The buffoons of Antioch

The French philosopher Ernest Renan (d. 1892) has described the ancient Antiochenes the following way:

“Besides the Greek population, indeed, which was nowhere in the East (with the exception of Alexandria) so numerous as here, Antioch numbered among its population a considerable number of native Syrians, speaking Syriac. These natives composed a low class, inhabiting the suburbs of the great city and the populous villages which formed a vast suburb all around it— Charandama, Ghisira, Gandigura, and Apate (chiefly Syriac names). Marriages between the Syrians and the Greeks were common. Seleucus having formerly made naturalization a legal obligation binding on every stranger establishing himself in the city, Antioch, at the end of three centuries and a half of its existence, became one of the places in the world where race was most intermingled with race. The degradation of the people was terrible. … It was an inconceivable medley of merry-andrews, quacks, buffons, magicians, miracle-mongers, sorcerers, priests, impostors; a city of races, games, dances processions, fêtes, debauches, of unbridled luxury, of all the follies of the East, of the most unhealthy superstitions, and of the fanaticism of the orgy.” (Ernest Renan, The Apostles, (New York 1867), 198 199.)

People in modern Antakya are not like the old Antiochenes, but there are certain similarities.

“Unhealthy superstition” can be found, and so can ‘merry-andrews, quacks and buffoons.’

A couple of days ago we were sitting in the workshop of one of our friends. The place has the size of a big dining table. He was busy behind his workbench and his assistant, who was sitting there as well, was doing nothing. Our friend is originally an Orthodox, but he is also involved with the Catholic Church. His assistant is a Protestant whose discourse has been indirectly influenced by people in the Bible Belt.

While we were sitting there a man rushed in with a deranged expression in his eyes and a gun in his hand yelling and screaming: “I’ll kill you, I’ll kill you.” He was mainly pointing his gun at the Protestant, but in between – so as to make a point – he was aiming at the rest of us as well. We are not young and we have met crazy people before, so we relaxed and pretended that everything was normal.

This evidently made him feel that we did not take him seriously enough. Consequently he produced a bullet from somewhere, loaded the gun and repeated the séance. Suddenly he rushed out of the room just to return brandishing his pistol while pouring out torrents of threats. But when he saw that we were unimpressed, he put the gun on the workbench and said: “All stand! We are going to pray.”

The two of us and our friend did not move. The Protestant rose. We did not find out whether he rose because he was under the influence of the show with firearms he had just witnessed or it was due to his peculiar type of religiosity. But he rose while we and our friend kept sitting.

This annoyed the perpetrator and he started to insist although he did not resort to armed persuasion. Finally he gave up. Instead he started his prayer while he and the Protestant were standing with their hands opened heavenward.

Until this point the two of us had no idea about the religious persuasion of our new acquaintance. It turned out that he belonged to the Orthodox faith. First he was rattling off a prayer in Turkish, next in Arabic all the time making the sign of the cross the Orthodox way.

After having shot his bolt – if this expression is admissible in this context – he sat down taking the place of the Protestant who kept standing as there was nowhere else to sit. Subsequently we had a fairly civilised conversation. All the rest was supposed to be a joke – perhaps apart from the prayer.

In the Western World opinionated Europeans and Americans believe that when someone from the Middle East behaves irrationally he has to be a Muslim. Our experience proves this assumption wrong.

About Antiochene

Writer and translatorliving in Antioch on the Orontes (Antakya, Turkey) and Copenhagen.
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