Article: Akgün akova Photos: Yelda Baler
They named her ‘Queen of the East’. The eagle in her founding story flew above the city’s coins for centuries. The bed of the River Asi was dug by a dragon’s talons. Daphne was transformed into a laurel tree here. The Harbiye Rapids fell from Apollo’s tears. Three religions gathered in Antakya with the words ‘bell, azan and hazzan’.
How can one begin to describe Antakya? Through the master crime novelist, Agatha Christie inscribing her name on the wall of an old house? By inhaling the scents of a soap factory? By pacing up and down the Titus Tunnel while the rain drops fall outside? By praying in the Habib-i Neccar Mosque? By parading on the beautiful mosaics as the ants do? By having a dish of künefe (shredded wheat sweet with cheese in the middle) in a restaurant in the city center, or by freeing a pigeon on one of the roof tops? By chasing after the Knights Templar, like Dan Brown did? By singing Turkish and Arabic songs at a table set in a courtyard of an old Antakya house? By the decision made by the Hatay State to join Turkey? Or by half completed relief of the Hell’s Charon overlooking the city on a mountain?
As a matter of fact, Antakya has such a rich history that one even hesitates on where to begin putting it in words. Let’s go back to the morning of May 22, 300 B.C. After the death of Alexander the Great, Seleukos, one of his commanders who divided the lands of the Empire between themselves, sacrificed a sheep in Keldağ in order to determine the location of the new city he was due to set up. There he waited for a sign from God to guide him. An eagle flying around picked up the sheep and landed with it on a plain. This is how the history of Antakya began. In Antakya, which was the third major city after Rome and Alexandria in the Roman Empire, each street spells out a different myth, even to this day. These myths also glaze over the mosaics in the Archeology Museum, competing with those in the Bardo Museum, in Tunisia. In one, the arrogant Narkossis rejects a fairy; in another, Orpheus plays a lyre for the wild animals that have gathered around; in another one, Psyche travels in a boat; and yet in another, Ganymedes is kidnapped by Zeus, who had transformed into an eagle.
However, among all these myths, Antakya also lives in today’s world. Some days, during meal times, the restaurants around Harbiye Falls are packed. Traders selling silk clothing, bay leaf soap and sour pomegranate syrup, gift wrap the goods purchased by the tourists. In the court yards of stone houses, children grow up surrounded by orange trees. Old men with long beards walk in between the condolence places, leaning on their walking sticks. People start collecting cotton in Amik Plain, before the sunrise. The Uzun Çarşı (Long Bazaar) is filled with fathers buying shoes for their children, young women looking for materials for their engagement dresses and public workers rushing to get back home after purchasing their cheese and herbs. For a while, Antakya has been hosting thousands of people arriving from Syria. This heavy traffic which started with a bilateral lifting of visa requirements between Syria and Turkey signifies an extraordinary economic activity for Antakya.
In Antakya, where several languages were once spoken simultaneously, it is possible to assume the existence of the same tolerance with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, Habib-i Neccar Mosque and the Synagogue almost side by side. The St. Pierre Church plays an important role as being the first church ever built and being the place where Christians were given this name for the first time. It is a significant pilgrimage site as well. Every year numerous pilgrims gather here on June 29th. Another place visited by the Christians in Antakya is the St. Simon Monastery. This monastery, the majority of which had collapsed, was built in memory of St. Simon, who is believed to have suffered for years, living on a column. It is also believed that the angels have drawn its plans.
Other places of interest in Antakya are the Titus Tunnel and the Beşikli Cave. Construction of the Tunnel was initiated during the reign of the Roman Emperor, Vespasianus, and sand and gravel carried by the floods were kept from filling the harbor. 130 meters of the 1,380 meters long tunnel were dug by hand. While walking through the tunnel, water drops hitting the rocks are accompanied by the sound of birds on tree branches. Then, you leave the tunnel astonished and arrive at the Beşikli Cave. In the cave, you come across several tombs ransacked by treasure hunters. When you reach the top of the rocks after taking a few steps, you can’t help but stare at the deep blue of the Mediterranean.
THE STATE OF HATAY
One of the most interesting and short lived states in history was Hatay. Hatay, which was captured by the Ottomans in 1517, was handed over to first British, then to French troops at the end of World War I. In 1921, Hatay was joined with Syria, which was then under the supervision of France. But, because of the loyalty of the locals to Turkey and a successful diplomacy carried out by Atatürk and other Turkish rulers, Hatay joined Turkey on June 29th, 1939. Unfortunately, Atatürk did not live long enough to see the accession of this state, which lasted 10 months and 26 days. At the beginning, I was asking how and where to even begin to describe Antakya. Now, I realize that it is even more difficult to stop talking about it. I suppose I can end it with a few recommendations, like visiting the Sidemara Tomb and marble marvel in Archeology Museum.You won’t be able to leave the tomb’s side right away, that’s for sure. Nor will you be able to leave the dinner tables. Antakya cuisine comprises of many civilizations. Altar dish of the Hittites, aşir (a dish made from whole wheat, chick peas and lamb), to name a few, are always found on these tables, as well as the Ottoman dishes and French deserts, accompanied by mezzes (appetizers) of Syrian and Lebanese origin. Whichever dish you taste from Zahter (a type of thyme) Salad to stuffed intestines, from stuffed cabbage to spinach borani (fried spinach balls, served with a yoghurt sauce), oruk (crushed wheat balls filled with minced meat and walnut mixture), or Arabic Kebab (a layer of minced meat laid on a tray and baked in a special tomato sauce), you will understand that in Antakya, happiness and appetite go hand and hand.
And I also would like to say that, before going to Antakya, you should watch the horse race scene in the movie, ‘Ben-Hur’, which is the joint record-holder of the most Academy Awards along with the film ‘Titanic’. Historians believe that the ancient hippodrome, where the Olympic Games used to be held, is the place where that scene originally took place.
This is what Antakya is all about.
The past and the present move head on, as in the film, ‘Ben-Hur’.
BOX BOX BOX
The laurel tree that has become Antakya’s symbol is familiar from the crowns made with its leaves throughout history. And in mythology, an old story describes the birth of the Harbiye Rapids from Apollo’s tears.
Long-lost friends run into each other, relatives offer ‘künefe’ among themselves, ‘groom and bride sides’ pick out dowries for their wedding together and farmowners bring in sack of wheat, helping the bazaar’s two thousand year-old tradition live on today.
ST. PIERRE CHURCH
Widely accepted as the first church of Christianity, the St. Pierre Church is located inside a cave on the skirts of the Haç Mountain, which rises on the 2nd kilometer of the Antakya-Reyhanlı road.
THE SIDEMARA TOMB
The tomb was discovered in a foundation in Antakya. A special hall was built within the Hatay Archaeological Museum for the Sidemara-style (columned) tomb, which measures 2.47 m in length, 1.22 m in width and 1.20 m in height. It is estimated that the Antakya Tomb was built between 265 and 270 A.D.
HISTORICAL HATAY COUNCIL CULTURAL CENTER
The Historical Hatay Council has beared witness to the past century, and according to businessman Mehmet Güney, it is one of the most delightful spots in the whole city. The structure was built as Antakya’s first movie theater in 1927 and has now become a cultural center for film, theater and concert activities besides its touristic attractions.