Antakya is rather unique among the cities of Turkey. The population that makes up this neglected backwater is strangely cosmopolitan.

The city consists of a mixture of Sunni Turks, Alevi Arabs, Kurds, Greek Orthodox Christians, a minute Jewish population, oh, and now a disproportionate number of Syrian refugee Sunni Arabs. Additionally, the imprint and influence of the time when this area was part of the French Mandate are still discernible.

For a cheap and cheerful explanation of the various religious divisions in Turkey, please refer to this blog: The Religious Make-up of Turkey 

Now in this region there is a preponderance of small – about 36 – 96 square feet – white-washed, often domed, structures. You will see them decorating hill tops, positioned by streams, found in lonely fields, situated by roads, and they are even liberally scattered throughout the old section of Antakya city.

I noted one such white-washed structure that is situated on an isolated patch on the banks of the Asi River – known in ancient times as the Orontes River.

In time, the ‘powers that be’ decided to cast a bridge over the river right at that point.

2010-08-28-Antioch-P1140594-ziyaret-1.jpgHowever, this small structure, white-washed with green highlights, capped with a small dome, was positioned right at the planned bridgehead.

What was to be done?” I wondered to myself.

Would they knock the structure down or shift it somewhere else?” I pondered and watched as the project advanced.

In time, the bridge was thrown across the river and the wee structure continued to defiantly stand where it has historically stood. The four lane approach road was built on the opposite shore.

Then, when the time came to build the approach road on the side with the structure, they built one half of the road on the right side of the structure, and the other on the left side – the structure, untouched, unmoved, unfazed and somewhat marooned, now in the middle of the four lane road – remained exactly where it always has been.

2010-08-28 Antioch P1140593 ziyaret

It seems it was too important, or too sacred, to be demolished or even removed to a nearby location. Those who wish to visit this structure will need to negotiate at least two lanes of flowing traffic to gain access.

It was long after this incident that I noticed that this structure has a strange and unique feature. It seems that there was a tree growing in that place and when the structure was constructed the tree, the living tree, was simply incorporated into the building; it continues to this day to grow in, through and out of the building.

These wee white-washed structures, scattered all over this region, are small Alevi shrines.

These buildings have been built over time and have been constructed over the graves of various ‘saints’. These saints can be a ‘holy man’ a ‘sheikh’, ‘a teacher’ or even a ‘Christian saint’ of old.

These structures are almost invariably painted white and most frequently boast a small dome.

Inside the shrines there is a large raised coffin-like structure. This internal feature is plastered over and painted white. It is believed that it has been constructed over the physical grave of the honoured individual. This sarcophagus-like structure is often draped with cloth, green blankets, normal Turkish flags, Green flags or other fabric. The floors are often covered in carpets. The whitewashed walls can be decorated with posters, pictures of Ali, Koranic verses and other writings both in Turkish (Latin) script and Arabic script. These structures are considered ‘holy spaces’. Shoes are strictly left outside.

Within the shrines copies of the Koran and other religious books, teachings, commentaries, and even, occasionally, a New Testament can be found. Local tradition declares that anything left in a Shrine should not be removed.

More often than not, it is the local people who maintain the Shrine – those living nearby or have a special connection with the shrine. Indeed, the structures have initially been built by local people at their own expense – these buildings are outside of the remit of the Religion Department of the government. It is the local people who ensure it is painted, maintained, cleaned and cared for. The door, usually a stout, strong steel door, is closed and locked but opened up on Fridays and other special days and times as according to the Alevi calendar and local tradition. Some can be open on multiple days, but always under the watchful eye of the key holder and self-appointed caretaker of the shrine.

To my limited knowledge no services or other events are planned or executed there – these locales are for individual acts of worship as people reach out to find help in their time of need.

Sometimes you will stumble on a Shrine which is just the grave of the ‘saint’ which has been surrounded by a high wall – but even these, over time, become enclosed and covered.

What do people do at a Shrine?

To the best of my knowledge, you will find no reference whatsoever to shrines within the Koran – these are extra-Koranic structures, functions and activities. They are an expression of Alevi belief and a desire to engage with God.

At these shrines, people will come to pray. Some will come and make a vow to God. Others will make a sacrifice of a chicken, sheep or something else. Others will burn incense. Still others will read the books held within. (For one account of such an individual who read a New Testament in a Shrine – can be read here.)  

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It is a place to try and make a connection with God, to find solace, to lay out your petition, to seek for assistance, to seek redress for a wrong that has been done to you, to pour out your heart, to find help when you need it most.

Interestingly, burning incense plays a prominent part in the lives and devotion of the local Alevi community.

Confession time: I am not aware of the significance that the Alevi community put on the burning of incense, nor which type of incense is burned, nor when it is burned, nor for how long, nor why and with what meaning.

