Extending like a stumpy finger into Syria, the region known as the Hatay has closer cultural links with the Arab world than with the Turkish hinterland, and its multi-ethnic, multi-faith identity gives it an extra edge of interest. Antakya (ancient Antioch), a cosmopolitan city and gastronomic centre set in the valley of the Asi River, and İskenderun, a heavily industrialized port, are the two main destinations.
The region only became part of modern Turkey in 1939, having been apportioned to the French Protectorate of Syria following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Following the brief-lived independent Hatay Republic of 1938 it was handed over to Turkey after a plebiscite. This move, calculated to buy Turkish support, or at least neutrality, in the imminent world war, was successful. It was Atatürk, in a move to “Turkify” the region, who dreamt up the name “Hatay”, supposedly based on that of a medieval Turkic tribe.
The majority of people here speak Arabic as well as Turkish, and there’s some backing for union with Syria, though de facto Turkish sovereignty remains recognized. Although relations between the two countries improved dramatically during the “zero problems with neighbours policy” from 2002 onwards, the civil unrest in Syria in 2012, and President Assad’s refusal to listen to Turkish calls for reform, meant that friction was, at the time of writing, once again escalating.
Arab influence in the Hatay goes back to the seventh century AD, when Arab raiders began hacking at the edges of the collapsing Byzantine Empire. Although they were never able to secure long-lasting political control over the region, the Arabs did establish themselves as permanent settlers, remaining even when the Hatay passed into Ottoman hands.
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.
The collection of locally unearthed Roman mosaics in Antakya’s Archeological Museum (Arkeoloji Müzesi) ranks among the best of its kind in the world. Still in almost pristine condition, they make for an impressive display, laid out throughout the first four rooms of the museum.
Most of the mosaics were unearthed at the suburb of Daphne (now Harbiye), which was Antioch’s main holiday resort in Roman times. That origin is reflected in the sense of leisured decadence that pervades many of the Greco-Roman mythology scenes. A good example is the so-called Buffet Mosaic (no. 4), a vivid depiction of the rape of Ganymede, abducted by Zeus in the form of an eagle, and a banquet scene showing different courses of fish, ham, eggs and artichokes. Memorable images in room 3 include a fine portrait of Thetis and Oceanus (no. 1), and a fascinating depiction of the Evil Eye (no. 6) – a superstition that still has remarkable resonance in modern Turkey. Room 4 continues with an inebriated Dionysos, too drunk to stand (no. 12), and Orpheus surrounded by animals entranced by the beauty of his music (no. 23). Climb the spiral staircase in the corner for a bird’s-eye view of the floor mosaic.
After the mosaics, the rest of the museum seems a little mundane, though stand-out pieces include two stone lions, which served as column bases during the eighth century BC, and the Antakya sarcophagus, where the remains of two women and a man, as well as the fine gold jewellery with which they were buried, are displayed.
At the time of writing, Syria was in the midst of a civil war. Travel within the country remained theoretically possible – buses and taxis were still running between the two countries and the border to the east of Antakya at Cilvegözü/Baba al Hawa was open – but highly inadvisable. As of 2012, more than 25,000 Syrian refugees were housed in camps in the Hatay province. As and when Syria does reopen to travellers, the situation regarding visas and border crossings is very unlikely to be the same as it was before the war, so seek up-to-date advice from local tourist offices before heading out.
HARBİYE, a short way south of Antakya, is a beautiful gorge to which revellers and holidaymakers flocked in Roman times, drawn by shady cypress and laurel groves dotted with waterfalls and pools. The Romans built a temple to Apollo here, since it was held to be the setting for the god’s pursuit of Daphne. According to the myth, Daphne, when seized by amorous Apollo, prayed for deliverance; in answer to her prayers, Peneus transformed her into a laurel tree. Another legend relates that Harbiye was where Paris gave the golden apple to Aphrodite, and indirectly precipitated the Trojan War. Later, and possibly with more basis in fact, Mark Antony and Cleopatra are said to have been married here.
Today, Harbiye makes for a pleasant day-trip from Antakya, especially for those with their own transport, and is famous for its Daphne (Defne) soap – a natural toiletry made from the scented fruit of the laurel tree, sold in regional bazaars.
The promenade area is home to several gazinos where you can enjoy a beer overlooking the sea, but İskenderun’s restaurants are mostly uninspiring.
The tiny village of VAKIFLİ, with its apparently unremarkable mix of dilapidated mudbrick and timber houses and modern concrete villas, is in fact unique. For this is Turkey’s sole surviving Armenian village, set amidst orange groves on the lush lower slopes of Musa Dağı. During the Turkish deportations and massacres of the Armenians in 1915 the inhabitants of Vakıflı held out against the Turkish forces until they were evacuated to Port Said by French and British warships. Most of the villagers returned in 1919 when the Hatay became part of French-mandated Syria. When the Hatay joined the Turkish Republic in 1939, most of the area’s Armenians, bar the inhabitants of Vakıflı, decided to leave. At the heart of the village is the restored and extended Surp Asdvadzadzin Kilisesi, to which the village muhtar(headman) has the key, though the church is not always locked.