Mosaic City: Hatay

A PLACE WHERE RELIGIONS AND LANGUAGES LIVE SIDE BY SIDE IN PEACE, THIS CITY, WHOSE NATURAL RICHES AND HISTORICAL AND CULTURAL LEGACY MAKE THEMSELVES FELT IN EVERY ASPECT OF LIFE, IS CLOSELY BOUND TO ITS TRADITIONS.

Hatay astonishes visitors. Full of surprises, this city also shares them generously, offering a different sort of beauty in every season. The treasures of Hatay, whose fame exceeds its boundaries, are the cultural heritage of all of us. And protecting that heritage is the best investment we can make in the future.

Living together in harmony, the people of Hatay share the common values. From the craftsman to the master chef, everyone here has a ‘gold bracelet’, some valuable skill backed by centuries of knowhow that he passes on to the young. So is knowledge handed down from generation to generation in Hatay. Apprentices become masters and train new apprentices, and the richness lives on.

Every stone has a story to tell in this holy city watched over by towering mountains on the broad plains carved out by the Asi River. Hatay, whose cosmopolitan culture can be read in the eyes of its people, is a labyrinth where you will want to lose yourself, a kaleidoscope of tastes of which you will never tire, a poem whose lines bewitch.

A city where a harmonious amalgam of differences, a fusion of past and present, and the shaping of the future by the past inspire. Seleucia Pieria was founded as a port city by Alexander the Great’s famous general Seleucus on the Asi River delta in 310 B.C. and with its founding determined the fate of the region. Because it was vulnerable to attack by sea, the capital was moved to Antioch.

By the time of the Roman Empire, the Emperor Vespasian had tunnels dug in the mountains to protect the harbor from flood waters. Completed by his son Titus, they are known today as the Titus Tunnels. Home to different civilizations over the centuries, Samandağ has preserved its cultural heritage right up to the present.

And its sociocultural richness is a function of the preservation of that legacy. This cultural mosaic, made up of people of different religions and sects, is reflected in everything from the rich array of food on tables to the enthusiasm for entertainment and the pleasure in conversation at the village coffeehouses. Vakıflı, one of the villages of Samandağ, lies in the foothills of Musa Dağı (Jebel Musa).

The land here was worked as a farm belonging to the village of Yoğunoluk prior to the reign of Mahmud II when this sultan entrusted one-tenth of it as a waqf to a Christian Arab by the name of Muhail. It is for this reason that the village is known today as Vakıflı. Keen to avoid hostilities during the First World War, the people of Vakıflı abandoned their village and went up into the mountains.

Transported to Port Said in 1915 in French and British ships, they lived in a camp there until 1918 before returning to settle again in their village during the armistice years. Following this incident the village of Vakıflı was under French rule for 20 years until it joined the Republic of Turkey on June 23, 1939.

Hatay’s largest township, İskenderun bears the name of the legendary commander Alexander (İskender in Turkish). The Macedonians were victorious in the war between Alexander the Great and Darius III in 333 B.C., at which time the town was renamed Alexandreia. With its port, its industry and its rapidly developing economy, İskenderun today is one of Turkey’s largest towns outside a metropolitan area. Thirty-two kilometers from İskenderun, Arsuz attracts interest as a resort area.

Meanwhile the taste of the local culinary treats will remain on your palate for a lifetime. Fresh thyme, kibbeh, dolma, makloubeh, knafa… Every meal here is a virtual feast.  To prepare the feast, the market is the first stop. We turn now to Hatay Archaeology Museum, whose distinguishing feature is that it houses the mosaics that paved the floors of buildings in the Roman period. These mosaics, from the 2nd and 3rd centuries A.D., were made of tiny cubes of colored stone known as tessera. With its extensive collection, the museum is one of a handful in the world.

An architectural message from the depths of history may appear in an ordinary street or even a doorway. The markets of Antakya constitute a framework for the city’s identity. Local and foreigner alike, everyone goes to them in search of the city’s original flavors. Memorable desserts are the result not only of cooking prowess but also of the quality of the ingredients.

Ramadan is enthusiastically welcomed in Antakya Preparations include trips to the market and setting of tables.

