It was a lovely drive from Gaziantep to Hatay, Turkey’s southernmost province – bordered by Syria to the south and the east.
Out of the minibus windows along our way we gazed at vast fertile plains that extended as far as the eye could see – with mountains looming in the far distance.
Antakya, the capital of Hatay, had a quite different vibe to some of the other places we had visited on our marvellous tour of SE Turkey. This was hardly surprising as the city is very cosmopolitan and home to Sunni and Alawi Muslims, Syriac Orthodox, Syriac Catholics, Protestants, Maronites, Greek-Orthodox Arabs and Armenian communities.
Sovereignty over the province still remains in dispute with Syria and a substantial proportion of the population are of Arab origin.
The busy town which in Biblical times was known as Antioch, has been described as “the cradle of Christianity” and fact is was here that the term Christianity was first coined.
Because of its diverse population Antakya is full of exciting sights and sounds and there is a plethora of delicious foods and drinks to try.
Our fantastic guide Baran took us to some amazing eateries. First we visited Pöç Kasabı ve Kebap – a busy three-floor restaurant where all the food is cooked in a roaring wood-fired oven in a tiny kitchen at the entrance to the shop.
Our tasty Tepsi (tray) kebab (the region’s most famous meat dish) made with spicy minced meat disappeared very quickly – it was delicious!
We went for a delightful walk through the bustling bazaar and were fascinated by the stalls making something that looked like a cross between shredded wheat and fine noodles that was being spun like candy floss. This turned out to be one of the main ingredients of künefe – an Antakya specialty.
Baran took us to a a tiny cafe under a centuries-old plane tree near an equally old mosque in the Long Bazaar where we tasted this wondrous confection.
The strange thin strands of pastry that we had seen being made were steeped in a sweet sugar-based syrup and then baked around a core of mozzarella-like cheese and finished off with a sprinkling of finely chopped pistachio nuts. Even though I’m not normally a lover of desserts, I have to admit it tasted divine!
We also stopped at Çayırcı Bakla Humus Salonu – a hole-in-the-wall cafe which has two items on the menu, bakla (a mashed fava bean spread) and humus.
We were able to watch as both these delicious dishes were made by hand. No whisks or mixers were used – just old fashioned mortars and pestles and elbow grease!
Both dishes were served with beautiful garnishes of various pickled vegetables, rosy tomatoes and chopped herbs as well as fresh flatbread known as tırnaklı ekmek. The food looked and tasted superb – I don’t think I have ever tasted such creamy hummus!
While wandering through the bazaar we came across a drink seller with a colourful sash around his waist and a silver ledge over it on which plastic cups were placed.
He had a massive silver jug with a long spout and a bunch of flowers attached at the top from which he flamboyantly poured a rather ghastly viscous-looking brown liquid into the plastic cups – rather like a fez-wearing cocktail waiter.
It turned out that this was a cold (non alcoholic) liquorice-based drink. It didn’t look very appetising so I didn’t try it and judging by the faces of those who did, I made the right decision!
As well as being a foodie heaven, the town has some intriguing sights. On a walk round some of the streets in the old quarter of Antakya we had the good luck to find the Italian-born priest “at home” in the tiny Catholic Church, set in a beautiful courtyard garden.
The padre welcomed us cordially and told us some history of the building and of the Catholic Community in Antakya. He said that the location of the Church was important as it was located where several of apostles, had lived.
From a flat roof of a church building we were able to see the Church, a nearby mosque and a Jewish Synagogue all within a stone’s throw of each other. The priest explained that their proximity to each other typifies the friendship, respect, tolerance and peace between the different communities in Antakya.
One of the fascinating places we visited was the cave Church of St Peter, one of the oldest Churches of the Christian faith.
The original simple grotto dug out of the soft volcanic rock is said to have been by carved out by St Peter himself. The oldest surviving parts of the church building date from at least the 4th or 5th century and include some pieces of floor mosaics and traces of frescoes.
There is still a tunnel inside the Church which opens elsewhere on the mountainside and is thought to have served as an escape route in case of attack on the early Christians.
The Church facade was constructed by the Crusaders in 1100, and rebuilt in the 19th century.
From the Church of St Peter we headed to the splendid Hatay archeological museum where we saw many fabulous treasures including the impressive two-tonne, 3,000 year-old statue of the Neo-Hittite King Suppiluliuma, found in 2012 at the ancient site of Tayinat, 35 kilometres from Antakya.
Inscriptions on the back of the statue provide a whole catalogue of information about his victories and border expansions.
There were many fascinating exhibits including some amazing mosaics. One of my favourites depicted a skeleton enjoying a drink which was unearthed in 2013 and dates from the third century AD.
It apparently warns people “Enjoy life as much as you can because tomorrow is uncertain.”
Another stand-out exhibit of the museum’s huge collection was the Antakya Sarcophagus (Antakya Lahdı), a spectacularly carved marble tomb from the 3rd century with a reclining figure on the lid that has remained unfinished.
Moving on from the archeological museum we went to what turned out to be the absolute highlight of our visit to Antakya – the Museum Hotel.
This is a unique archeological site where ancient remains lie exposed under an ultra modern hotel.
The extensive archeological findings were discovered when the foundations of the hotel were being dug. Work halted immediately and the hotel owners told that the site would have to be excavated before any more work was carried out.
Because of the importance of the findings which included the largest intact mosaic ever found, the original plans for the hotel were scrapped and an innovative and impressive design to incorporate the archeological site into the hotel structure was created.
The result was a combination of engineering marvel and architectural beauty.
The hotel is an astonishing combination of contemporary steel columns with stacked rooms that “float” above the archeological remains. These are linked by walkways and bridges.
The mosaic under the hotel is a 1,050m² work of art which was started around 300 BC and, it is believed, was a work in progress for more than 15 centuries.
Walking on the labyrinth of raised glass ramps and bridges we were in close proximity to the remains. We were able to gaze down not only on the mosaic but also a Roman streetscape complete with a bath house, forum and other buildings.
Antakya was absolutely full of treasures and surprises and we felt incredibly privileged to have been able to see just some of the highlights of this fascinating part of the world.