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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The Taizé Mission and the Trouble Next Door

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When I questioned Barbara on her source of funding for the renovations she revealed that she was solely dependent on income derived from visitors to her guesthouses. She had originally come to Antakya in the mid-1970s to establish a Catholic church, now presided over by Fth Domenico, a Carmelite priest.

The church backed onto the Taizé guesthouse which she had established subsequently. She’d rented the various rooms and courtyards for several decades. She was by no means assured of keeping them indefinitely. In recent years wealthier individuals and families had begun to buy the older houses for restoration. She worried that her landlord/s might be enticed to sell one or other of the accommodation she rented were an attractive offer made by a prospective re-developer.

She worried that her landlord/s might be enticed to sell one or other of the accommodation she rented were an attractive offer made by a prospective re-developer.

On my first visit in the summer of 2013 I had met a number of NGO workers involved in the unfolding crisis across the border in nearby Syria (only some 50 km east of Antakya). By contrast in the winter months there were very few visitors. This time around I noticed a few, young NGO-types emerging from one of the guesthouse blocks. Barbara told me they were a French organisation who’d ‘accidentally’ become permanent lodgers.

On my second last evening I met a Polish girl called Paulina while eating out with Barbara. She worked for a Polish NGO involved with Syrian refugees. She’d originally lodged with Barbara and for a while the agency had used her premises as a headquarters. This was not ideal because Barbara forbade visitors from outside within her guesthouse commune so they had moved elsewhere once a suitable alternative had been acquired. I’m not sure what arrangement the French NGO had with her.

Paulina was a quirky, good-natured girl, probably around 30 years in age. She arrived from an afternoon break in Samandağ on the coast to join us at the Asi café. Barbara and I had already ordered. I chose a side from the limited specials section – some sort of spicy, beef stew. Barbara had chosen a Mexican steak but was informed by our young waiter a few minutes later that it was unavailable so settled for my dish instead. We requested that it not be too spicy when the waiter asked for our preference.

As it turned out it was full of fiery, eye-watering peppers. I blinked back the tears, alternating between sips of Effes lager and mouthfuls of stew and bread. Barbara seemed to be more stoic in her approach but admitted in her understated, Germanic manner that it was indeed “quite hot”. As for Paulina, she suffered a gluten intolerance couldn’t eat a dish supplemented by bread. She chose some sort of lamb dish that I’d been considering earlier. By this stage Barbara and I had finally concluded our respective duels with the fiery beef stew.

We requested that it not be too spicy when the waiter asked for our preference… As it turned out it was full of fiery, eye-watering peppers.

The obviously French-influenced architectural style of the building opposite the Asi Restaurant.

The obviously French-influenced architectural style of the building opposite the Asi Restaurant.

Poor, poor Paulina: what did she get? Exactly what we got, that’s what. I was about to interject when Barbara exchanged words with the waiter. She turned to us and shrugged saying something about the absence of lamb in the kitchen. She gestured for Paulina to begin and waved away the waiter. The poor girl looked down at her plate with an obvious lack of enthusiasm. “Ja, they are trying their best I think,” continued Barbara in defense of the restaurant (her choice).

Personally, I would have sent it back but that may have been culturally taboo. I really don’t know, except that I really felt for poor Paulina as she picked away at the stew for the next ten minutes with only a glass of wine to extinguish the flames. Her plate of bread sat forlornly to one side.

I really felt for poor Paulina as she picked away at the stew for the next ten minutes with only a glass of wine to extinguish the flames.

We fared better with the desert at a popular confectionery café just over the Ata Koprüşü (bridge). Barbara and Paulina had several blobs of ice-cream presented in proper fluted ice-cream bowls. I had a square of some sort of gelatinous, starchy pudding which I enjoyed with a blob of vanilla ice-cream. It was surprisingly filling. I asked Paulina if she felt safe travelling alone in the area as a woman. She laughed and made light of it but admitted that she was obliged to check in with her security person before going anywhere. She also confessed to feeling a certain tension in the city. Couldn’t I? I replied that I honestly couldn’t.

A little further into the conversation she hinted at the undue attention she got from men as a foreign female and I think this may have been the source of the tension she talked of. What I saw was a bustling city where everyone seemed to be doing something, whether he or she be behind a shop counter on the main street, running a stall or workshop in a bazaar or on a side-street, or simply selling simit (seeded bread rings) or fresh produce on a street corner. In other words it was much like any other Turkish town or city but with its own particular flavour.

What I saw was a bustling city where everyone seemed to be doing something, whether he or she be behind a shop counter on the main street, running a stall or workshop in a bazaar or on a side-street, or simply selling simit (seeded bread rings) or fresh produce on a street corner.

The only other NGO person I spoke to on my trip was an Irishman staying in one of the guesthouses. Barbara had mentioned him before I actually met him. He had an unusual name which sounded like Endar, though I’m not sure how it’s spelt. He had come down from Urfa for a few days. He was working with a Danish organisation, employed as some sort of community therapist or counselor. He looked over-worked.

