Antakya, site of the ancient city of Antioch, the throngs of tourists diminish, as does the Mediterranean resort atmosphere. Antakya offers sprawling markets in the old sections of town, manicured tea gardens, and the world famous Hatay Museum, housing the world’s finest collection of Roman mosaics. It was in Antioch that Christianity received its name; the side of Mt. Stauros is riddled with caves and tunnels where the underground religion was kindled, including the legendary Grotto of Saint Peter the oldest church in the world.
Seleucus Nicator, one of Alexander the Great’s chief generals, founded Antioch in 300 BC and domineered Asia from here. The population swelled to 500,000, but growth was tumultuous. Internal strife, the neighboring Persian and Roman Empires, a series of plagues, and a catastrophic earthquake in 148 BC all threatened the city. Even before Antioch fell to the Romans in 64 BC, this prominent Silk Road stop acquired a reputation for vice and decadence. By 42 BC, equipped with brand new city walls, an acropolis, amphitheater, courthouse, baths, and aqueducts, Antioch was the third-largest city in the Roman Empire and a center of science and commerce. Around AD 40, the Apostle Peter gathered the first Christian congregation here, converting Antioch and renaming it Theopolis (City of God). Only after losing 200,000 lives in a devastating 6th-century earthquake did the city enter a hopeless decline. Although Justinian rebuilt the city, marauders later trashed his good work, and Antioch’s splendor was reduced to ruins.
The crumbling walls along the surrounding mountain ridge are evidence of the city’s former glory. Modern-day Antakya thrives in the bustle of its market streets, the buzz of border traffic to Aleppo and Damascus, and the mouth-watering concoctions of Antakya’s kitchens, the fusion of ’Turkish and Syrian palates.
Buses: To: Ankara (10hr., 6 per day 10am-10pm, $13); Antalya (14hr., 10 per day 9am-6:15pm, $13); İstanbul (16hr., 8 per day 2;30-6pm, $19); İzmir (16hr., 4 per day 12:30-7pm, $19); Kars (23hr., 3pm, $21); Kayseri (8hr.; 9am, 8:30pm; $10); Mersin (6hr., 10 per day 9am-8pm, $5); Trabzon (20hr., 3:30pm, $18). International buses to Aleppo (3-4hr., 4 per day 9am-6pm, $8) and Damascus (9hr.; 9:30am, noon; $15).
Dolmuş: To Gaziantep (3hr., every 30min., $4). Across from the otogar, regional and local dolmuş leave for Samandağ (30min, every 15min, $1), Harbiye (20min., every 10min., $.50) and İskenderun (30min., every 15min., $1).
ORIENTATION AND PRACTICAL INFORMATION
The Asi (Orontes) River divides Antakya, with the otogar, commercial center and hotels on the eastern side. Across the river is the Atatürk statue rotunda, with the PTT and museum clustered nearby and Atatürk Cad. stretching to the north. From the otogar, the center of town is 700m along İstiklâl Cad. The museum is visible from here, straight across the river. South of İstiklâl Cad. several hotels, banks, and restaurants cluster along Hürriyet Cad.
- Tourist Office: (216 06 10), in the Valilik building, at the end of İstiklâl Cad., just past the Antik Beyazıt Hotel. Modest English, some helpful brochures and mimeographed map. Open M-F 8am-noon and 1:30-5:30pm.
- Banks: Türkiye İş Bankası, one of the many banks in town, has a branch on İstiklâl Cad., halfway between the center of town and the otogar. Another is just down Hürriyet Cad. from the Saray Hotel. Both offer currency exchange and 24hr. Cirrus/MC/Plus/V ATMs. The otogar and the exchange office on İstiklâl Cad., across from Vakıf Bank, provide Syrian pounds at more favorable rates. Pharmacy: Among the many pharmacies is Gazipaşa Eczanesi (214 97 04), just down Hürriyet Cad. from the Saray Hotel. Open M-Sa 8:30am-7:30pm.
- Hospital: Devlet Hastanesi (214 54 30), at Bagri Yanikda, 4km from town, is open 24hr. Dolmuş run from town center ($.30). Taxi $4.
