The Stones I Caressed

After the Earthquake

It was the hottest day of the summer. When I left the hotel where I was staying, the sun had not yet risen but a wet heat was touching my skin. The taxi that left the fluid traffic of Defne district, where my hotel is located, took me to Hatay Archeology Museum. It was exciting to start the tour of the historical city from its magnificent museum.

The museum, which was renovated and expanded in 2014, is considered the largest mosaic museum in the world with its 32 thousand square meter indoor area. As soon as I entered, he welcomed me to the Hittite King Suppiluliuma I with his eyes wide open. When you pass it and start visiting other galleries, you are confronted with the fascinating history of Antakya at the southern point of Turkey.

Antakya, a city where the Hittite, Byzantine, Roman, Ottoman and Arab civilizations intersect, was founded in 300 BC by Seleucus Nicator, one of the commanders of Alexander the Great, in memory of his father under the name Antiokhea. Today, it is the central district of the city of Hatay.

Located in the middle of the trade routes and on the riverside of the Asi. Antiokhea  grew rapidly and became the third largest city of Rome with a population of 300,000.

The discovery of large mosaic villas in archaeological excavations made centuries later proves that wealthy Romans and nobles lived in this city. I remember like it was yesterday that I caressed those mosaics with my eyes while visiting the museum.

Antakya is also a very important city for the history of Christianity. Saint Pierre, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, came to Antioch in 29 AD to spread his religion and lived here for years. It was here that his congregation was called Christian for the first time. The Church of St. Pierre, which was carved into one of the mountains on which the city rests, is considered the first church of Christianity and thousands of faithful people come here to become pilgrims every year.

I left the museum and started walking towards the church.

The city’s old street was covered in dust, and walking on the scorching asphalt was not easy. I made my way up the hill, following the sign in the corner of an auto repair shop. It was noon when I reached the Church of St. Pierre, which was built by carving the cave inside the mountain. I went in and relaxed. The terrace of the church overlooked the east of the city. I watched Antakya with tired eyes. At this point, it was nice to think about the history and listen to the city. Before I left, I touched  the walls of the 2,000-year-old church with love. 

On my way to the city center again, I got off in front of the Habib-i Neccar Mosque. This was one of the first mosques in Anatolia. I entered the courtyard and saw its extraordinary architecture with my own eyes. I touched your stones. Then I went out. It was still hot. I sat in a cafe in front of the mosque and ordered ice cream and coffee.

The next day, I left the city and went to the town of Samandağı. There was a tunnel built in the Roman period. Designed by Roman engineers to prevent the flood water from the mountain from taking the city away, during the reign of Titus Vespasianus (69-79 AD), the 1,380-meter tunnel opened by thousands of slaves hitting the rocks protected me from the terrible heat outside. I traced the still-visible pickaxes of ancient engineering and slaves, paying homage to them. I went back and walked all the way to the sea and undressed in the cabin of a beachside cafe, immersing myself in the Mediterranean, as did the slaves who worked in tunnel construction.

The city center of Antakya was very colorful and lively. There were very nice restaurants and cafes on both sides of the Asi river. While I was walking the historical streets of the city, I must have smelled the book because I saw a second-hand bookstore. When I walked in, I met a middle-aged gentleman with glasses reading at his desk. We started talking with Mr.Aşir Alkaç with the warmth of the bookshelves. This was a second-hand bookshop with very valuable books called rare. The first edition of Honore de Balzac’s book, published in Switzerland in 1947, was here. In addition, the 2-volume book of İbrahim Pasha of Baghdad, which was only owned by two people, was kept here. Alkaç owned dozens of handwritten Latin, Italian, Hebrew, and Arabic books. I drank the coffee he kindly offered me, and after buying a few books, I wandered into the street I had come from.

Then… While the traces of Antakya were still fresh in my memory.

There were two major earthquakes on February 6, 2023.

The first one shook the entire area at 04:17 while everyone was asleep. The earthquake was 7.7 on the Richter scale, was terrifying. Nine hours later  this magnitude, nature shook the same area for the second time as if it wanted to complete the work it left undestroyed. Everything that was not finished in the first was destroyed by the second apocalypse that came with 7.6.

I learned that the hotel I stayed in Antakya last year was completely destroyed.

Hatay Archeology Museum, whose mosaics I caressed, was damaged.

The retaining wall of the Church of Saint Pierre, whose walls I touched, had collapsed.

Habib-i Neccar Mosque, which I wandered in its courtyard and touched its tired stones, was completely destroyed.

The bookstore owned by Mr.Aşir Alkaç and his 90,000 books had dissappeared.

The Italian Catholic Latin Church in Iskenderun was damaged  and the Orthodox Church of St. Nicholas unfortunately collapsed.

The buildings that I touched, caressed and sat in the shadows of Antakya no longer exist.

Having experienced seven major earthquakes, Antakya was destroyed by the eighth magnitude earthquake. 

If these earthquakes had happened when I was in Antakya last summer, I might not have  lived today.

These are the words of a dead man.

*Murat Erdin, writer and lecturer, based in Istanbul, Turkey

Murat Erdin