Antioch: The Earthquake Destroyed the City's Past

March 23, 2023
Msgr. Paolo Bizzeti

The vicar of Anatolia affirms that the city is “still in full emergency.” The earth continues to shake and, in Syria and Turkey, the toll exceeds 55,000 dead. The question of reconstruction is a pressing matter.

Turkey, hit by the devastating earthquake on February 6, is still living in a state of total emergency, with some differences: in Iskenderun people are trying to restore basic services, elsewhere, like in Antioch, “the situation is really tragic.” This is explained to AsiaNews by Msgr. Paolo Bizzeti, vicar of Anatolia.

The updated casualty figure, released yesterday by the Turkish Interior Ministry, is 48,448 dead. In Syria, the estimate is 7,259 dead for a total of 55,707 dead in the two countries. And the earth continues to shake: “it is scary and has a strong psychological impact,” admits Msgr. Bizzeti.

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, paints a picture of “shocking devastation and apocalyptic destruction.” At the same time, he appeals for more “resources” and a “greater humanitarian response, so that people can live again.”

For the vicar of Anatolia, the heart of the tragedy remains Antioch where, he says, “it has been calculated that there are 1.6 million tons of rubble to be removed” from a “razed” city. The buildings that remain standing are not habitable and it will take “an enormous effort to clear” and launch a reconstruction plan.

“We are aware,” he continues, “that an era is over: all of ancient Antioch, with its old Syrian-style houses, has disappeared and cannot be rebuilt. Even from a tourist point of view, the most interesting places have disappeared... millennia of history razed! Almost the entire population has fled, living in tents or finding refuge in the mountains.”

The future is no better: “Electricity, sewage, water, communications: everything must be rebuilt, even the museum, once the main attraction, does not know if it will reopen and when, while work is underway to try to cage the world-famous Hittite-era statues in order to preserve them. A tragic situation in the making.”

In Iskenderun the situation remains precarious: “Banks are closed, services are lacking and it is not easy to try to return to a sustainable life. People are stressed and afraid to sleep in their homes, even if they are intact and usable,” he adds. We are still in the middle of an earthquake.

However, there is positive news: “in April, containers should arrive to open banks and post offices, to start providing essential services again and to break the isolation, which is even greater in the villages and the surrounding towns.” The work of Caritas Turkey, of which Msgr. Bizzeti is the president, is concentrated in the vicinity of Antioch.

Finally, the vicar of Anatolia explains that “the question of the reconstruction of the church of Iskenderun, which we certainly cannot rebuild as it was, will soon arise. This may be an opportunity to rethink the architecture of the cathedral so that it is in harmony with Turkish taste, based on churches that are part of Turkish culture and architecture,” he concludes.