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  • Arie Amaya-Akkermans

'Antioch’s real heritage is the lives of its peoples and their pasts'



In the second part of our conversation (click here for the first part) Andrea De Giorgi spoke to Nehna about the long history of earthquakes in the region, and how they have reshaped Antioch throughout the centuries. The Italian archaeologist contextualizes the earthquakes from the past with the modern history of the city, and tells us what these earthquakes, including the most recent one, mean for the archaeology of the region, both in terms of heritage and survival. In his view, the most central aspect of Antioch’s heritage is not simply its material history but the long lived history of cosmopolitanism, syncretism and tolerance that have characterized the city and its multicultural, multilingual populations ever since it was founded in 300 BCE.


De Giorgi worries about poorly planned reconstruction projects that will put economic and political interests ahead of the history and traditions of the city, but he is also confident that Antiochians will eventually take control of the city and its future, reshaping it as a pluralistic enclave, in the same way that they have done through the centuries. As an archaeologist, he also believes that the city still has much to tell us archaeologically, and that as one of the most important urban centers in the ancient world that have survived into our days, its history is still being written and an emphasis should be placed on its long continuity, more than on its repeated destructions, thinking beyond the Hellenistic and Roman period.


Interview: Arie Amaya-Akkermans


It is well known from the history of Antioch in antiquity that the region has suffered a number of earthquakes in the past, but I was astonished to learn from your book how many of them there were; we are talking about more than fifty, in the period between the 1st century BCE and the 19th century.


There were a lot of them, yes. It is the special character of this place, that despite the destruction created by these recurring events, the communities went on with their lives and people always rolled up their sleeves and went back to work.


How did all these earthquakes affect modern archaeology and its possibilities?


The earthquake in Antioch is of course a great catastrophe, and in archaeological terms it’s also not great news. In theory, it would be an opportunity to do some archaeological work as the rubble is being cleared, in order to understand the topography better, which could have an impact in understanding what is safe to build or not. But the Turkish government is going in a totally different direction with their reconstruction plans.


We hear stories about architects and builders coming from distant places like Kayseri or Konya, who have no idea about what Antakya was, its history or traditions. But it is not just that. I have the feeling there will be a moment when the government will want to get a consensus on the reconstruction, and with the construction industry being one of the main assets in the president’s political machinery, they will try to build as fast as possible, the tallest possible. I don’t know if they’re building TOKI (mass housing development program) in the Antakya area, but at the very least they will do something very similar.


They have a template of what cities are supposed to look like. First of all displacement, and then in the very center a shopping mall, surrounded by colorful mass housing projects that ignore any form of cultural or social heterogeneity that might have existed in the area. When I was reading Jordan Pickett’s contribution for a book you are editing, about the reconstruction projects of Antioch after earthquakes in the Roman and Hellenistic eras, they seem much more elaborate and well thought out than the current master plan that will be set into motion.


I know that people in Antakya feel strongly about this, and are adamant about keeping their heritage alive, but the government isn’t having much of a conversation.


At the beginning and at the end of the book you talk about the heritage of the peoples of Antioch and you summarize the greatness of the place, of its history and its past. You say that Antioch’s real heritage is the lives of its peoples and their pasts, and this strange combination of different communities, histories, styles in a horizontally multilayered city and society. Of course this is something that the state doesn’t want and they never wanted it in the first place, and now they are presented with a unique opportunity to erase it altogether. Strangely enough, I feel as if all that is left of Antakya, in a deep historical sense, is actually in Samandağ.


When I think about Samandağ and Seleucia Pieria, it’s never been thoroughly investigated. In the past we tried, but given the conditions in Hatay, where there’s no room for other researchers and their desire to tightly control everything, we really couldn’t get it together, which is unfortunate. In Samandağ, the Delta, and Seleucia Pieria, you have the perfect reflection of cultural phenomena that filtered out from the big city throughout history.


In the sense that Samandağ was never really completely built or finished, it couldn’t be completely destroyed during the earthquake. It remains that safe place to a certain degree, because it is still under construction as it always was. It is a kind of frontier as the proper Arabic speaking majority/minority place, which was always pushed further and further down and now there’s nowhere to push them, unless you mean into Syria. And Samandağ is still alive, it’s not a city of containers in the middle of nowhere as it is north of Antakya. The prospects are obviously gray, and things are not looking good, but I would like to think that there could be space for yet another large-scale transformation of the region after an earthquake.


I trust the endurance and the incredible resilience of the people in Antioch. There’s a lot of pain, resentment and grief, in the people of Antakya, you can see how they’re clinging to their home, so I trust that will be ultimately the force that will ensure a future and fill those ruins with a sense of life, a sense of hope, a sense of future. We can talk about archaeology for many hours, but what really matters is that people get back their homes, and that they have running electricity, and running water, and a place to rebuild their lives, whether in Antakya or elsewhere. They need to receive some assistance; this is not the way things should be in 2023.


