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The earthquake destroyed centuries of history in the thousand-year-old Turkish city of Antakya

In the ancient city of Antakya, also known as Antioch and located in the south of Turkey, 14 centuries of history were destroyed by the earthquake that left more than 35,000 dead in this country and in neighboring Syria.

The spire of the dome of Habib-i Neccar, Turkey’s oldest mosque, is lying on the ground in the rubble covering the prayer hall.

Habib-i Neccar was built in 638 and was “regarded as the first mosque built within the borders of present-day Turkey,” according to the Turkish government.

Only the outer walls remain. The writing on the interior walls and much of the yellow, red, and blue paint is gone.

“A box held fragments of the prophet Mohammed’s beard,” said a worried Havva Pamukcu, a woman in her 50s.

About 100 meters away, the Greek Orthodox church founded in the 14th century – and rebuilt in 1870 after an earthquake – suffered even more. The white cross that dominated the roof of the building collapsed in a chaos of stones and wooden boards.

“All the walls came down. We are desperate,” laments Sertac Paul Bozkurt, a board member who runs the site.

earthquake history
Many streets in the Old City were rendered inaccessible, blocked by the rubble of collapsed buildings.

Antakya, ancient Antioch founded in 300 BC by a general of Alexander the Great, was home to the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Persian, Arab and Ottoman empires. It came under French mandate between the end of World War I and 1939, when the city was returned to Turkey.

This is not the first earthquake faced by the city, which has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. Tremors shook it in 147 and 37 BC, but also in 115, 458 and 526, when 250,000 people died.

“Antioquia is the cradle of many historical events”, says Hakan Mertkan, a doctoral student at the German University of Bayreuth and author of a monograph on the city. But it is also the “cradle of earthquakes”, he laments.

Turkey and neighboring Syria are situated on three tectonic plates, which explains the numerous earthquakes. Six sites considered World Heritage by Unesco are in the region affected by this new catastrophe.

This is the case of Aleppo, in Syria, which was already destroyed “about 60% in 1822 by an earthquake”, recalls Youmna Tabet, from the World Heritage Department. Its citadel has now suffered “significant damage”, says the UN agency.

In the Turkish part, “it seems that there wasn’t much damage”, says Maria Liouliou, who works with Tabet.

For Samir Abdulac, from the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an NGO that defends the conservation of these places in the world, it will be necessary to analyze the seriousness of the damage, even in places that are not part of the Unesco list.

At the moment, “the priority is to save lives”, insist the heritage experts interviewed by AFP.

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