In an evening in the summer, it is not unheard of to have the heady scent of burning incense to be carried on the breeze and onto our terrace.

In the course of my daily constitutional, I have noted a local florist who perpetually burns incense outside his shop whenever he is open. I do not know how much it is costing him, but there is always a censer piled high with burning incense in the front of his shop, pouring forth its pungent scent and wafted along by the breeze.

It is my observation that people in Turkey are very industrious, innovative and hard working. If they can not find a job, they will seek employment wherever and however they can – creating a job where needed, or meeting a need in society. To explore this aspect of Turkish society, you can read this blog here.

For instance, if there is a road where traffic is routinely queued up, during the hot summer months, individuals will walk amongst the waiting traffic selling cold bottled water.

When there is a sudden downpour in the city, catching all unawares, diligent individuals will be out on the streets selling brollies.

Have you ever been caught without a tissue? There will be someone offering small packages of tissues for sale.

As you go about your business, maybe, just maybe, you may wonder how much you weigh… well there is a chap, with his scale on the side of the road ready to answer that question.

If you live in a city and you have a carpet with a frayed edge – never fear, for before long a lorry will slowly come down your street offering to collect your carpet, stich it up with the machine mounted on the back of the lorry and return it to you immediately.

This is the same for the knife sharpener. He has his sharping wheel mounted in a wooden stand which he rolls down the street offering to sharpen all your knives.

Do you need a photocopy? Or do you require some document to be laminated? A man pushing a small cart or converted pram, with a small electricity generator will come by, offering on-the-spot photocopy and lamination services.

Fresh milk and I mean really fresh, unpasteurised milk, plastic kitchenware, fruit and vegetables, these all will make their appearance in your street, as will a man pushing a wheel barrow full of fresh mint and parsley. If you desire to buy bulk onions, the onion seller will sell you a great bag of onions, weighing them with the scales on the back of his vehicle. Clothes, carpets, blankets, shoes, cloth, fruit, vegetables, water melon, well, just about everything will sooner or later go past your door. And for your cast offs, the rag-and-bones man will also pass by your door announcing his services.

And here in Antakya, in this community with a large Alevi population, an enterprising individual takes a hand-held censer with the fragrant, burning incense producing copious amounts of potent smoke flowing along behind him as he walks the street. If you are feeling the need to be blessed, he will stop and wave it before you, the sweet smell flowing over you, and you will give him a wee bit of money for his service. He goes down the street and various business will call him to come and bless their shop, the incense wafting in, and he will also receive a small remuneration for his efforts. You can see him at a distance, the great cloud of incense billowing out behind him declaring his presence as he searches those who desire his services.

It appears that someone will endeavour to try and meet even your spiritual needs on the streets of Antakya.

Nevertheless that void, that longing, that desire to ‘know’ God continues unabated, unrequited and untouched by the fragment smell of incense.

The answer to the longing in the heart of man is not found in shrines, full of dead men’s bones, nor in sacrifice – the blood of chickens or sheep, nor in the making and keeping of vows, nor in tying of votive offerings on special trees or special places, nor in inhaling or bathing in the heady scent of incense. It is not within these activities, as well-meaning as they may be performed, that intimacy with God can be found.

This natural, human, inner longing for intimacy with God is attainable, but like so much in life, it is not on our terms or according to what we desire or what we, in our wisdom, have decided is the Way to attain intimacy with God.

True intimacy is a two way street, it does not occur in a vacuum, nor in a void, nor it is imposed from one side on another. Both parties come together in a mutually acceptable manner.

God, Himself, has intervened in human history; the Almighty has physically entered human history and laid out His Way for mankind to know Him and experience intimacy with the Divine.

This is the Way that He Himself has initiated, and He deals with our weaknesses, our errors and mistakes and, let’s be blunt, our ‘sins’ …and takes care of this otherwise insurmountable impediment to intimacy with Pure, Holy, Righteous God.  It is in walking in His way that we can actually ‘taste and see that God is good’, that we can personally know Him and know His power and experience His Love in our lives. That we can know and receive and revel in the Love of God.

Our home is not old in comparison with the abundance of truly, really old buildings that you will find throughout Turkey and that is without considering the few ancient buildings that are still standing. Our home is probably just under a hundred years in existence.

We believe it was constructed during the French Mandate (1923 – 1946). That was the time after the suzerainty of the Ottoman Empire and before this area was joined to the Turkish Republic.

The administration by the French was a mixed bag as most colonial powers are inclined to be.

French rule was oppressive and they tended to accentuate the natural racial and religious divisions within their mandated territory – they adhered to the British maxim of ‘divide and rule’. They imposed the French Franc as the currency of the territory, but the Franc was administered according to the needs of France and without regard to the needs of the Mandate Territories.

