The first great cultural confrontation between East and West, the Battle of Issus between Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia was fought in what is now Hatay. 

And Hatay, which has seen the rise of art, culture and civilization ever since that day, has survived to the present by preserving and merging those differences. Cultural richness and diversity live on in Hatay as a prime example of friendship. Embracing its ethnic richness, Hatay offers visitors new worlds to explore.

When you arrive in Antakya (ancient Antioch), the capital of Hatay, you are met by narrow streets and intriguing buildings. In the city center you will find Uzun Çarşı (Long Market) with everything from skillfully handmade shoes to the myriad herbs peculiar to Eastern culture. And when you need a break, escape to the shade of a stately chenar and order a “Künefe” (aka Kunafa). Hatay is famous for it, and it tastes best under a chenar. What makes the kunafa here different is that it’s baked over glowing embers. Everything raised on this land, which yields up to three crops a year, is available in the market: bay leaves, olives, grapes, bergamot, and lots, lots more.

They call Hatay a melting pot of civilizations, religions and cultures. Don’t be surprised to see a church, a mosque and a synagogue standing side by side. So much so that Habib al-Najjar, for whom the Habib al-Najjar Mosque in the city center is named, was a carpenter who was martyred defending the disciples of Jesus. What other land is so big of heart as to name a mosque after such a man? Another intriguing structure is the Church of St Peter, perched atop a hill and considered one of the oldest churches of Christianity. The most arresting aspect of this structure is that it is a cave-church built by hollowing out the rocks. Finally, the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Complex at Payas in Dörtyol is a sample of classical Ottoman style.

Small doors capture our attention as we stroll down Hatay’s narrow lanes. Doors that actually open onto the colossal worlds of vast courtyards. But the Museum of Medicinal and Aromatic Herbs, set up by the Office of the Hatay Governor, presents yet another surprise, for behind its street gate a totally different world awaits us, a world perhaps best described as a series of rooms, each one of which refreshes with a different fragrance, and a museum of mind-boggling details. 

Our next stop was the Archaeological Museum, the world’s largest in its field. Significantly expanded and broader in scope than its predecessor, this museum stands out for its modern and minimalist design and use of all the latest technology. In addition to the historical treasures carefully preserved here, presentations with interactive content afford visitors an enjoyable learning experience. A journey through history here amidst the stunning mosaics, frescoes, giant statuary and artifacts dating back to the earliest periods of human life in the 5,000-square-meter exhibition space is an experience not to be had elsewhere.

Like its city center, Hatay’s smaller towns also boast a wealth of history and culture. The house where the renowned Turkish thinker Cemil Meriç was born, for example, is home today to the Cemil Meriç Culture Center, serving mainly young people in this building that has been restored to its original state by the Office of Governor of Hatay Province. From here we go to the “First Bullet” Museum, where we learn that, contrary to popular belief, the first bullet fired against the occupying forces was fired not in Izmir but in Dörtyol. Wax figures representing the leading personalities of the period enliven this museum which also boasts a profusion of historical artifacts and documents. 

We toured it and assembled the clues for the curious… If you too are one of them, a Hatay trip is going to add memorable moments to your life.

Hatay is famous for its culinary culture. An abundance of mezze unique to Hatay and its environs grace the city’s menus, which combine the best examples of Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and Anatolian cooking. You can try the tasty meat dishes special to the region such as tepsi kebab and kağıt kebab.

Harbiye, aka the famous ancient city of Daphne, attracts visitors with its offer of pleasant conversation under the waterfall, which, according to legend, arose from the tears of Daphne fleeing Apollo. The area is literally teeming with cafes and restaurants.  

Believed to have come into being when Moses’ staff sprouted a green shoot, the Moses Tree draws hundreds of visitors daily in the village of Hıdırbey near Samandağ. After seeing this close to thousand-year-old tree whose canopy spreads some 20 meters, be sure to take “Daphne Road”, which was laid out to showcase the spectacular blue and green natural environment. Sample the local specialties as well. You’ll be especially astonished by the rich array that constitutes breakfast Hatay-style.

Five kilometers north of Samandağ on a slope overlooking the sea is an inland harbor at the far end of the city, which was founded in the 3rd century B.C., this unexpected tunnel 130 meters in length was dug at the time to protect the port from flooding. Be sure, too, to visit the graves in the caves hollowed out of the rocks about 100 meters to the right of the tunnel.

Turkish Airlines has Istanbul-Hatay-Istanbul flights daily. Departure times are 9:40 a.m. and 3:30 and 11:55 pm. from Istanbul and 5:15 a.m. and 12:10 and 6 p.m. from Hatay. For information: www.turkishairlines.com

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