Thursday, 30 June 2016

Changes in Modern Antioch

After a period of silence, I am back again.
A lot of things have happened, both in Antakya and in the rest of the Middle East. Consequently we have moved our residence from Antakya to Istanbul; but as I am working on a second book on Antioch, we visit the place quite often. My second book will be in Turkish and is not a translation of my book Antioch on the Orontes – A History and a Guide (Lanham, Maryland: Hamilton Books, 2012).  In my first book, which was addressed to a Western audience, I have stressed the importance of Antioch in church history. My second book is for Turkish readers who couldn’t care less about the religious development  of Christendom. On the other hand, they find the Ottoman period interesting. Therefore my change of focus!

A lot has happened in Antakya since our arrival in 2008. At that time the city was dirty and run down. When you arrived from the airport, you did not need to look out the car window to see when you were in Antakya. The roads downtown were so bumpy that you immediately felt when you had arrived.
The streets were dirty. People left their garbage in barrels on the street corners, and often the barrels were so filled that an area around them was packed with litter and with cats as dirty as rats.

This has changed. Even in the historic part of town close to the Bridge where garbage trucks cannot get in, a small army of garbage men are keeping the narrow streets amazingly clean. One must admit that the municipal administration deserves much commendation for its work.
Unfortunately, many of the youngsters do not appreciate the new image of their city. They use the walls of old listed buildings as billboards for their pathetic graffiti. Mind you, in some countries graffiti has been elevated to art and is executed with great skill. Not so in Antioch. Most of the youngsters ruin the walls – and sometimes even doors – with scribblings they themselves regard as love poems. Afterwards they have themselves photographed in front of their vulgarities.

When I asked one of the perpetrators – I guess he was about thirty years old – he answered: “This is real feelings!” If this is the case, their emotional life must be exceptionally shallow. Even an old mosque from the early 16th century has not been spared. One automatically gets the suspicion that parents and school teacher have neglected something somewhere.
The walls of a mosque in old Antakya
One wonders: when there is so much ugly concrete with smooth dull surfaces, why ruin the façades of old listed houses? But of course, one has seen similar cases of lack of respect for historic values on an even higher level. After all, it was in Antioch that an old bridge from the beginning of the 4th century was destroyed to make way more cars.
Another thing which is ruining the ambience of the classic centre of Antakya is that as soon as an old building has been restored into its original state, it is turned into a blaring bar or a café (which is more or less the same thing down here). Whatever can be turned into money must be turned into money, never mind how much you ruin on the way. This was what happened to the Aegean village of Gümüşlük, Myndos of the antiquity, after people realized its existence. And this was what happened to the Istanbul quarter of Asmalımescit at the bottom of Istiklal Caddesi. As soon as somebody started the renovation of the old buildings, whatever cavity was found at the ground floor was turned into a bar. The sound of “music” from who knows how many competing bars was unbearable. Let us hope that central Antakya will be saved from a similar fate!

But there is a reason for hope. The interest taken in preserving old Antakya which has been witnessed during the last four years or so indicates that somebody may be going to see to it that old Antakya will not be ruined.