It is a place described by travel guides as not offering any spectacular sites, a rather mediocre city, with a landscape nothing to write home about. The province, of which Antakya is the capital, was once the Republic of Hatay for about a year in 1938-1939 and, as I was to learn, it is remarkable in every way.
For one who couldn’t even sit on a swing as a child without getting nauseous, being on boats, planes, and in cars and streetcars as much as I am these days, things can get tricky. The day before we were set to leave for Antakya, it all caught up with me. But, with careful management I made it to the airport in the morning. As I walked back from the washroom, Leonardo DiCaprio’s friendly face looked at me from a larger than life, black and white, Saat&Saat poster. He smiled and said, “Hey baby, don’t worry. It’ll all be okay.”
When I got back to our table in the airport lounge, my husband looked at me for a bit. Then he said: “And we’re going to a place where the main attraction is food.” I looked at Leo. He winked back. Then he stepped out of the poster, put his arm around me, and the next thing I knew I had landed in Hatay.
When we walked the tarmac from the plane to the airport, a hot wind almost blew me over. Careless white clouds amassed toward Antakya. There they grew a deep grey. The quality of air and white mountains sprinkled with dark green vegetation told me we were in the Mediterranean.
The new airport is made of a white frame of thick pipes and glass walls. The roofs undulate like white waves. It is airy and it is light and it announces to the world that this province is poised to be put on the map again.
On the half hour bus ride towards Antakya I had the refuge camps of Boynuyogun on my mind. I had seen photographs of the rows of white peaked tents, with the Turkish crest burning like a flame on their roofs, and the walls around the camp topped with barbed wire and heavily guarded. I knew they were near Antakya. This tent city of almost a 100 000 Syrians wasn’t far from my mind as we joined the quiet highway, but then it started to rain and then we entered Antakya, and first impressions soon pushed away the fate of the Syrians.
The city came upon me as just another Middle Eastern city of clean but messy streets of white-washed low-rises, interspersed with more embellished ones and, in between, shops and workshops in concrete hulls with large storefront windows in aluminum frames. As I looked, my head was computing the information I had gathered about this place.
This city was not only visited by a Greek god and home to a nymph, who was turned into a tree, it also had a community of Hellenistic Jews two centuries before Barnabas spread the word of Jesus. He eventually brought the Hellenistic Jew, Saul, here. He is the one who fell from his horse when he was struck by the voice of the god that rules the religions of this city, and later became Paul and the most important proselytizer of Christianity amongst gentiles. Antioch is also the place where the followers of Jesus were first called Christians and the city was the fourth largest in the Roman empire. It was again one of the largest cities under the rule of Byzantium.
Antioch was taken from Byzantium in the eight century by Arabs and called Antakya for the first time. It was then retaken. A strategic point during the Crusades, it was immortalized by minstrels for the Siege of Antioch. Back then the city had a fortified wall and a citadel. None of that was visible to me as we made our way through land that sits on a fault line and was shaken up so badly so often that much of old Antioch lies buried under the sediment of the Orontes River.
What still is visible are the buildings put there by the French about a century ago when Antakya belonged to Syria. Our hotel, The Liwan, is one of these buildings.
A boutique hotel, it is housed in the restored Embassy of Syria. The floors are covered with old tiles that paint patterns, the velvet chairs in the front lobby that you access by going first up a few stairs and then down a few, are set off richly against the stone walls. The man behind the desk got up and came to shake our hand. As we signed in, we were offered tea.
It was our first encounter with the overwhelming kindness of the people of Antakya.
We were given a choice of rooms, one with sloping roof and a dormer, the other with high ceilings but no windows that we could see. The building was constructed on the model of old buildings that prevented the outside world from seeing the women of the household. Only the staircase in the middle at the front of the building has windows and a few other rooms that are now called deluxe suites. Breakfast is served on the second floor where windows and doors open out in an inner courtyard. In traditional homes this would have been the place where women could come out, enjoy the open air and one another’s company. It now has an opaque roof.
