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Reflections of the Earthquakes' Impact on Alexandretta, Antioch, and Seleucia

May 06, 2023
By Bassam Michael Madany

Reflections of the Earthquakes' Impact on Alexandretta, Antioch, and Seleucia

Bassam Michael Madany

9 March 2023

Last month, I celebrated my 95th birthday. A few days later, on Monday, 6 February, a massive earthquake hit an area in southern Turkey that flattened the place beyond recognition. It was the place where I was born and spent the first eleven years of my life. 

This is a story that goes beyond earthquakes and natural disasters; it’s an account of a forgotten tragedy, as most of those who had experienced it, have passed away. 

The Middle East was conquered by Islam in the seventh century. Christians and Jews were allowed to keep their faith by paying the Jizya tax. My ancestors remained Christian, and for some time kept their Aramaic language and culture. By the ninth century, they had Arabized but didn’t Islamize. A Christian scholar in Damascus undertook the translation of the New Testament into Arabic, providing the Christians of the Levant with the necessary spiritual food. i

The Mongolian destruction of the Abbasids in 1250 was a disastrous event for Middle Eastern peoples. Eventually, the Seljuk Turks governed the area, and were followed by the Ottoman Turks, in the sixteenth century. The Ottomans had global ambitions, their conquests included the Byzantine empire in 1453, and lands in eastern and central Europe. In 1529, they laid siege to Vienna, but failed to conquer Austria. One hundred fifty years later, the Ottomans returned with a larger army, and attempted to enter Vienna. Thanks to the help the Austrians received from the Poles, the Ottomans failed and retreated, leaving behind several sacks of coffee beans!  

The Ottomans were staunch defenders of Sunni Islam, as their Sultans had assumed the role of Caliphs. While ruling the Balkans and the Middle East, the Ottomans did not force the subject peoples to adopt Turkish. Middle Easterners kept their Arabic language. During the nineteenth century a revival of Arab culture took place in Egypt under the regime of Muhammad Ali Pasha and his successors.

In Lebanon, American missionaries founded the American University of Beirut. Several of its graduates moved to Egypt where they published newspapers and magazines. The translation of the Bible into Arabic was a major event in the 1860s, a work of significant importance for the Arabic-speaking Christians of the world.

In WWI, the Ottomans took the side of Germany and Austria. The victory of the Allies led to the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Syria and Lebanon came under the rule of France by Mandate from the League of Nations. My education took place during the French presence at British and French schools. That included learning English, French, and Classical Arabic. 

With the end of the Ottoman rule, Turkey became a Republic under General Mustapha Kemal Ataturk. He initiated radical changes in the country: Abolishing the Caliphate in 1924; a process of secularization of society, and the adoption of a Latin alphabet in lieu of the Arabic alphabet.

As certain parts of the Turkish mainland were still under occupation by Allied Forces, Ataturk sought to end that rule by negotiation. In the 1930s, the French ended their occupation of Cilicia (Asia Minor.) Not satisfied with those accomplishments, Ataturk claimed that the Syrian province of Alexandretta belonged to Turkey. He renamed the area as Hatay and kept pressing France to cede it to Turkey.

The province included Antioch and Seleucia as well and was the most cosmopolitan part of Syria. Besides the French schools, there were British and Italian schools. The population was mostly Christians of various communions: Orthodox, Catholic, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Protestant. A significant remnant of the Armenian Genocide had settled in Alexandretta.

The pressure on France kept increasing. In 1938, Turkish Forces entered the province.  At the school I attended, a Turkish teacher arrived to teach Turkish. He was an amiable person, friendly, but smoked a lot. He taught us to sing the Turkish National Anthem!

I’ll never forget June 1939. My mother passed away of a stroke on the tenth of the month. France handed the province over to Turkey; around 90,000 residents left for other Syrian provinces and to Lebanon. Our family settled in Beirut, Lebanon. To have remained in Alexandretta meant our total Turkification. That was not an option for our family. My ancestors had willingly adopted the Arabic language a millennium before. It became ours, and we loved both the Classical and the Colloquial dialects. 

When the successive earthquakes happened on 6 February 2023, one news media with no historical knowledge of the area, reported the following:

“Turkey's historic city of Antakya, known in Roman and medieval times as Antioch, has been flattened by powerful earthquakes in the past – and rebuilt itself.” 

Do eighty-four years of Antioch’s occupation qualify it as an historic Turkish city?! Antioch was the capital, of th Seleucid Kingdom, a Macedonian Greek dynasty (312–64 BC.) It was founded by Seleucus I Nicator. Carved from the empire of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid domain included Babylonia, Syria, and Anatolia. When the Romans conquered the area in 64 BC, they kept Antioch as the capital of the region that included Palestine. 

Antioch qualifies as an historic Christian city “It was in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.” Acts 11: 26b. The Antiochian church ordained Paul and Barnabas as missionaries; they sailed from its port Seleucia, on their world mission.

My reflections were evoked by the February earthquakes in a region that had witnessed other types of human disasters caused by political ambitions.


(2) Review of the Arabic Text of MT. SINAI ARABIC CODEX 151 | Bassam Michael Madany -


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