Back to the Hatay

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I ‘d visited Antakya (formerly Antioch of old) and some notable attractions in the Hatay province back in 2013 when I’d last travelled the country beyond Istanbul. On that trip I clocked up a number or towns and cities along the Black Sea coast and further east, but Antakya stuck firmly in my mind as being somehow different. There was something about its history and assortment of communities that set it apart somehow.

I hadn’t even seriously considered visiting until by chance I fell in with a fellow traveller in Mardin, an Englishman called Ben. We were both travelling east to west and Antakya was firmly on his radar.

Antakya stuck firmly in my mind as being somehow different. There was something about its history and assortment of communities that set it apart somehow. 

During our brief stay of several days we occupied two of the guest rooms at the Katolic kilesesi off Kurtulus Rd, a stone’s throw away from the Asi River (Orontes of old) which divided the old city from the new. It was also in the proximity of a variety of other community organisations, both religious and secular. These included a Korean war veteran’s office – did you know that Turks were part of a NATO force sent to that conflict in the 1950s? – and a  peace-house which accommodates visitors from all walks of life.

I discovered that the founder of the peace-house, sister Barbara, had taken inspiration from the Taizé form of community. Taizé is an ecumenical order based in France and founded quite recently in the last century. Worship is through music (primarily choral but with instrumental accompaniments) and through contemplating the writings of mystics and other perceived sources of enlightenment (wisdom readings). 

Taizé … worship is through music (primarily choral but with instrumental accompaniments) and contemplating the writings of mystics and other perceived sources of enlightenment.

Backing onto the Catholic church was a mosque and Barbara informed us of a synagogue well hidden away nearby, although I never set eyes on it. The town also boasted a fairly large Greek Orthodox church and a Protestant church founded only 15 years ago.

I had taken along my clarinet with me which I played during the morning and evening prayers. Although I was unfamiliar with the Taizé format it was not difficult to follow. The instruments were mere accompaniments to a short choral verse of two or three lines of music, repeated several times or more, a bit like a mantra. The combination was very pleasing and despite some initial difficulty I came to enjoy the daily routine.

The instruments were mere accompaniments to a short choral verse of two or three lines of music, repeated several times or more, a bit like a mantra.

Melek working in Barbara's simple but tidy little kitchen.

Melek working in Barbara’s simple but tidy little kitchen.

Barbara had a paid helper in the form of Melek, a Christian lady from a village near the Syrian border. She had a sweet, harmonious voice and joined Barbara in singing whilst I played my clarinet and Barbara strummed her guitar.

Melek’s husband Bibe (pronounced Bee-beh) came on occasional but I got the impression he would rather have been elsewhere! He did odd jobs and helped Melek prepare the meals in the kitchen. Melek was a wonderful cook and I wish I’d taken some of her creations when I returned to Izmit the following week.

The surrounding neighbourhood on east bank of the Asi was a network of alleyways and cobbled streets, evidently very old. A good number of the buildings here are unoccupied and have been for many years Barbara told me. As a result many have fallen into disrepair and were, until relatively recently, deemed undesirable. Viewed from a vantage point to the SE (the city is flanked by steep hills) I could see how the urban sprawl proliferated on the far side of the Asi where acres of apartment blocks now stood.

The surrounding neighbourhood on east bank of the Asi was a network of alleyways and cobbled streets, evidently very old.

Times have changed and today, Barbara told me, parts of the old city that were previously overlooked have now become trendy for those of means. I for one can see the appeal. It is quite impressive what Barbara has done and continues to do with the buildings in the vicinity of her abode.

… parts of the old city that were previously overlooked are now becoming trendy for those of means.

She was presently employing several labourers and tradesmen to renovate an adjacent house, recently vacated by the occupants who decided to move to a more modern apartment. Plumbing, toilets, basins and electrics were being installed, roofs re-tiled and stone walls and floors repaired. During my stay most of the existing rooms were unoccupied but during the summer months she expected the numbers to increase considerably. With the new additions I guessed she could accommodate at least two dozen visitors.

Despite earlier intentions of spending my time in contemplation at the Taizé centre I found my days filled instead with long walks around the city, contemplating the buildings, businesses and people who inhabit it. Like most Turkish cities I have visited it is has a hustle and bustle about it which makes it photogenic and engaging.

Like most Turkish cities I have visited it is has a hustle and bustle about it which makes it photogenic and engaging.

Along the streets in the vicinity of the guesthouse there were a number of different artisans. Some wove woolen rugs on hand looms whilst others spun garments from silk cocoons. On the street corner near the Sermaye cami (the mosque I mentioned) was a cobbler who seemed to work arduously all week in his open-air stall, surrounded by an eclectic collection of inners, uppers, laces, threads and an antiquated machine of sorts. It was a street that was very much alive with creativity.

The nearby pazar (bazaar) was particularly vibrant. I loved the way it branched off every so often so that it was quite easy to get lost, but never such that you weren’t able to find your way back to a major artery after a few minutes. All the roads and alleyways sloped perceptibly towards the flanking hills which was another way of getting some sense of orientation. Within the pazar were numerous stalls mostly clustered in discrete zones: clothing stalls in one area, shoes in another and so forth. I enjoyed the spice and food stalls best.

