Jews Spent Centuries in Antakya, Turkey. Now, There's Only 17 Left.

Saul Cenudioglu remembers when his synagogue was full and when Muslims and Christians of this diverse Turkish city joined with Jews to celebrate marriages and births.

“I’m afraid in 15 or 20 years, people in Antakya might be saying, ‘Did you know there used to be Jews in this city?’” Cenudioglu said.

Antakya sits just 20 miles from the border with Syria, nestled in the fertile and lush mountainous region of Turkey’s southern Hatay province. The city of more than 200,000 has always been known across Turkey for its natural beauty and for its fresh fruit.

In recent years, though, with war on its doorstep and an influx of 30,000 Syrian refugees, the province has taken on a reputation as a hub for war-hardened fighters and an important lifeline for the Free Syrian Army. It has also become a popular crossing point for foreign jihadis seeking battle in Syria.

I visited Antakya in late September to find out whether spillover from the war has affected the fading, 2,300-year-old Jewish community and whether Cenudioglu, who has led the community for the past 13 years, fears for the community’s safety. The day I arrived, the U.S.-led coalition began airstrikes against the militant Sunni group Islamic State, whose forces advanced closer to the Turkish border.

But it is not the war that has driven away Antakya’s Jews. The exodus started back in the 1970s, when a wave of domestic political violence swept across Turkey, creating an intolerable environment for the country’s minorities.

Thousands of Jews across Turkey fled to the country’s economic and cultural center, Istanbul, or overseas to find a better life. Antakya’s Jewish community never quite recovered.

Forty years ago there were several hundred Jews in Antakya. Today there are just 17 left. The youngest is about 60.

I met Cenudioglu, a 75-year-old with a snowy head of hair, at the entrance to the city’s only synagogue. A Star of David is inscribed on the facade of the modest structure, which blends comfortably in the neighborhood it has sat in for the past 250 years, just across the street from a mosque and a Catholic church.

The door opens to an empty, small cobblestone courtyard with a few sparse trees and a plain stone building where the men gather to pray each week. An elderly Muslim neighbor, with a scruffy, gray-trimmed beard and a white skullcap, stepped in to offer us Turkish tea. “In Antakya, hospitality is very common,” Cenudioglu said through a translator. “Everyone here is supporting us.”

As the Jewish community has dwindled, Jews have become something of a novelty in this area, protected and supported by neighbors and by the local government.

Earlier this year, Antakya’s mayor, Lutfu Savas, granted Cenudioglu’s request for two unused apartments to be used as guesthouses, free of charge, for visitors on the Sabbath.

“We don’t get any support from America, Europe, Israel or even Istanbul,” Cenudioglu said. “But the local government has an interest in minorities, so they help us when we need it.”

Cenudioglu made a point of calling the mayor’s personal cell phone in the middle of our discussion to thank him for his generosity.

Elected officials are not the only Turks who help the Jewish community. After the two guesthouses were renovated, Cenudioglu called the remodeling company and learned that the priest of the church across the street had already paid the bill. According to Cenudioglu, the two meet for coffee regularly, along with a local Imam.

Jews have been an important part of the fabric of Antakya since pre-Christian times, when the city was known as Antioch. The city was also a hub for early converts to Judaism and for Christian proselytizers. As depicted in the Christian New Testament, the Jewish-born Apostles Paul and Peter were among the early Christian leaders to visit the community — a mixed assemblage of Jews and pagans whose members were the first to identify themselves as Christians, a new faith, wholly separate from Judaism.

Strong relations between Jews and their neighbors go back for as long as Cenudioglu can remember, to a time when Jews played an important role in the local economy, selling fabrics and clothing. Jews studied in Turkish schools, sold their goods in Turkish markets and shared in festivities with their Muslim and Christian neighbors.

At times, the Jews’ preferred trade as merchants brought them into conflict with merchants in neighboring towns in the Hatay province who viewed the Jewish community as economic competition. In some cases, towns held their bazaars on only Fridays and Saturdays, knowing that Jews would not be able to sell their goods on those days.

Cenudioglu stressed, though, that the tensions were never anti-Semitic — it was simply business.

Cultural, ethnic and religious diversity is part of the fabric of this region.

Hatay, a panhandle wedged between Syria and the Mediterranean, is hailed across Turkey for its multiculturalism and tolerance. The province was part of Syria until Turkey officially annexed it through a referendum in 1939, and its population remains a microcosm of Syria — a mosaic of Christians, Jews, Sunnis, Alawites and Alevis.

