ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν μὴ ὁ κόκκος τοῦ σίτου πεσὼν εἰς τὴν γῆν ἀποθάνῃ, αὐτὸς μόνος μένει: ἐὰν δὲ ἀποθάνῃ, πολὺν καρπὸν φέρει.
Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. (John 12:24)
Οὐ θέλουν εἰς τὰ κόλλυβα τῶν προτελευτησάντων ἀμύγδαλα, ροΐδια, καρυδοκουκουνάρια, καὶ κανναβούριν καὶ φακὴν καὶ στραγαλοσταφίδας;
Don’t they need for the koliva almonds, pomegranates, walnuts and pine kernels, hemp seeds, lentils, chickpeas and raisins? (Ptochoprodromos, II 43-45)
It was an austere center table, fit for the occasion. A small rectangular koliva on a metal tray, with the vague shape of a cross on it and adorned only with chocolate drops, a white candle and a burner bowl with incense. It didn’t resemble the mourners’ tables I remember from the Greek Orthodox villages in northern Lebanon around Koura and Akkar, with their ornate “Rahmee” (the Arabic name for Koliva in Lebanon), boiled wheat kernels covered in pistachios, pecans, almonds and raisins, decorated with powdered sugar and passed around in glass bowls in the mourners’ homes during the different stages of commemorations of the dead.
But this wasn’t just any other mourners’ home. After a devastating earthquake shook the earth in Turkey and Syria, Antioch was destroyed (it is said that about half of the buildings in modern-day Antakya collapsed, but that roughly 90% of them will have to be demolished), and on the 40th day of mourning, as per the Orthodox as well as Muslim traditions, Antiochians gathered in Istanbul, to commemorate their dead.
In the Eastern churches, it is believed that the soul continues to wander the Earth for another 40 days after the initial death. While wandering about, the soul visits significant places from their life as well as their fresh graves. But in a situation such as Antioch’s, what kind of final rest would they find if their city has been destroyed together with their own lives? What if there’s no grave?
A natural disaster that blended with political vacuum has killed thousands, many are still missing, news of deceased people arrive constantly and millions are displaced across a dozen provinces of Turkey and Syria. Antiochians are now living in tents, have gone into exile, or simply remain in the limbo of uncertainty. It brings to mind the words American writer Susan Sontag had for the people of Sarajevo in 1993: “For they also know themselves to be terminally weak; waiting, hoping, not wanting to hope, knowing that they aren’t going to be saved. They are humiliated by their disappointment, by their fear, and by the indignities of daily life.”
This week an iconic picture began making the rounds of the Internet, a nearly destroyed house in Antioch, with a scribble on the wall that reads: If the house collapses, please call, there’s a dead body inside. Other images like that followed.
During a visit to Antakya, on February 20th, a few hours before the third major earthquake which destroyed St. Ilyas Church in Samandağ and that we survived by sheer chance, a stroll near the now heavily militarized old city of Antakya, opened our senses to the reality of Antioch’s destruction: A strong smell of putrescine, a volatile diamine that results from the breakdown of fatty acids in the putrefying tissue of dead bodies, and which our species is conditioned to be repulsed by. The number of bodies under the rubble is unknown.
Many others have been buried in unmarked mass graves, and the luckier ones, were able to retrieve the bodies of their relatives, with the help of rescue workers, often paying for additional equipment, and transporting the bodies themselves, to their resting places.
The truth is that it’s not possible to call mourning the spectacle of human cruelty that Antiochians endured over the 40 days that elapsed between February 6th and March 18th.
In Istanbul, the gathering took place at the office of ISTOS, a publishing house born 12 years ago out of the initiative of members of the Istanbul Greek community to publish Greek works in Turkish and vice versa, whose nearby cafe disappeared with the pandemic and one of the last places where I sat before the lockdowns in March 2020. In fact, it was their volume “Muhacirname”, on the poetry of the Karamanlides refugees from Central Anatolia, what first inspired our work for the exhibition “After Utopia: The Birds”, now at Sadberk Hanim Museum in Istanbul.
The atmosphere that day was friendly but solemn, as mourners and friends gathered around the table with “slika” (the Antiochian name for koliva) and incense, sharing their grief and testimonies of loss. For many members of the Antiochian community in Turkey and elsewhere–there’s a significant diaspora in Europe and the Middle East, the 40 days of mourning have actually been occupied with worrying, self-organizing, raising funds, finding help, or simply avoiding death. The number 40 contains multiple meanings in the Bible: The Great Flood lasted 40 days, the Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years, prophet Elijah walked 40 days to reach Horeb.
