have been destroyed.

The living are wandering too, millions are internally displaced, seeking shelter in Turkey’s major cities, during the country’s most catastrophic economic recession and hyperinflation since the 1990s. It’s possible that you haven’t heard all the details because the earthquakes didn’t happen in Istanbul or Ankara; because an authoritarian government is doing everything in its power to downplay the gravity of the event and its disastrous response; because information on the ground is still unclear–thousands are still missing.

What happens to us when we aren’t allowed to grieve? Many of us have been asking this since the beginning of COVID-19, but for the people of Turkey and Syria, this question has new urgency. How do we remember the dead when the living remain so shocked, under so much distress while trying to recover their own lives, that mourning effectively cannot take place?

Nevertheless, people will gather on the 40th day in Istanbul, to remember the departed in an event organized by the Antiochian Orthodox platform Nehna and the Istanbul Greek publisher ISTOS and we will recite as it is custom: “We said goodbye to you, no longer come to us, we will come to you.”

Arie’s journey

As a contemporary art curator and writer living in Turkey for over a decade, I (Arie) have always been interested in the history of the living minority communities in the country, particularly the Greek Orthodox community, its long history has intersected with the ancient past of Anatolian Greeks–from the Pseudo-Aristotle that writes about the island of Prinkipo, to the life of the Byzantine empress Anna Komnene, or the Greek translation of the Constantinople Torah that gave birth to Modern Greek. As someone who came from the Classics into contemporary art, my interest in antiquity was always there.

The rich, intangible heritage, grown and sewn together over centuries, teeters on the edge.

Living in these ancient cities (Constantinople and Antioch, before in in Jerusalem and Beirut, and now in Izmir (Smyrna) ), has shed light on how much this fraught past still defines the margins of the present moment. The Greek community in Turkey is very small today, but its echoes reverberate wide and far: From the Great Fire of Smyrna, to the Phanariotes, the population exchange, the War of Independence, etc.

St Ilyas in Antioch an ancient centre of Hellenic and other minorities Photo: Arie Amaya-Akkermans

I came to Antioch in fact not looking for its Greek past, but in order to find the peace of mind to complete a project I was working on – “After Utopia: The Birds” at Sadberk Hanim Museum in Istanbul, on the story of the Karamanlides, a Turkish-speaking Orthodox minority from Central Anatolia. Antioch reveals its many Hellenic pasts: From the waterfalls of Harbiye–site of the myth of Daphne and Apollo, to the 6th century Monastery of St Simeon Stylites the Younger in Samandağ, the Roman-era martyrium mosaics in Hellenistic Seleucia Pieria or the Cave Church of Saint Peter–one of Christianity’s oldest churches.

Yet this past also coexists with a really complex present: The Muslim majority lives alongside different Christian denominations, Alawites and Jews, in what was considered Turkey’s last corner of religious and cultural pluralism. These communities were already shrinking but with the earthquake, their destruction has become also a political reality.

Communities of Complexity

Patterns of devastation and departures have long been visible in Antioch. Greek Orthodox Christians can be found throughout the region and not only in Antakya, which was also home to a Jewish community since 300 BCE, although the recent earthquake destroyed the 19th Century synagogue and no Jews remain in the city. Armenians who fled the horrors of genocide were settled in six villages around Samandağ, and then they fled to Lebanon when Hatay was annexed to the Turkish republic, while Alawites–a transnational sect found across Lebanon, Syria and southeastern Turkey, the majority of whom arrived during Ottoman rule fleeing persecution, settled in these places as well. Demographic engineering by Turkey settled Turkish Muslims all over the region, alongside the Arabic-speaking Muslims who have been in Antioch since the 13th century. After the earthquake, Antakya has been largely abandoned, but many of these communities are still struggling to survive in Samandağ and other small towns.

In spite of its great importance in Late Antiquity, the traces of a Greek past are difficult to read in Antioch today: The Greek settlement of Al Mina, an 8th Century BCE trading colony, was discovered by Leonard Woolley in 1936, and important pottery finds were made–it’s no longer possible to distinguish the excavation site. Hellenised peoples made up the core population through most of Antioch’s history. But it’s still possible to say it was an important center for Hellenism, on par with Alexandria, towards the end of the Ottoman empire, as we can tell from Cavafy’s poetry, who penned a number of poems in honor of the city, ancient and modern: “To Have Taken The Trouble”, “Greek From Ancient Times”, “On the Outskirts of Antioch”, “Julian and the Antiochians”, among others, showing its place in the Greek imagination.