The province is an anomaly of sorts in a country that is three-quarters Sunni Muslim and more than 99% Muslim.

Much of the population — including Antakya’s Jews — is fluent in Arabic, and the city has a reputation for being a bit more Syrian than it is Turkish.

Shops selling kunefe, a sweet and cheesy pastry most popular across the Arab world, sit on just about every street corner. Until war broke out in Syria, Aleppo was just a three-hour bus ride away and a more popular vacation destination than Istanbul.

The Jewish community of Antakya retained close relations with Jews in Aleppo, with whom they shared cultural and ethnic ties until that community shrank following the establishment of Israel.

Today, Antakya’s diversity has become a double-edged sword.

The city’s Alawites largely support their co-religionist, the Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, for what they perceive as his protection of minorities. The Turkish government and public broadly back the Syrian opposition.

In 2012, as Alawites began staging protests against military intervention in Syria, it seemed as though the region was on the brink of a full-fledged sectarian conflict. In May of that year, in a town about an hour outside Antakya, more than 50 people were killed in twin explosions spaced 15 minutes apart.

The attack was initially believed to be the work of pro-Assad forces operating out of Southern Turkey. It marked the first case of Syria-related violence carried out on Turkish soil, adding to the growing sectarian tension in the area.

Since then, community leaders have worked to quell tensions, and it seems as though they have been successful. Most people in Antakya I spoke to believe that the worst is behind them.

But according to some, political tensions have turned the city into an unfriendly place for its minorities. “People are afraid because no one knows what tomorrow will bring,” Tamer Yazar, a local journalist, wrote in an email to the Forward.

In the tense environment, anti-Semitism has reared its head.

Last year, “The Statue of Tolerance” was erected in one of the city’s main squares, with two hands raised toward the sky. In one hand was a globe; in the other was a crescent, a cross and a Star of David.

The statue was meant to celebrate diversity. But according to the Guardian newspaper, vandals repeatedly defaced the Star of David. The religious symbols were promptly removed and replaced with an olive branch.

Yazar attributed anti-Semitic sentiment to the tense political environment and to widespread opposition to Israel.

Asked whether the community has ever been attacked or the synagogue vandalized, Cenudioglu said: “No, no, no. Antakya’s a peaceful place. They talk about this in the media, but I haven’t seen it here.”

Cenudioglu spoke of the conflict in Syria as though it were a world away, even as it inches closer and closer to the Hatay border.

We met on a Friday, and he was far more concerned with the immediate task of finding a minyan — the 10 men needed for a quorum for prayer in traditional Judaism — for the following day than he was about the war.

Throughout our discussion, Cenudioglu periodically pulled out his old, gray Nokia phone to see who planned to attend the next day’s Sabbath services.

With only eight Jewish men left in Antakya, Cenudioglu has to coordinate with Jews in Istanbul to bring together a minyan. Rabbi Mardo Razon often flies in from Istanbul to lead services.

Cenudioglu looked to me, counting on his fingers how many Jews were planning to show up, and asked whether I would be willing to join Saturday’s service.

I agreed.

The following day, 10 men, myself included, and one elderly woman sat scattered across the wooden benches that line the perimeter of the synagogue’s sanctuary. The floor is made of marble, and a rich blue curtain with golden inscriptions covers the ark.

The rabbi stood at the podium at the center of the room, hastily reading prayers from a tattered prayer book. Some of the men talked on their phones; others followed along, holding Hebrew prayer books, or stared off.

Then, when one of the seven worn Torah scrolls was carried from the ark, the room sparked to life. Everyone rushed to gather around the Torah bearer, eager to touch the 500-year-old blue-caped scroll.

I wondered what the scene would have looked like when the Torah was paraded around the synagogue back when the men now gathered around me were children.

Though Cenudioglu assured me that the war was not affecting Jewish life in Antakya, he was not upbeat about the future.

The previous day, Cenudioglu had told me: “Our lives haven’t really changed much since the war began… people go to Istanbul to find spouses; there’s not much for the youth here anymore.”

His own son moved away decades ago to Istanbul. Both of his daughters have immigrated to Israel.

“What can we do? It’s their life, and they can choose how to live it,” Cenudioglu said.

Contact Michael Kaplan at feedback@forward.com

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