The journey started with the flight on the first day of the week at 15:40 from Istanbul to Hatay and we reached our destination around 17:30. The airport is quite small… A shuttle outside the terminal was waiting to take us to the city center. It took us 20 minutes to get downtown, and on the way we were quite occupied planning which delicacies we would taste and where we would visit.
At this point, I’d like to make something clear about Antakya and Hatay. In daily language they are used interchangeably but in fact Antakya is the central district of Hatay province…
When we reached the downtown area, we went directly to Anadolu Restaurant, which was highly recommended, for our evening meal. Here I should emphasize that we were on foot because the distances between places is very short. Words are not enough to praise the delicacies at Anadolu Restaurant. A few of the appetizers we were served were: Hummus with butter, zahter salad, muhammara, baba ghanoush, local green olives with sauce, green salad with peppergrass/rocket and pomegranate syrup. Fresh out of the oven the pita bread served with all these was out of this world. After having a feast with all this heavenly food, we were so full that we asked them to serve the Kebab in the middle of the table so that we could share. And yes, the kebab was also very delicious…
After dinner, we went to our hotel, Ottoman Palace, where we had already made a reservation. The hotel’s location, being out of the city center, might seem like a disadvantage at first but then again for visitors like us who love a spa, Turkish bath and sauna, it turned out to be much more enjoyable. We spent the first night at the hotel sound asleep and the next morning we awoke bright and refreshed, and more than willing to pay the spa an early visit. After a king’s breakfast, we hit the road again.
We started the expedition by passing over the famous Asi River and reaching Hatay Archeology Museum. The museum has an entrance fee, and I recommend you to get a museum card because it’ll be very useful at other places you might visit later. For museum fans this place is marvelous. What appealed to me most was the Roman athletes on the walls. It was designed in a way that wherever you go, the eyes of the athletes seem to be following you.
After the museum we headed to the St Pierre Church, one of first temples of Christianity. To reach the church, which is located on the Antakya-Reyhanlı route, we took the number 15 bus from the central bus terminal. After a 10-15 minute ride and a little climb up to the church, we reached the St Piere Church which is situated inside a cave carved into the mountain side of the Mount Starius. To enter the cave church, which is 13 meters long, 7 meters high, and 9.5 meters wide, there is a fee (but the museum card can also be used here).
According to the information we received from the officer in the museum, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus, St Pierre, came to Antioch (Antakya) in 30 A.C. and founded the first church after the main church in Jerusalem. It’s believed that the term Christian was used here for the first time in history. During the early years of the church a secret passage was built to evacuate the community against the possibility of sudden raids on ceremonies, but it was closed due to a landslide. St Pierre Church was announced as one of the places of pilgrimage by Pope Paul V in 1963 and every year on 29th of June St Pierre Day is celebrated.
After the church we enjoyed the beautiful Antakya scenery laid out before our eyes. The officer called a cab to take us back downhill. On the way, we made an agreement with the cab driver that for a very reasonable fee that he’d take us to the places outside Antakya, and therefore we managed to avoid renting a car. (Kanatlı Taxi Stop / Mr. Firuz).
On the way we decided that our first stop would be Samandağ. One of the districts of Hatay, situated 25 km away from the Antakya, Samandağ has a 14 kilometer long beach. It’s said that because of its length and beauty during the summer its public beach is a magnet for tourists.
One of the important features of Samandağ is that it’s believed to be the spot where Hızır and Moses meet and there is a big stone hanging in the air on that spot. To be honest, because all sides of it are covered, you can’t see if it’s hanging in the air. Nevertheless, the Hızır Bey Shirine is worth seeing. It’s believed that after a tour around the shrine your wishes will come true.
