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Antioch, mon amour – Melik Kaylan

Blog | By Melik Kaylan | Apr 14, 2023

Antioch in 1798 by M. Picquenot after L.F. Cassas

Melik Kaylan is heartbroken by the destruction of one of the great cities of world history

It might seem invidious to single out one part of Turkey's recent earthquake zone over any other as the most tragic, but at least for me and I'd argue for the wider world, it has to be Antioch, a sort of sacred city for many.
Set in a valley amid mountains, within scent of the sea, and blessed by a mazy river, Antakya (to the Turks) sits in a narrow tendril of Turkish territory jutting into Syria. Well over 1.5 million souls lived there before the catastrophe. A lot of them came from families going back even to antiquity when history first sank roots in the area. You can't mistake that feeling – I remember it as a boy briefly attending school in a town near Antioch – of drifting in surroundings sanctified by the centuries.
Sacred cities serve a function in humankind's memory. Having generated scriptural moments when history and faith converged on an earthly landscape, they give us the concrete co-ordinates for a materialization of the divine. It could have happened anywhere, but it happened specifically in that place at that time. And you can often see why, when you visit such sites. Even if you're of a different faith, you are in some measure converted by the genius loci, the spirit of place. Rome, Jerusalem, Byzantium, Benares. The ancient structures, the soil and stone, mediated by light and time give back capsules of palpable spiritual history. Antioch in Turkey was just such a place before being half-engulfed by undifferentiated rubble in the recent earthquake.
Distinct strands of memory exist simultaneously in Antioch and environs along the Syria border. The area became sacred to the memory of Christians worldwide because Saints Peter and Paul met up there and established the first communities outside the Holy Land. According to the Bible, it was in Antioch that the believers were first called Christians. The earliest churches took root and proliferated down the centuries. But, as is common in antiquity, church structures were often founded on the sites of classical temples which sometimes, in turn, dated back to prehistoric shrines. That kind of continuity can be felt all around Antioch, opening a timeless avenue of memory back to our dawning intimations of demi-urges. One of the oldest Jewish communities resided there, going back 2300 years.
You get the sense that God or the Gods chose these particular surroundings to make their presence known, using the ambient elements, perhaps already blessed by nature – land, water, mildness of weather – for their initial incarnations. Enough to attract humans in sufficient number, at any rate, to bear witness to a phenomenon the poet TS Eliot, in another context, called “this grace dissolved in place”. In short, the first holy sites were physical locations where it seemed that spirits or divine forces dwelt. (The earliest ever prehistoric worship site known to archeologists, Gobeklitepe, founded around 10,000 BC, which stands in the earthquake zone further east and north of Antioch by some 150 miles, seems to have survived intact.)
Antioch's warm, fertile proximity to the Orontes river, within a day's march to the Mediterranean and nestled amid protective mountains, no doubt attracted Alexander's descendants to center their empire there in 300 BC. Near the suburb of Harbiye, you can visit a locale where the God Apollo chased down the water-nymph Daphne through ferny mists. A complex of human-scale waterfalls amid laurels leads gradually down to a stream, past cafe tables around (and sometimes in) the basins. Before the earthquake, tourists flocked to the spot rather poignantly named, “Apollo's Tears”. The myth has it that when Apollo finally caught up with the reluctant Daphne she defiantly turned into a tree, and he spent eternity watering her leaves with his tears, keeping her evergreen. The local shrub with her name has a lovely scent – and harbours toxins irritant to the skin. In the Greco-Roman era, the area had a reputation for orgiastic ceremonies. Pagans made pilgrimages to be healed there, invoking Apollo's son, Asclepius, the patron of medicine. The waterfalls have survived though the touristic hotels above them took a battering.
For those who grew up in the region for any duration, the memory is one of being steeped in ancient time. When I was a boy, my father was assigned to the wider province of Hatay as a physician in government service for a couple of years. On road trips to area hospitals he took me along, detouring for ruins by the way. Above the seaside town of Samandag, now almost a suburb of Antioch and virtually levelled, we clambered up to a forgotten monastery in the hills. For centuries it housed anchorite monks devoted to the 5th century example of Saint Simon Stylites, the hermit who challenged the Christian world by withdrawing from it. He spent 39 austere years living atop a high pillar of rocks just over the border in Syria. I still recall the feeling, as a seven-year-old, of being enveloped by the sanctity of ancient time, and a sense of merging with memory deeper than mine. The roads going up there are now a mess but the monastery ruins, I'm told, seem no more ruined than before.
A decade ago I returned to the Syria border as a journalist, crossing back and forth over the years to cover the accelerating civil war. I was befriended by a kindly octogenarian, Reshid Kuseiri, a local luminary who'd studied farming at Oklahoma University in the 1950s and introduced the first tractor to the region. He owned large tracts of arable land around Antioch, endowed by the Ottoman Sultan 500 years ago. Reshid's ancestors provided horses for the empire's campaigns southwards into the Middle East. The Kuseiris hailed originally from the Central Asian steppes, the lands of Rumi and the Sufi saints, and had brought with them their 1000-year-old mystical healing traditions to found a medical mosque complex in a hill village between Antioch and the border. It was still functioning, despite going discreetly low-profile during the zealously secular post-Ataturk years. Kuseiri told me that people of all religions came to be healed there and he had witnessed miracles many times. I would visit the pristine little mosque complex to and from Syria's tumult, awed by the quiet reverence of the families with sick babies and grandparents, sleeping among the saints tombs. Early reports indicate it survived the earthquake. Reshid blessedly predeceased its horrors, dying peacefully in 2015.
It was Kuseiri who took me to visit the Cave-church of Saints Peter and Paul. Niched amid rocky promontories, the six-metre high limestone cave served as the site of their first communions. Paul gathered the flock and Peter preached there. From its height Christians could watch for the approach of persecuting Roman soldiers. The congregation carved rough tunnels through the sandstone to act as watch-towers and escape routes. The cave provided baptismal water that dripped down the limestone walls. I knelt in the corner, drank the water from a metal bowl and prayed inwardly for a deeply sick friend back in New York (who later recovered!).
Though the cave has survived, 19thcentury church structures built outside have crumbled, adding to the most disconcerting strand of memory running through the region – of savage, historic earthquakes down the centuries, in AD 115, 526, 528, 1853 and on down to the present.
But interweaved with it is the concurrent memory that Antioch's seemingly inexhaustible wellspring of faith has kept rebuilding after each cataclysm.