On the way back to Antakya, Leila and Th and I are like friends who have spent a nice day together. Where at first Leila kept her professional distance, she eventually accepted our offer to share our meal. Then again, she might have taken pity on us. The freshly caught fish was big enough to feed a throng and there certainly was enough bread. We also had a arugala salad coated with a flavour that left me guessing. Pomegranate. The Hatay kitchen is Levantine, not Ottoman. The hummus had a depth of taste I never experienced before. It came in a swirl on a plate, with an olive oil lake in the middle and a red sprinkling of sumac, the tasty spice Turks are so fond of.
The only discordant note of the hours spent in Samandağ was the trip to the local scarf store, after our prayer session at the shrine. The discord was of my doing because I couldn’t find a scarf to suit my taste. I wanted something solid in cotton, all the store had to offer was a colourful array of exquisite silk scarves. The proprietor, a well-groomed grey-haired man, didn’t seem to read the signs that he was dealing with a woman who doesn’t want to be sold something she doesn’t want. The moment he put a cloud of a scarf around my sweaty neck, I wanted to get out. Then when he knotted another one around Th’s neck, I knew we were done. Th is a far worse customer than I am.
We settled for a bottle of raki flavoured with bay leaves. An item that the good shopkeeper, whose shop after all is on the historic Silk Road, would throw in for any customer who buys as much as he would like them to buy.
As we drove out of Samandağ, we trailed a motorbike. On the back sat a women, a load of vegetables on her lap and a green scarf, the kind I longed to have, on her head. When her driver revved up the motor, the scarf slipped from her head and bobbed up and down as he navigated the bumpy road.
At the Church of St Peter we were in for another disappointment. We knew the church was closed due to restorations and would be until 2018. We didn’t know we would be stopped by a barrier on the road, where a man on a plastic lawn chair made sure no one walked past. St Peter’s, or St Pierre as it is called in Antakya, is the oldest site of a Christian Church. In the early centuries of our Christian civilization, the church was hewn out of rock. During the Crusades a facade was added.We took in some of the graves gashed out of the mountain wall and the face of Charon, the boatman of Greek mythology who took the dead over the river Styx to hell. His likeness was carved from a rock here, in the second century CE.
As we drove up, a street urchin started yelling at us and motioning to park in the abandoned lot some way down from the church. As we got out, other kids came and joined us.
“They haven’t even been home from school yet,” Leila said. She had a conversation with them because they had useful information. One of the boys shared sunflowers with Th and both he and Leila handed out coins for their trouble.
Life is good when school is out. But we still didn't get past the guard to at least see the outside of the church.
The snag, the largest mosaic floor of the Roman Byzantine time ever found, meant that the government and an archeological crew would get involved. A deal was struck between the entrepreneur and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to built a museum that will hold the floor. The hotel will go on pilers above it. From the lobby and certain rooms, I would think very expensive ones, guests will be able to admire the floor. The museum will also be accessible from below to the general public.
A worthwhile project, it is now costing Mr Asfuroğlu and his son100 million dollars. And it still isn’t finished. But both are dedicated to this project. They see it as an opportunity to be one of the few entrepreneurs, if not the only one to date, who will put their wealth to good use in order to preserve history and share it with the public.
The next day, we decided to strike back with a vengeance. We planned on visiting every Christian Church in the city and take in the museum with its mosaics, as well. The experience would then be topped off with a funeral at the Greek Orthodox Church.
On the door a cardboard sign read: Little Korea. In English.
We stepped in and looked about the large and empty space. A young man appeared. He looked at us cautiously. He wasn’t Korean. He could actually have been Greek and when he found out Th was, he said, kalimera. Th, guarded lest he be converted on the spot, smiled and continued the conversation in English.
We soon learned that the church has 35 members. We already knew that the priest is from South Korean and that faithful will come all the way from South Korea for a Christmas pilgrimage. The 35 members from Antakya are shepherded by their Korean pastor. The Koreans chose Antakya because of its openness to Christians.
