Amid quake’s destruction, spirit of unity lives on in this Turkish city

“Antakya. Antakya. Antakya.” Yakup Cemal repeats the name of his hometown as he clutches his heart with his fists. It comes out more like a wail than the spoken word. 

Mr. Cemal, who is 78 and nearly blind, was displaced from Antakya after living through two catastrophic earthquakes Feb. 6 that ruptured the land across southern Turkey and northern Syria.

The first of the quakes devastated Antakya, but he and his wife of 57 years survived in their bedroom. Their home was left uninhabitable, and they lost their synagogue, their street, their neighbors. In all, over 50,000 people died, with Antakya among the worst hit, and most agree the official toll is a vast undercount. Once known as Antioch, Antakya has been a crossroads of civilizations for over two millennia. Today it sits in nearly complete ruins.

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As critical as homes, water, and sewer services are, residents of Antakya, left in ruins on Feb. 6, want reconstruction plans to prioritize the city’s unity, too.

When Mr. Cemal talks about his childhood home, with its courtyard at the center, and about growing up so easily among Christians, Muslims, and Jews, his wife hands him a napkin to wipe his eyes. “Even though we are different, we share a common culture,” he says. “I only hope my life lasts long enough so that I can return home.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

“Antakya. Antakya. Antakya.” – Yakup Cemal, repeating the name of his hometown

Just as much as he longs for home, his home needs him. At the time of the earthquake, Mr. Cemal was one of only 13 Jews left in Antakya. The Jewish community’s president and his wife died in the quake, and the rest were evacuated – bringing to a close the continuous practice of Judaism here for nearly 2,500 years. Mr. Cemal, now in Istanbul, is not alone in asking, how will the spirit of coexistence that defines modern Antakya be altered by the quake?

Six months since the destruction, a grief hangs in air still thick with the dust of rubble, and immediate recovery turns to the long road to reconstruction. Many religious communities, civil society groups, and business leaders are focusing their attention on not just the physical city but the spirit of harmony that marks Antakya – at a time when that kind of unity feels out of reach in so many parts of Turkey and beyond.

“The world is getting more multicultural, despite the policies to stop it,” says Anna Maria Beylunioğlu. She is part of an online cultural platform called Nehna, which, she says, means “us” in Arabic. Originally founded to educate about Arabic-speaking Christians in Antakya, it has now pivoted to preserving the city’s multicultural memory. “People are moving, and we are constantly faced with different cultures in different contexts. So we have to learn how to live together,” she says. “And this idea of a mosaic in Antioch, even if sometimes exaggerated, is a reference point for the world.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff

Men have coffee in Antakya’s Long Bazaar, where a few shops have reopened since the earthquake.

To see the destruction here is to be overwhelmed by scale. In swaths, hardly anything is left standing in the once bustling city of 400,000. Six months since the quake, almost no homes have been rebuilt and no services, like water or sewer, have been restored. The residential west side of the Orontes River is defined by emptiness, save constant police patrols where entire apartment blocks collapsed and are being razed. In their place are gaping lots with nothing except scatterings of former life: leather shoes, children’s umbrellas, kitchen plates. Everyone here knows someone who died. It’s not uncommon for people to know dozens of people who died.