Antakya Narrating its Own History

12 November 2016 Saturday, 11:28

Oral Historical Study – Annexation of Sanjak of İskenderun (Alexandretta)

Report -1

The annexation of the Sanjak of İskenderun by Turkey is one of the relatively less studied topics in social sciences literature (for two valuable studies on the issue, see: Ada 2005; Duman 2015). Especially the lack of historical – anthropological studies has caused difficulty in understanding the ways communities living in these areas experienced the 1939 era. As the Research Institute for the Middleastern Arab Peoples, we probed into the relationships of peoples of the Sanjak of Alexandretta, to Turkish land, to the state and with each other, and their lifestyles during the time of  the French mandate. As part of oral historical interviews that lasted approximately six months, we conducted interviews with different ethnic and religious groups in many districts of today’s “Hatay” province. This study aims both to get information from ‘inside’ about the annexation of the Sanjak of İskenderun; and to draw attention to the emigration and converting identities as a result of the annexation policies.

As well as bringing along its own deterioration, official history is written by those in power most of the time. As Trouillot (2015) stated in his book “Silencing the Past”, narratives do not fully indicate rights or wrongs; but each one does break the silence. Also as Sıtkiye Matkap emphasized [1], official history presents a picture of how heroic stories took place in not “invaded” but “conquered” lands by those in power and soldiers whose names are not well known. National history, which is also the source for our perception of history, is a field where past events are legitimated with a “scientific” blanket as much as writers would like to transmit. For these reasons, while 1939 has not been forgotten and living witnesses exist, we as a research institute pursued how – upon a historical platform – local and regional dynamics could be passed on via verbal history.



Figure 1 – Atatürk Memorial – Antakya/Centrum (Photo: Şule Can)

The process of Antakya’s (Hatay) annexation to Turkey in 1939 is a historical period bound to be forgotten today. Though limited, it is possible to find a diplomatic and bureaucratic narrative of the annexation period in written sources and official historical documents. However, as well as having been presented problematically, these historical narratives have not taken oral history into account.

We will publish this study under specified headings in a series of three reports on our website, and later on have a printed booklet available for all readers interested in the topic. This being the first one, there are two more reports being prepared, planned to be completed in the year 2016. Main topics of the reports are as follows:

  • The French Period and how the French Mandate is Remembered
  • Turkification Policies and the Local Faces of the “Annexation”
  • Post – 1939: Folkloric Nostalgia in Societal Memory


Research Questions and Methods Used in the Study:

This verbal history study has been conducted following anthropological methods. Starting as an educational study, this project was carried out by masters and doctorate students, independent researchers, and volunteers from non-profit organizations. The aim was to interview equal numbers of people from different ethnic and religious backgrounds; however, Alawite Arab interviewees are the majority because they make up the largest group among Arab communities in Hatay. This report was prepared using ethnographic interviews and related sources mainly in Defne, Antakya, Altınözü, Samandağ, their villages and surrounding areas. Structured and semi-structured interviews, focus groups, secondary resources and visuals have been the main methods used in this study. The interviews were recorded in order to be transcribed and analyzed and potentially qualify as archival materials (only if allowed). Here are some examples of the interview questions asked:

  • Where were you born and raised?
  • How many siblings did you have, how was your family life? How did you use to make a living?
  • Which communities used to live here in the 1930s and 1940s? How long have you been living here?
  • (If he/she remembers the French period) What was life like during the French period? Did you have rights?
  • Did an election take place during the referendum time? How did it happen? Did you or your family vote?
  • How did life change after Turkey annexed the Sanjak of İskenderun? How were the relationships with Turks?
  • What kind of difficulties did you face most as of 1939?
  • Did an active conflict or persecution take place here? How and among whom?
  • Was there anyone willing to remain part of Syria? Who were they and did they oppose the annexation?
  • Did any Arab Christians, Turks or Armenians live around you? How was your relationship with them?
  • Did an emigration take place after joining Turkey? Who migrated to Syria and Lebanon and why?

Without a doubt we faced many problems while conducting this study. Because people who remember the 1919 – 1920 French mandate period are generally over 80 years old, we struggled both in finding these people and in explaining the research. A team of ten people made serious efforts to find those who remember the period and willing to talk. In cases where the interviewee did not wish to be recorded, we took detailed notes.