The broad plains watered by the Asi River, which is fed by melting snows in the foothills of the Amanos at the southeastern tip of the Taurus Mountains, have been an important hub of civilization for millennia. A region on which many invaders, most notably the Romans, set their sights.
Laurel is the symbol of the peaceful coexistence of different religions and cultures on these fertile lands. You will encounter it both as oil and as soap, all to enhance our beauty.

Taking his colors from air, water and earth, the Antakya artist for centuries has fashioned his works with heartfelt fervor, producing now an unparalleled sculpture, now a dish that inscribes itself deep in the brain.

When the bulghur obtained from the wheat grown on these fertile plains is combined with meat, a tasty dish is born that is found nowhere else on earth. And the name of that dish is oruk.

Besides its endless beaches, Hatay also offers sea lovers pristine coves as pure as an aquarium, where blue cruise enthusiasts find everything they are looking for. Generously displaying its natural and cultural riches, this city imbues its visitors with vertiginous energy.

Antakya’s knafa is unsurpassed for flavor. In addition to the masters who produce it, the ingredients are also crucial. Filled with daily fresh unsalted cheese and then cooked, the knafa is drenched in hot syrup, which gives it its unique flavor. The soft cheese trapped inside the crisp pastry lives on in the memory forever.

Turkish Airlines has Istanbul-Hatay-Istanbul flights every day of the week. For information: www.turkishairlines.com

Antakya (old Antioch) is noteworthy for its small hotels in restored historic buildings. Accommodation in İskenderun and Arsuz is a possibility as well since they are close to the sea.

Kibbeh, tray kebab, makloubeh, hummus, zahter salad with fresh thyme leaves, dolma and knafa… the list of Hatay dishes is endless. And there is a wide selection of quality restaurants in the city.

You can even buy dried, salted yoghurt, peppers, spices, sour pomegranate syrup, fresh thyme, vacuum-packed kibbeh and knafa and take Antakya’s flavors home with you. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to pick up a handmade silk shawl.

The grape harvest and festival of the Virgin Mary are celebrated on August 15 in Vakıflı, Turkey’s only Armenian village. At the festival, grapes are gathered, harissa (keşkek) is pounded and bowls of Noah’s pudding by the thousands are distributed.

The Civilizations Choir of Anktakya tells the story of Hatay’s multicultural identity from past to present in the universal language of music. A symbol of Antakya’s harmonious amalgam of differences, this chorus boasts members from all three of the world’s celestial religions.

Knafa shops are open late into the night at the market when Turkey’s best knafa is made. This sweet is even better when topped with a dollop of clotted cream or a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Orange Flower: Vakıflı

Vakıflı is one of the pieces that make up the colorful Hatay mosaic. A pastoral scene straight out of a classic French novel. The dizzying scent of orange flowers, the chirping of birds, a gently flowing stream… The protagonists of this novel are especially diligent. And all the products of nature’s blessings, skilled hands and beautiful villages are sold here.

The Church of Saint Peter in the foothills of Mt. Habib-ul Nejjar on the Antakya-Reyhanlı road is one of Christianity’s oldest. It is even believed that the name Christianity was first uttered at this church.

Nothing can compare with sipping a glass of tea and catching your breath under a tree whose branches spread over an area of 1,500 square meters in the village of Hıdırbey just a stone’s throw from Vakıflı. Rumor has it that the scepter carried by Al-Khidr, the Green Man, was made from the wood of this tree.

Butcher shops cum bakeries are a fixture of everyday life in Hatay. This cooperation between bakers and butchers is encountered all over the Middle East. When you feel like a meat-topped pide (Turkish-style pitta), all you have to do is come into town.

What about branching out now to the Mediterranean from the town of Samandağ, which is known for its kilometers of beaches? You can explore the tiny beaches and sea caves and take a dip in the pristine pure waters from boats departing from Çevlik Harbor.

YUSUF DARIYERLİ - Photographer

“It took exactly one month to shoot the Hatay photos. A number of crops from olives to citrus fruit grow in this region, which is watered by the Asi River. Nature is bountiful and verdant here. Arabs, Nestorians, Christians… Hatay is also of interest for its religious faiths, its tastes and its people. The sculptor Abdullah Özalp, whom I met at Harbiye, is one of the region’s biggest talents. He fashions magnificent ancient sculptures using techniques he learned from his father.”