The way that history and heritage are built and rebuilt in Antakya makes me think about the story of the rise to stardom of Hittite king Suppiluliuma in modern heritage discourses in the city. If you went to Antakya in 2022, as a tourist, and it’s your first time there, you would think that Suppi is the most important person in the history of the city. Incredibly famous. And he’s there on the same shelf with Atatürk and Alexander the Great, in every souvenir shop. He’s at the ice cream shop, at the barber, he is hanging from the taxi, and you’re curious to learn who this very famous person is. It turns out that the only thing that we actually know about this person is his name, the statue is not even academically published yet, and he’s all but eleven years old – for it was discovered at the Iron Age settlement of Tell Tayinat only in 2012. So he was invented as this icon of Antakya’s heritage only a decade ago. It makes me think that there’s this fluidity, this flexibility, in what Antiochians consider heritage. If you see him, you would think he’s as famous as Alexander the Great. Or perhaps more famous. But you never heard about him and he’s actually a very little known character. He went on to become such a major figure in so little time. It is such a part of the iconography of the city. Something like this could only happen in Antioch. So the future remains open.


Archaeologist Tim Harrison told me the other day that they actually copyrighted it, so that there is this association or company that holds the copyrights for the production of all kinds of miniature copies.


Street and Bazaar in Antakya, 1905, Gertrude Bell Archive


This story really tells you something about Hatay. When you go and live there, and you live with these families and share with these people their day to day life, everything seems so ordinary, as if you could be anywhere in Turkey. But with time, when you start peeling the layers, you begin to see how poorly integrated some parts of these communities are into Turkey, and that much of the integration was done literally at gunpoint. You can tell that the grandmother in many households doesn’t speak Turkish fluently. Sometimes they don’t speak it at all. It remains a borderland, and a borderland that is in many ways not exactly wanted as it is.


There’s this liminality about it and we really can’t tell what this liminality will be or become in the years ahead after the earthquake.


In the book you talk about the end of the 19th century and the period towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, and it seems that the Ottomans themselves were not particularly interested in the heritage landscape there, whether Christian or Muslim.


We don’t really need to get here into the ins and outs of the Ottoman period, but you can argue that at least until the days of the Armenian Genocide, you had a kind of multicultural society and there was a sense of a community that was a conglomerate of religious beliefs, ethnicities. That has been the DNA of the city basically since its foundation by Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BCE.


Even when you think about the pre-Hellenistic history of the region, you have this very unique situation, with many peoples living their happy lives in the sun there, from different ethnic groups (Hittite, Hurrian, Greek, Mari, Semitic etc). But every once in a while, they change their religion and language, carrying over elements from the past into a new cultural form, yet they remain settled in the same places. In the same way that Alawites worship in the waterfalls of Harbiye, famous for the myth of Daphne and Apollo.


There are all kinds of possibilities in this territory. The syncretisms of the churches weren't very different. A continuity of ancestral behaviors.


Think also about the intimate bonds between the Alawites and the Greek Orthodox in Samandağ who were hiding the Alawites in the past, in order to save them from religious persecution. There are conversions back and forth, of families who were Alawite and are now Greek Orthodox or Muslim, or the other way around. There’s a dispersion of many different elements that can never be glued together.


You can read in the homilies of John Chrysostom where he’s complaining about Christians going to the synagogues or Jews attending church. And then they go to Dafne to partake in some pagan festivals.


This is a very frequent event in Antioch – religious authorities complaining about syncretism. At the end of all this, as an archaeologist, aware of the many earthquakes that rocked Antioch and their aftermath and reconstructions, including the largest earthquake in the history of Antioch in 526 CE, what do you see ahead and what should we expect in the future archaeology of the region?


I want to offer an optimistic take. I want to believe that the people of Antakya will be involved in the reconstruction of their city, and I am certain that a reconstruction needs to take place that is sensible and sustainable and that will offer new housing and new opportunities for the people that have been displaced. It must be a reconstruction that takes into consideration the long history of the place, recognizing its many traditions, not necessarily only Roman. Also the Ottoman houses can be rebuilt, including the beautiful Greek and Armenian architecture from this period. Because of the pressure of making places tourist friendly and viable for tourism, I want to believe that these restorations will be done properly and respectfully. There will be room for archaeology, of course, in this context, to show different facets of the history of the city that are still unknown.


We hope that Antioch still has many things to tell us archaeologically.


It still does. Whether it makes so much sense to talk about saving say the pre-Hellenistic or Roman layers, I’m not entirely sure. However, there will be great opportunities for Antioch to become a cultural epicenter of the region if the government and the local stakeholders do their job right.

There is a false nostalgia going on now about Antakya and its old city, but when you think about it, and remember conversations you had with people in the past, actually the old city wasn’t that pretty and many people hated it and complained regularly about how horrible and faux were all these identical cafes, and how nothing was authentic. There could be a nostalgia about a moment in time, about the compactness of things then, but it’s possible that there are now opportunities to do things differently with the old city which was in such a deplorable state.


Sometimes people imagine that Antakya was only made of those beautiful Ottoman houses from the 1920s with large balconies and courtyards, but it wasn’t the case. There were a lot of terribly ugly neighborhoods, for example think about the area around the Aqueduct of Trajan. I still want to believe that something good is going to come out of this, but it will take many years. The city is still reckoning with the rubble, there’s no sense of who’s going to do what, or where they will go from here.


The problem of the rubble is a very significant issue. We’re talking about hundreds of millions of tons. It is an archaeological problem, an ecological problem, a social problem. The scale is so big it’s incomprehensible.


Houses on the Orontes River, Antakya, 1905, Gertrude Bell Archive


Featured Image: Street and Bazaar in Antakya, 1905, Gertrude Bell Archive

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