In southern Turkey, ancient Antioch, a city martyred after the earthquake

The spire of the dome of Habib-i Neccar, Turkey's oldest mosque, lies horizontal atop the rubble that covers the prayer hall

In southern Turkey, ancient Antioch, a city martyred after the earthquake

The spire of the dome of Habib-i Neccar, Turkey's oldest mosque, lies horizontal atop the rubble that covers the prayer hall.

In Antakya, the Antioch of Greek Antiquity, which has become a martyr city of Turkish heritage, fourteen centuries of history have been thrown to the ground by the earthquake which killed more than 35,000 people in Turkey and Syria.

Habib-i Neccar, "considered the first mosque built within the borders of today's Turkey", according to the Turkish government, was erected in 638.

Only the exterior walls held. The fine yellow, red and blue paintings and the calligraphy are now exposed to the four winds, when they are not also buried.

"A bit of the beard of the Prophet Muhammad was preserved in a box" presented in the mosque but is no longer there, worries Havva Pamukcu, a fifty-year-old covered with a veil who confides to having "a broken heart".

A few hundred meters further, the Greek Orthodox church erected in the 14th century - and rebuilt in 1870 after an earthquake, already - has suffered even more: the white cross which sat enthroned on the pointed roof of the building now emerges from a chaos of stones and planks.

"All the walls have fallen. We are in despair," laments Sertac Paul Bozkurt, member of the council administering this place of worship, which he hopes to rebuild.

In the old town of Antakya, many streets are no longer even accessible, obstructed by the rubble of atomized buildings.

Bare, outdated frameworks rest on one of the rare open axes, strewn with large ocher tiles bearing the name of their manufacturer: "Marseille, St André". Heritage of the ephemeral French past of the place.

In its millennial past, Antakya, the former Antioch founded in 300 BC by a former general of Alexander the Great, successively went through Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Arab, Ottoman and even a short French mandate. , between the end of the First World War and 1939, when the city was returned to Turkey.

Antioch has suffered many earthquakes which have continued to destroy and reshape it, practically one per century. In 147 and 37 BC, but also in 115, 458, etc. In 526, 250,000 people had perished; in 1054, ten thousand... to name only the most murderous.

"Antioch is the cradle of many historical events," says Hakan Mertkan, a doctoral student from the German University of Bayreuth and author of a monograph on this city. But it is also "a cradle of earthquakes (whose) soils are filled with history", he is saddened.

Both Turkey and Syria, at the crossroads of three tectonic plates - which explains the number of earthquakes they experience - are also "at the crossroads of much of the common ancient history of humanity", notes Aparna Tandon , program officer for the International Center for Studies for the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Property.

Half a dozen sites classified as world heritage of humanity by Unesco are located in the area affected by this new disaster.

Like Aleppo in Syria, a "crossroads of civilizations" already "60% destroyed in 1822 by an earthquake", recalls Youmna Tabet, of the World Heritage Center. Its citadel has this time experienced “significant damage”, estimates the UN agency.

Conversely, on the classified Turkish sites, "it seems that there is not much damage", remarks Maria Liouliou, who works with Ms. Tabet. The fortress of Diyarbakir, in Turkey, thus appears to have suffered moderately, she said.

But it will imperatively be necessary for experts to assess the severity of the damage, underlines Samir Abdulac, an executive of the International Council of Monuments and Sites, an international non-governmental organization which works for the conservation of these places in the world.

And it will also be necessary to take an interest in sites not listed by Unesco as world heritage sites such as that of Antakya, he warns.

Mr. Abdulac warns against what would appear as "simple cracks" without consequences to the "layman's eye" but which can "weaken a monument" to the point that it "collapses on its own a few weeks later" .

However, "the priority is to save lives", insist the heritage specialists interviewed by AFP, which means paying less attention to it at first so as not to be suspected of favoring old stones. to the living.

Evidenced by an AFP meeting with a neighborhood official in the old town of Antakya who, questioned about local history, suddenly abandoned his calm.

"I have just lost two brothers and a nephew. I am evacuating my wife and my daughter today. I have no more money, nothing more", he annoys. "Frankly, I have other priorities than heritage."

13/02/2023 11:30:17 --        Antakya (Turquie) (AFP)          © 2023 AFP