(written October 2012)

We live in the old part of Antakya – a city with ancient roots. However, having acknowledged the age of the city, it must be confessed that the old part of town is merely old and not truly ancient. This city has seen more than its fair share of the power and devastation caused by earthquakes. As a result, the city has been built, lived in, shaken, destroyed and rebuilt innumerable times throughout its long history.

And so the reason the visible part of this ancient city is merely old, that the majority of the buildings are probably in the hundreds of years in age, is mute testament to the result of the most recent powerful earthquake that occurred in 1822.

But this is predicated upon the reality that the ancient city has been fully destroyed multiple times in ancient times and therefore not much has been left as a visible heritage for subsequent generations to appreciate. In the years: 114, 342, 458, 525, 528, 565 and 587 the city was hit by repeated earthquakes and looking just at the sixth century (the 500’s) there were four significant earthquakes with an estimated total of 380,000 deaths – the first earthquake in that series alone claiming an estimated quarter of a million lives. Hence there is not a lot from ancient times, that is anything built prior to 600 AD, that was still standing even at that time.

Today, there are some notable buildings which are of a size and status that they were repaired after the last great ‘quake – but they are few and far between. Taking a strolling tour of the narrow lanes and byways of the old quarter and the observant will notice that there are a number of buildings with fine, finished stone courses in the lower reaches – often changing to a field stone construction to complete the wall to height. This mix of quality and dare I say, shoddy or primitive building methods, draws a line between the old, durable and astonishingly well-built parts and the more slap-dash workmanship exhibited in the more modern elements.

Underlying this all is the awareness that the ancient city is never very far away, mere meters beneath our feet.

Recently the local Council commenced a project to build a cable car system to take tourists from the old city to the top of the hill that rises along one side of the city.

This is a great and grand project which, initially, forged ahead with great speed and vigor.

Then it came time to construct the base station in the heart of the old quarter. The first step was to demolish the old, dilapatated shelters that were occupying the site and then to excavate the foundations for the base station. Compulsory purchase and the demolition of the old homes was accomplished in a reasonable amount of time. Then, according to a new policy in Turkey, before any excavation could commence, the archaeologists were sent in to ensure that no valuable archaeology would be destroyed in the process of building the base station.

It didn’t take long, nor did they have to go more than just under the level of the old, dilapidated structures that formerly occupied the site to discover much archeology in situ. As the soil was painstakingly removed, first walls came to light, then floors, then, as the work progressed, deeper levels. As they dug down, the intricate ceramic water pipes of the ancient sewer and water systems came to light. The work continued and deeper levels were uncovered.

Often the changing levels representing the effects of an earthquake and the rebuilding efforts. These form natural devastation levels. In the aftermath of an earthquake, it is much easier to pull out useable stone from the destruction, level the site somewhat and build on top. The archaeology demonstrates this. Sometimes later walls plough through earlier structures. Sometimes there is a distinct layer of rubble laying between levels. This also means that the city slowly rises above its previous levels, resulting in the ancient, normal street level of the city now being found multiple meters beneath our feet.

As the archaeologists went down, they travelled back in time. Wells came to light, here and there, some smaller and others larger. Then, down about two and half meters or so then came across a fine mosaic – still in its original location. This mosaic was installed in the dining room of a house, not centuries ago, but millennia ago. When I first caught a glimpse of it, peering over the protective fence as I am wont to do, I was not impressed.

Don’t get me wrong, the workmanship of this ancient mosaic is outstanding. It was the motif that was chosen for this dining room that I didn’t appreciate.

It shows a skeleton reclining at table with the fine food about.

Is it reminding the diners of the transience of life?

Or is it a comment of the meaninglessness of the things we take as so important?

Is it an ancient way of saying, “Dead men walking?”

I do not know.

But, for me personally, I do not relish the notion of eating a fine feast with a smiling skeleton staring up at me from the floor.

It was not the only mosaic found in this site. And remember, this site was not selected because people thought there was archaeology of merit buried there, but was opened up, basically at random, in the old quarter, to facilitate this modern conveyance of a cable car.

This random discovery reinforces the fact that the old city, or the shadow of the glory of the old city and the marvels of the ancient world and its workmanship are not far away, but are lying just beneath our feet.

