With a black brush, in clumsy handwriting, the old priest drew a warning on the cracked walls of his shack: "12 children were born here! Do not touch this house".
Vahit Baklaci, 82, returns every day to his birthplace in the heart of old Antakya, upside down since the February 6 earthquake that devastated southern Turkey and Syria, killing at least 55.000 people.
But ancient Antioch, a stone's throw from Syria, is not just any locality, insists the old prelate.
"Antakya has existed for thousands of years. Look: two mosques dating back to the beginnings of Islam, both destroyed. And there, two 2.000-year-old churches from the time of Jesus... also destroyed: that's why you have to be careful about these places."
Prior to the disaster, Turkey's Culture Ministry had listed 719 buildings. When the diggers went into action, first to find the bodies, then to clear the rubble, he had notices posted to protect those who were still standing: "Do not touch without authorization".
A representative of the ministry, standing in the dust in a fluorescent vest and construction helmet, ensures compliance with the instructions: "If it's too damaged, nothing can be done, but when possible, we demolish stone by stone", she says on condition of anonymity.
Six teams like his patrol the old town. "We had about fifty at the start," she says.
The saved stones are stored on a reserved site north of Antakya, sorted, classified and numbered for future restoration.
Talking about the future in this city in ruins, where you walk on collapsed tiled roofs, step over steeples, walk around flattened minarets and cross stairs that go up to the sky is a challenge.
Overwhelmed, Gokhan Ergin picks up one of the orange tiles that litter the floor. Made in Marseille, in the south of France, they were imported in large quantities by the Ottomans and then by the French, from the time of the mandate to the beginning of the XNUMXth century.
"We are on the first places of habitation in the city. These beautiful houses housed charming hotels and restaurants", indicates this architect who has restored many of them and knows their mysteries, from the doors painted blue to deter scorpions to the immortals carved above the entrance arches.
"It's like when you find a work of art, you inventory it to protect it in a museum. You have to do the same thing here: these buildings are of the same importance. It's not just earth and stone", pleads the forties.
"It's living history here."
Gokhan Ergin points out the oldest buildings which withstood the successive tremors much better in February: because the planks and wood inserted between the earthen brick structures, for elasticity, made it possible to withstand the shock, he explains.
Those that have been damaged have often been victims of the collapse of their neighbours, which have been poorly restored, he says. His, he shows with pride, still have their windows and glazing almost intact.
Crossing Kurtulus Avenue, the main artery of Antakya, formerly Herod Street where the synagogue and the oldest mosque in the region are located, Habib-i Nejjar, built on an old pagan temple transformed into a church in the time of the first Christians, a team from the Istanbul Technical University is carrying out its own surveys.
For Umut Almaç, professor of architecture in the restoration department, at least eight hundred additional buildings would have deserved to be protected. "It's the problem of the region, there are so many buildings that should be registered," he says.
In front of a former luxury hotel, with walls of vulgar collapsed breeze blocks, the expert also rails against "plastic restorations" practiced ten or twenty years ago to seduce tourists. "We focused on the facade, without respecting the interior structures of the buildings".
On February 6, tens of thousands of buildings thus tumbled in a few tens of seconds in the south of Turkey.
Umut Almaç now wants the reconstruction to move faster, when others, like Gokhan Ergin and the old priest Vahit, denounce the brutality of the diggers in the old city.
"But I don't think we can move the blocks of stone otherwise," notes the academic.
The Editorial Board (with AFP)