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Antakya: A Cosmopolitan City Of Star, Cross And Crescent

Habibi Nacar Mosque Kurtuluş Caddesi (Liberation Street) runs straight as an arrow along the eastern fringes of Antakyas old quarter. Ive just crossed it for the fifth time. Its July and the weather is hot.

Wheres the synagogue

A man in a hole-in-the-wall shop stands pouring a batter mixture through a comb onto a heated, rotating griddle. Hes making kadayif, the strings of shredded wheat used, along with a local special cheese and syrup, to make Antakyas most famous desert: künefe. Im not looking for kadayif, though. Im searching for a star or, more precisely, a Star of David. “Wheres the synagogue?” I ask in my best Turkish. “Look, its right over there,” he smiles and points across the road, adding “Are you from Israel?” I lift my head back and tsk in the Turkish manner, “No, Im English.” I thank him, cross the road yet again, but still cant find the building. Exasperated, I glance up. Theres a star carved with geometric precision on the lintel above the door of a plain, stone-built 19th century building. Beneath it is an ageing plaque, with the vivid red background of the Turkish flag, celebrating the 80th anniversary of the synagogue. This juxtaposition of the flag of the secular Turkish Republic, which incorporates the star and crescent of Islam, with the symbol of the Jewish faith, the Star of David, speaks volumes about Antakya.

Looking back across Liberation Street and just a couple of hundred meters away, I can see the ornate, pointed minaret of the Habibi Nacar Mosque, topped by a copper crescent. Dating from Ottoman times, the mosque is named in honor of a Muslim saint whose body lies in a cave in the mountainside behind me. Though the minaret is wholly Islamic, the mosque building was once a Byzantine church. Nearer, peeping out above the upper branches of an orange tree, is the quaint bell-tower of a Catholic church, consecrated in the 1980s. The three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all represented, side by side, in this tiny area of a small city situated where Turkey bumps up against the Arab world (Aleppo, in Syria is just 100 kilometers away). Arabic — in addition to Turkish — is the language of the street and Jews, Christians and Muslims worship in close proximity, just as they have for centuries. That Antakya is a tolerant, cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic and multi-faith city is a stereotype, maybe — but it also happens to be true.

Antakya’s history

Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander the Greats generals, founded Antakya in the fourth century B.C. and named it Antioch in honor of his father. Christianity and Islam had yet to be established, but in the second century B.C. a large number of Jews were brought to the city, bringing their faith with them. People of many different ethnic origins flocked to the city from all over the Hellenistic world. Situated on either bank of the Orontes (todays Asi river), it grew into a major city, with a population of over half a million. It also developed a reputation far removed from the strict moral codes of the monotheistic religions — that of pagan licentiousness. Dionysus, Bacchanalian god of wine, synonymous with revelry and excess, was revered. A wealthy elite, grown fat on the wealth created by Antiochs strategic location on the newly opened Silk Road, entertained lavishly in sumptuous villas — incredibly well-preserved mosaics from some of these are displayed to stunning effect in the citys Archaeological Museum — and exotic animals, like elephants, rhinos and lions, were pitted against each other in the circus. Despite such depravity, Antioch was a cultured place, a center of learning on par with Alexandria in Egypt. In the Byzantine era Antiochs importance continued, despite cataclysmic earthquakes, and it was one of the empires most important cities along with Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem.

From the synagogue doorway, head northeast along Liberation Street for a couple of kilometers to a building that holds a unique place in Christian history: the Church of St. Peter. Here, in a few short years either side of A.D. 50, the apostles Peter and Paul preached to Antiochs tiny Christian population, making Antioch the home of the worlds first church and earliest Christian community. Pilgrims of Christian denominations still come to visit this simple grotto, hollowed out from a cliff in the limestone massif of Mt. Ziyaret .The church was enlarged by the crusaders, who captured the city from the Turks in 1098, but in 1268 it passed back into Muslim hands. In 1580 the Ottoman rulers of the city gave it to the Orthodox Christian community and in 1863 the attractive oriental-style façade of the church you see today, was added by Capuchin monks on the orders of Pope Pius IX.

