Antakya is the seat of Hatay Province; annexed by Turkey in 1939
The next stop on my journey through Turkey took me to the ancient city of Antioch (Turkish Antakya), founded near the end of the 4 century BC by a general of Alexander the Great.
There’s a multi-national choir in this city of 200,000 near the border with Syria that includes Armenian songs in its repertoire. Yilmaz Osfrad, the choirmaster, told me that the group’s mission is to bring peace to the world through song.
In fact, the unwieldy name of the group, Antakya Choir of Cultures, expresses this concept and has taken the singers to many lands to accomplish that mission of peace and understanding.
"If, one day, the presidents of Armenia and Turkey solve the border issue, we will be there at the opening ceremony singing with our Armenian friends," Yilmaz told me.
When our group of journalists visited the group a practice session was underway. There were also a number of other foreign visitors at the hall and the group launched an impromptu concert for the guests.
They sang Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, Georgian and one or two Armenian songs; Sari Yar and Hoy Nino.
The group is comprised of 120 volunteers representing the Muslim, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish faiths.
Renita Horoz (Hergenyan) is the only Armenian in the choir. She can’t speak Armenian and can hardly understand it. But she had no trouble when I asked her if there were Armenians in the choir – "Yes, me", she quickly blurted out.
Her father is from the Armenian village of Vakif,Turkey's last remaining rural Armenian community of about 150 souls. Renita was born in Antakya.
Readers will remember that the entire district of Alexandretta (Hatay), which had become a French Mandate of Syria after WWI, was annexed by Turkey in 1939. Many Armenians who had fled Musa Ler after the 1915 Genocide returned to the area then under French control.
After this move the other six Armenian villages immigrated out of Hatay settling in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley, especially Anjar, while the residents of Vakif chose to stay.
The 19 year-old has finished high school and wants to go to the conservatory.
Renita joined the chorus a few months ago because, as she explains, she believes in the cementing friendship between peoples of various religions.
"I really like Armenian songs," Renita told me. When I asked if she understood the meaning of the words she said, "somewhat".
She is particularly fond of the song "Sareri Hovin Mernem". Renita says she would one day like to visit Armenia and pictures the country through descriptions made by her uncle.
Renita told me she considers Turkey to be her home.
"I love were I was born, my homeland. If you live somewhere that you like, the rest isn’t important. I was not born in 1915 and cannot even imagine the events that took place back then. I am living today."