Two women, amidst tears, shared their personal stories not only of the gruesome events of the day and the abandonment to which Antiochians were subjected, not only of grief and the loss of death, but also of the ongoing tragedy which overlaps with a disarray of facts that we already know: There are still bodies under the rubble; container houses are being talked about while there are people without tents; even those with tents are not protected from the seasonal floods and the rain.
But the intimate nature of their testimonies gave a new dimension to suffering: In fact, we remain at the gates and have not quite perambulated the deep terrain. As people were so overwhelmed with survival, of themselves, and others, there was no time to feel grief, it is all still on the surface. These women, dressed in black, reminded me of Aeschylus’ Suppliants, a play about ancient women refugees seeking asylum at a border, depicting not only their struggle to safety but the strife within the city that ultimately shelters them. King Pelasgus speaks:
ἦ κάρτα νείκους τοῦδ᾽ ἔσω παροίχομαι
θέλω δ᾽ ἄιδρις μᾶλλον ἢ σοφὸς κακῶν
For truly, it is to my undoing that I have come into this quarrel and yet I prefer to be unskilled rather than practiced in the lore of foretelling ill. (Aesch. Supp. 452-454)
But so far there’s no city welcoming the now-refugees of Antioch. Even though people want more than anything to return to their own city, if not to the same houses, but to the city itself, destroyed so many times and just as many rebuilt, encapsulated in the slogan “Geri Döneceğiz” (we will be back) scribbled on many buildings in the region.
I myself thought of spray painting it on the ruins of our small house in the village of Çevlik, which completely collapsed, after I saw it on February 11th, on my way to the earthquake region. My heart sank for the first time. I spent a few minutes wandering about, unable to cry, calling out loud the nickname of our kitty friend, “Çevlik mama”, the most ferocious and loyal feral cat, who visited our doorstep every morning. We still haven’t found her, but we will continue searching for her, with the hope that somehow she has survived. But this is only a small metaphor for the unspeakable destruction (and hope).
The Istanbul gathering was organized by the platform Nehna, founded only over a year ago, with the mission to publish materials related to the history of Antiochian Christians but that overnight turned into a self-organizing and activism front after the earthquake, as well as a media face for Antioch, in particular the charismatic Anna Maria Beylunioğlu, an academic based in Istanbul, and the Stanford history PhD candidate Emre Can Dağlioğlu.
But they’re not the entirety of the team; Ketrin Köpru was present at the memorial in Istanbul even though she’s more often in Samandağ coordinating resources, as well as Mișel Uyar in Iskenderun, and others such as Can Terbiyeli and Ferit Tekbaș. And there’re so many other people involved in the relief efforts for Antioch I couldn’t possibly list them all or what they do. Sometimes I feel as if the memorial was also a celebration of the life of those courageous people who against all odds have continued working for this beleaguered region.
A young psychologist, Barıș Yapar, himself an earthquake refugee, spoke at the gathering about the reactions to life-changing natural disasters that go through different phases–heroism, honeymoon, disillusionment and restoration. But he hastened to add that in a situation such as this when relief is not stable, people can’t create a sustainable way to cope with their trauma and instead, go through all the different phases at the same time.
Laki Vingas, a prominent lay leader of the Greek community in Istanbul was also present there, offering not only words of support for the Antiochian community but also the preparedness of Istanbul’s Greek establishment to support them in the reconstruction. Although differing in language and some traditions, the small community of Antiochians and Greeks shares the same faith and fate, and belongs to the same ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Turkey due to political geography.
A striking testimony was that of Ibrahim Usta, a rather known face in the Old City of Antakya, for being one of the city’s most famous humuscu, a traditional humus maker, of which there are so few left. If you had been to his place, near the Bade winehouse and both the Greek Orthodox and Protestant churches (all of them now in ruins), you would taste this humble paste made of chickpeas or beans, and taste the whole of Antakya–it was more than just food, it was an ancient foam made out of silk. He spoke vividly about the earthquake day, the fear, the destruction, but more than anything, the loneliness, the abandonment that hovered over Antioch like a thick fog.
