She wanted to retrieve her medicine, and if memory serves all these years later, also a hairbrush and a photograph from her apartment.
It was in 2009, a couple of days after an earthquake flattened L'Aquila, the capital of Abruzzo, in central Italy. Authorities had closed the city to residents, but the woman and her sister had sneaked in. I found her leaning on a cane in a broken, empty plaza staring up at a midcentury building that the quake had somehow sheared horizontally so that it looked like a pot with its lid askew.
She asked for help.
From afar, we measure catastrophes like the calamity in Turkey and Syria by totaling the numbers of dead and buildings destroyed. Reports describe a spectacularly wide disaster zone, recovery efforts that are too slow, leaving untold hundreds and possibly thousands of victims still buried, alive and dead, under the rubble — and hundreds of thousands more in the cold without homes, food, drinking water or medical supplies.
It is too much to process, the loss of lives and history. The tiny Jewish community in Antakya, in central Turkey, dates back 2,500 years. The head of the community and his wife both died in the quake. The city's synagogue is now gone.
The Habibi Neccar Mosque collapsed, too. The earthquake's destruction was ecumenical. The mosque dates back to 638. It was a church and a mosque, depending on who ruled the city. Over the centuries, authority passed from the caliphs to the Byzantines, who succumbed to Seljuks, who were ousted by the Crusaders, who ceded to Mamluks, who were replaced by Ottomans, and eventually Antakya was annexed by Turkey. The quake erased whole swathes of history.
The biblical city of Antioch, Antakya is also where the word "Christian" was supposedly first used. The Apostle Peter led the church there before establishing a church in Rome. Paul preached in Antioch. The quake collapsed the St. Paul Orthodox Church, as well.
L'Aquila, like Antakya, lies in a notorious earthquake zone. A quake in L'Aquila in 1349 killed 800 residents; another in 1703 killed more than 3,000, prompting Pope Clement XI to send priests and nuns freed of their celibacy to repopulate the city.
You may rightly ask about the logic of rebuilding time and again in these risky places. But logic is not the point.
Cities are only nominally bricks and mortar, after all. To residents they are repositories of a hairbrush and a photograph — collective threads of a social fabric that, over time, weave together a life, a family, a history, a neighborhood, a community.
The city was still a shambles. But it was home.