The city of ANTAKYA, 45km south of İskenderun, stands on the site of ancient Antioch. Its laidback pace, cosmopolitan outlook and subtly Arab atmosphere make it a unique destination. Flanked by mountains to the north and south, it sits in the bed of a broad river valley planted with olive trees; a welcome visual relief after travelling from the drab flatlands surrounding Adana.
Antakya is split in two by the Asi River, known in ancient times as the Orontes. Recent developments along the riverbank are slowly transforming the stretch into a fetching (if traffic-ridden) thoroughfare, bordered by flowerbeds, palm trees, fountains and cafés. The eastern bank is home to old Antakya, a maze of narrow streets that still offer glimpses of traditional Turkish life – clusters of men perched on low stools in their doorways sipping tea, and the odd scruffy horse dragging a dilapidated wooden cart laden with goods. Best of all is the food, which thanks to the city’s Arab heritage is among the best, and most varied, in Turkey.
Antakya was founded as Antioch in the fourth century BC by Seleucus Nicator, one of the four generals between whom the empire of Alexander the Great was divided. It soon grew, and by the second century BC it had developed into a multi-ethnic metropolis of half a million – one of the largest cities in the ancient world and a major staging post on the newly opened Silk Road. It also acquired a reputation as a centre for all kinds of moral excess, causing St Peter to choose it as the location of one of the world’s first Christian communities, in the hope that the new religion would exercise a restraining influence. Indeed, the patriarchy of Antioch became one of the five senior official positions in the organization of the early Christian Church.
Despite being razed by earthquakes during the sixth century AD, Antioch maintained its prosperity after the Roman era. Only with the rise of Constantinople did it begin to decline. In 1098, after a vicious eight-month siege and a savage massacre of Turks, the Crusader kings Bohemond and Raymond took the city in the name of Christianity. They imposed a Christian rule that lasted until Antioch was sacked by the Mamluks of Egypt in 1268. By the time the Ottomans, under Selim the Grim, took over in 1516, Antioch had long since vanished from the main stage of world history. At the start of the twentieth century, the city was little more than a village, squatting amid the ruins of the ancient metropolis. After World War I, Antakya, along with most of the rest of the Hatay, passed into the hands of the French, who laid the foundations of the modern city.