Our meeting with Fırsat on the bus to Hatay proved to truly be an auspicious start to one of the most enjoyable weekends I’ve spent in Turkey yet. Although, if I had to wager, I would say that it would be very difficult to not enjoy a weekend in the old city of Antioch – in very few places have I truly gotten the feeling of a vibrant city feeling right at home being the place where history and modernity collide.
For example, although being on the border with Syria and having a strong Middle Eastern influence, Hatay was extremely casual in terms of dress. Whereas Malatya is much more conservative with any inter-sex displays of affection or any sort of daring clothing, women in Hatay “commonly wear mini-skirts, if you’ve noticed” as Fırsat had earlier put it with a wink at me and Fabio over tea. This is all the more interesting when put into context – you’re almost as likely to see a Syrian rebel enjoying some R&R in Hatay in full combat fatigues or military boots as one of these modern ladies.
The epic history of this region also rings loudly through the streets. Although the majority of the city was unfortunately destroyed in a string of earthquakes, a number of historical treasures remain. After stopping by our friend Ben’s apartment for some much needed post-bus napping, we headed into the city to visit the Hatay Archeological Museum – a museum with one of the largest of Roman age mosaics and antiquities. Having once gone to a Roman mosaic museum in St. Albans, England that featured Roman works from the London area, the Hatay Museum truly drove home to me how massive the Roman Empire was – it stretched beyond an entire continent with a quasi-unified culture. Amazing!
Hatay is also home to the world’s first cathedral, as recognized by the Catholic Church – St. Pierre’s Church. It was at this cave church that St. Pierre preached to the first Christians in Antakya, around 40 A.D., before going on to become the world’s first pope. Although the church was unfortunately closed for restoration when we visited, we continued to climb up the mountain the church was carved into. Although steep and slick from rain the night before and that morning, we were rewarded with incredible views over the city and an incredible stone relief carved into the mountain of a woman – either a super early carving of the Virgin Mary or a pre-Christian divinity.
Not to be outdone, the first mosque in Anatolia, the Habib-Ün Naccar Mosque, is also located in the heart of Antakya. Originally a church, the conquering Muslim armies turned it into a mosque in 636 A.D. The mosque’s minaret used to be part of the old church, functioning as a gigantic pillar with an exposed top. It was here that Christain Saints would spend days, weeks or months sitting or standing in the public eye, exposed to the elements, as a testament to their faith.
Perhaps the most awe-inspiring monument in Hatay is the Titus-Vespasianus Tunnel on the coast of the Mediterranean. In Roman times, an important port city was located here, but it would be constantly flooded by a wayward mountain river. Instead of considering moving the city, the Romans instead built a massive 1.4 kilometer long tunnel into the mountain to divert the river… by hand… in 69 A.D. The tunnel worked, and if you dare clamber over slick and slippery rocks over a river gorge, you can walk through as much as the tunnel as you would like.
Amid all this history, Hatay manages to still have the third best night-life in Turkey I’ve experienced – after Istanbul and Ankara. Ben, having spent three years in the Peace Corp in Ukraine and being a huge fan of forced vodka breakfasts, insisted on us all visiting The Cabaret. On the second floor of one of the remaining old buildings in Antakya, the bar had some serious ambiance. With glass walls displaying the building’s old stone work, a live band, and a huge mix of men and women, Turks and Syrians, The Cabaret was hoping as it displayed that – even after thousands of years – Antakya was still a place of easy mixing.