Our second stop was the Titus Ruins. To see these ruins we had to climb a hillside in heavy rain without umbrellas for 10-15 minutes, and of course we did. Titus Tunnel is a tunnel which was artificially carved to protect antique Seleucia city and port against floods in 69 A.C. The closed part of the tunnel is 130 meters long, 7 meters high with a width of 6 meters. To walk there despite the rain was quite challenging. Soaked, we were able to reach the rock graves belonging to early Roman times. It’s estimated that group of caves called Beşikli Caves (Graves of the Kings) host the graves of the most prestigious people in the era.
Our third stop was the only Armenian village in Turkey, Vakıflı Village, which is located near Samandağ. It’s said that this is the only village outside of the borders of Armenia whose population is composed of only Armenians. The village with 35 domiciles has a population around 150 people.
Surrounded by orange and cypresses trees the village is clean and very well kept. Besides organic farming, which started in the recent years, the other means of living are handicrafts and point lace. Besides handicrafts as a souvenir, you can buy homemade walnut jam, zahter or pomegranate syrup but the same products are sold for relatively lower prices at Uzun Carsi.
Hoping that we would not catch cold after being soaked we headed to our next stop, the Hıdırbey Village to see the Musa Tree. The plane tree with a 20 meter wide trunk is believed by locals to be to be 2000 years old, but the real age of the tree is estimated to be 900-1000 years. According to the legend Moses and Hızır came to this place together. Moses stuck his staff into the ground to drink water and left it there. Because of the elixir of life, the staff grew roots, sprouted, and transformed into the tree we see today. There is a huge gap inside the tree which used to be a barber shop. Bu today the visitor tie wish cloths inside the hollow of the tree.
Because it was getting late we skipped St Simon Monastery, which was located on the highest hill of Anehir, a town at Samadağ, and headed to the last stop of the day Harbiye. According to the legend ecclesiastic St Simon, lived 40 years on one of the columns of this monastery in the 6th century.
The place where Daphne turned into a laurel tree running away from Apollo in mythology, Harbiye is a summer resort located 8 kilometers away from Antakya and it’s famous for its waterfalls. Packed with lots of restaurants, Harbiye especially during the summer is a gastronomical center and the hub of the city. We were there around evening, and most of the facilities were closed because it was winter. We didn’t go down the waterfall, instead accompanied by a nice cup of tea we sat beside a stove in the open air and heated our hearts and wet feet before leaving Harbiye.
At the end of the day, we realized that we were starving and went to Sultan Sofrası, a restaurant famous for its homemade delicacies. It is a small cozy place with marvelous food.
On the last day of our visit we didn’t need to rent a car or take a cab because all the places we planned to visit were within a walking distance. First, we visited Habib-i Neccar Mosque. We were told that it was the first mosque that was built in Anatolia and was where Islam started to expand. It was built in 636 A.C. by one of the commanders of Caliph Omer, Ebu Ubeyde Bin Cerrah.
After the mosque, we had more places to see in the same area. We visited the mosque, a church and a synagogue, Savon Hotel, Orthodox Church and Antakya Veteran House.
We enjoyed the remaining time by walking in the historical Long Bazaar (Uzun Carsi) which is full of Turkish Baths and caravansary and located among old Antioche houses. We took the opportunity to try local tastes and buy souvenirs to our friends. I recommend getting some string cheese, pomegranate syrup, tomato paste and spices while you are there. And one more tip, absolutely try the kunefe on cinder of Yusuf Usta who has a small shop in the courtyard of Ahmediye Mosque.
Of course our day wouldn’t be complete without a good dinner. On our last night in Antakya we had our dinner at a restaurant called Sveyka. Just like all the other places the food was marvelous in Sveyka, I strongly recommend it. Besides the great food, the prices were also really reasonable. I would strongly recommend trying Maklube (a delicacy composed of rice with meat rolled in an eggplant), sucuk roll (there is no sujuk in it but its taste is between pastrami and sujuk), steak tartar a la turca/çiğ köfte (it is much more juicy than the variety usually served), and of course kebab.
We couldn’t get enough of Antakya in any way. We enjoyed it so much that we started discussing and planning our next trip before we had even landed back in Istanbul!