“In other parts of Turkey,” the young man told us, “we meet in secret at one another's homes. We get persecuted.”
“Like the first Christians?”
After that, he smiled openly and started to tell us how he was part of the Good News. Meanwhile we had arrived in the hall of the church where about fifty chairs stood neatly arranged around an altar. On each side of the altar, a chair and against each chair an electrical guitar.
New ways for an old concept.
But never mind, we soon were trailing our way back to the centre through the ancient streets of Old Antakya. By the river, we found the museum, next to it a park. The museum is large enough but only a few halls were open. This meant that we got in for 3TL a piece instead of the usual 8TL. Three dollars for two tickets and a wealth of displays of Roman and Byzantine murals of the third to the fifth century after Jesus of Nazareth sent his apostles out. Once the Hilton is finished and more excavations will yield further riches, this museum will probably no longer be such a bargain.
After a light lunch, a nap, and then the künefe, only one bite for me because I was still being gentle with my stomach, we found Leila at the hotel lobby. She walked with us to the church, where she left us in the care of her sister. The Saint Paul church, which is called the Greek Orthodox Church of Antakya and All the Middle East, is one of the churches serving the barely more than 2000 Christian faithful of Antakya. It belongs to one of five patriarchates associated with the city. The patriarch of this church has his holy see in Syria. Again we were at one of the oldest Christian churches in the world except, because of earthquakes, this present building dates back to the nineteenth century. A tenacious community that will not let go of its religion, it mirrors the other minuscule Churches in the city, and minuscule here does not refer to the size of the buildings.
We soon learned that when one of their own dies, the whole Christian community, regardless their Apostolic See, turns out. The building was full and the courtyard also. Against the fence the familiar standing sprays of flowers and ribbons. Leila’s sister steered us through the crowd and we found a place at the side where we got a good view of what was going on. The open casket in front, the priest and his acolytes uttering heart rending chants in Greek, Turkish, and Arabic, the women with their coiffed hair, some of it dyed, people coming and going, and the occasional cellphone going off, which was then answered. We could have been at any Greek Orthodox church.
When the service was over, a woman took my hand in one of hers, ran the other one in a soft caress over my face and told me I was beautiful. Then she kissed me on both cheek. Leila’s mother. From the sister we learned that the mother loved us the moment she saw a picture of us Leila showed her. We walked with our arms around one another toward the courtyard where tables and plastic lawn chairs were lined up for the faithful, and their guests.
I travelled back in time and considered how those who came from far away and professed the same faith would have been welcomed. Not that our religious views were questioned but we had been identified as Greek Orthodox and Catholic. Lapsed or not never entered the conversation. And it wouldn't have mattered. We had come to the church. It was all that counted.
Women with large trays full of cups of coffee and glasses of water were doing the rounds. Th and I sat back and surveyed the gathering. “This is what ecclesia means,” he said. “The gathering of community. Nothing more. Nothing less.”
In a place where the number of Christians is dwindling, it is apparent that people have understood this very basic function of church, a place to stay connected. Here no swaggering priests trying to impress the gathering, here no notables holding sway over others. Here just people gathered to mourn the death of one of their dwindling numbers.
During the service many men and women quietly wiped away tears.
While power-hungry leaders fill the airwaves, the quiet continuation of people gathering seldom makes the headlines and yet it is this which sustains me and helps me survive. These kinds of gatherings quietly carve out a civilization that can withstand the onslaught of conflict and war. I looked at Th, who had struck up a conversation with an Aramaic Christian man. This man lived for forty years in Germany but wanted to grow old in his beloved Antakya.
And who could blame him. Life is slow here, people take time for one another, the weather is pleasant, and the coffee is great. What more do you need?
Soon, Leila’s mother took my hand again and kissed my cheek. She then led us to give our condolences to the grieving family. As I lined up with her to pay my respects to people I never met before, I knew I had become part of this wave of humanity.