|Jul/Aug 2018 Travel|
Last summer, when I told a cleric friend I was going to Antioch on the Orontes for Eid al-Fitr, he said, "Are you crazy? Why?"
I didn't bother replying that the provinces of Syria and Turkey that had fallen under French Mandate after World War I had been a geeky fascination of mine for decades. Nor did I say that I found Antioch particularly interesting because it was part of Syria until 1938 and annexed by Turkey in 1939: in other words, it only escaped becoming rubble in the current Syrian civil war by an unexpected shift of borders. I also didn't mention that, while teaching me to pickle vegetables with mint, garlic, and hot peppers, my Antiochian colleagues at Saint Dimitrios in Istanbul had inspired me with culinary curiosity for their province.
I did, however, remind my cleric friend that Antioch was the place where the followers of Jesus first called themselves Christians. Unaffected, he replied: "They'll probably kidnap you. A bride for the caliphate."
Point taken. Antioch is only 12 miles from the Syrian border and 57 miles from Aleppo. It's also included in the list of southeastern provinces that the United States recommends its citizens avoid. "Maybe," I said, disregarding both my friend's jokes and the State Department's kidnapping warnings. "But I doubt the caliphate wants a 41-year-old."
On the last day of Ramadan, my plane descended over the harbor of Iskenderun, which served as Aleppo's port during Ottoman times. The windows filled with the magnificent blue gulf of Alexandretta, where the whale is said to have spit out the Prophet Jonah. After landing in an ultra-contemporary airport, I rode a minibus through 10 miles of slapdash apartment blocks jutting up from former corn fields. These cement monstrosities—all with the not-quite-finished flair of the Eastern Mediterranean—caused hayal kırıklığı, as we say in Turkish, dream breaking, for they looked nothing like the eclectic stone mansions I'd seen in photos.
Upon entering my historic hotel (originally the family home of Suphi Bereket, the first president of Syria), my dreams briefly revived only to be dashed by the nauseating, Eau-de-Nursing-Home air freshener with which the place had been fumigated the day before. Instead of unpacking, I strolled along the Orontes River, described by the Greco-Roman poet Oppian in the second century A.D. as "surging incontinent and wildly murmuring." At the time of my visit, however, damming and diversion—used as weapons by both rebels and regime in war-torn Syria—had reduced the mighty Orontes to nothing more than an elongated pond stinking like a zoo.
I fought chagrin with a visit to Saint Peter museum-church on Starius Mountain, where, legend has it, the Apostle Peter himself carved a primitive shelter into the soft volcanic rock so that he would have a place to preach. Sitting on a bench outside this cave church, whose stone façade was built by Crusaders in the 12th century and redone by Capuchin friars in the 19th, I breathed in Starius's pine-scented air along with the wood smoke wafting up from home braziers in the city below. This, at least, seemed like something I had read about in memoirs and history books.
I moved on to Antioch's coffee and pepper-perfumed bazaar, where vendors sold Ramadan pitas, handwoven baskets, laurel soaps, and the raw, spaghetti-like pastry used in the hot, syrup-drizzled, cheese-stuffed, butter-griddled dessert called künefe. I wandered the streets of old Antioch, admiring the Arabic lintel inscriptions and intricately carved ceilings of derelict buildings without roofs. I didn't feel any danger of being kidnapped by the caliphate, but I did envy couples walking hand in hand, as well as families on their way to holiday parties.
In the evening I attempted to find the Orthodox Church of Saints Peter & Paul. I'd heard its bells earlier that day and spied its blond stone belfry over the ceramic roofs near my hotel. But I already knew from experience that asking the location of a church or synagogue rarely leads anywhere in Turkey, where non-Sunni places of worship seem lost in a magical fog of invisibility. (In Istanbul, I'd once asked a security guard in the Bosporus village of Tarabya if he knew the location of Saint Paraskevi, a local church built in 1857. "I have no idea," he said, "but I have heard bells coming from the south." After 30 minutes of trekking down the Bosporus, I was sure I'd been sent in the wrong direction, so I returned to the guard's kiosk and beheld, on the opposite side of the road, a wrought-iron gate topped by a cross: Saint Paraskevi. The guard had been staring straight at the church entrance without noticing it.)
At around nine o'clock, while passing the bustling döner shops and cafés of Hürriyet Caddesi, I spotted frosted crosses in the second-story windows of an arabesque building. Beneath the windows was a gate leading to a well-lit courtyard where dapper men in freshly ironed white shirts were busy chatting. "Could you tell me what time liturgy begins tomorrow?" I called out.
But such a question cannot be directly answered by Christians afraid of ISIS attacks. A handsome man approached the gate and began the typical Middle Eastern inquisition: name, religion, place of birth and residence? When I told him I worked at Saint Dimitrios in Istanbul, he asked if I knew any Antiochians there. I gave the names of our acolyte and gardener, who hailed from the nearby Christian villages of Altinözü and Samandağ. Immediately the handsome man and I were good friends.
