The earthquakes of 6 February have caused great destruction in Antakya, a city in southeast Turkey with a Jewish population that goes back to the Roman Empire. The city’s Jewish community had already fallen below the required congregation size for religious services, and the disaster will likely mark the end of their presence.
“The community is finished. Nobody will ever come back here,” Israel National News cited Ezra Cenudioğlu as saying in February. “We were here from 300 BC, until this day. Now it is over.”
Ezra is the brother of Saul Cenudioğlu, the head of the small but resilient community who lost his life in the earthquake alongside his wife Fortuna. They were removed from the ruins of their collapsed home by a Mexican Jewish rescue group. The couple were laid to rest in Istanbul, where their son lives.
Ancient scrolls were removed from the damaged synagogue in the city, and taken to Israel earlier in the month. They were returned to the Hakham Bashi, the chief rabbi in Istanbul, the Culture Ministry announced on 19 February, and will be returned to the synagogue in Antakya after repairs.
Antakya has maintained its multicultural character to the present day, with Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities living together in harmony. “The Habib-i Neccar Mosque, Antakya Turkish Catholic Church and Antakya Synagogue were located on the same street, and at certain times during the day, passersby would hear a mixture of prayers,” recalled Ela Cenudioğlu, Saul’s niece, in a piece honouring her uncle.
The ancient city of Antioch is believed to be where the word Christian first emerged, and is home to one of the oldest Christian congregations.
Mendy Chitrik, chairman of the Alliance of Rabbis in Islamic States, believes it will be difficult to rebuild the community, Euronews reported.
The city faced destruction and calamity before. “Seven times it was rebuilt and revived. Now, inshallah, we will do it an eighth time, and we will live here again,” Antakya resident Bülent Çifçifli said.