Discover more from Turkey recap
Rebuilding, bite by bite: Historic Antakya after the earthquake
In the main hall of Antakya’s bus station terminal, there are deep cracks in the walls, rubble litters the floor and dozens of ceiling panels seem to hang on by a thread, the entire thing threatening to collapse at any moment. Bus companies have set up mobile desks outside of the station, and it is from one of these where I buy my evening ticket back to the city of Adana, about four hours to the west by bus. Even though I've just arrived, I already have to plan my exit because there isn't really anywhere left in Antakya to stay the night.
Like most structures in the city, the terminal was damaged in February's massive earthquake, the worst of its kind in modern Turkish history. The quake affected a vast area in the region, but Antakya was the city wrought with the worst devastation, leaving most of it unrecognizable and uninhabitable.
The destruction here could be particularly significant. Antakya – historically Antioch – has among the most cosmopolitan populations of any city in the country or region, including Turkish-speaking Sunni Muslims, Arabic-speaking Alawites, Greek Orthodox Christians and a tiny community of Jews that were the bearers of a legacy in the city for more than two millennia. On top of that, the ancient city has one of the richest cuisines in Turkey, with a vast array of delicious food that is a result of its integral location, nestled in the south near the Mediterranean and the Syrian border.
The earthquake, having destroyed an extensive part of the city, threatens the continued vitality of this vibrant culinary culture and the ethno-religious patchwork for which Antakya is so well known, having been rightfully dubbed the “city of civilizations.”
Eager to see if any traces of this rich culture remain, I hop in a taxi to the historic city center, which is about a 20-minute ride from the bus station. There is not a building in sight that hasn't been damaged. I meekly remark to the cab driver that it looks like a war zone. This is worse, he replies – and he's been to different parts of post-civil war Syria. If this sounds entirely grim, I've actually come to Antakya to find a silver lining. I heard numerous reports of shops, bakeries, butchers and kebab restaurants recently reopening in Uzun Çarşı, the main bazaar in the heart of old Antakya.
The bazaar has been severely damaged, but not totally beyond repair. After a glum stroll through shops either shuttered or collapsed, I see a light of sorts at the end of the tunnel. Two spice shops have reopened across from one another and are packed to the gills with regional goods.
Erkan Meryem has worked in the bazaar for seven years. He had two other shops that were destroyed in the earthquake, but he managed to reopen the third, five days before my visit. The dried eggplants used to make patlıcan dolması were hanging prominently from the outer wall and there were buckets of enticingly bright red salça (tomato or pepper paste) assembled out front.
“You need to start from somewhere. If someone continues to focus on the negative, they are never going to get over this situation,” Meryem said, adding that this is why they made the decision to open their doors in the mostly empty and damaged sprawling market. He said his expectations for sales aren't high, as most of Antakya's population was ultimately forced to abandon their city, but he has bravely chosen to weather what will be a long, difficult storm.
Heading deeper into the once-thriving and crowded bazaar, I'm thrilled to see that Vitamin Kasabı, a butcher and kebab restaurant that I visited and wrote about in 2017, was back in the swing of things. Right across the way was a pile of wreckage, while construction vehicles ambled down the narrow street and a generator roared just next to the door as neither electricity nor running water were currently available at the bazaar.
Sedat Kutlu's father opened Vitamin Kasabı in 1971, and became a staple of Uzun Çarşı. Their specialty is tepsi kebap, a mixture of beef and lamb cuts hacked straight off the racks hanging in the window and expertly shaped into a slender frisbee-like disc and placed into a shallow pan, topped with generous chunks of tomatoes and peppers and a steady pour of sauce. The dish is then sent a few doors down to a bakery where it is cooked in the oven in addition to the fresh, hot and fluffy round flatbread with which it is served.
Sitting at the same spot on the second floor of the tiny shop, it looks the same as it did in 2017, which came as a shock as we learned that it was completely damaged in the quake and only reopened ten days prior.
“My second floor collapsed. I worked for nearly twenty days to rebuild it, and we had a very difficult time doing so,” Kutlu said.
While waiting for our order the power went out twice, but eventually we were served a juicy, mouthwatering oven-fresh tepsi kebap that was just as delicious, if not more so, than the one we enjoyed six years ago. Customers have already started to come back; there were visitors in search of the signature dish when I arrived and as I left.
After taking my time with the excellent meal – complemented by the perfectly spicy pepper on top that was tamed by bites of the pillowy bread – I went downstairs to chat with Kutlu, the rumble of the generator was still audible from the back of the restaurant.
Kutlu admitted that he thought about not reopening after the quake, but quickly reversed his decision:
“We said let's be an example so the other tradesmen of the bazaar open up, so we reopened,” he explained, adding that he would have done so much sooner if his second floor didn't sustain so much damage. In spite of what seems like an impossibly bleak near future for Antakya, Kutlu remains optimistic:
“There were those who opened up after us; at the moment we are six or seven small business owners. When the water and electricity comes back, you can be sure that everyone will return, I believe this,” he says with resolve.
After leaving Vitamin Kasabı with a satisfied stomach and a somewhat hopeful outlook in spite of the seemingly endless debris and destruction, we take a few steps down toward the bakery that cooks Vitamin Kasabı's kebab and churns out its own excellent bread. It's run by Emre Bucak, an engineer by trade who spent a year in that line of work and didn't like it, preferring to return to the occupation that his father taught him when Bucak was a child.