- Internet Access: Over 40 outlets, all around $.75 per hr. Some close at 10pm if quiet. Moda-Net (216 52 90 ), on Huriyet Cad. 15, is close to Hotel Saray.
- PTT: In the center of town. Mail service daily 8:30am-6pm. 24hr. phone service.
Jasmin Hotel, 14 İstiklâl Cad. (212 71 71). Shared bathrooms, rooftop patio, and lawn furniture. Rooms open into an atrium. Singles $5; doubles $8; triples $10. Hotel Saray, 3 Hürriyet Cad. (fax 214 90 01), the best of the middle range choices. Offers a pleasant breakfast salon and new rooms with bath. Breakfast included. Singles $10; doubles $16; triples $25. Add $5 per room for A/C. 0 Divan Hotel, 62 istiklâl Cad. (215 15 18), a tidy one star place with breezy balconies and private bath with excellent showers. $7.50 per person.
FOOD AND ENTERTAINMENT
For the traveler well-inured to the traditional kebap and lokanta fare, Antakya is an exotic culinary oasis. Among the specialties of the region are hummus and içli köfte, often known as oruk, a spicy bulgur wheat and red pepper stuffed with seasoned lamb and pine nuts. Ekşi aşı, a variation on oruk, is served covered in tomato sauce. Vegetarian mezes are everywhere and feature lots of thick hummus, eggplants, and garlic. For dessert, künefe (or peynirli kadayıf) is a baklava- style pastry stuffed with sweet cheese. Much of this Syrian-influenced Turkish cuisine is unavailable in the rest of Turkey.
In the third week of July, Antakya hosts a four-day music festival, during which marching bands, DJ carts, and traditional singers fill the streets with howling crowds well past midnight. The beautifully restored Antik Beyazıt Hotel, Hukumet Cad. 4, is a must-see example of old Antakya architecture. Across İstiklâl Cad. from Hotel Divan is the red-light district; avoid anything labeled “gazino. ”
- Han Restaurant (214 17 16). On Hürriyet Cad. Despite the external appearance, Han has a smashing upper level with a grove of fruit trees. The mezes are simply extraordinary. Full meal $4-5. Open 10am-midnight.
- Sultan Sofrasi, 18 istiklâl Cad. (213 87 59), is among Antakya’s best. Great Mumbar, aşur, and sultan sarma in air conditioned comfort. Full meal $5-6. Open 7am-10pm.
- Anadolu Restaurant, 50/C Hürriyet Cad. (215 15 41). 10min. down the street from the Saray Hotel. Popular among locals, Anadolu serves vegetarian meze and excellent hummus. Try the saksuka: potatoes, eggplants, onions, and tomato sauces topped with yogurt. Outdoor seating. Cheaper than Sultan. Full meal $4-5. Open 10am-midnight.
- Edem Dondurma (214 53 36). On Atatürk Cad., 100m from the center of town. Serves your favorite fruit flavors as well as 3 varieties of dövme ice cream: plain (sade), chocolate (çikolata), and the heavenly pistachio (fıstık). Dövme (“beaten”) is pounded, kneaded, and stretched to a thick, gooey consistency.
HATAY MUSEUM. Except for the ruins of the ancient walls, earthquakes and marauders have destroyed much of Antioch’s ancient splendor. Only the breathtaking and world-renowned Hatay Museum hints at the magnificence of the ancient city. The museum houses one of the world’s best collections of Roman mosaics, assembled by an archaeological team from Princeton University, the British Museum, and the Chicago Oriental Institute. Painstakingly pieced together from thousands of tiny tiles, these huge mosaics depict images with near photo graphic precision.Highlights are a 2nd-century wild boar hunt (“A Pig Hunt in Calydonia”), the striking “Personification of Soteria,” the small, priapic hunchback mosaic (“The Happy Hunchback”), and a scantily clad man running in horror from an enormous levitating eye radiating farm implements (“Evil Eye”). The most imposing mosaic is the giant 5th-century hunting scene on the floor; climb the spiral staircase for a complete view. An air-conditioned salon houses coins, jewelry, and mounted heads. Sarcophagi and additional mosaics fill the garden outside. (Open Tu-Su 8:30am-noon and 1:30-6pm. $3.50, students $1.50.)