In the first instance he had avoided eye-contact whenever we were in the vicinity of each-other but when we found ourselves together in the quiescence of Barbara’s computer/library room he was a bit more forthcoming. He bemoaned the fact that every NGO he had worked for seemed to suffer a repeated amnesia. “I spend my life putting out fires”, he gestured with flailing arms. “They never seem to learn.”

He bemoaned the fact that every NGO he had worked for seemed to suffer a repeated amnesia. “I spend my life putting out fires”, he gestured with flailing arms. “They never seem to learn.”

Part of the problem with his current employer he told me was the number of Syrians they had taken on to assist them. “These people are immersed in the problems of other families all day long and then they have to return to crowded houses where they have to deal with the issues of their own families without the luxury of any domestic privacy”. It sounded rather desperate. We talked about the general situation in the region. When I told him that I had managed to purchase some old Iraqi dinars from a Lebanese curio seller in town he shook his head.

A 250 Iraqi Dinar note I found in a souvenir shop in town.

A set of two 250 Iraqi Dinar notes and some other bits and pieces I found in a souvenir shop in town.

“What a mess, right? Thanks to old Tony Blair. Look at him now, not in the least bit remorseful.”

I asked him if he thought the Western efforts were bearing much fruit vis-a-viz the bombing sorties against the Islamic State.

“Are you joking?” he replied. “They (the UK government) don’t have a clue. They’re just doing what the Americans tell them.”

A few months earlier he’d witnessed IS driving up and down the hills across the border south of Urfa waving their black flags. He also claimed that the female accomplice to the recent shootings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris had actually been on the same domestic flight as him from Istanbul to Urfa a weeks ago. How had they not picked her up I wondered.

A few months earlier he’d witnessed IS driving up and down the hills across the border south of Urfa waving their black flags.

He intimated that the situation was spiraling out of control; that Western intelligence just couldn’t keep up any more. He didn’t offer up a solution. I doubt there is any magic bullet except to say that Western intervention in Iraq seems in hindsight to have been very shortsighted.

When, back in Izmit, I proudly showed Sofian my Iraqi dinars he nodded and smiled at Sadaam’s handsome suited image on the reverse side.

“We liked Saddam in Algeria. He was a strongman. The sort of man you need to keep a country like Iraq together. Not by killing people,” he hastened to add, “but by preventing religious violence.”

“We liked Saddam in Algeria. He was a strongman. The sort of man you need to keep a country like Iraq together. Not by killing people,” he hastened to add, “but by preventing religious violence.”

He had said the same about Gaddafi in neighbouring Libya. It seems to me as thought the good/bad, with us/against us, one or the other moral dichotomy offered up by the Bush-Blair alliance has obscured a far more complicated picture; one which the West or indeed anyone else has yet to rationalise in a manner conducive to peaceful coexistence.

Take Syria: On more than one occasion I heard people exclaim how surprised they had been at the outbreak of war and indeed the fact that it had dragged on for so long without an end in sight. Barbara herself shook her head sadly when contemplating the state of affairs.

“They were a model for us in a co-existence between different religions and ethnic groups. There seems to be a switch in the mind of human beings which can change just like that,” she continued. “We are all very shocked about what’s happened in Syria” (she pronounced Syria as Soo-ree-ah which is, I think, as it is in the Arabic tongue).

“They were a model for us in a co-existence between different religions and ethnic groups …” “We are all very shocked about what’s happened in Syria” (she pronounced Syria as Soo-ree-ah which is, I think, as it is in the Arabic tongue).

“And why did you choose Antakya?” I asked her. She expounded on the fact that it had a long history of religious interaction and something someone of religious importance had said to her about it being ‘ideally’ situated in this regard. I like the fact that the Taizé community worship chooses to incorporate ‘wisdom readings’ derived from other religions or sources of spiritual enlightenment.

Barbara encouraged me to find something from African folklore to share. I am not well versed in it but I did have a book of poems written by a man who had lived something of a hermit’s life in Zimbabwe. He had lived with and cared for lepers and his poems were an unusual mix of inspirations, from English literary traditions to biblical scripture to the African landscape and the people therein. I chose one of them to share the one evening. I think it went down well. In any event I left the book and another in her library for future travellers to read. In turn I took a book written by a contemporary novelist to read back in Izmit.

On the final day of my stay in Antakya, a Sunday, I wanted to attend a Mass at the next door Catholic church, the one that Barbara had originally established. They usually rang the bell at 0830 on weekdays but today they rang about half an hour later. Nevertheless, as I discovered on previous occasions, the imposing metal doors at the entrance remained closed. There was a buzzer to the one side but after ringing it and waiting till the intercom automatically switched off the connection to the inside I decided to try the Greek Orthodox Church on Hurriyet Caddesi instead.