Breakfast offers a display of all kinds of foods laid out on a long table: white cheeses, boiled eggs, breads, cheese pies and sweets, fruits, olives, dates, salads. At the very end, fare for North-Americans and Northern Europeans: cereals, milk, and jams. For drinks there is the urn with tea, always the urn with tea, one spout with an almost black liquid and the other, clear hot water to dilute your tea to taste. There is coffee, juice, and there is ayran, the buttermilk that people drink with everything and that is very refreshing.
The remainder of our first day, before that wonderful breakfast, was spent exploring our possibilities and agreeing on a guided tour with a hotel car and driver to show us the most important spots in the vicinity: the waterfalls of Hirbiye, the only remaining Armenian village in Turkey, and the tunnel made by Romans down at the sea. Our hotelier showed us this with the kind of enthusiasm that makes you feel as if you are the only people he will ever do this for. The same when he showed us what there was to see in present-day old Antakya. There the Protestant church, settled by South Koreans we already know, and there the synagogue, the Catholic church, then the bazar and the mosque, beautiful and very old. And here, just around the corner, the Greek Orthodox Church.
“In Antakya all religions are friends,” he said.
“Any good places for food?” my husband asked. “Künefe?”
The hotelier put some marks in the vicinity of the bazar and the mosque. “First you eat something,” he said. “Not too big a meal. Then, three hours later, you go for künefe. And I will see if I can get you a driver for tomorrow.”
And with another comment how we are such positive people, he waved us off in search of food. Me with tentative expectations, Th eager. He tasted the künefe, which is an Antakya specialty, in one of the few places in Istanbul that makes it. One of our local kebab restaurants has it on the menu but has not had it available.
We squeezed our way past the throngs walking up and down the bazar, we spotted places that sell the dough for künefe and we saw the places our hotelier pointed out for kebab but my husband was on a trail. When this happens, he seems an animal on the prowl. He looks and walks on. Sometimes he looks, considers, and walks on. He does not exchange words. I have learned to just let him over the years, because I know he will find what he is looking for.
Life is good to him that way.
As we propelled ourselves out of the market at the other end we entered new territory. This is not tourist land. This is a place where life functions on little money. Doners are only a buck fifty.
He found a table free. Most of these places are tiny with only three or four tables. We were given a long rolled up thin pita filled with chicken, some tomato and salad stuff, which had been gently dribbled by a sauce before it was rolled up. I checked in with my stomach and having been given the go ahead for the chicken and some of the pita, I opened my doner and gingerly started picking away at this delicious food. All the while I was eating, I was trying to understand why something as simple as this can be so good in some kitchens and so unremarkable in others.
It was among the best I have had and I wasn’t even tasting much. With a tea to close the deal, I put my hand to my stomach, happy that I could eat again.
Then we looped our way back through the bazar and the various smells and aromas that drift towards us from the many stalls. It is a substantial bazar which branches everywhere. The hunt was on again. This time for the famed künefe, the pastry made of a mozzarella type cheese encased in shredded wheat and doused with syrup. It doesn’t sound like much, it didn’t even sound appealing to me but it is what everyone told Th we must try.
We found the place. Near the river. It is all they make. That and coffee and tea. I agreed to a coffee and I took a bite of Th’s künefe but I still couldn’t taste much. What I did taste, however, told me this would be a fare far too rich. I later also consider that maybe drinking coffee was just a bit too ambitious. But I was okay.
Th was a convert to the treat; I chose to hold back judgement.
When we got back to the hotel we were introduced to Leila, a beautiful woman with long dark hair, eyes like dark coffee, and a sweet smile. Our driver and guide for the next day.
In the evening we went out again and found a restaurant that served chicken soup for me and kebab for Th. Tables and chairs were set out on the pavement. The soup felt like a soft warm blanket. I could feel myself heal. All along the traffic-free street, restaurants had tables and chairs out. Trees with hollow braided trunks sent out an eerie green light. Across from us a restaurant sold liver burgers. While the temperature had been over thirty during the day, a cool wind blowing in from the mountains dropped it down to about twenty.