In one of the towns many stationary shops (the youthful population remains, as in ancient times, keen on learning) Ive just bought a print of an old black and white photograph. It shows a wonderful Roman bridge, offset by a cloud of white seagulls. This bridge was demolished in the 1970s in an act of municipal vandalism, to be replaced with the concrete one beneath my feet. To my left is the Gündüz building. Built in the 1920s, when Antakya was part of French-mandated Syria, it looks like an Art-Deco cinema, with geometric relief carvings, round windows and a curved portico. It once served as the parliament building of the short-lived Hatay Republic in 1938, before the citizens of the region voted for union with Turkey. Some traces of Antiochs licentiousness remain — the Gündüz is now a soft-porn cinema! The modern town, on the west bank of the river, still has something of the look of a 1930s French town, with its grid-plan layout and modernist public buildings. The Archaeological Museum is here, too and, with one of the finest collections of mosaics in the world, it is a must see for any visitor.

Back on the east bank, the old town runs uphill toward the forested slopes of Mt. Ziyaret, which dominate the town. The bazaar area is worth exploring, with its shady alleys and shops selling everything from the famous local laurel-scented soap to sacks of fiery “isot” pepper flakes. A little way south of the bazaar area is an increasingly upscale part of town, dominated by some fine French colonial buildings, some with beautiful Art-Deco stained glass windows, and the Antakya Beyazit, a boutique hotel lovingly converted from a 1920s French public building.

Wandering around the old quarter in the soft warmth of a summer evening is very pleasant and you can sample some excellent dishes not found elsewhere in Turkey. The hummus, liberally decorated with olive oil, pepper, tomatoes and parsley, is delicious. One or two basic stalls sell nothing but this and bakla, a puree of broad beans, tahini, garlic and olive oil — both served with lashings of hot, flat pita-style bread. For a more leisurely meal, try the period splendor of the Antakya Evi, a 19th century townhouse converted into an atmospheric restaurant. Start with muhammara, a spicy dip of mashed walnuts, bulgur wheat and hot pepper, followed by Antioch kebab — tender meatballs stuffed with cheese, olives and walnuts.

Antakya Evi

Just a step away from the Antakya Evi is an Antiochian Greek Orthodox church, known as the St. Peter and St. Paul Cathedral. An imposing 19th century building, its set in a peaceful courtyard. The priest is very friendly. According to him, around 4,000 Christians (mainly Antiochian Orthodox) live in the Hatay, 1,500 of them in Antakya itself. The interior is liberally decorated with beautiful icons, a gift from Czarist Russia. A schism of the mainstream Greek Orthodox Church, the Antiochian Patriarch resides in Damascus and the bibles here are in the language of the congregation, Arabic. Up the hill, in the grounds of the Catholic church, Father Domenico tells me that the Catholics and Orthodox communities have very good relations. For example, Catholic weddings take place in the Orthodox cathedral.

I didnt manage to get inside the synagogue, although I was let into the courtyard. The rabbi was just finishing showing a group of Turkish visitors around and had an appointment elsewhere. I went back on a Saturday, but a service was underway, so again I was denied entry. Having explored several of Antakyas simple Ottoman era mosques, possibly the earliest church ever built, plus the Catholic and Orthodox churches, I am determined to go back to a city where people of different ethnic stock and religion have lived together peaceably for centuries — and get into that synagogue!

[Quick tips]

How to get there: The nearest airport is Adana. Frequent coaches from Adana to Antakya take two-and-a-half hours. An airport for Antakya is near completion.

Where to stay: Expensive: Antik Beyazıt. Tel:0326/216 2900 Mid-range: Hotel Saray. Tel-0326/214 9001 Budget: Catholic Church Guest House. email domincobertogli@hotmail.com

Where to eat: Antakya Evi: Silahlı Kuvvetler Cad. Period charm, great food, alcohol

Sultan Sofrası: İstiklal Cad 6. Fantastic range of Antakya specialties, best at lunchtimes, no alcohol Zeynel Ustanın Köprübaşı Bufe: Serves hummus and bakla only Guidebooks and websites The Rough Guide to Turkey; Antioch on the Orontes by Zambon, Bertogli and Granella; www.sacred-destinations.com/turkey/antioch

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