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In Turkey, a historic city for three religions is in ruins after the earthquake

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Turkish city of Antakya, known in ancient times as Antioch, has been at the crossroads of civilizations for centuries and a modern destination for tourism. But it was devastated by this month's earthquake. NPR's Daniel Estrin went to see what's left of the town, finding devastation, but also perseverance. And this caution, his report contains some disturbing descriptions.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: We begin by walking down the main street of Antakya's historical center to learn about its distant past.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE PASSING)

ESTRIN: Our tour guide says this road used to be an ancient Roman road from 2,000 years ago. He says it was the first lit road in the world, where there were candles on columns. And now it's a complete disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF SIREN)

ESTRIN: There are eight trucks going through the road. We have rubble and stones everywhere. There are soldiers here.

YUSUF KOCAOGLU: On the left, you will see the synagogue of Jews, Jewish people.

ESTRIN: Our guide, Yusuf Kocaoglu, loved to show tourists around his ancient city, but after the earthquake, he's living in a tent. We've hired him to give us the tour he never wanted to give - touring a city of ghosts.

KOCAOGLU: This is the first place in Antakya where Jewish people immigrated. And this is one of the oldest praying place for them.

ESTRIN: The synagogue is still standing, but after the earthquake, its ancient Torah scroll's been taken out of the city for safekeeping. The city's Jewish community stretches back more than 2,000 years. Recently, only about a dozen remained. And after the earthquake, they all left. The Jewish community's leader, Saul Cenudioglu, was killed in the earthquake.

KOCAOGLU: He was really hospitable. He likes helping people. He used to like helping people.

ESTRIN: So if we were here before the earthquake and we would knock on the doors...

KOCAOGLU: Yeah, he would open it.

ESTRIN: ...Of the synagogue, he would be the one here.

KOCAOGLU: Yeah, he would. Yeah. Let's go to the city center now and take a walk there, too.

ESTRIN: We reached the facade of the historic Orthodox Church, now a heap of wires and stones.

KOCAOGLU: This was one of the most important church in Christian history.

ESTRIN: Ancient Antioch was the third-biggest city in the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. Tradition says the apostle Peter brought Christianity to the city in 47 AD. The New Testament says Christians were first called Christian here.

Hi. Nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

KOCAOGLU: Nice to meet you, sir.

ESTRIN: A Protestant church has also collapsed. We meet Korean pastor Yakup Chang where, he just held Sunday worship services outside the ruins. One of his congregants is still missing after the earthquake.

YAKUP CHANG: It's very hard. They lean on God. But in this situation, how can I say? Can I say pray to God or help us or just be together, be with them and comfort them? Can I do something more? Just we lean on each other, stick together. This is what I should do.

ESTRIN: It's beautiful.

CHANG: Yeah.

ESTRIN: Thank you for talking to us.

CHANG: You're welcome. Thank you for listening to me.

KOCAOGLU: So let's go another point with you.

ESTRIN: We visit a historic mosque with a long history - Habib Al-Najjar.

KOCAOGLU: This is the main entrance of the mosque. The minaret used to be here, but it's now collapsed. There used to be a dome here. As far as I see, it's also collapsed.

ESTRIN: Like all the old religious sites damaged, it's draped in a black sign warning people not to enter.

KOCAOGLU: Let's put in a safe place, in fact, that same place right here.

ESTRIN: According to tradition, the mosque is named after an early convert to Christianity.

KOCAOGLU: Habib Al-Najjar used to be a man from the Roman period. When Petrus and his...

ESTRIN: Peter.

KOCAOGLU: When Peter came here with his friends, he met them.

ESTRIN: Our guide is Alawite Muslim - part of the city's kaleidoscope of religions, ethnicities and languages that makes Antakya unique. Or at least it was that way before the earthquake. Now not a soul lives in the central part of the city anymore. Bodies are still rotting under the debris. All the survivors have escaped.

(SOUNDBITE OF RUBBLE CRUNCHING UNDERFOOT)

ESTRIN: We arrive at a heap of rubble that used to be one of our guide's favorite streets, filled with shops and bars.

KOCAOGLU: The street was lovely, crowded and lots of flowers on your right and left.

ESTRIN: He turns away. This is the first time that you...

KOCAOGLU: Yeah.

ESTRIN: ...Cried on our tour. What about that made you emotional?

KOCAOGLU: I had lots of good memories here. That's why it - I'm sorry. Just I didn't want to look and see them in - as destroyed. This is the heart of Antakya. We had lots of memories here with my friends, with my guests from different countries. I remembered them. That's why.

ESTRIN: We hike hills of wreckage and find one of his haunts, the Pasha Restaurant, sliced down the middle.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLASS BOTTLES CLINKING)

ESTRIN: The owner, Orhan Uyanik, is salvaging beer from the ruins and gives our guide a bottle.

ORHAN UYANIK: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: He says, "a couple got engaged here recently."

UYANIK: (Non-English language spoken).

ESTRIN: "I don't even know if they survived the earthquake."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CIVILIZATIONS CHOIR OF ANTAKYA: (Singing in non-English language).

ESTRIN: Then he plays us a video on his phone. It's a recent performance of Antakya's beloved Choir of Civilizations (ph), singers of different faiths and ethnicities.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CIVILIZATIONS CHOIR OF ANTAKYA: (Singing in non-English language).

ESTRIN: Who knows how many of them survived the quake?

KOCAOGLU: Even if people say Antakya is over; Antakya is collapsed totally, I don't think so.

ESTRIN: Despite the sadness, our guide Yusuf Kocaoglu, and every person we meet along the way, vows that they will rebuild the city's historic sites, which have fallen and were rebuilt after earthquakes in the past. This place of many names - Antakya, Antioch, Hatay - has resurrected itself over and over throughout the centuries.

KOCAOGLU: Hatay was ruined by the earthquakes six or seven times. Maybe this is the eighth. It doesn't matter. We are here. We will try to do something for our city again and again. Maybe it will take a long time. It doesn't matter for us.

ESTRIN: That history offers him some comfort, despite the cataclysmic loss all around us.

Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Antakya, Turkey.

SIMON: That story was produced by NPR's Samantha Balaban. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.