On the positive side, the French championed modern town planning, civil engineering projects, schools, hospitals and so on.

But overall, the French were more interested in administering their Mandated territories, today what is the Lebanon, Syria and the Turkish province of Hatay, according to their own socio-economic priorities and, as always, with a view to their rivalry with the British.

Within society there was a lot of unrest and discontent with the dominating control exercised by the foreign power.

But, it was also in this time that the much appreciated, large, green, treed, central park was constructed in Antakya. The French also constructed some fine, stone buildings including a small parliament building for the newly minted Republic of Hatay (established on 7 September 1938 and dissolved when merged with to Turkey in 23 July 1939). The independent Republic of Hatay had existed for about ten months.

It was in this time that we believe that our house was constructed.

It was built with a mixture of old and new building methodologies and materials. The outer walls, are old school, built of rough, field stone with mortared outer faces with rock-rubble in-fill and built to 60 to 70 centimetres thick. For the roof, they used heavy steel ‘I’ beams to support a reinforced flat concrete roof.

The homes built at this time were built in the traditional configuration with high ceilings and laid out around a central courtyard with all the rooms opening into the courtyard. If you desired to go from one room to another, this would entail a trip to the courtyard to make the connection.

In summer time that would be no problem – but in winter, in the drizzling rain, it was less than desirable to have to go outside to go to the kitchen, or toilet or bedroom via the dark, damp, cold, breezy courtyard.

It appears that our large house was built in conjunction with the neighbouring house, and together it was a corporate home to a large, extended family.

At some time in the life of the building, it seems that family relationships hit the buffers, which resulted in a wall being erected between the houses. It was not a planned wall nor a bearing wall.

When we first moved in we were doing some renovations in the kitchen and discovered that the dividing wall was no more than a single brick wide. When we vigorously attacked the wall to remove the plaster on our side… we also unknowingly and unintentionally, knocked the plaster off the opposite side of the wall.

The neighbour complained – wouldn’t you?

In the end we accidentally poked a hole in the wall and then discovered its depths – or lack thereof. We replastered their side as well as our own.

Anyway, back to the history and development of the building. After the construction of this rather flimsy dividing wall, and at a later date, someone decided to extend the back wing of the building by utilising and extending the building out and into the courtyard. Doing this consumed approximately one third of the courtyard. When we compare our courtyard with our neighbours, it is clear that when our home was initially constructed, the courtyard was of rather generous proportions. As a result, there was sufficient space to give some area to a room and still leave a reasonably sized courtyard.

The extension was constructed with more modern columns and beams and they poured a concrete extension to the flat roof. In this manner they joined all the rooms on the wing on the back side of the courtyard under one roof.

Thus this newly created single, long, rectangular room, running the length of the old wing, meant that no longer were people required to go into the courtyard to communicate from room to room. No more traipsing through the rain carrying the evening meal to the dining room, no more dreading the midnight stroll, no more cooling the house in winter as someone must exit to go to another room.

Of course, the two rooms on the opposite side of the courtyard still required a courtyard stroll to access. The main access to the property is via the front street and by means of a corridor which bisected the two rooms. So one would enter the property and then cross the courtyard to enter the extended wing at the back of the courtyard.

Interestingly, this meant that the newly created room had both doors to the pre-existing rooms, but also windows, for formerly they looked into the courtyard; now they looked either into the new room, or from opposite perspective, into the former rooms.

It was rather strange.

Hence, it was in this unplanned manner, that our home has historically grown and been extended. These changes occurred organically, without planning – simply answering the needs of the occupants at that time.

Which brings me to our corridor. Our corridor is a johnny-come-lately, joining the oldest part of the house with the first addition which consisted of the kitchen, bathroom, toilet and finally with the last addition, the added-on extension that consumed part of the courtyard.

As is in keeping with its origins, it is a bit odd.

Firstly, it isn’t straight. Well, full disclosure, the whole house is a collection of odd angles – nothing, anywhere, is straight: the plot that the property is built on may, possibly, have a 90º angle – somewhere, but truly, everything is skew-whiff. The corridor is just one more example of this household trait.

Secondly, the corridor is of different levels: the lowest level is at the door to/from the courtyard – this was the level of the added-on room. The higher level, a mini-step of about two centimetres, goes from where the former courtyard door was but is now situated one third the way down the corridor. This early section of the corridor goes towards the back of the house and joined the old, original wing with the later addition of the kitchen, bathroom and toilet.

The multi-level dimension does not end there.

The kitchen, bathroom and side room are all higher than the corridor.