Like the butcher shop, Bucak's small bakery with the glow emanating from its flame-licked oven has been open for half a century. His family also thought about not reopening after the quake, but soon changed their minds:
“People that we know kept saying, ‘come back, let's do something,’ and we opened up again because of their demands,” Bucak said. Despite Bucak's insistence on going back to work, the younger man's take on Antakya's state of affairs is somber:
“I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel. What countries at war experienced in ten years, we experienced in a day. There is no culture left, and Antalya is synonymous with culture,” Buca said.
Nearby on Kurtuluş Avenue, an important center of trade stretching back thousands of years which locals claim to be the world's first illuminated street, once lit up by torches, not a single building appears to be intact. The iconic Hotel Liwan looked repairable until I turned the corner and saw its left wall, which was mostly gone.
There are lots of cats ambling around the wreckage, and while some were street cats, others may have been lost pets of earthquake victims who had to leave the city after their homes collapsed. Two bridges over the Orontes River that separate the old city from the newer neighborhoods are among the few structures intact.
Further along, I met Yeter Aracı, who worked at the Saka Hamamı, a historic Turkish bath in Uzun Çarşı, for 35 years before the earthquake. She is now working at a makeshift cafe in the center of the city selling tea, coffee, and other soft drinks. A group of older men discreetly sip rakı, Turkey's signature anise-flavored spirit, while two youngsters drink tea and play backgammon. These are among the people that refuse to give up on Antakya and lend some semblance of normalcy to the devastated city.
“I go to my home; in front of it, there is wreckage that I am removing. [Eventually] I will go back home because it wasn't heavily damaged,” Aracı said of how she spends her time apart from serving hot drinks.
For the time being however, like so many thousands of Antakya residents, she is living in a tent until the wreckage is fully removed and stable power and electricity, which is currently sporadic, returns to the area. Her home, like her former workplace, is also located in Uzun Çarşı. While trudging through the wrecked city, one immediately feels the profound connection and commitment that Antakyans have to the historic bazaar that was the beating heart of their hometown.
I finish my coffee and leave the outdoor cafe, heading back into Uzun Çarşı. I set foot into the courtyard of a mosque that has completely collapsed. The benches, lampposts and trees of the courtyard somehow remain standing in place. It is dusk and the bright sky has begun to dim, while flocks of birds furiously and joyfully tweet away on the tops of the trees, perhaps entirely unaware of what has taken place below.
Any sense of calmness or peace is clouded by the incomprehensible scale of disaster and the eeriness that sets in once the few dozen people exploring the bazaar have left before it gets dark. Soldiers and police patrol the area, along with aid workers some of them break their Ramadan fast at an aid station in the center of town.
Nearby, in the middle of the main bridge that passes over the Orontes River, locals have hastily built a kind of folk art replica of the statue of Suppiliulima I, the Hittite king from the 14th century BC whose wide-eyed, bearded, helmeted bust is perhaps the most iconic artifact at Antakya's renowned archaeology museum, which is located just outside the city center and fortunately evaded damage in the earthquake.
This impromptu figure is one of the first things one sees now when crossing into the old town – another indicator that Antakya's residents are resound in salvaging and protecting what's left of their city’s boundless historic legacy.
An hour after sunset, I hop in the lone taxi waiting in the center of town to head back to the bus station. At night, the trip through the city is even more haunting, as it is pitch dark and completely vacant save for a handful of people outside sitting by their damaged homes, perhaps in order to stave off looters. For years, my driver lived in one of these neighborhoods, only to lose his home to the earthquake. He is currently sleeping in his cab.
The area around the bus station has turned into a somewhat busy hub, and dozens of mobile restaurants have popped up, which are particularly popular in the evening after the Ramadan fast-breaking meal. With an hour to spare before my bus departs for Adana, I sit down and have an Antakya-style köfte dürüm, in which a sumptuous slice of grill-kissed and spice-flecked flatbread is wrapped around finely-sliced discs of ground meat and generously slathered in spicy tomato sauce and mayonnaise, served alongside a small but heaping bowl of pickled cucumbers and peppers.
I board my bus just shy of 10 p.m. My day ended at a hotel in Adana in the early morning, but the six hours spent in Antakya remain nearby. Several days after leaving Antakya, I heard some small good news about Affan Cafe, open since 1913 and one of the most well-known landmarks in town, celebrated for the beautiful preserved interior and a signature Hatay dessert, haytalı, a neon-pink affair featuring scoops of ice-cream bathed in rosewater.
Just off Kurtuluş Avenue, the Affan Cafe was wrecked in the quake, but the owners were able to retrieve its sign from the rubble and opened a tiny outdoor location a little further outside of town. It’s yet another indication of the resilience and perseverance of the Antakyans, who have no plans on giving up on their city, even if it means they confront grave destruction, emptiness and pain on a daily basis. We should pray and hope that their efforts do not go unnoticed or unrewarded.
Diego Cupolo, co-founder + editor @diegocupolo
Gonca Tokyol, freelance journalist @goncatokyol
Ingrid Woudwijk, freelance journalist @deingrid
Verda Uyar, freelance journalist @verdauyar
Gökalp Badak, editorial intern @gklpbdk