Build back better to preserve Antakya’s historical identity



March 05, 2023

Build back better to preserve Antakya’s historical identity
A dump site of earthquake rubble is seen next to a brick and cement block factory on the outskirts of Antakya. (Reuters)

Now that the emergency is behind us, Turkiye has to consider what method would be appropriate for the reconstruction of devastated cities. The most reasonable one for the government would be not to confine itself to a given model and opt for a variable approach.

The post-earthquake reconstruction may be divided into four categories: One is the urgent recovery of the wounded and of dead bodies. Second is urgent measures to settle the survivors in tent cities. The third is to settle the survivors in container cities or prefabricated dwellings. The public authorities have had to act quickly during these three stages because people need to be settled as comfortably as possible.

The most difficult stage is the fourth one — redesigning the future of an urban agglomeration. Our experience allows us to draw up new plans for the devastated cities without altering their character.

In this article, I would like to focus on the reconstruction of the historically important city of Antakya. There are suggestions to move the present city toward the hills to the east of the city and unearth the ancient downtown. This removal of the city is not perceived as moving the entire downtown to the hills overlooking the city. It is perceived as the removal of micro districts to an appropriate place rather than erasing the entire downtown.

If it succeeds, such a move will bring to light the extremely rich culture that lies beneath the present center of Antakya. This city has a glorious history of more than 3,000 years. It served as the capital of the Seleucid Empire in the first millennium BC. It also served as the regional capital of the Roman and Byzantine Empire. The population of Antakya is estimated at 500,000 during the Middle Roman Empire, and it was the third biggest city of the Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria.

The sovereignty of the city was contested several times by Muslims and Crusaders. There are several letters written by the kings and princes of the Crusaders’ armies who all expressed their admiration for the urbanism of Antakya in the 10th and 11th centuries. These letters are at present in various European archives.

The city served as the capital of the principality of Antioch, which was one of four states that the Crusaders established in the 10th and 11th centuries. It was within easy reach of the Silk Road.

It is an extremely important center for the coexistence of civilizations. Saint Peter held his first service in a cave that has been transformed into a church in Antakya. The New Testament points out that the name “Christian” emerged first in Antakya.

The mosque of Habib Al-Najjar is located in Antakya. Al-Najjar was a carpenter who lived in Antakya at the time of Jesus Christ. The Holy Qur’an (Surah 36, Verse 20-27), without mentioning his name, says he was martyred for his faith.

Every effort should be made to preserve the centuries-old religious diversity of the unique city of Antakya.

Yasar Yakis

This and other rich fingerprints of the past should not be damaged when the city is restored after the present earthquake. The historical and artistic character of every single building must be preserved as much as possible. In other words, Antakya should not be sacrificed to the greed of real estate interests.

A city, or any urban agglomeration, is not always planned by clever and forward-looking designers — it may evolve in a natural way. Many factors determine how an agglomeration develops throughout decades and centuries. It is also the result of several well-considered decisions, but also misjudgments.

The moral responsibility for the wrongdoings in urbanism is shared among the contractors who build low-quality dwellings, the municipal clerk who pays only cursory attention to the work he is responsible for, the mayor who employs such a clerk, and the political masters in the government who protect such mayors. All are responsible for low quality in urban planning.

What is important in the case of Antakya is the preservation of cultural heritage. The role of civil society is of paramount importance in this exercise. Civil society in Turkiye is considered as a stepchild in the family. The government takes into account only the initiatives taken by the government-supported civil society organizations and dismisses or silences the anti-government ones.

Democracy is a concept that is far from perfect, but it is difficult to further improve it. Therefore, we have to be content with what we have at hand. This imperfect way of governance can allow narrow-minded political figures to make decisions that negatively affect the evolution of urbanism throughout decades or centuries, and make cities an infernal environment that cannot be easily reversed.

Every effort should be made to preserve the centuries-old religious diversity of the unique city of Antakya.

• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkiye and founding member of the ruling AK Party.
Twitter: @yakis_yasar

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News’ point of view


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