So, someone coming into our home, would begin at one level, and then, one third the way down the corridor would have to negotiate the mid-corridor lift of about two centimetres. Proceeding down the corridor, wherever they would desire to go, it would involve another mini-step of something like three centimetres to gain entry to one of those rooms.

We have noticed that many of our visitors have been stumbled, literally, by the mid-corridor change in height.

For us, it became so much a part of our life, that we negotiated it, often without even being cognisant of it. As we ceased being aware of it, it quietly morphed into becoming part of the wallpaper, so to speak.

However, when the workmen put in the pipes for the central heating system, they had to trench across the floor at the lowest level of the corridor.

Thus, right at the entrance from the courtyard into the house, the tiles were broken up to enable the placement of the central heating piping, this provided an opportunity to retile that first third of the corridor, from the door to the mini-step. We could correct the stumbling block, we could remove the needless and unhelpful little step.

Because there was no way we could get the same style of floor tiles, this meant that we would be utilising a different floor tile pattern. Therefore, we needed a logical point to change from the newer tiles to the former – we did not want to retile the whole corridor. Logically, breaking where the corridor already changes direction and width and height would also provide a reasonable visual break for the tile work.

So, this we arranged to have this done.

The tiler came late in the day, after completing a full days work in a town some 40 odd kilometres out of Antakya. He arrived and immediately flew at the task. He put extra gunk at the end where the mini-step was and then gradually brought the tiles down to the old level by the front door. I had failed to purchase the required ‘extra’ gunk, and so he had to be creative with what building materials we had lying about to beef up the amount of gunk to be able to complete the job.

The finished product looks good. The tile are a wood-effect design that actually doesn’t look bad. The tiles are also non-slip; and they really, honestly do deliver on being non-slip. That is an added, unplanned bonus.

The new tile work looks good.

Well, of course, if the grout lines had been lined up it would have looked a lot better. But, at the end of the day, it was short notice, he was already committed to other work and, hence, it was done quickly. Understandably the chap was tired. The tile work covers the offending scar where the central heating pipes entered the floor, and is well laid, there is no discord between the tiles creating mini-stumbling points.

And most importantly, there is no mini-step now.

That is great!

But, as I walk the corridor two things strike me.

First off, I am consciously aware that I am ‘going up’ when I walk from the front of the house towards the back, and when I return towards the front of the house, I am ever cognisant that I am walking ‘down’ the corridor. It is very slight, maybe two centimetres difference over the course of a metre, but my legs or feet or whatever, faithfully report the change to me.

The other thing I notice is it seems the step had been programmed into my walking. I sub-consciously anticipate the step, ready to automatically make adjustments for it – now I am aware of the absence of the mini-step. On coming to the former height change, I hesitate, not stumble, but my attention is drawn to the ‘missing’ mini-step.

I am sure any visitors we have will not miss it. Hopefully they will not even be aware that there was a mini tripping-step there.

But for a week, coming and going, I was aware of the missing step. My mind could be elsewhere, but when coming to the location of the former tripping-step, I was suddenly aware of that it wasn’t there. Over a week later, I’m still cognisant of its absence.

Oh, one other thing I noticed: on walking the transition from the mini-ramp to the rest of the corridor, I feel the change from ramp to flat. No, I do not think that will be a tripping hazard… at least I hope not.

This is an example of muscle memory, a ‘learned’ and then ingrained pattern of walking the corridor. This enabled me to negotiate the mini-step day or night or on a midnight stroll – in pitch darkness – and all subconsciously, flawlessly and effortlessly.

I had become both unaware of the step and unaware of my body coping, silently, with it.

It causes me to wonder, “What else in my life have I made accommodations for, and silently deal with subconsciously?”

There may be areas of compromise, of, er, ‘adjustment’ that maybe should not be. Yes, it may make life easier, but I’m called to doing that which is ‘right’ and not that which is ‘easiest’.

I think I will have to ponder this …

In the old section of Antakya, the pathways and byways are convoluted, narrow and, at times, rather Byzantine.  Many are impassible by any form of motorised transport.

And so the question arises: “How does the city council provide the basic services necessary in the 21st century?”

The solution is found inthe time honoured, tried and tested method of accessing and servicing these areas – let me introduce you to the city council donkey.

These determined, strong and dour creatures can navigate the narrow ways, and when you come to the houses pearched on the mountainside, they can climb the rough stairs and can reach all the properties situated there.

Of course you do not send out the donkey on its own, it is accompanied by and lead by the Council ‘donkeyman’.  Maybe that is not his title, but it does describe what he does.

Teams of men and their donkeys go out every night, collecting the trash and detritus of life set out in front of the dwellings in this, the old quarter of the city.

The rest of the city is serviced by your typical rubbish lorries – but here, in the old city, the new has had to give way to the old.

The technology of yesterday is helping to maintain the standards of today.