In the course of this dig, they went down a total of about 3½ , maybe 4 metres and in doing so went back some two thousand and four hundred years in time.

One wonders what would be uncovered if ancient Antioch was not abiding under a living, modern city and hence there was the ability to take a large segment and do careful, modern archaeology – as in Ephesus. I wonder, would the remains of the ancient main thoroughfare, one of the first streets in the ancient Roman world to have street lighting, the street upon which the Apostles Paul and Peter would have strolled, come to light?

Anyways, it has been decided by the powers that be, that they will (somehow) build the base station over and above the now exposed archaeology. They will construct the base station so that it straddles over and with carefully situated piercing insert supports amongst the archaeology so uncovered and thusly creating an ‘open air’ museum of what was found, and yet, finally, having the base station for the now many year delayed cable car project.

This project has provided a glimpse of what lies hidden from sight, under our feet.  Most of what is above ground, however,  in the old quarter, is not ancient.

It is true that there may very well be ancient cut stones forming part of the construction of these ‘modern’ structures. As one wanders the lanes of the old quarter it is not uncommon to see a random column sitting upright and sticking out of the floor, in the street, beside a building, in a courtyard or even forming part of a grave beside a mosque, all mute testament to former splendour and the wonders of the ancient world.

Now our own house, for example, like many, is maybe a little under a hundred years of age – the result of a bit of a building ‘boom’ when France was the protecting power and had dominion over the province of Hatay in the aftermath of World War I.

It was during this time that the Central Park, now a pivotal focal point for the population, was constructed on the banks of the Asi River (ancient Orontos River). The French prepared the province to become an independent Republic, and constructed a number of fine stone buildings, a small Parliament, a mansion for the leader, and other governmental buildings. These were all made of fine, fitted stone and although not large in size are impressive structures even today.  The resultant republic was very short lived as its first act was to hold a referendum with the result that the Republic of Hatay became part of the the Turkish Republic.

Many houses were built at that time in a mixture of old and newer construction methods. Everything was built without regard for whatever may be ‘down below’. The construction was undertaken utilising old and tried construction methods.

As has been done for centuries, you begin by creating thick rough stone outer walls. These walls are comfortably 70 centimetres in depth. Fine cut stone – most likely made to order but some may have been scavenged from the detritus of the ancient city, were used to create a feature wall and often, fine stone was used around some windows and, almost obligatory, around the main door.

One of the distinctives of the French period is the use of rather large, impressive steel I-beams to span that space between the thick walls. These I-beams form the main supporting structure for a flat, poured concrete roof. In their day, the construction technique called for the use of reinforcing steel bar. However, now, nigh on a hundred years hence, it is observed that this steel has been subject to the cancer of rust and over time the integrity of the concrete is somewhat compromised. This is universally true for all the buildings constructed at that time.

The ceilings are high, the interior height of the average room is 3½ metres. This creates a space which tends to be cooler in summer. Again, in a nod to the old building principles, in various places in the thick outer walls, cupboards were built in to hold the bedding and other things, which, traditionally, were stored in the daytime in the cupboards, brought out for the night and returned in the morning – rooms being multifunctional, day room in the daytime and bedroom at night.

It seems, as well, that there was no understanding of what a ‘damp proof’ course is and so these stone walls are directly connected to the foundation and hence to the soil. The result is capillary action which draws moisture up from below creating a chronic problem with damp and mould in these substantial outer walls.

The old quarter is noted for its narrow and twisty lanes. Often the houses are constructed so close together that the roofs overlap above the ‘lanes’. In summer you are granted a shady relief from the relentless summer sun. In winter, the runoff may mean there is no dry place to walk as the water is forced to flow in the narrow pathway. Throughout the old quarter there are innumerable cul-de-sacs which come to an abrupt end.  In this warren of streets, half streets, lanes and byways, even some of the ‘through roads’ that exist can be reduced to just over a meter in width.

In the old quarter, many of the houses are legitimately old – but at the same time, all of the houses, those two hundred or possibly older and the newer ones, well, they all look old.

