Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Modern Antakya problems

In ancient Antioch there was street light on the main streets of the city. Water was plenty as it was supplied from mountains just outside the southern walls and from Daphne, ten kilometres to the south. In the rainy season the immense amount of water falling from the sky was collected in a gutter in the middle of the narrow streets on the slopes of Mount Silpius and forwarded to the River Orontes without doing too much damage to the houses of the Antiochenes. In the first hundreds of years of the history of Antioch, the torrent Parmenius was a nuisance. During the cataclysmic winter rain, the torrent was swelling as it came rushing down through the gorge between Mount Staurin and Mount Silpius. This made the Romans or Byzantines build a dam in the gorge between the two crags so that the first onslaught of the stream was checked.

What is left of Parmenius today
Still, this proved to be insufficient to tame the "Donkey-drowner" as Parmenius came to be called. Therefore vaults were built over the torrent from the point where it met the quarter of Epiphanea down to the Colonnaded Street. This was done during the reign of the Byzantine Emperor Valens (364-378). [i] Later Justinian (527-565) had the dam on the Parmenius rebuilt. It got the name the Iron Gate. [ii]

The quarter formerly called Epiphanea

Today Parmenius is no menace, but people in Antakya have other problems to face. As is the case with most Turkish cities, modern Antakya is to a large extent heated by electricity. Besides those who still heat their homes with small stoves burning whatever is available, many use air conditioners, the so-called UFO-heaters or various types of central heating, all of them operated by electricity. And today, instead of the flooding of Parmenius, the Antiochenes are harassed by the all too frequent power blackouts.

A couple of years ago – besides the usual blackouts – there were all day blackouts alternating between Saturday and Sunday. At that time people were told that these cuts were necessary as the electric network had to be repaired and developed. This of course meant that especially sick and elderly people would have to suffer.

Naive persons or newcomers may have believed that this procedure would spell the end of power blackouts, but not so. On Sunday January 22 Antakya experienced a heavy snowfall on about four inches. (My wife has relatives who have been living in Greenland without experiencing blackouts there.) Everybody expected that now the would have to spend hours in cold and darkness, but nothing happened – at first. One or two days later, the blackouts started. Here in the centre of Antakya they were mostly short, three or four hours. This, however, was enough to create a mess.

For example: Our central heating system is regulated by a fan and the water in it by a pump. Both of them, of course, are run by electricity. As a result of the power cut the fan stopped, the stove overheated, the water in the boiler started to boil, which made the system empty its water, and the electric fuse in the furnace was blown. The boiling water inundated the surroundings while our flat became icy cold.

Besides all this, the street lighting went out. The workmen from eastern Turkey who had repaired our street some months ago had not made any gutter in the middle of the street as those seen in the old part of town. Consequently, to get to our home we had had to paddle in total darkness through a small lake of melt water.

But we were lucky. Our dentist, who is living close to Harbiye (Daphne), had no electricity for three days. The family managed to heat by means of a generator, but they could not take a bath. A couple of our friends, also living in Harbiye, had to stay with friends in Antakya because their home was cold and dark.

If you ask me how all this can happen in the twenty-first century, I have no answer. Whether it is due to incompetence, to indifference, to economical problems or to something else, I do not know. But I happen to know that people in certain quarters of the city of Gaziantep (Aintab of old) up north are struggling with the same problem and on television I have seen the Turkish Minister of SocialAffairs criticising the manager of electricity distribution in Gaziantep in no uncertain terms for not addressing the situation.

[i] Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 405.
[ii] Ibid. 551.