IN ISTANBUL I met Michael, a Syrian refugee living in Hatay: a province of Turkey on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean. Hatay has a longer border with Syria than it has with the rest of Turkey and is currently on travel caution lists as a result. This is affecting its tourism trade.
All the same, Michael invited me to come to Hatay and stay with him in its capital city of Antakya — a city better known to Westerners by its classical and Biblical name of Antioch.
I was flattered by the invitation. Plus, I have never seen the world through the eyes of refugees. So, after due consideration, I said I would.
The earliest human settlement in Hatay that we know about dates back to the epipaleolithic period of hunter-gatherer society (40.000- 9.000 BCE). This was a ‘cave dweller’ period. Evidence of prehistoric humans living in natural caves is widespread in Hatay.
From about 9,000 BCE the people in Hatay developed agriculture and towns. The area was always contested by the empires that grew up around it. Hatay came to be ruled by the Akkadians, the Hurrians, the Hittites, the Assyrians, the Persians, Alexander and the Seleucids, the Romans, the Arabs, the Byzantines, the Seljuks, the Crusaders, the Armenians, the Mamluks, and the Ottomans.
After the Macedonian conqueror Alexander (‘the Great’) died, his empire split up and the Seleucid Empire was one of the pieces it broke up into. Antioch was founded around 300 BCE by the Seleucids, to be their new capital. The Seleucid Empire eventually crumbled the area around Antioch became part of the Roman Empire.
Under Roman rule, Antioch continued to thrive with commerce and culture. With a population of half a million, Antioch was the third largest city in the ancient Roman Empire after Rome and Alexandria and was known as ‘The Queen of the East’.
Antioch has also been called the cradle of Christianity. In church history, it is one of the five patriarchal centres, the others being Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Constantinople (Istanbul). According to the New Testament, the term ‘Christian’ was first used in Antioch.
Antioch — today’s Antakya — lies on the banks of the Asi River (known in ancient Greek and Roman times as the Orontes), on a fertile plain surrounded by grand mountains.
Michael told me about his life as we were travelling. He was working as a Language School teacher getting US $400 a month. Rent was $100 and to feed yourself was $6 a day in Antakya. Life was much better than in Syria.
He was an Alawite, a variety of Shi’a Muslim which forms a sizeable minority in Syria. Michael said that there were many common elements in all three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, including the Alawite sect. I said I felt close to Buddhism. Michael and his friends appreciated that.
Hatay is perhaps best known to most Westerners in the form of its fictional portrayal in the 1989 movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, as the ‘Republic of Hatay.’ That republic is entirely fictional. However, Hatay has long been a distinctive territory.
In the days of the Ottoman Empire Hatay was known as the Sandjak of Alexandretta. The word Sandjak meant something like district and referred to the territory around a coastal city with the Greek name of Alexandretta, meaning ‘little Alexandria’; a name that reminds us that the Ottoman Empire was only partly Turkish. The big Alexandria is the one that is in Egypt.
After the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War One, the Sandjak of Alexandretta became part of the new country of Syria, carved out of the old Ottoman empire and placed under a semi-colonial French administration, which was supposed to be temporary in nature and to last only as long as was necessary to help the Syrians get on their feet.
In 1939, the Sandjak was handed over to modern Turkey by Syria’s French rulers, who hadn’t yet left, and renamed Hatay by the modern Turkish Republic. The French hoped that the Turks would join the Allied side in the coming war or at least remain neutral, which they did.
The Turkish Republic, which was also born out of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, was more mono-ethnic than the old empire: or claimed to be at any rate, though it still contained a large Kurdish minority and remnants of other non-Turkish populations, who had generally either been massacred or fled during the dark days of World War One and its immediate aftermath.
For instance, the last Armenian village in modern Turkey is in Hatay, a village called Vakıflı: a long way from modern Armenia. One of the historic names of the small inlet of the sea in the north of Hatay is the Armenian Gulf, though today it is called the Bay or Gulf of Iskenderun, the modern Turkish name for the city of Alexandretta.
The Asi River meanders down to the sea near Samandağ, a modern town near the site of an ancient Seleucid and Roman seaport known as Seleucia Pieria, which now seems to be about two kilometres inland.
To end up high and dry as the silt accumulates, and as the earth’s crust slowly buckles, is a common destiny of ancient seaports. Either that, or they descend beneath the waves they once served. It is surprising how much geological change can accumulate in just two thousand years.
Vakıflı is near Samandağ. Also close to Samandağ are the Beşikli Cave Tombs, a necropolis or ‘city of the dead’ said to contain 94 tombs of high-ranking rulers of the Seleucid Empire, and of later high-ranking Romans as well.
Near a village called Çevlik, also in the same area, is the Vespasian-Titus Tunnel. This is an ancient water tunnel built during the reigns of the Roman Emperors Vespasian and his son, Titus.
A video I filmed inside the tunnel
Further up the Asi river, near Antioch, there is a cave-church known today as the Grotto or Church of Saint Peter. This church is renowned, by tradition, as the place where the Apostle Peter is supposed to have preached when he visited Antioch. It is one of the earliest Christian places of worship and one of a handful of Christian structures in the area that have survived from that far back. The Papacy has annual pilgrimages here in June.
The ancient Iron Gate of Antioch. built in Roman times and existing in its current form since the reign of Justinian in the 500s CE, was something I almost stumbled across. It had no apparent signs and it was by chance that I visited it after visiting the Grotto of St Peter.
I discovered the Iron Gate, which controlled access to Antioch and also controlled the waters on a local stream, on Trip Advisor. When I got to the vicinity of the structure, I found that there were no marked paths either. Local boys showed us how to get there — and it was no walk in the park! It took 45 minutes over slippery terrain, and Michael, his female friend Betul, and I, did well to get there!
Arriving at the Iron Gate of Antioch, on the ‘Donkey Drowner’ stream
We also explored the remains of a ruined Byzantine castle called Bakras, also known as Bagras or Baghras. This was erected in the 900s CE, so it is a couple of hundred years older than most European castles of similar construction.
Bakras Castle video, filmed inside
Antakya is still to this day home to a Roman Catholic church and a Greek Orthodox church. There is a synagogue too, though its congregation is now very small.
The Hatay Archaeology Museum, also known locally as the mosaic museum, has the second richest collection of ancient mosaics in the world. It also has lots of other antiquities, such as the striking bust of a bronze-age Hittite king named Suppiluliuma.
Because of migration, conquest, and persecution, the ethnic and religious mix in these parts has often been in a state of flux.
During the twentieth century, Hatay was colonised by ethnic Turks. This century, so far, the Syrian conflict has boosted the Arab population of Hatay from 34 percent to 47 percent, so reversing some of the earlier Turkification.
The Muslim population of the region is split equally between Sunni and Alevi communities. The Alevi follow a similar creed to the Alawites of Syria and are, like the Alawites, a branch of the Shi’a tradition.
Politically, the region is unfriendly to Turkey’s President Erdoğan and his AKP Party. Neighbours of Michael’s had been arrested for publicly posting anti-government comments, and, out of concern for everyone’s security, I abstained from posting comments on social media myself while I was in Turkey, and especially in Hatay.
(To be continued in my next post.)
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