A traveller's account of Antakya, one of the oldest cities of Turkey
Antakya or Antioch, in eastern Turkey, is tucked between the Mediterranean and the border with Syria. It was once a famous city like Rome and Constantinople, located on the Great Silk Road and on the crossroads of trading routes. It has recently become more accessible with Qatar Airways recently launching a direct flight from Doha, thrice a week.
WALK ALONG THE WINDING ALLEYS OF SOUKS
Explore the old town with its winding alleys and lanes that radiate in all directions, peppered with minarets and bath houses (hamaams). Stalls sell fresh spices like sumac, red pepper paste, fresh henna powder, chilli flakes and strings of dried vegetables from aubergine to ladyfinger. Stop to have a Turkish coffee with kunefe - the local sweet made from a special cheese spun on rotating hot disks and then doused wheat, with hot syrup and pistachios.
FEAST ON ITS UNIQUE, CROSS-CULTURAL CUISINE
The cuisine of Hatay is a fusion of influences from Turkish and Lebanese, to Arabic and Syrian. Expect an array of mezze, with wild herbs, buttery soft hummus, pickled olives and smoky eggplant with pomegranate molasses, bakla - a puree of beans, garlic with tahini, Lebanese walnut paste and crusty breads straight from the oven. Try local delicacies like yoghurt soup, and sahlep-a hot drink made from the tubers of a precious orchid. Have dinner at the Konak restaurant, a 170-yearold mansion converted into a restaurant after two years of painstaking restoration.
VISIT THE WATER WONDERLAND
Drive to Harbiye, 7 km from Hatay which is according to legend, the place where Daphne was chased by Apollo and she was turned into a laurel tree. Long ago the Romans built lavish mansions here with mosaics, and had groves of laurel and cypress. Today, the place is a sylvan oasis with greenery, sundappled pools with ducks and waterfalls, souvenir stalls and a photogenic cafe that has chairs and tables placed in the water.
LEARN HOW TO WEAVE SILK FROM MULBERRY
The process of weaving silk from mulberry is an old craft of Antakya. We watched a film and saw how they reeled the filaments by treating the cocoons in boiling water. We saw weavers click clacking on 150-year-old weaving machines using old-fashioned methods, to weave the lustrous Yilmaz silk into scarves, shawls and dresses. Another visit was to a soap-making factory where soap from laurel leaves was being stirred in huge vats with olive oil, and then and cut into soap bricks.
GET A PEEK INTO ITS MOSAIC OF RELIGIONS
Antakya has been a place where religions have co-existed for centuries - from Christians to Jews and Muslims. Visit the Turkish Catholic Church located in an old mansion with a courtyard studded with orange trees. It has a small altar with the picture of the Last Supper, presided over by an Italian priest. Close by is a synagogue and the famous dome of the Habib-e-Nekkar mosque named after a pagan carpenter who converted to Christianity and was beheaded by the pagans. Finish your religious travel at the Church of St Peter in the outskirts, which may be the first rock church in the world, where St Peter met the followers in secret and the word 'Christian' was coined for his followers.
REVEL IN STUNNING ARCHITECTURE
Appreciate the stunning architectural styles of old mansions in the city with a simple door leading to a sprawling courtyard with rooms lined around it , with orange and laurel trees and a fountain. Feast on the little details from stained glass windows, carved lintels to wrought iron balconies. Urban renewal has converted many of these beautiful buildings into hotels and restaurants. Visit the Savoy Hotel which used to be a soap and olive oil factory, with wooden shutters and a large courtyard. Another is the Liwa Hotel a French colonial style building which used to house the Syrian commander and today is furnished with chandeliers, velvet and period furniture.
TAKE A WALK THROUGH LIVING HISTORY
Walk on the long avenue called Kurtulus or Liberation Street, that sits atop an ancient colonnaded stretch that was the first street in the world to have street lighting. Many excavations were made in Antakya and the towns around like Daphne, and more than 300 mosaics were unearthed.