1 – The Sanjak of İskenderun during the French Period and how the French Mandate is Remembered

Due the weakening of the Ottoman forces and the problems appearing in the manorial (timar) system, the main issues in Antakya in the beginning of the 20th century were unjust treatment of the labourers working on lands owned by aghas (namely social class issues) and the appearance of gangs and paramilitary groups. The gang period, which included various Arab, Turkish and Armenian families and land masters, coincides with the period when the national consciousness began to rise. Therefore,  ethno-religious and power conflicts were seen at the local level just before the French occupation. The French mandate period is remembered as relatively comfortable, because the effects of gangs were weakening and people were freed from oppression. Although the effects of the colonialist policies and the divide-and-rule system are continuing till today, during the 1919 – 1938 period, genocides and ethno-religious violence declined, especially for non-Muslims and Alawite Arabs. At the same time, this is a period when Turkey accelerated its nationalization policies, where different “nationalisms” competed and arose.

In the first part of this study, the primary focus was on questions about social and political context, ethnic and religious balances and relations in the French period in Samandağ, Altınözü, Defne and Antakya. France’s occupation of Syria was positioned differently while the frame of the colony – what we generally call ‘the global south’ – was being worked upon. The colonial violence here has been mostly ignored in social science literature, while the main focus has been on the policies of the mandate regime. However, one of the first issues that came into light is the violence faced by groups who rebelled against the French mandate. This concept known as “colonial violence” in literature in fact gives a substantial idea about how France historically legitimated its rulership in places it colonized.



Taken from 

Aunt Emine, a 107-year-old Arabic Sunni woman from Altınözü, tells us the French Period this way:

“After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the French start to come here. Most of the French soldiers are black people who come from Algeria. We have never seen such people. People said that the French stayed 12 years in Algeria and one of them would come and dominate us. “Nısrani.” We were very frightened. Nısrani will dominate and rule us. The French came on their horses and we gave them water then they left. When the French came, they took census and recorded everything. Then, Hatay became a place dependent on Aleppo. They recorded everyone, Arabic and Turkish. We were scared and were thinking if we should leave or stay, but they said they would not touch us. Soon after, the gangs started to form.  As soon as the gangs started to conflict with the French, the French started to respond. They took the people in our village to the square called “beydar”. The French did this in order to find the wives of the gangs. We left the doors of our homes open and they checked inside of our homes. Our clothes and wheat were scattered everywhere. To whom could we complain? We couldn’t. We had 75 sheep, the French left 6 for us and took the rest. There were no gangs here but there were some in surrounding villages. At that time, one person from Kiskinit (Keskincik) came to our village. When the French saw weapons on the horse, they realized that he was a member of a gang and tracked him down. They caught him and shot him. And of course, we escaped from there. Then, in the time of Abu Khalid (the village headman), they shot the gangs from Çifteli village. The tortured some of them, too. We couldn’t even look out of our houses because of fear. They threw the people they killed in the drinking water well of our village.

When Turks started to come here, the French started to collect the children in exchange for gold.

-How many children do you have?


-Here, 3 golds for you monthly.

They collected 25 battalions of soldiers at that time. And Atatürk wrote a letter to the French saying “Are you going to go out of this land or do we fight you?” The French responded “we entered here without fighting and we will leave without fighting”  The French took the gold and everything that had material value. I remember when the French left: we were working on the plantation, so many planes flew over us that they casted a shadow on us for a long time.  They left in the tanks, too. They went from here to Syria. The French didn’t harm anyone here. They didn’t cause arbitrary conflicts. They didn’t harm women. They even banned smoking during the time they stayed.”

Aunt Emine refers to the French and also the Arab, Turkish and Armenian gangs, which had a great impact and power over the people. The Arab gangs, which were in conflict with the French, tortured other gangs and armed people in order to intimidate them. The nudity of colonial violence was reconstructed through the bodies thrown into the wells. On the other hand, we see that the Turkish military was “collecting” soldiers in exchange of money. Yet through another story, we see that when the French occupied Altınözü, formerly named as “Kuseyr”, they encountered resistance and resorted to violence.