The slika on the table was plain and only slightly sugared, fit for such an occasion, where mourning has not even begun, let alone ended. Perhaps one day they will serve a lavish koliva adorned with almonds, pomegranates, walnuts and raisins, as the Byzantines did, and richly covered in fine powdered sugar, once Antioch has risen again and the mourning has been concluded.
Thinking about food and the history of slika/koliva, makes me reflect on the long journey of Antioch and its people into the ancient past of Cilicia and the Eastern Mediterranean. Anna Maria Beylunioğlu, herself a researcher on the histories of minority cuisines in the region, writes that there are different versions on the origin of slika (also called hadig by Armenians and danik by Kurds): “It is a tradition carried from Central Asia, based on shamanic beliefs. It is said that it became widespread in Anatolia in the 3rd or 4th century.”
Beylunioğlu also notes that the recipe was known to the 12th Byzantine poet Ptochoprodromos, whose recipe is quoted above. But recipes vary greatly from place to place, even within the Antakya-Iskenderun-Mersin Arabic-speaking Orthodox continuum. She relates a funny tale about how Mersin’s Christians describe Samandağ’s slika as “the work of the poor”, and Mersin’s nut-rich slika fillings are likened by Antiochians to a “cookie”.
But I think the story goes much further back: Κόλλυβα is the plural form of the rarely used singular κόλλυβο, derived from the Classical Greek κόλλυβος, a small coin or gold weight. In the Hellenistic world, with Antioch as its capital, the neuter plural form took the meaning of small pies made of boiled wheat. This is from where the ritual sense of koliva derives.
It also overlaps with an even older past: For the Ancient Greeks, the beginning of spring was the Athenian festival of Anthesteria, held for three days in the month of Anthesterion (February-March), as a rite of passage from winter to spring, from death to life. During the third day of the festival, Greeks prepared panspermia, a multigrain soup based on boiled wheat, offered to Hermes Chthonius and the dead. The god is associated with the underworld, and a psychopomp who helps guide the souls of the deceased into the afterlife, just like Antioch’s famous Charonion. I guess this is the first predecessor of koliva, which evolved into its current form around the 4th century.
Theodore Balsamon, a 12th century Eastern Orthodox patriarch of Antioch, maintains that the practice of koliva as a ritual food originated with Athanasius the Great, the 20th pope of Alexandria, during the reign of Julian the Apostate, in the 4th century; he is known for the destruction of a Christian shrine in the site of the former temple of Apollo in Harbiye, which is today still used for divination practices by Arab Alawites.
This unbreakable thread connecting present-day Antioch to its many pasts is one of the reasons for the incessant mourning of its people, for whom this past is buried deep inside themselves, even if the destructions of Antioch have erased a lot of the archaeological evidence of its many lives. The preparation of slika, with the long cooking hours of the blessed wheat, and the nine basic ingredients, representing the nine ranks of angels looking over human affairs, symbolizes this deep past.
But slika is not only a tradition among Orthodox Christians; it is also used by Arab Alawites and other communities, to mark not only death but also birth, the toothing of children, or the life of saints. The social dimension of food contains our history as a whole, an idea I’m borrowing from Beylunioğlu. Alongside the slika, the informal memorial gathering in Istanbul–one without prayers, was punctuated by the smell of frankincense. The smell could immediately transport one not only to churches in Mersin, Samandağ or Beirut, but to more familiar spaces, such as a Levantine grandmother’s house, where incense was burnt in a censer, religiously every Sunday after mass. The burning, pungent smell that terrified everyone during childhood, felt now so warm, so inviting; an embassy from a lost world.
Botanist Yelda Güzel writes that most of the frankincense used in recent years comes from the resin of the Boswellia and Commiphora trees of Yemeni origin, and resin from logwood. She tells us however that the oldest frankincense is without a doubt the one present in the local flora of Antioch: Mahaleb bark, rosary tree, Antiochian sage, and zahter.
In the afternoon of March 18th, marking the 40 days, Antiochians in Istanbul were not the only ones burning frankincense. Women of Samandağ took to the streets in large numbers, in a procession of public mourning for their dead, their destroyed city and their interrupted life–indeed an unprecedented event, holding the traditional Reyhan and frankincense that mark births, children’s first baths, weddings and funerals, and chanting aloud in Arabic, “Ma rohna, nehna hon” (we haven’t died, we’re still here). Although the event went poorly noticed, it was a rare moment of acting in concert, visceral, sad, grievous, but also full of power and resistance to this new reality.