PETER’S CHURCH (SEN PİYER KİLİSESİ). Founded by the Apostle Peter, who preached here with Paul and Barnabas, this church (a.k.a. St. Peter’s Grotto) was built into a cave so that services could be conducted in secret. The original congregation here coined the term “Christianity” to describe their new religion. The hillside above the church, riddled with the remains of tunnels, natural caves, and bits of Antioch’s city walls, has been a holy place since pagan times. Inside the cave, an escape tunnel and an ancient baptismal font give a preternatural haunt to the stone altar, still regularly used for services. The external facade was built by the 11 century Crusaders; in front a terraced garden offers a pleasant spot to sit with a cup of çay and gaze at, the city below. A path zigzags 200m to a high relief of a veiled figure, alternately described as a windblown Mary or as the Syrian goddess of polis flanked by Charon, boatman of Hades. (To reach the church, walk 2km north on Kurunus Cad. (20min.) and take the erratic city bus #6, or a taxi ($2). Open Tu-Su 8am-noon and 1:30- 4:30pm. $3, students $1. There is no regular mass; check with the Antakya Catholic Church (215 67 03). Relief open Tu-Su 8am-noon, 1:30-5:30pm. Free.)
DAYTRIP FROM ANTAKYA: MONASTERY OF ST. SIMEON
To reach the site, follow the sign south off the Antakya-Samandağ road just past Karaçay. The road heads uphill 4km before forking right at a white shrine. A track leads a few kilometers farther to the monastery. The Antakya Samandağ dolmuş (1hr., every 15min., $2) will drop you at the turn-off, if you ask, or at Karaçay, where you can hire a fa» (round-trip $10).
Samandağ, about 30km southwest of Antakya, is a Mediterranean resort popular with Turkish and Syrian tourists. The seaside area, though more appealing than the dreary town, is heavily polluted. Between Samandağ and Antakya lies the Monastery of St. Simeon Stylites (the Younger), where Simeon sat on a pillar for 25 years. Driven by the ascetic impulse that characterized Syrian Christianity in the 4th century, Simeon imitated the better-known Simeon the Elder, whose ruined basilica and eroded column are across the border in Syria. He retreated to a deserted mountaintop and chained himself atop a 13m pillar to live the rest of his life in penitent solitude. This isolation did not last long, as he soon attracted crowds of pilgrims, to whom he delivered sermons against the rampant vice of Antioch. A monastery was built around the remains of his pillar. Only the foundations are still intact, but the site continues to draw tourists.
Fifteen minutes southwest of Samandağ on the road to Çevlik are the ancient ruins of Selucla Pieria (Beşikli Mağara), an ancient Roman port. Glacial runoff from the nearby mountains threatened the port duiing heavy rains, so the Romans dug a massive tunnel in the first and second centuries A.D., to divert the water flow. The Tunnel of Titus stretches for nearly 2km, from the mountainside down to the beach, at times cutting entirely through the mountain rock. Alongside the tunnel, innumerable Roman tombs were also dug into the rock, including some with magnificent colonnaded facades, holding several-hundred sarcophagi apiece. Hiking trails follow aqueducts through the tunnels and necropoli. At the end of the tunnel, Club Almina offers reasonable lodgings, with restaurant, pool, and disco. (Dolmuş $.35, one way from Samandağ.)
BORDER CROSSING: SYRIA
The overland crossing at Bab al-Hawa on the Aleppo-Antakya road takes less than 30min. each way. Obtain your Syrian visa in advance from your home country or at the Syrian embassy in Ankara. In theory, only travelers from countries without Syrian embassies can purchase border visas; otherwise they can cost, up to $100 at the border. Three-month double-entry visas cost $61. Any passport with evidence of a trip to Israel will be refused a visa or entry.
Several Antakya bus companies, including Has, offer service to Aleppo (3-4 per day, $8). Avoid Oztur, which uses substandard buses without air-conditioning. Allow 4-5 hours for the journey and border. The border has two stops on each side. At one stop on the Turkish side, you will have to leave the bus and go through passport control. Passport control and luggage searches are slower on the Syrian side, sometimes as long as 1/2 hours. The Syrian currency is the Syrian (S£). Because the official exchange rate is somewhat less than the black market rate, change money in Antakya, where it’s legal to exchange at the better rate.