As has been observed, some have exquisitely cut stone foundations that speak of a more prosperous time when houses were made from dressed stone, finely fitted together, from foundation to cap stone. For some, that ‘prosperous’ time may have been hundreds of years previously, for the wealthy have always be able to build in quality. Some of the dressed foundational sections speak of a durability and resilience that is bordering on the thousands of years.

Most of the houses have rough, uncut or roughly cut stone walls speaking of a time when there were not the resources, or the skill, or the desire to make meticulously cut stones precisely fitting together.

This is most graphically exposed when you see a combination, the lower courses of the building made of fine dressed stone, well-fitting even today, and the upper courses are composed of the rough cut and uncut stone.

It is incongruous to say the least.

As believers and followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have slowly tried to improve our home. By small, daily sacrifices, we were able to make incremental improvements that both improve the over-all health of the building and the comfort of those who abide therein.

It really isn’t rocket science. You do what is in your strength to do. At the very least you clean, scrape and make neat. You attack the mould and seek to expunge it – it isn’t easy and may not even be possible, but you aim to overcome it.

Over time we would purchase a pot of paint and then paint. At another time, when possible, we contracted to install a sun roof. When we have been enabled, we had the floor of the terrace tiled. Thusly, and in many, little, often incremental ways, we have made our home stand out in the neighbourhood.

Let me add that I am not referring to the exterior – it still, er, rather fits in as far as the neighbourhood goes – but the interior, the inner courtyard, the terrace, the living areas, these have been slowly improved and our neighbours, when they visit or come to drink tea are aware of the changes made.

The improvements have been the result of little money and a lot of effort. The on-going priority of scrapping together the funds for a bag of ready-mix plaster or a pot of paint, the result of mini-sacrifices, but slowly making a difference.

In Turkish there is a saying “damyla damyla göl olur” or by interpretation, “drop by drop a lake is formed”.

With the plaster or paint in hand and doing the labour ourselves to splash it on the walls we were able to make a cleaner, neater and more pleasant environment for all.

In the years since we began our residence, and, slowly, month by month, year by year, the changes have been wrought. We have been observed and, at the same time, we have observed that some of our neighbours have improved their housing as well.

Is this a response to our example?

Or have their situations improved sufficiently that they are able to do the things they have wished to do for a long time?

This I can not discern.

But some neighbours have put up protective roofs to make up for the invariable leaks that develop in old flat roofed homes. Others have plastered, covering up the decades of decay and presenting a pleasant, smooth, finish. And still others have painted.

All in all, a general improvement.

Let me clearly declare that I am not claiming credit for any of this general improvement… just observing the changes…

Having said that, what we have done over the first five years we lived here has been perceived by our neighbours. In seeing the gradual improvement, some may have been encouraged and others, possibly challenged and/or inspired to make a change in their own homes. But, whilst that may or may not be true, it is evident from some comments heard that not all people have responded positivity.

Indeed, some, unintentionally have let slip feelings of jealousy and envy.

For some individuals, it seems, in the past, they have been satisfied to live in a decaying house, with cracks in the plaster, peeling paint and wet, damp or mouldy patches due to winter rains and a leaking roof. When everyone is in the same situation, then inertia and entropy settle in, and nothing changes… Well, nothing changes for the better, the house continue to deteriorate until either the occupants move, the building becomes uninhabitable or it collapses about them.

Then we come along… raising dust and noise as we cut, saw, break, mend, pour, build, tile, plaster, paint and otherwise slowly change our ‘normal dilapated’ home into a pleasant, clean, healthy and modern home.

I believe that some people have been quietly encouraged, and it is evident that others have been bitterly displeased. It was in this framework that we noticed that in front of our front door there has been a collection of trash, drink tins, cigarette packages, crisps packages, general litter and worse of all, cigarette butts found on a regular basis.

Ugly, unsanitary – ugh – cigarette butts.

Since my youth, growing up in a home of smokers, I have been put off by ash-trays, and butt-ends and all the smell and half-smoked bits that end up being all over the place…

Now we – all the occupants of our home – do not imbibe in the smoking habit. So, the most natural question arises: from whence do these cigarette butts come?

Now our neighbour, two doors up, is a widow on a very limited income. She and her children live in a very dilapidated house – the windows leak, the door appears to be falling off it’s hinges, the plaster is missing from some walls and the small, rough stone core walls appear to be in danger of tumbling into the room. When it rains the roof leaks. When there is an abundance of rain, the street overflows with run-off, and, on occasion, the surplus rainwater has ‘run-off’ and into and through their home.