The Reyhan also has an ancient history of its own: Although it is often called basil or sweet basil, it has nothing to do with Ocimum basillicum. Reyhan is actually the ancient myrtle, a plant sacred to the goddess Aphrodite as a symbol of love, and wreaths made from laurel, ivy and myrtle were awarded to athletes and soldiers; Hellenistic myrtle wreaths made of gold have been found in graves. There are countless mentions of the plant in classical literature, from Homer and Plato to Euripides and Aristophanes, from Polybius and Strabo to Hippocrates and Arataeus.
Once again, it is Arab Alawites in particular who have kept these traditions alive, after they were long forgotten in the region. The mournful chants of Samandağ resembled the defiant final speech of Antigone to the chorus that decreed her death, amidst great injustice, in a city forbidding to honor the dead with a burial. The abandonment of Samandağ to its own fate, without regard for the living or the unburied dead, after many years of purposeful oblivion and neglect:
οἴμοι γελῶμαι. τί με, πρὸς θεῶν πατρῴων.
οὐκ οἰχομέναν ὑβρίζεις, ἀλλ᾽ ἐπίφαντον;
ὦ πόλις, ὦ πόλεως πολυκτήμονες ἄνδρες:
ἰὼ Διρκαῖαι κρῆναι
Θήβας τ᾽ εὐαρμάτου ἄλσος, ἔμπας ξυμμάρτυρας ὔμμ᾽ ἐπικτῶμαι,
οἵα φίλων ἄκλαυτος, οἵοις νόμοις
πρὸς ἕργμα τυμβόχωστον ἔρχομαι τάφου ποταινίου:
ἰὼ δύστανος, βροτοῖς οὔτε νεκροῖς κυροῦσα
μέτοικος οὐ ζῶσιν, οὐ θανοῦσιν.
Ah, you mock me! In the name of our father’s gods, why do you not wait to abuse me until after I have gone, and not to my face, O my city, and you, her wealthy citizens? Ah, spring of Dirce, and you holy ground of Thebes whose chariots are many, you, at least, will bear me witness how unwept by loved ones, and by what laws I go to the rock-closed prison of my unheard-of tomb! Ah, misery! I have no home among men or with the shades, no home with the living or with the dead. (Soph. Ant. 839-850)
It’s quite an interesting plot twist that Antigone, the niece of king Creon, who in turn sentenced her to death over her disobedience of the law, claims the political subject of the stranger, by calling herself μέτοικος, technically a resident alien. According to Andrés Hénao, Antigone distinguishes here political membership from citizenship and challenges the inequality of her position, albeit by tragic means. In this sense, according to Hénao and his theatrical experiment with Palestinian women in Jenin, she performs a counter-politics in which she, as a member of a royal household, identifies with the defeated, which in our world today could identify with refugees, immigrants and undocumented people.
It seems to me an apt metaphor for the women of Samandağ, who not only have been treated as foreigners in their own land–dark humor about Antiochians being foreigners is a daily bread in the community, but who have also become strangers in an expanded sense: “The stranger, having lost his home and political status, is the equivalent to the loss of a juridical-political space of recognition and cannot find another one.”
This stranger is already outside the place called home, but yet there’s no place outside of it. Every place where the stranger arrives, is already somebody else’s home, and the paradox is that one cannot belong to a world he inhabits, with a right at least as equal as others to do so, because belonging to that world is only guaranteed by already belonging to a previously established political community, secured by a home and citizenship. The crisis of homelessness exemplified by these women, and embodied in the millions of displaced persons from the earthquake region is in fact not just a problem of aid policy or bureaucratic administration, but a political question of the first order. A people without a home, paradoxically, cannot be visible in the public realm.
In the tradition, the boiled wheat of slika represents both the earth and the body of the deceased, as a symbol of hope and resurrection. So there’s in fact a kind of return. According to St. John, a grain of wheat must first fall to the ground and die before it can return to bear life. This innocent metaphor, transcending across the different cultures coexisting in this geography, has survived into our own time because the tradition shaped the ritual aspect of wheat, as much as wheat, a basic staple in the Mediterranean basin, shaped the traditions of the place.
