Antioch, Beating Heart of Early Christianity, Lays in Ruin

Antioch (Antakya), one of the most important cities for the early Christian Church, lays in ruin. Block after block, buildings are now little more than piles of rubble, entombing their occupants as rescuers search for signs of life in the bitter cold. Home to Syriacs, Turks, Kurds, Armenians, Arabs, and Jews, the diverse community of Antioch find themselves homeless, together.

The Saint Peter and Saint Paul Parish Church in Antioch is taking in people displaced from their homes. Lower to the ground and stronger than surrounding buildings, it was spared much of the damage others suffered.

“There is no electricity, no internet in the city; phone services are poor,” said Fr Francis Dondu, the parish priest, to Asia News. “Early reports suggest that the main quake razed the old quarter to the ground; many buildings have collapsed, and many fires are raging,” he added.

The church “has opened its doors to Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims,” said Fr Francis Dondu.

An aerial view shows the destruction in Antakya. (Image: Hussein Malla /AP)

“Antakya is one the most isolated centers in Turkey,” Maria Grazia Zambon, a fidei donum sent to Turkey by the Diocese of Milan (Italy) 20 years ago noted. “At present, it is hard to reach by land because the roads are damaged, if not wiped out, and many people are still missing, under the rubble. Even the airport is unusable.”

The synagogue that stood near the church also collapsed.

However, from the damaged synagogue, volunteers collected and saved Torah scrolls dating back 500 years.

The 500-year-old Torah scrolls were handwritten and served the community of 28 people.

“We wanted to save the holy books from destruction,” said Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, also the chair of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States.

“They don’t have monetary value, but they are treasures of the beautiful Jewish community that has practiced here for 2,500 years uninterrupted,” he told The National. “People have lived here for thousands of years, together. People speak different languages — Arabic, Turkish, Kurdish, everyone lives together.”

Antioch was the third largest city in the Roman Empire and was a major center of commerce, trade, and cultural exchange.

In the early years of Christianity, Antioch was one of the first places where the gospel was preached to non-Jewish people. The apostle Paul and his companions Barnabas and Silas established a thriving Christian community in Antioch, and it was from Antioch that Paul set out on his first missionary journey.

Antioch of the 4th century AD on the Peutinger Map.

The early Christian community in Antioch was known for its inclusive and diverse nature, composed of both Jews and Gentiles. It was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians”, and the city became a hub of Christian activity and mission.

“If Jerusalem is considered the Mother Church, Antioch can be seen as the mother of Christian dialogue,” Bishop Paolo Bizzeti, vicar of Anatolia, explained. “It is from here that the proclamation of the Gospel started.”

The city is a point of reference, “not only for the Byzantine and Western Churches, but also for the Syriac Church. All three great branches of the Church started in Antioch, which is still a patriarchal see, even though their leaders live elsewhere.”

Antioch, the city that helped shape early Christianity, a jewel of coexistence and religious scholarship, is now wounded and quiet.