Will Antakya rise again as Christian center? The earthquake destroyed not only a city, but nearly all the local churches

By Dr. Miklós Kerekes Assyriologist, Ancient Historian (PhD, Istanbul University), journalist

The city of Antioch was founded by Seleucos Nicator (c. 358–281 BC) as the later western capital of the Seleucid Empire. He named it after his father Antiochos. Seleucos was a general of Alexander the Great, who founded several cities named after himself. One of these Alexandrias was present-day İskenderun.

Antioch was not only the western and then the only capital of the Seleucids, but it was also the center of the Roman East and the third largest city of the Roman Empire. It was also the first Christian city and one of the five patriarchal seats. It was a prevalent center during the crusades, and only lost its importance after repeated destructive earthquakes during the Middle Ages.

In the last decades, there are three regions of Turkey where native Christian communities managed to survive: Istanbul, Tur Abdin and Antakya (Antioch/Alexandretta). While the Syriacs have several villages and monasteries in Tur Abdin, the only Armenian and Rûm villages are in Antakya. All three regions have a different story: Istanbul with its exemption from the 1923 population exchange, Tur Abdin with its loyal Syriacs who did not rebel during the late Ottoman times and who did not apply for minority rights in the Treaty of Lausanne, and finally the Rûm Orthodox Christians who belong to the Patriarchate of Antioch.

These Orthodox Christian Rûm – apart from the diaspora, Lebanon and the Cilician communities of Mersin and Tarsus – were part of present-day Syria from 1923 to 1939, after which the Sanjak of Alexandretta became a Turkish province.

This new situation had an immediate effect on local Christian communities: 8 out of 9 Armenian villages decided to leave and move to Lebanon. The Arabic-speaking Rûm community, even though it slowly lost some of its villages, managed to survive and be an important part of the daily life of Mersin, Antakya, İskenderun, Samandağ (Süveydiye/Musa Dağ), Altınözü (Cneydo) and Arsuz.

Before the earthquake, several dozens of Armenians lived in İskenderun and the village of Vakıflı, home to the only two fully functioning Armenian churches outside Istanbul. In Antakya, where the only Jewish community managed to survive apart from the major cities of Istanbul and Izmir, there was around a dozen Jews left. It is hard to guess the number of Rûms in the province of Antakya, as a lot of them moved abroad or to Istanbul, but it can be fair to say that they numbered probably around 10,000 in Antakya.

The disastrous earthquake in Syria and Turkey on February 6 left a deadly trail of destruction. Tens of thousands of people are dead or injured, and there is massive destruction of infrastructure, residential buildings, and places of worship.

For the Christian communities in southeast Turkey, like the Rûm in Antakya, the effects are great. Antakya, İskenderun, Samandağ and surrounding villages have traditionally been their core living areas, now it is havoc with possibly hundreds of deaths in a community of only thousands. A relatively heavy toll. And it is expected by Turkish authorities that in the coming days of debris clearing the death toll will be even higher.

Fortunately, it seems like Cilicia, with churches in Adana, Tarsus and Mersin, was not affected by the earthquake, but the same could not be said for the province of Antakya. Below an overview of the damage to churches and synagogues in the area.


In İskenderun the Latin Catholic Cathedral of the Annunciation, which was the cathedral of the Apostolic Vicariate of Anatolia in İskenderun completely collapsed.

The Rûm Orthodox Church of Saint George (Saint Circos) seemed to survive because it was further away from the city center. Food was constantly being prepared in its garden for the survivors, and there were no reports of destruction.

The Saint Nicholas (Aya Nikola) Rûm Orthodox Church was partly destroyed.

In the Karasun Manuk Armenian Church’s two horans were destroyed and the building also partly collapsed.


In Antakya, the Protestant Church is destroyed.

The main Rûm Orthodox Church of the Antakya, the Saint Peter and Paul (Azizler Petrus ve Pavlus) was completely collapsed.

The Latin Catholic Church and the synagogue that stood near the church also collapsed. Fortunately, the historical Saint Peter Church (Aziz Petrus) survived the earthquake.


In Altınözü (Cneydo) it seems like the Rûm Orthodox Monastery of Saint George (Mar Circos) survived the earthquake, as there was a Sunday liturgy for the dead and injured.

According to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Altınözü Tokaçlı the Rûm Orthodox Church of Saint Mary (Meryem Ana) was completely destroyed,

In Altınözü Sarılar, the Rûm Orthodox Saint George (Aziz Georgios) Church was partly destroyed.


In Samandağ the Rûm Orthodox church of Profitis Ilias (Aziz İlyas) seemed to have survived, as food was constantly prepared in its garden for the survivors, and no reports of destruction are mentioned.

The Rûm Orthodox Holy Mary (Meryem Ana) Church was partly destroyed.

In Vakıflı, the Armenian Church of Surp Asdvadzadzin was party destroyed.


In Arsuz the Saint John (Aziz Yuhanna) Rûm Orthodox Church was completely destroyed.


As for the synagogues, according to Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, head of the Turkish Ashkenazi Jewish community, the Gaziantep synagogue appears to be standing in good shape; the Kilis synagogue was damaged and will need renovation; and the Antakya synagogue has been damaged, but the Torahs were brought to safety.

History repeats itself. And in the pages of history, it seems like it is written that Antioch should be preeminent center of Christianity, the center of the Rûms in the east with its surroundings, whatever it takes.

Dr. Miklós Kerekes is an Assyriologist (MA, 2012, ELTE, Budapest, Hungary) and Ancient Historian (PhD, Istanbul University, 2021). His PhD Thesis was called “The Neo-Assyrian Provincial System of Anatolia”. He visited all the regions – apart from Samandağ – mentioned in this article and met the local Christian communities there. He is also the head of the Orthodox Youth Association of Hungary, and a lecturer at Institut Mésopotamie de Bruxelles. He currently work as Foreign Affairs Analyst at portfolio.hu.