But wheat is not only about the hope of resurrection: How is the wheat that fell to the ground going to rise into life if there are no earthly homes to harvest it? We need Antioch to rise for an eighth time, after its seven destructions and reconstructions, as As Mișel Orduluoğlu has written for Nehna, in a moving tribute in honor of the 40 days:
“Antakya, this city which was destroyed seven times and rebuilt seven times. The Queen of the East, who had covered her head with a black scarf seven times, and the seven times she got up and lowered her scarf around her neck, and put back her magnificent crown: Once a woman of this land has taken it off her head, it is as if to signal that it is her duty to keep the memory of those who are no longer here by wearing it again. The mosaics were scattered seven times, the stones as well, but they were seven times re-arranged, while preserving the place of the lost stones. […] Now for the eighth time, Antakya has fallen, and this city has draped her black scarf on her head for the eighth time, the Queen of the East, for the eighth time the stones of the mosaic were scattered […]. Now we will put the queen’s crown on her head again, but this time more magnificently, we will arrange the stones of the mosaic again, but this time it will be stronger and the voice of the brothers will rise again, this time louder.”
A fragment of the mosaic of Briseis’ Farewell, excavated in 1935 under a house in Antakya and on display at the Hatay Archaeological Museum (it was surprisingly missing the last time we visited last summer), can tell you the story of Antioch. Only two figures are left from the panel: Patroclus holding Briseis’ hand. Her story in the Iliad sets the mood of the Trojan War and the events of the Odyssey. A legend says that after the death of Achilles, Briseis sank into great grief as she began preparing him for the afterlife.
But this is not the farewell depicted in the Antakya mosaic. It is actually about the speech she gave after the death of Patroclus who was always protecting her. Though she was herself enslaved, and Achilles never actually married her, she remained by his side, and the always gentle Patroclus, comforted her, even though it was something below his status as a hero. Briseis, in the farewell song of the mosaic, is depicted as golden like Aphrodite herself. Briseis is Antakya and Patroclus the countless dead Antiochians lost under the rubble.
Πάτροκλέ μοι δειλῇ πλεῖστον κεχαρισμένε θυμῷ
ζωὸν μέν σε ἔλειπον ἐγὼ κλισίηθεν ἰοῦσα,
νῦν δέ σε τεθνηῶτα κιχάνομαι ὄρχαμε λαῶν
ἂψ ἀνιοῦσ᾽: ὥς μοι δέχεται κακὸν ἐκ κακοῦ αἰεί.
τώ σ᾽ ἄμοτον κλαίω τεθνηότα μείλιχον αἰεί.
So now I weep for you, dead and gentle forever. (Hom. Il. 19.300)
At the end of the memorial gathering, the last pot of the bitter Antiochian coffee was poured, and the plastic cups with the remaining slika were removed from the table as people took their leave in small groups, and then it was just the intoxicating noises and sights of Istanbul again, a city apparently immortal, where life continues no matter what. This indifference is key to its survival. The conversations about Antioch continued into the night, often mixing fantasy and reality; the desire to build a new home in place of the old, and what this home would look like, the shelves, the windows, the gardens, contrasted with the deteriorating sanitary conditions, the political volatility of the country, the uncertain food security, the fear of permanent displacement, and above all, the boundless cruelty that envelops everything. I keep thinking about the symbolism of the fine powdered sugar on the outer layer of the koliva: An uplifting sweet welcome into paradise. If only…
But something that the botanist Güzel said still gives me hope: “The ancient traditions of our destroyed city have survived for centuries. If they have managed to reach our own time in spite of all the destruction of the city in history, we are also trying to rebuild them and get them back on their feet. It means we have hope, our myrtle and our incense are still in our mountains after all…”
In my mind, whenever I see the images of the women of Samandağ with their myrtle branches and incense censers, chanting that they’re still alive, I see not only the enormous grief, but also the promise of a very blessed, very ancient land, and the light blue waters surrounding Kara Magara, in the southernmost tip of Antioch, just a few hundred meters from the Syrian border–deep, pristine, translucent. All of that will still be there somehow, glowing under the scorching sun, forever.
In times like this I remember the words of an Orthodox monk and poet, Silouan the Athonite from Mt. Athos: “Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.”
Arie Amaya-Akkermans is a writer and art critic based in Izmir. He’s also tweeting about classics, archaeology, heritage, contemporary art and Turkey/Greece. Follow Arie on twitter (@byzantinologue) for updates and new articles as they come out.