Mourning the loss of cultural pluralism in Antakya (Antioch) and Aleppo

In the midst of talking to Syrian activists and opposition leaders in the towns on Turkey’s southern border with Syria, I found a small oasis of peace in the courtyard of the lovely stone Greek Orthodox church in Antakya.

The old town of Antakya, where I am staying, is the site of ancient Antioch, on the Orontes River, once a crossroads of cultures and religions and a great center of Christian theology. “If your aim in travelling is to get acquainted with different cultures and lifestlyles,” wrote the Roman philosopher and historian Libanius, “it is enough to visit Antioch.”

That was then. Today, only 1300 Christians live here, 90 per cent of them Greek Orthodox, with a few Roman Catholics and Armenians (and 40 elderly Jews). Greek Orthodox priests in Antakya look on with pain as their co-religionists in Aleppo (only recently home to 20,000 Greek Orthodox, among other Christian sects), suffer through civil war and destruction.

Aleppo is only a short drive across the Syrian border, but is now in the thick of the Syrian civil war. Many of its Christian community are fleeing to Lebanon or Europe.

“Our patriarch called for a ceasefire, and for finding a solution without violence,” Father Ignatius told me, as we drank tea in the shade of a stone porch next to an orange tree. Speaking of the destruction of the rich ecumenical mix that characterized the ancient cities of Antioch northern Syria, Father Ignatius said mournfully, “I hope we can save this mix. I lived in Aleppo and Damascus and met spiritual men of all communities. I heard many voices that say enough. Syria doesn’t deserve this.

“We condemn all the fanatics,” the priest said. Mourning the lack of attention to Antakya’s cultural heritage, and the physical destruction of Aleppo’s, “he added, “This belongs to all humanity. We are losing something very important from the history of the world.”