Fatma (Altınözü- Arab Sunni- 84)

“Gangs started with the 1920 French mandate. Gangs in Kuseyr fought against the French. And they took and defended Turkey’s side. I was no more than 7-9 years old at that time. Antakya was a province and bound to Aleppo. There were gangs during the time of the French. There was a gang leader, too. There were members of gangs from almost all villages. Gangs were known in two forms: ·   Turks·   Homeland defender Arabs I never went to school during the French time and the schools were in the city centers. In mosques, Arabic courses were given. I learned there and I read the whole the Koran.  The French entered here without fighting the Ottoman. The French failed to enter the Kuseyr region for 7 years. The gangs were defending, they were watching the barracks from the vineyard across and they blocked the movement of the French until the French came to an agreement with two of the leaders and caught their ringleader. There were 6 people from our village in the gangs, one was a chief and the others were regular warriors. There were gangs from Kanberli and Fatikli , too. I guess they were maybe 100-150 people in total. The chieftain in our village was also very rich. One day, this man went to Antakya and other gangs took him to Harbiye telling that there was a security problem. The gang leader was thus saved. They made the French deploy around the school here. I was a child at that time, but I remember I watched how they set up 40-50 tents. Later, they eliminated the other gangs. Then some of the gangs were caught and some ran away. The chieftain in our village fled to Adana. Because he wasn’t caught, they dug a ditch around the house, poured kerosene oil and burnt it. But the French soldiers waited until the fire died down so anyone around the house would not get hurt. They cleaned the gap in order for the fire not to spread. I myself watched how they burnt the adobe house from the roof of our house. It was our neighbour and all the houses were adobe. It burnt easily.”

One of the challenges we face in the narratives are the rumours about those pro-Turkey and pro-French. That minorities and Arabs had a relatively comfortable period does not mean that they were pro-French. Arabs were sometimes both anti-Turkey and anti-French and were sometimes in the quest of a fully independent Iskenderun Sanjak. However, Turkish gangs assumed the role as supporters of Turkey after the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire. The narratives we encounter in different regions of Hatay –such as Iskenderun, Samandağ, Altınözü- vary according to social and sometimes economical contexts in terms of the reflection of the French period. Again, in the narrative that is rich with dialogue between the French soldiers and a chieftain given below, we see people and the French soldiers were in constant negotiation. Although the period under the French mandate exists in the sources on Syrian history, it is very difficult to find how this period left traces in the history of Antakya (especially in the Turkish language). Therefore, although it is a period in which the people used their own will, we can see how the power relations we know from places like French “colonies”, Algeria and Morocco exist here. In this narration, Aunt Emine’s brother-in-law is a member of a gang. He must prove to the French that he is a good ‘man’ in order not to be killed. Of course, in this narration, keeping in mind that not all colonial soldiers are the same, Aunt Emine mentions the relationship between the French and the native people this way: “They used to stand on the mountain tops of Selkin, opposite of the Kuseyr regionin Syria. The soldiers received information that the man will pick up some food. They came and arrested him. They examined him; –  Where did you take the food? Where are they hiding? –  There is no such thing. I didn’t take any food nor do I know their place. They beat him very much, but he didn’t speak. In the end, the commander gave order saying “since he doesn’t speak, kill him.” One soldier held him from his right arm, one soldier held him from the left arm in order to aim at him and shot. After looking carefully at him, the black-skinned soldier recognized him. “Where are you from?” asked the soldier.  “I am from this farm,” he answered.   –  What is your name? –  Mehmet. –  Are you related to any of the aghas? –  Agha Abdurrahim. The soldier recognized him and went to the commander. The man already was fatigued from the beat up. He couldn’t run away. When the soldier started to unbutton his clothes, the commander asked:  –  What are you doing? –  I am resigning.  –  Why did you make this decision? –  You’ll execute this man, but he has nothing to do with this and didn’t commit a crime. Even if you cut off his head, this man will not lie.  –  How do you know? –  This man testified for me in an incident and he didn’t lie. He is innocent.  –  I will set him free if you prove that.  There was an incident and this man had run to Agha Abdurrahim. In those times, the aghas used to know and speak French, too. In the presence of the agha, no one dared to speak. They couldn’t speak. The soldier asked the agha:  –  What is this young man to you? –  Mehmet is my cousin, the son of my uncle. –  Why did he run away from us? –  I had a gun with me. It was forbidden to have a gun at that time. –  We would never arrest and keep him if he told us he is your relative.  –  How could I know they would know Agha Abdurrahim? I was afraid of them and I ran away.   –  Show us your gun. He took his gun out and handed it over. They used to put No.7 bullets in a No.5 calibre. The soldier looked at the gun. He said, “nice gun” and gave it back. The young man gave the gun as a gift to the soldier. In response to this, the soldier took his gun out and gave it to the young man in exchange. He said, “If you accept this present, I will accept your present, too.”  He took the gun and left. The soldier told this to the commander and said:  –  This man is the young man from 2 years ago.  The guns we gave each other as a gift are with us until now. If he doesn’t approve, then I will accept the decision.  Taking his gun, the commander faced Mehmet and asked: –  Do you know this soldier? Mehmet was so beaten up that he couldn’t remember and he said, “No”. The commander says, “think hard.” He says “I can’t remember.” The commander asks again “Haven’t you had any incidents with the soldiers?” Mehmet tells what he remembers. The incidents coincide with each other. The commander asks Mehmet,  –  Then, can you remember the gun you gave as a gift?  –  Yes, I can.  The commander hands the gun.  –  So, is the soldier’s gun still with you? Mehmet takes the gun in his hand.  –  Yes, this is my gun. The gun I took is still with me.  –  Can you bring us the gun? –  I can, I hide it in my home, here.  The soldier says to the commander: –  The incident I told you has been approved.  Mehmet’s life is saved from the execution. Mehmet’ surname was Fansa at that time, it is Bayrakçı now. Fansa family has originally migrated from Aleppo.”