But the contemporary situation is far more complex: Not only is the designation “Rum” historically vague and generally applied to all Orthodox Christians in the Middle East who are largely Arabic-speaking (Kaldellis has written about this at length), but also Antioch is no longer under the jurisdiction of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch as it relocated to Damascus in the 14th Century. Since its annexation to Turkey, it belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople which is Greek-speaking, even if Antiochian Christians are not.

People from the community are called Arab in Antioch, Greek in Istanbul and Turk in Athens. Antiochian Christians consider themselves “Rum” in the traditional sense of Romaios, which has no translation other than Orthodox, but not necessarily Greeks, even if their fate is now intertwined with that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the very fragile, contested history of Turkey and Greece.

Greek Orthodox Christians celebrating Palm Sunday, or the Feast of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, that falls on the Sunday before Easter in Antioch or Antakya last year. Photo: Via nehna.org/Abdulla Sert

There have been many earthquakes in Antioch in the past, including some of the largest in history ( 2nd and 6th Century CE), after which the city has been rebuilt many times, which is one of the reasons why the city’s great fame is unmatched by a blurry archaeological record. The modern city of Antakya and the surrounding region–Samandağ, Iskenderun, Altınözü, and others, have been destroyed not only by the earthquake, but also by the lack of accountability on the part of a government that failed to enforce safety rules in construction on unparalleled scale.

But corruption is only one part of the story. The other part is the ruthless neglect of minority communities that were already struggling, due to very poor infrastructure compared to the rest of the country. In the aftermath of the earthquake, the tardy and sloppy response of the government has killed many more people than the initial earthquake did, and a month later the survivors are still languishing in tents, or going into exile.

It is entirely possible that there’s no actual plan to rebuild Antioch. While it is still too early to assess the real extent of the damage to communities beyond the high human cost,some of the damage is certainly permanent. This is not about buildings: the damage to the living tissue of these ancient communities that cannot be brought back simply by restoring a church. The rich, intangible heritage, grown and sewn together over centuries, teeters on the edge. Its people have paid the cost of unchecked authoritarian rule.

Surviving parishioners of St Ilyas in Antioch, Turkey. The Hellenic minority traces its roots to back when Antioch was a Greek centre for thousands of years. Photo: Arie Amaya-Akkermans

Coda: How to Help

In the aftermath of a the disaster, the first thing that comes to mind is to donate to large organisations towards large-scale relief, but it is here that we need to begin rethinking what we know about reconstruction efforts, also about solidarity. Civic leaders in Turkey have warned against donating to organizations where an irresponsible government is in control of resources.

Many people overseas have donated to ABHAP, which has rapidly and efficiently distributed aid in many provinces, but the situation is so dire, giving should be continuous and no single body or organization can help mitigate all the impact of the disaster and its handling.

Minority communities are particularly at risk, therefore the platform Nehna, (https://nehna.org/) while not an organisation, can help identify urgent needs among the communities of Antioch, and also provide information for the Greek Orthodox Churches in the region that urgently in need of funds not only for reconstruction of a building, but in order to continue operating as relief centers in Antioch, providing valuable services to people in need.

Greek communities everywhere can also help spread the word about these efforts by highlighting the importance of Antioch for the Hellenic heritage, and creating awareness of the risk that these ancient communities face, at a time when Christian communities in the Middle East are shrinking rapidly. Awareness always encourages donations, no matter how small, and of course collective solidarity within institutional frameworks, which is what the people of Antioch need, much more than simply money donations.

There are weekly lists published by solidarity collectives in Antioch about items that are needed most at a time, and people who are traveling frequently between Antioch and the main cities in Turkey, delivering whatever aid they can collect from friends in the country and abroad, and these people, though poorly funded or organized, have made a difference in ways that large organisations, moving too slowly, and handicapped by local politics, cannot.

To support eastern Orthodox and other minorities to cope in aftermath of the tragic earthquake in Turkey please visit this link. (The site is in Turkish and English)

Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and curator based in Turkey. His writing has appeared on Hyperallergic, Artnet, San Francisco Arts Quarterly, Harper’s Bazaar and he’s a senior writer at The Markaz Review. His exhibition “After Utopia: The Birds”, is on show at Sadberk Hanim Museum in Istanbul. Arie is a speaker on the topic of minorities heritage in the Middle East. Joel Christensen is Professor and Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs at Brandeis University. Some of his work include Homer’s Thebes (2019) and A Commentary on the Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice (2018). In 2020, he published The Many-Minded Man: the Odyssey, Psychology, and the Therapy of Epic with Cornell University Press.