On my second afternoon there I ventured off in search of the somewhat famous Sen Piyer Kilisesi, the cave-church from which it is reputed that the apostle Peter preached to the Christian community of Antioch. Separating legend from the facts is difficult and all that is really known is that St Peter spent some time in Antioch between AD 47 and 54, intrinsically involved in establishing one of the world’s first Christian communities with the apostles Paul and Barnabus. The site was closed for renovations on my previous visit. They had taken some two years according to Barbara.

… all that is really known is that St Peter spent some time in Antioch between AD 47 and 54, intrinsically involved in establishing one of the world’s first Christian communities …

Besides building an ugly concrete car park nearby the authorities had constructed a series of stone steps leading up to the cave entrance, itself fronted by an impressive stone façade (built previously). The remnants of an old olive grove and the exposed foundations of an ancient stone building occupied the ground directly before the cave, set as it was in an imposing, vertical rock cliff.  Nearby a shepherd casually tended his flock of sheep as they browsed the pasture on the other side of the new car park on which a group of local kids were playing football.

imageNot far off nestled in the midst of a cluster of buildings and road-side businesses an enormous concrete edifice was starting to take shape: the Hilton Hotel, Antakya. Incredible!

I can only assume that the powers that be saw in Antakya, its particular ambience and assortment of religious sites, Sen Piyer chief amongst them, the opportunity for a large influx of well-healed visitors. Whether this investment will pay dividends, and indeed its effect on the city and its people, only time will tell.

… an enormous concrete edifice was starting to take shape: the Hilton Hotel, Antakya.

Not surprisingly the building of the hotel itself had uncovered a wealth of sub-level archaeology which had apparently led to a cessation in building whilst the artefacts were properly recorded and excavated. It looked to me as though the construction had still not fully resumed.

imageAs for the cave itself it was a little underwhelming but this was I suppose in keeping with its humble origins. Besides a stone altar and a statue of Jesus Christ set back in the wall behind it the cave was fairly unadorned. The floor had been reinforced with concrete and although there had been some attempt to preserve the mosaics that were already present it was difficult to make out any detail.

A pair of simple stone pillars connected by arches supported the entrance in front of the façade and separate, wooden framed Turkish and English information sheets hung on either side. A quick perusal revealed a number of typing errors on the English language sheet whilst the Turkish information sheet looked more consistent from a cursory glance. At least there were no co-joined words that I could make out: the English info sheet was littered with them.

Besides a stone altar and a statue of Jesus Christ set back in the wall behind it the cave was fairly unadorned.

I only had a few minutes to myself before several families arrived simultaneously. The usual posing for mobile phone pictures ensued as the kids ran here and there and shattered the peace! I stepped outside for a while and took the opportunity to photograph the city from the vantage of the cave.

Below me an elderly man who I’d encountered earlier selling trinkets, stone carvings and crosses, gestured impatiently for me to return as I had promised. I smiled and tapped my wrist, imploring his patience. Indeed, he was still there when I left the church about 30 minutes later. I bought an iron Byzantine-style cross and a couple of smaller stone ones for 15 TL before starting my return to the guesthouse.

My indirect way home took me through some busy streets towards the centre, the pavements bustling with evening foot traffic, the vendors and food stalls doing a brisk trade. I looked longingly at the various pastahane (confectionary shops) but managed to resist the temptations. I settled for a cup of freshly-squeezed portakal (orange juice). My route home also took me past a brand spanking new shopping mall, one that hadn’t been there on my last visit.

My route home also took me past a brand spanking new shopping mall, one that hadn’t been there on my last visit.

The previous evening Barbara had taken me shopping at the Micros supermarket contained therein. I’d been bowled over by how new everything looked. No shop or store in there would have looked out of sorts in its European equivalent. They even had a variety of large Christmas ornaments still hanging from the upper level roofing. Micros was well-stocked but rather pricey. I noted with surprise that it even had self-service pay terminals like those many UK shopping markets had adopted in recent years.

I had come away with a modest selection of breakfast goodies for 50 TL (about 20 pounds). Barbara quite unashamedly admitted how happy she was to see European cheeses on the shelves: a lovely creamy cheese from Denmark and French Brie which she had been very much missed in the intervening years.

I thought about the chaos in neighbouring Syria, to which Hatay province had belonged until as recently as 1938, and how far removed this mall and its happy consumers were from what events there. I’ll leave those thoughts for my next post. By the time I passed the mall on this particular evening it was dark.

I thought about the chaos in neighbouring Syria … and how far removed this mall and its happy consumers were from what was going on there.

The buildings and businesses on either side of the Asi were lit up and river, dark and swollen from the recent rains, reflected the streetlamps and neon lights from either side. It was raining lightly but it didn’t prevent me from pulling out my camera and using its rather basic functionality to try capture the mood. Hopefully the pictures will show that I succeeded…

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