Beyra Village Massacre

One of the most prominent and least known incidents in Turkey that we came across while investigating the French period in Hatay was the Alawite massacre in Altınözü Beyra village. During our field work, we interviewed both those who witnessed the massacre and those who heard about this incident from their parents. Mehmet heard about this massacre from his father, born in 1923, many times, and he lost some of his relatives in this massacre. Narratives about Beyra reveal not only gang conflicts but also that these gangs got involved in several ethnic and religious massacres. Beyra village was burnt in August, 1919. Today, one of the most prominent events that represent the oppression and pressure Arab Alawites experienced during the last years of the Ottoman rule is the Beyra Massacre. Mehmet, an Arab Sunni, states that it’s a human duty to understand, narrate and transmit the Beyra Massacre. Hence, he recounts the massacre. We believe it will be most efficient to read this narrative, which involves experiences of intertwined people, as it was told. Therefore, we convey the narrative as told by the interviewees:



Figure2-Oliveoil factory & Mengle, of today (Uğur Akgül)

Mehmet (70) –Altınözü–Arab Sunni

It’s said that, in August 1919, most of the villagers in Beyra (Akdarı) sensed the danger beforehand and some of them ran away. However, the majority of them tried to protect their houses. At that time, gangs would come to Antakya from Sayhun/Sakkun, Syria to clear the villages, hamlets and farms on their way from Alawites. With the guidance of people from neighboring villages, the gangs attacked the village at dawn.  They fusilladed 63 villagers whom they could catch and burned them in olive oil factories called “Mengle” in colloquial language. They burned all the houses and the entire village. Some villagers were able to escape during the attacks. Most of the escapees ran away to Arab Alawite districts Harbiye and Samandağ from behind the mountain in Dursunlu (Dersuniy), and saved their lives. When the village was set on fire, my father’s uncle and his wife died as well. My grandfather and the people around him managed to escape. It’s known that commands like “Don’t kill İbrahim Halef, bring him alive” were spread about my grandfather. The reason was his wealth. They tried to obtain his wealth easily in that way. As the village came to be mandated by the French, Arab Alawites returned to the village. Besides, the family called Necip Gello, from the neighboring Arab Sunni village, Yunushan (Miğanu) hid the escapees. Sabri Boğna, from another Arab Sunni village called Fatikli (Fetk’ki) also protected the escapees. Kamil Ağa, from the Turkish Sunni Karsu village helped some escapees, as well. Some others also took refuge in houses of Christian families working as housekeepers in Berki farm. During times when the French and the English were trying to gain dominance in the region, the locals were provoked and massacres happened. Particularly, the Arab villages within the Syrian borders, called Sayhun, were burned by the English, and Salafis gained dominance there. The massacre of Beyra happened due to the provocations by the English. The burning of Beyra was a milestone for those who survived it. While talking about someone’s birth or a wedding, people define the date as … years before or after the burning of the village. In the beginning, Turk and Arab Sunni, Christian and Alawite villages tried to struggle against the French rule together. Beyra joined this common action and took part in these opposition gangs by granting 27 mauser rifles protecting the village. The burning of the Beyra village happened after this defense mechanism was destroyed. My grandfather tells that he aimed at the French soldiers from the place called castle (Antakya Castle) and shot one of the soldiers’ horses. The gangs, who were the protectors of villages in reality, were disarmed. Everyone tried to protect their family. Locals of Samandağ and Harbiye protected themselves by waylaying the gangs coming from Sayhun district. As long as the dominant powers did not provoke them, people with different ethnic backgrounds had lived in harmony. Political powers sectionalized people for their vested-interests, and the people paid the price for that.

