Why Antakya is feeling Syria’s pain

Why Antakya is feeling Syria’s pain

It is Antakya for us Turks, and Antioch to most others. The city is part of Hatay province in the southeast of Turkey, right on the Syrian border. I mostly know of Antakya through its Archaeological Museum, which contains Roman mosaics from the region. But the city is well worth a visit for other reasons as well; for example its restaurants offer a natural mix of Arab, Turkish and French cuisines. UNESCO recently named it a World City of Gastronomy. With its hospitable population of about 1.5 million, the city should be on the itinerary of any curious visitor to Turkey.

These days, Antakya is the city in Turkey where you can feel the tension of the Syrian crisis the most. There were demonstrations in the town calling for an end to the military campaign against Syria. For the purposes of this column, however, I will fill you in from the armchair-observatory of Turkey: Count the number of Hatay entries on “Ekşi Sözlük,” a popular social commentary website in Turkey. There are a total of 204 Ekşi Sözlük entries for Hatay, and around 40 percent of them are about the Syrian tension directly felt in Hatay province. All of those eighty-something entries are very recent, from the second half of 2012. In that period, all of the comments about Hatay have been regarding Syria. Young people like to rant on Ekşi Sözlük, mind you, and among Turkey’s top 500 websites, it ranks 22nd.

Why the spike in Ekşi Sözlük activity? The Syrian crisis is revealing the diversity of Turkey’s population through local political sensibilities. The crisis is felt directly in Antakya, because Antakya is like Syria. The Republic of Turkey was officially declared in 1923. Hatay was not part of Turkey at that time. It was annexed in 1939, after a referendum in 1938. To this day, even a visitor will get a distinctly Syrian feel.

Let me Google it for you: “The 1.5 million-person population of Hatay province is divided almost equally between Sunni Muslims and Alawi Muslims, with an Arab Orthodox Christian minority. Hatay is home to Sunni Muslims, Alawi Muslims, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Maronites, Arab (Greek-Orthodox) and Armenian communities. Unlike most Mediterranean provinces, Hatay has not experienced mass immigration from other parts of Turkey in recent decades, and has therefore preserved much of its traditional culture, for example Arabic is still widely spoken in the province.”

Now that Syrian and other fighters are flooding into the province, Hatay is for the first time experiencing mass migration. The tension that I read about in the online entries can be classified under two headings: On the one hand, there are those who are strongly opposed to what is happening in Syria today. They don’t like change imposed by force and civilian deaths. On the other hand, there are those who complain about foreigners invading their privacy. That seems to be a real concern too.

When we think about the impact of the Syrian crisis on Turkey down the road, we will talk about something more than economic and strategic costs. There are Turkish citizens who feel strongly about the campaign against the current Syrian government. Why? Because part of their family and heritage lies on the other side of the border. Welcome to diversity.