The next morning, I entered Saints Peter & Paul. Compared to our Istanbul churches, which are heavily decorated with floor-to-ceiling wall paintings, the bare stone and marble of this Antiochian church seemed stark but elegant. The congregants sat quietly in their Western-style pews, unlike Istanbul Rums, who tend to circulate about our pewless churches, greeting friends and checking cell phones. Although the service was almost entirely in Arabic, the chanting was identical to the Byzantine Greek style of Istanbul, enabling me to understand by melody.
After liturgy I followed the parishioners into the pristine stone courtyard, where I relived the excruciating childhood experience of not having anyone to sit with in the school cafeteria. Since no one greeted me, I perused the history posted by the church door: in 1872, an earthquake and subsequent fire had destroyed the original wooden church; the current structure had been rebuilt in stone by a Russian architect, hence the Russian-influenced Byzantine form. Just as I was thinking of leaving, the previous night's handsome guardian appeared beside me. "Have you met the priest?" he asked.
When I replied I hadn't, he escorted me to the shady portico, where a man in a short-sleeved black shirt and tinted glasses—looking more like a mafia don than a priest—treated me to Arab coffee at least twice as strong and three times as black as its Turkish counterpart. Although I only managed a few sips of this diabolic brew, I enjoyed my chat with this unassuming priest, who told me his trouble with Istanbul's Rum Orthodox: "They don't even consider us coreligionists because we speak Arabic instead of Greek. But the Antiochian church was the second founded after Jerusalem, before Constantinople! We've been Christian longer than they have." I agreed with him: the Greek-speaking Rums of Istanbul often treated the Arabic-speaking Rums of Antioch like second-class Christians. Perhaps in appreciation of this, the priest gave me a silver cross to remember his city. And then, while the other parishioners departed to attend family luncheons, he sent me on my way.
Adrift once again, I set out to explore the narrow streets and alleys of a neighborhood which, according to my map, was the home of Antioch's synagogue. Now it is inhabited mostly by Arabic-speaking Alawites, members of a moderate Shi'a sect native to Syria and Antioch. I soon lost my way in this labyrinthine neighborhood, which reminded me of Chios's pirate-proof mastic villages. I stuck my head into a bakery where two young men were frying lokma doughnuts in a vat of bubbling oil. Although friendly and eager to help, neither knew what a sinagog was, let alone its location.
Next I tried a headscarved old lady sitting on her doorstep. "I have no idea," she said, revealing gaps in her teeth. "But you haven't kissed my hand!" She was absolutely right: it was the first day of Eid al-Fitr, when one is supposed to visit elders and pay one's respects. I kissed her hand; she in turn kissed my cheeks and wished me many blessings.
I gave up on the synagogue and went to one of the only places open on the first day of Eid: the Affan, a café that has been run by the same family since 1913. From what I could take in at first glance—high ceilings, cement tile, tired Ottoman wainscoting—it seemed pleasantly nostalgic, but hardly the sort of place where a single woman would feel at ease. The all-male Alawite clientele sat in clusters, playing backgammon and eating hataylı: milk pudding submerged in rose water. The men spoke (and sang) exclusively in Arabic, switching into Turkish only to answer cell phones. Even so, as I settled down at a wooden table whose surface had been worn velvety smooth by one-hundred-four years of fingers, elbows, coffee cups, and dessert bowls, I felt at ease for the first time since I arrived in Antioch.
I asked myself why. Perhaps it was that the other customers didn't notice my nail polish (de rigueur in Istanbul, but apparently odd in Antioch, considering the attention it had drawn in the churchyard). Or perhaps it was that nobody asked where I was from. But most probably it was the owner, whose lopsided, protruding ears gave him a spritely air despite his tall stature. After he took me to his ice cream-making station and showed me the flavors in his ice box, proudly listing the ingredients of each, I asked if he knew the location of the local synagogue. A toothy smile spread beneath his mustache as he phoned a friend. Hanging up after a brief conversation, he said, "The guardian's on vacation in Iskenderun. I wanted to get you a tour. But at least I'll show you where it is before you go."
Impressed that the Affan's owner had such close connections with the synagogue guardian, I asked if he himself was Jewish. He chuckled and replied, "No, but we're all brothers."
Back at my table, I listened to the snap of backgammon chips and the chirping of swallows. I enjoyed the sea breezes rushing through the two open sides of the café and let my sahlepli orchid-root and mastic flavored ice cream melt before I ate it. After I'd finished the bowl that I thought I'd only sample, the owner came to my table with a huge scoop of lemon and chocolate. "Tadina bak," he said in his charming Arabic accent, throaty on the 'k,' as he dropped the scoop into my glass bowl. Look into its taste.
The Tao Te Ching says it is the empty space that makes a bowl useful. As I sat at my worn, cracked, ring-marked table—where Christians, Jews, and Muslims had communed together over coffee for a century—I emptied my bowl once again. I didn't need to search anymore, neither for churches, nor for synagogues, nor for companions. All I needed was to sit quietly and receive the kindness of chocolate and lemon ice cream. For this, I found, was the only real way to look into the taste of Antioch.