Friday, 26 November 2010

Aleppo and Damascus seen from Antakya

In good old days Antioch was the capital of the Roman province called Syria. This meant that she was more important than both Damascus and Aleppo. But with the conquest of Syria in the seventh century things started to change. Aleppo became an independent emirate and Damascus became the capital of the Umayyad Empire. The Umayyad rule eventually fell to the Abbasids in Baghdad, but Damascus continued to be more important than Antioch – or Antakya as it was now called.

Antakya has regained some of its importance under the Turkish Republic, but a visit to the three cities clearly shows the visitor that Antakya is far behind her two sisters. Antakya is a small town of 200.000 souls while both Aleppo and Damascus are metropolises with millions of inhabitants.

It is easy for people of Antakya to visit Syria. They do not even need a visa to cross over into Syria. But if you are not a Turk or an Arab things are more complicated. The Turkish side is easy, but at the Syrian side the undaunted traveller is met with a curious combination of Ottoman bureaucracy and French legalism of the former century. Forms have to be filled and stamped and all details about the traveller are registered on old computers by policemen holding the passport of the guest in his one hand while pecking the keyboard with one single finger of his other hand. You feel lucky when you manage to get through.

Syria has also introduced another oddity: You have to pay to get out of the country. You have already paid for your visa, but when you leave the country you have to pay something like 10-15 dollars to get safely back to Turkey. It is fine to go by bus when going to Syria, but on the way back buses may stay for hours in customs while private cars and taxis get through easily. And taxis from (and to) Aleppo are cheap. You pay about ten dollars per person for one way.

Aleppo and Damascus have many things in common with Antakya. Architecture of the old Syrian houses are similar although these houses in Aleppo and Damascus are bigger and more well-preserved that those of Antakya. It even applies to the simple unpretentious houses in the old part of town. In Damascus the inhabitants of the old quarters see to it that their houses do not fall apart. In Antakya the owners simply leave the house and let it fall into disrepair, perhaps hoping that it will topple over so that a concrete monstrosity can be built instead.

As also seen in Antakya some of the old buildings are used as restaurants. They are built in several storeys with a big yard in the middle. The restaurants usual have a removable “roof” of plastic or canvas over the courtyard so that guests are not harassed by dew or rain.

The religious tolerance so peculiar to Antakya is also seen in Aleppo and Damascus. In Damascus there are many Christians. You see churches and hear church bells blending with the Muslim call to prayer. Aleppo has many Nusayri Alewites, Armenian Christians, Catholics and members of the Orthodox and Syrian Churches together with the majority of Sunni Muslims. You see women completely covered in black and women in clothes so tight that you believe that it is sprayed on. Although the Muslims are in majority no attempt is made to change the dress code of others or to prevent the ringing of church bells. One may wonder where some countries in Western and Eastern Europe have dug up their bigotry.

In Aleppo the old Hotel Baron still exists. It has had so famous guests as Lawrence of Arabia, Agatha Christie (she wrote The Murder on the Orient Express there), Gertrude Bell and even the “father” of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. And by the way, King Faisal declared the independence of Syria from one of the balconies – presumably the one from where some of the guests were shooting ducks at another occasion. At that time the hotel was outside the city. This has changed. The noise of traffic is as unbearable as it is in all other big cities of the Middle East.

Besides the two Syrian mega-cities Antakya in Turkey is a very small place – less interesting, but a lot more relaxing to live in.

Saturday, 13 November 2010


People in Antioch loved entertainment. The preacher John Chrysostom found it a little too much. In Homily III he said: "The day before yesterday we set on foot our sermon concerning the Devil, out of our love for you. But others, the day before yesterday while these matters were being set on foot here, took their places in the theatre, and were looking on at the Devil’s show. They were taking part in lascivious songs; ye were having a share in spiritual music. They were eating of the Devil’s garbage: ye were feeding on spiritual unguents." (1)

But the Antiochenes' love of music did not die with Chrysostom. When the Crusaders arrived they no doubt started to like the local rhythms and cadences when they got used to them. Some of the musicians they had had along and some of those who visited the Crusader Principality of Antioch together with "the Queen of the Troubadours" Catherina of Aquitaine could use the Eastern sound in their music. Much of French music of the thirteenth century has a Middle Eastern ring. It naturally has to be admitted that the Arabic influence from Spain was strong as well.

Music was also popular in Antakya when F. A. Neale stayed here for seven months in 1847. At that time it was a small Jewish band who was in charge of the entertainment.

They may have been appreciated by the locals, but so not much by the handful of Europeans who were living in Antakya at the time of Neale's stay. At that time an Italian priest and an Italian physician were living in Antakya. Neale relates: "The priest is a musician, and consequently detests Arabic songs, &c., and styles those present a set of 'brutti buffoni.' The doctor, on the other hand, was never guilty of whistling a single bar of any music correctly; and, being moreover a bit of a sycophant, he presents to be enchanted with what is going on, and actually has the audacity to try and beat time with his foot."(2)

Neale may not be completely fair in his assessment. It seems that he himself did not appreciate the efforts of the Jewish band. Arabic - and Turkish - music may be an annoying experience for those who do not try to understand what they hear. But if you give it a chance it is extremely fascinating.

Today there is no Jewish band, but the same sort of music is played at some of the restaurants in Antakya. The restaurant Mado besides the old parliament building has had a very good band playing classical Turkish fasıl music.(3)

In the restaurant Sveyka (from the Arabic : سويقة "small market", or a subsection of a market) on Kurtuluş Caddesi a handful of gypsy musicians are playing fasıl and Arabic popular music at certain evenings. You can make them play your favoured pieces by sticking money under the strings of the violin above the hand of the player. Their interpretation of fasıl and Türk Sanat Müziği is not marvellous, but their Arabic songs are well performed. Still it has to be admitted that it is difficult to live up to the performance of the late master of Türk Sanat Müziği Zeki Müren.

PS: I forgot to mention that the priest in Neale's story was killed a couple years later. Two workers from a local soap factory appeared at his home, slit his throat and put him on the altar of the chapel with a carpet or blanket over. The instigator was fined and sent to Iraq. The priest was buried on a plot of land in front of what is called the Grotto of St. Peter.

1. John Chrysostom, (NPNF1-09) St. Chrysostom: On the Priesthood; Ascetic Treatises; Select Homilies and Letters; Homilies on the Statutes (URL: Author(s): Schaff, Philip (1819-1893), Publisher: Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, p. 234.

2. Neal, F.A., Evenings at Antioch, London 1854, p. 31

3. A popular variation of Türk Sanat Müziği [Turkish Art Music] mostly played in Istanbul tavernas.