  • Kamil aga from Karsu village set out to Beyra with his men to protect the villagers. However, upon seeing the smoke rising over the village from afar, they realized that the village was set on fire. Thinking they were too late, they turned back.
  • Sabri Boğna from Fetki (Fatikli), hid 6-7 women who had taken refuge in his house for 5-6 days. Later, when gangs started to invade the houses of those who were helping the fleeing villagers, he felt the circle around him tighten. In the presence of his three sons, he told the women that it would be very dangerous and difficult to keep them in their house under these circumstances. He told his sons to take the women after it got dark and accompany them up to Mount Dursunlu. “As long as you stay alive nothing will happen to these women, but if you happen to die, there’s nothing to do”, he said. He gave confidence to the women. He also warned his sons not to go to the village down the mountain since the locals were tense and may not believe that they did not have any bad intentions. The three sons and the women did what the old man told them. The three sons watched the women go down the mountain to the village and then they went back.
  • In our village, Beyra, there’s a woman known as “Umm Selim” (Selim’s mother). Since it was not safe to proceed at daytime, she would hide in tree hollows during the day, and she would try to move on at night. The woman was hungry and thirsty and had a baby in her arms. Since she didn’t have anything to eat, she couldn’t feed her baby. It was August, summertime, so there was no water around. She tried to quench her thirst by distilling water from ponds with a muslin. The baby died of starvation and she buried him where he died. She arrived in Harbiye after three days of travel and was safe there. After she returns to her village and has another baby, she calls him Selim after her dead son.
  • An old man named mıhben/nibhem living at the entrance of Beyra village was taking his animals back to the barn when the village was raided. He had smuggled his family earlier. However, since his house was the first one in the village and included all that he had, he tried to protect himself. He killed one of the gangsters with his single shot gun. Hence, the gang killed him and burnt his house.
  • Some women were taken as captives at that time. Some were raped and sold. Women, particularly those with fair skin, smeared coal on their faces and bodies to look ugly. The women kidnapped by the gang were taken to (Hayno) Hanyolu (Kurdish) village.
  • Again in that period, some of the escapees took refuge in Beklin/Begin farm where Christians were working as housekeepers.
  • Gangs invaded my father’s grandfather Yusuf Halef’s house, as well. My great grandfather hid himself under the “mkebbi”, which was used for making milk and yoghurt. He overheard the gang leaders while saying they’d take women to Hanyolu and sell them. Risking death, he got out from where he had hidden, and since he was wealthy, he paid the money through Sunnis and saved the women.

Since they had been exposed to sectarian violence before the French mandate government, many Arab Alawites stressed statements like “After the French came, we felt relieved and began to be recognized as Alawites.” Although socio-economic conditions and problems were the same, Arab Alawites’ pursuit of a secular regime and a social environment where they would worship comfortably caused them to be alienated all the time. The French provocation of communities against each other by bestowing privilege upon various ethno-religious groups affected Christian and Armenian populations the most. The Muslim population labeled these two groups as pro-French, and therefore a fairly tense relationship was maintained.