They have little money, and they do not seem able to take a wee bit of their merge resources to improve their home. But they do have the resources to smoke. Smokers tell me that there is comfort in smoking and that they receive a physical benefit from imbibing in the habit.

I will take their word for it.

Nevertheless, it is not a cheap habit to sustain.

Our observation was they would smoke in front of their house – the street in the front of their house doubles as their front garden. It would be the most natural of actions, when the cigarettes are exhausted to toss their used cigarette butts into the street. In this scenario the unintended consequence would be for the wind to encourage said refuse to move down the street and, ultimately, come to rest at our front door.

But why come to rest at our front door?

Why stop the journey part way down the street?

Why not continue on down the road?

Why does a collection of cigarette butts joined with an assortment of other trash congregate and wait patiently just outside our front door?

A conundrum.

But the observation of our eyes, and the application of logic and common sense drew us to one hypothesis.  In fact, we were so convinced of this hypothesis that it was our neighbour intentionally or, more likely, unintentionally that was the source of this detritus that we, nicely, asked the lady to be more careful with her discards.

She profusely proclaimed her innocence in this matter.

I’m afraid we did not share a high level of confidence in her declarations of innocence.

Now, we have a good relationship with the family and there is no trace of animosity or hostility on any side. Nevertheless, the cigarette butts are found outside our front door.

Then the day arrived.

It was unplanned, and occurred, basically, at random.

Several from our home were out on the street – going about their business when everyone noticed a soft drink tin rolling down the middle of the street, driven by the wind. Our street is lower in the centre, concave, which acts like one common gutter to take the rain water, down the centre of the street to the storm drain.

This disused drink tin was merrily, and remarkably quickly, tinkling its way down the centre of the street following the concave and being driven by the wind. All was as you would expect it to be, although the speed was a bit of a surprise…the wind is strong in Antakya.

The tin tumbled and tinkled until it arrived parallel to our front door…

And there it stopped…

And there it stopped!

The tin, just stopped in the centre of the street.

The wind was still blowing. Gravity was still calling it to continue down the street. And yet, it stopped.

This disused drinks tin then proceeded to turn 90º towards our front door and then recommenced it’s travel, proceeding now at right angles to its former course and up the concave of the street towards our front door…


Now, our front door does not open directly on to the courtyard, but to a long corridor that leads to our courtyard. We hadn’t really noticed before, but this configuration results in a funnelling effect – drawing the air, I suppose like a chimney, and in a profoundly counter-intuitive direction.

In summer, there is a strong, blowing breeze that caresses in the city, flowing from the sea towards the interior – roughly southwest to northeast, in keeping with the terrain and shape of the valley. Throughout the long summer months this is a constant and it flows consistently from one direction. The trees on the mountainside all lean in mute testimony to the power and consistency of the wind. The whole forest leans up the valley at an astonishingly acute angle.

However, here in the city, at street level, with the myriad of buildings, the wind can be twisted about and it flows ‘down’ our street. As we observed, when the breeze gets to our house, to our front door, the corridor acts as a funnel, and strongly draws the wind in towards the courtyard (completely and diametrically opposite to the normal direction of the wind).

As we witnessed, it was in this manner that all sorts of the discards of daily life, were consistently finding their way to our front door.

Without a doubt, our smoking neighbour has ignorantly and unintentionally contributed to the accumulation of cigarette butts, but she was not the source of the problem, just a contributor, a minor player.

It was all so easy. The evidence of our eyes, the daily collection of assorted mess at our front door. Every time you opened the door to leave, at each point when we came back to our home, there was this mess to greet us…

We saw the ‘evidence’ and, in trying to understand how and why, we ‘reasoned’ and ‘thought’ and used ‘logic’.  In the end we had come to an ‘understanding’ of the problem and once this was ‘determined’ then the ‘solution’ was clear.

The only problem is, we were completely wrong.

I guess that is one reason why we read the admonition about the dangers of judging – even when all the evidence before our eyes declares only one logical conclusion…

36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.

Luke 6:36-38

New International Version (NIV)

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