Millennia of silence lie behind the modest appearance of today’s Antakya. Art, faith and taste in good food all at once, all in the same city...

T o set out on a journey for one’s religious belief, to walk, to travel, and to believe... And the significance is far more profound when it comes to ‘faith', because it’s actually the body that is going from place to place. The traveling person whispers his faith from ear to ear, leaving something of himself behind wherever he goes. He himself becomes that faith so that it is no longer him but his faith that is remembered. Anatolia is a virtual atlas of such journeys of faith. Who has not walked where and when here over the millennia? Who not slept in what mountain village? What temples have they carved in the rocks with their hands? Saint Paul met Mevlânâ, and Saint Peter exchanged letters with the Ottoman Sheikh Edebali on these lands. Priceless temples, sculptures and cities, paid for in their time with sweat and tears, line the stops along the road today. For this is Anatolia.

Start by going to the Nur Mountains. You’ll come first to Hasan Dağı and immediately below it Ihlara’s ‘rocks of faith', and then it’s Hello, Konya! When you reach the foothills of Habib Neccar, stop. Down below, at the entrance to the Asi Valley, northeast of Kel Dağı and directly southwest of Amik Plain, our destination is a town that lies between the two mountains. Be sure to allow at least three days for it, because you’re in Saint Peter’s country... Or in the land of Tyche, goddess of goodness whose tears slide down her white marble  cheeks at the Vatican. Alexander of Macedonia is remembered here as well, and the Persian emperor Darius. Like all major settlements of antiquity, Antioch also had an epithet of unknown provenance: today’s Antakya was once known as ‘the crowning justice of the East'.

According to a legendary Ottoman manuscript, Antakya was one of the first four cities in the world. It is interesting that the Mediterranean cities known today as the Syrian Tetrapolis also number four: Antioch, Seleucia Pieria, Apamea and Laodiceia.

Antakya, which is characterized as one of Turkey’s cultural capitals in any one of the millions of ‘hits’ a brief search turns up, still hosts several communities of different religious and cultural identities. It is also one of UNESCO’s cities of peace. A common feature of everyday life in the city is the presence here of more than one religious community of citizens of the same country in true multiculturalism. The rise of Antakya is explained by its having been one of the safe halts along the routes that extended into Syria and Palestine linking Mesopotamia with the Eastern Mediterranean.  

While excavations at Tell-Açana (höyük) confirm that the area was used for settlement starting from the Chalcolithic (5000-4000 B.C.), keep in mind as you walk here that you are on the cusp of the Hittite and Ancient Egyptian empires.

With the world’s second largest collection of mosaics, the Hatay Archaeological Museum deserves to be called simply a ‘Mosaic Museum’ for its outstanding specimens, regarded as the most important Roman mosaics to have been brought to light up to now. The Louvre in Paris and the art museums of Worcester, Baltimore and Princeton in the U.S. are their other addresses. Built to exhibit finds from the excavations begun in the city of Antioch in 1932, the museum, which has been closed  at various times and reopened, has been in operation continuously since 1975. Its awe-inspiring mosaics make it a must-see. Remains of graves and tablets, frescoes, jewelry, statuettes and coins belonging to a timeline stretching from the Early Bronze Age to the Hittite and Early Christian eras are arranged here according to where they were found. Nor should the mosaics from the Church of Seleucia Pieria in the garden be overlooked.

Judging by the monuments in the region, Antakya has clearly been of great religious significance in every age. Home to Roman temples and, until around 300 B.C., to a sizeable Jewish community, the city is also believed to have been one of Saint Paul’s points of departure on his ministries. But the city’s most important asset from the point of view of Christianity is, without doubt, the cave church named for him and believed to have been carved out by Saint Peter with his own hands. Regarded as a place of pilgrimage by Catholic Christians, this church is said to be the first place of worship in the history of Christianity. And not far away at Charion there are carvings left from the Hellenistic period.

The population of Antioch, a dream city in the 4th century A.D., is estimated to have been around 200,000. In antiquity this city of peace and plenty also experienced one of the worst disasters that could befall a city: an earthquake. A violent earthquake that killed almost the entire population; in its aftermath commenced in turn, starting in 636, the Arab, Byzantine, Seljuk, Crusader, Timurid and Ottoman periods.

Originating in the mountains of Lebanon, flowing all the way through Syria and forming a fertile bed between the mountains Nur and Kel, the Asi River is nature’s gift, feeding the human activity that gives rise to Antioch. Although only a very short stretch of its close to four hundred kilometer-long course lies inside Antakya, it was deep enough to allow the passage of small cargo ships in antiquity and was therefore known for  thousands of years as a trade and transit route to the Mediterranean. Even on a brief city tour today you can see that it divided the city into East and West, or ‘old’ and ‘new'.

We cross the bridge to look for a restaurant where we can eat ‘içli köfte’ (stuffed meatballs), puree of broad beans, and hummus in the streets on the eastern side, which could be termed the city’s ‘ancient’ face since the historic texture is more palpable here. Then a stroll through the labyrinths of the historic ‘Uzunçarşı’ or long market, with its dim light reminiscent of a tunnel through time and busy hum that only a lively trading atmosphere can bring. Like its counterparts in Urfa, Antep and Istanbul, it consists of tiny shops squeezed together side by side. And the saddlers, leather goods merchants and ironmongers alongside   shops selling modern consumer goods of every kind offer a brief glimpse of the old days.

As for the defense walls that once again compare with those in Istanbul, they stretch for close to 30 kilometers over Habib Neccar Dağı, as you can’t help but notice the first time you arrive in the city. Known as Seleucia Pieria in antiquity, Çevlik is another of nature’s gifts to Antakya. The ancient Tunnel of Titus, an engineering feat built at the mouth of the river to control the continous flooding, makes today’s charming village of Çevlik an important place to be visited. Don’t miss the Samandağ rock-cut tombs not far away either. Meanwhile you can see examples of Armenian stonework in the village of Vakıflı, where you will find the last surviving traditional stone houses that are unique to the region.

If this tour has taken you all day, then return to the place where you started, to the banks of the Asi. But don’t forget to choose a good place for eating cheese ‘Künefe', a  traditional Arab and southeastern Turkish pastry. After you’ve consumed olives with bread and hot peppers at a coffeehouse under the willows, don’t be enervated by the gentle south wind that blows up at dusk. Walk a little farther and get half a kilo of ‘sürki'. And offer it on bread to the people back home when you tell them what you saw on your trip. What is ‘sürki', you ask? Would I give that away? Find out for yourself, at the Uzunçarşı.