Ahmet (86) from Serinyol, shares his memories regarding the last period of the Ottomans and the Alevi-Sunni relations and lifestyle under French rule:

“During the final period, the collapse of the Ottomans, my grandfather was the village chief of Cekmece. He didn’t send my father to the military, he hid him. This is how he hid him during the final period: there was this village called “gimk” (Amik Meadow). Because this village was a Bedouin village, the Ottomans didn’t recruit from here. The Bedouins used to grow their hair, all of them. My dad and cousin stayed with them for a while. And because they grew their hair, they weren’t recruited to the military. However, towards the end, probably due to the conscription, they all of a sudden recruited my dad and his uncle in Aleppo. In Aleppo, the military was already falling apart and my folks were able to flee after 6 days had passed. Normally, those who fled Aleppo would pass through Bab el-Hawa in Reyhanli, but according to what they said, there were Arab Sunnis, who were robbing those who were passing through. They were killing some, while sparing others.

If they were suspicious of someone, they would kill them and cut open their stomach, to find any gold they might have swallowed. And how would the people here find out if those arriving were Alawites? They would hold a handful of lentils (gades) and ask what it was. Arab Sunnis would call it “gadas”, however Arab Alawites would call it “gades”, due to the difference in dialect. This is how they would distinguish them. When my father and uncle heard these news, they opted out of Cilvegozu and went until Islahiye and passed through there, over Hassa and returned here.

During the French rule, my older brother and cousin were plowing the land with cows. I was herding the sheep. There was a French officer, who was hunting rabbits with his gun and had a dog with him. We had a big, beautiful shepherd dog. When the dog came near us, our dog attacked him. So the officer shot our dog in the head with his gun. When our dog died, I started crying. He started telling me things.

I know that France remained here from 1919 until 1939. Before the French, during the Ottoman era, Alawites didn’t have the right to own property. Even if they had land, they didn’t have the right to speak. But after the French came, the pressure on us eased. We could now become landowners. We got identity cards. Land surveys were done, borders established and lands parceled out. We were able to work under better conditions and be in business. Of course we still had aghas and other pressures, but it wasn’t as bad as before.

The aghas were always the ones in charge. Every village had a rich agha. Aghas also had armed men. They sometimes would join forces and sometimes fight each other. Whatever the aghas said was the law. This goes for all ethnic regions.

The old streets of Antakya, during the Ottoman period, had sidewalks on each side and a waterway in the middle. Through this waterway, dirty water would flow and animals would walk. They would make Alawites walk through that waterway and humiliate them and call them “tavrek”.


Ismail, born in 1924, Arab Alawite, from Gumusgoze (formerly known as Yakto)

He talks about the infrastructure and the improving life standards during the French rule. Some of the more striking points he raised are the French enabling the right to own land and providing food. Thus, even though there was a colonial system in place, such developments became engraved into their memory as “relief”. Ismail describes the ethno-religious relations and the French as follows:

“Our grandfathers used to tell us about the gangs before the French arrived. These gangs came from Sahyun, Syria. I have heard that they burned down the mansion of Sheikh Maruf Cilli in Samandag. They weren’t able to come to this area, to Harbiye. They burned down the village in Beyra and captured whomever they could and burned them as well. If I’m not mistaken, these events happened before the 1920s.

The people here and the Turkmens in the mountains, we did not have any problems. Our women used to go to the mountains to collect wood at the crack of dawn and not once were they harmed. People used to come here from Yayladagi and surrounding villages to use the flourmills by the “Tvihin”, the waterfalls. Even though there was no ethnic conflict, we didn’t intermarry. Nowadays there is no difference between us, we do not discriminate.

I remember the French very well, I was around 16 years old. According to the French records, I was born in 1924. During the record keeping, I think the French would use the windows as some sort of measure, because we would come to the window and they would look at us and guess our age.

We have always lived here, my family, too. My grandfathers migrated from Seskiy in Lattakia, Syria. They settled down in the Cebel Nusayra mountains around Yayladag and afterwards came to where we live right now.”