I decided to try the Greek Orthodox Church on Hurriyet Caddesi instead … I was fortunate to find that the service was just getting underway when I arrived …

I was fortunate to find that the service was just getting underway when I arrived with several other members of the congregation. I explained to a man at the gate that I was a foreigner and after a quick appraisal he opened the gate to admit me,albeit without a smile.

I was concerned that I might stand out once in the church but no-one paid me undue attention. I had only attended one or two Greek Orthodox services previously, back in Harare. Zimbabwe still has a surprising number of Greeks. My father was born into the faith but had not been an active participant until it was required that he do so in order to facilitate his application for a Cypriot passport. Like his sons he adopted Catholicism, my mother’s faith. In fact, he became an enthusiastic proponent of the faith, even if he didn’t always put its teachings into practice.

My brothers and I had considered it a bit of a joke when he suddenly went through all the pomp and ceremony of adopting Greek Orthodoxy towards the end of his life. Shortly before he died back in 2006 he even married his long-time mistress and legal secretary in a home ceremony overseen by Father George of the Harare GO establishment (coincidentally our parish priest in the Catholic diocese had also been a Father George). Ultimately there were two funeral ceremonies for my father – one at our local Catholic parish, and another at the Orthodox cathedral. Along with another funeral and a wedding or two that was about the extent of my engagement with the GO church.

The congregation of the Greek Orthodox church emerge after the service to a wet and rainy morning.

The congregation of the Greek Orthodox church emerge after the service to a wet and rainy morning.

On this occasion, in Antakya, I found the surroundings somewhat familiar. There was some attractive iconography and lots of gold leaf embossing the visages of Jesus Christ, Mary, the Saints and other figures of religious significance. The alter was set back behind a screen comprised of the pictures I have just described and other embellishments. The priest, a middle-aged man, conspicuously clean-shaven, presided over the Orthodox Mass. He moved back and forth between a lectern in front of the screen and the alter set back behind it.

I found the surroundings somewhat familiar. There was some attractive iconography and lots of gold leaf embossing the visages of Jesus Christ, Mary, the Saints and other figures of religious significance.

I tried to soak up the sung liturgy which it seemed was recited in a mixture of Arabic and Turkish (Barbara confirmed this when I asked her late). This surprised me but, in retrospect, language has important connotations in Turkey. Whilst it wasn’t very long ago that Turks wrote in Arabic calligraphy (prior to Ataturk’s reforms) the language itself is rich in Arabic words. Greek on the other hand was the language of a traitorous minority who sort independence from Ottoman Turkey in Anatolia. Perhaps I’m going too far in my analysis. It’s just a guess.

All too soon Sunday evening came along and my final hours in Antakya were upon me. I finally got to enjoy the environs of the Mistik Cafe next door which I had been eyeing with curiosity ever since I had walked past the entrance earlier in the week. There was a spacious courtyard with several orange trees, one of whose branches hung over the wall, laden with succulent round fruit.

I finally got to enjoy the environs of the Mistik Cafe next door which I had been eyeing with curiosity ever since I had walked past the entrance earlier in the week.

Usually in the evenings there were an assortment of young adults and teens drinking coffee and smoking Nargile, as one could observe in just about any Turkish town or city. It was one of a number of cafes in the old town, testament to its growing appeal to the younger, more Bohemian members of society. This evening there were only one or two tables occupied, perhaps due to the rain which had been falling intermittently most of the day. We went upstairs to the dining area where I had an excellent tavuk (chicken) shish. The food was not only cheaper than the Asi Restaurant from the previous evening but better presented and, most importantly, you got what you asked for!

The food was not only cheaper than the Asi Restaurant from the previous evening but better presented and, most importantly, you got what you asked for!

We sat and chatted for some time after the meal. I gleaned some interesting morsels of information from Barbara about the situation as regards religion and the important role played by the relevant ministry/council in Ankara in mediating its practice and instruction in schools. I admired the secular nature of the Turkish state but wondered at the challenges presented in balancing theological laws and traditions with the secular constitution and judiciary. It wasn’t only with regard to the use of, and restrictions imposed in, Arabic language instruction in Hatay, but also the broader monitoring of Islamic Sharia as practised by more religious Muslims.

I admired the secular nature of the Turkish state but wondered at the challenges presented in balancing theological laws and traditions with the secular constitution and judiciary.

There was a slight misunderstanding as regards the terms of my stay which was a bit unfortunate but I suppose we should have discussed this at the beginning of my stay. In any event the daily rate was hardly unreasonable at approximately 10 pounds per day. I said goodnight to Barbara after settling up and returned to my room to complete the formality of packing up. Barbara is a quiet, serious lady; firm but not unkind. I think she is sensitive to other people’s opinion and feelings but does not always verbalise these thoughts. I would like to visit the guesthouse again in the future and hope that after all the years she has spent in building her community will continue to bear fruit.

I would like to visit the guesthouse again in the future and hope that after all the years she has spent in building her community will continue to bear fruit.