For weeks, Mehmet Ismet took refuge in the historic Habib Najjar mosque in Antakya, Turkey. An earthquake had killed tens of thousands of people and ruined ancient buildings both there and in neighboring Syria. Antakya was once home to Christianity’s earliest converts. Now it lies in ruins, a testament to the emptiness of earthly treasures.
A general of Alexander the Great built Syrian Antioch in 300 B.C. It was one of the largest cities of the Roman Empire. Early Christian history has many ties there. Some of the first Jew-to-non-Jew mission work took place in Antioch. That included teaching by Barnabas and Paul. At the church in Antioch, the term “Christian” first came into use. (Acts 11:25-26)
Antakya—the modern word for Antioch—today lies in Turkey. Earthquakes have repeatedly destroyed the city.
“Does disaster come to a city,” asks the prophet Amos, “unless the Lord has done it?” (3:6) It’s hard to grasp that truth in the face of tragedy. But God is sovereign. He, not wicked people, luck, or even the evil one, ultimately controls what happens in the world.
After February’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake, residents fear they may never restore Antakya. Much of the city is rubble. Crushed buildings line Kurtulus Street—possibly the world’s first illuminated road when it was lit with torches in Roman times. Those that remain standing are too unsafe to live in.
Outside the city center, Mount Starius protected an early church building, St. Peter’s. The church is built into a mountainside cave. Sections of it date to the 4th century.
Tremors cracked the walls of the Antakya Synagogue. It houses worship for the area’s 2,500-year-old Jewish community. Following the devastation, authorities sent about a dozen Jewish residents and the synagogue’s Torah scrolls to Istanbul for safety, according to the rabbi there.
Many residents seem to have accepted that the crumbling city must once again return from ruin.
Resident Bulent Cifcifli believes Antakya will somehow survive. “After seven times, they rebuilt and brought it to life again. Now is the eighth time, and God willing . . . we will live in it again,” he says.
“Who is Antakya?” Cifcifli asks. “Today it is us. Tomorrow someone else.”
The bottom line is that “we still want to live here,” says silversmith Jan Estefan. He is one of the city’s few remaining Christians, a title that now often refers to being non-Muslim and non-Jewish in Turkey. He adds, “We have no intention of leaving.”
Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come. — Hebrews 13:14
Why? When tragedy strikes—and in this fallen world, it will—we can lean into the sovereignty and goodness of God, who rules over all.