Sheikh Ismail is the eldest grandfather of the Guler family. During our conversation, he told us:

“There were only 35 households in Gumusgoze. The oldest families are the Mansur (Guler) family, Shide (Arslan) family, Zeyne (Ahres, Guzel) families. The Alawites came here to escape from the massacres. The place they call ‘Ordu’ is the ‘Cebel Alevi’ (Alawite Mountains) around Yayladagi. Before the Turkish Sunni aghas, a big part of the land here belonged to the Christians. The Ali Zhur family from Antakya took a part of the land here. Some land belonged to a Christian family called Kayukka, but the ‘bet Semme’ family bought this land. We settled down here before the aghas. We built our houses in the forest area and then the aghas came. The first aghas were Turkish Sunni. The Tuhanis and Gabbusi are Arab Sunnis from Magdle (Mayadali). Their relatives are still there. They used to come to me and they used to call us ‘cousin’. My grandmother used to tell us we even were relatives.


Figure3-Old Antakya streets (Bülent Kaplan)

Before the French rule, none of us could go to the market or say hi to anyone. There was great animosity. The French sided more with the Arabs. We had more freedom then. They didn’t allow us to be oppressed after the Turks came, which we would have been.

We didn’t get land titles from the French, but they registered us. They did the population registration family by family. They recorded how many kids the family had and wrote down all the names. They surveyed the land and measured the properties and recorded the owners. The French had declared this region as ‘Liwa Iskenderun’ (Alexandretta), a separate mandate. It was connected to Aleppo. It later became an independent state and the Turks had a lot to do with that. Back in the day, this freedom didn’t exist. Whichever agha ruled your area, you had to pick that agha. This was the ‘rule of the Agha’”.  



Gabriel (89), Altinozu, remembering how Alawites fled from the massacres and took refuge at Christian homes and how they helped the Alawites:

“The French stayed here from 1918 until 1938. When the French left, I was 11-12 years old. When Beyra was burned down, around 20 people fled and came here. They had burned down the entire village. It was said that they were from Sahyun. We helped those who fled from Beyra and hid them. The majority of the Christians here are Orthodox. We have some Jehova’s Witnesses. No Catholics.”


Can (84) from Vakifli Village describes the French era:

“During the French rule, there wasn’t a legitimate government. My late father used to tell me; if they caught you with a rifle, the court was all the way in Beirut. There were these little pickup trucks to go to Beirut, they were even slower than horses. Who would get there? Everybody had rifles on their walls and guns on them, but no one got caught. You insert the charger from the back, it’s German, ‘parabildon’ brand. There were 9 mm and 11 mm. The French didn’t establish dominance, but sold everyone guns and ammunition, so that they would fight each other, kill each other, and not fight the French. There were gangs back then, Armenian, Arab, Turkish gangs. None of them were legitimate. They were all bullying the people.”

In our studies, the “gang period” left an important mark on the collective memory in Antakya, due to being a transitory period and giving rise to ideological conflicts. It is true that this period has deepened division and violence on ethnic and religious grounds during the mandate. However, the most crucial point we try to raise here is the importance of understanding the politics that were implemented to gain control of this region, during a time when power relations were restructured. The second report of our oral history project will discuss Turkification politics, the referendum, and the balance between ethnic and religious groups during the annexation period.

September, 2016




  • The names of the persons interviewed have been changed to protect their privacy and security.
  • This oral history project was carried out by a team and was made possible through the efforts of numerous people. As the Arab Institute, our thanks go out to everyone who has taken part in this project. We would especially like to thank Ugur Akgul, the general assistant of The Institute for the Research of Middle Easter Arab Peoples, who also served as the project coordinator and dedicated much of his time into transcribing the interviews.
  • Please do not use this article without permission or citation.
  • The head photo was received from the President of the Institute Dr. Selim Matkap.



Trouillot, M. (2015) Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Ithaki Publicatons.

Ada, S. (2005) The Hatay Issue in Turkish-French Relations. Istanbul Bilgi University Publications.

Duman, L. (2016) The Last Piece of the Nation: Nationalization Politics in Hatay. Iletisim Publications.