I begin my trip in Tarsus, the most popular district in Mersin. The capital of the ancient province of Cilicia blends its history, which dates back to the Romans and the Ottomans, with modernity. Every day, the people of Tarsus walk along the path under the elegant arch of the Roman Baths, which they named “Walk-Under.” Donuktaş Temple is hidden between houses lining both sides of a narrow street. Tarsus is also living proof of the saying, “The soil is filled with history.” When Cumhuriyet Square was excavated for a construction project, a very well-preserved Roman road was revealed and called “Ancient Street.” Cleopatra's Gate takes me 2,000 years back. The famous Egyptian queen also came to Tarsus, just like Cicero and Caesar. She fell in love with Mark Antony and married him in Tarsus; upon their marriage, her husband gave her the large province of Cilicia as a present. Alexander the Great is another important personality who happened to cross paths with Tarsus. It is believed that he got pneumonia after swimming in the Berdan River which carries the ice-cold waters of the Taurus Mountains into the city. The riverbed was diverted due to frequent floods, creating the Tarsus Waterfall which is currently used as a picnic area.
Tarsus also bears a religious importance. Paul the Apostle, one of the most prominent figures of Christianity, was from Tarsus. The well bearing his name and Saint Paul's Church near old Tarsus houses are among Christian pilgrimage sites. It is believed that Makam Mosque in the city center houses Prophet Daniel’s maqam, while Grand Mosque hosts Prophet Seth’s and Luqman al-Hakeem’s maqams.
My next stop is Kırkkaşık Covered Bazaar. I try the local hummus followed by a Tarsus coffee they serve me in a slender cup. During my coffee break, I set my gaze on the souvenirs featuring Shahmaran, the shah of snakes, who lives in a cave, has an ornamented head and scaled tail and is believed to have told Luqman al-Hakeem secrets about healing herbs.
While one legend in Tarsus, which is embedded in caves, mentions Mithra, founded by the Stoics and worshipped in caves, and yer another talks about Ashab-ı Kehf (Seven Sleepers). Here, a group of seven youths fell asleep and woke up nearly 300 years later. After visiting the Cave of Seven Sleepers, I head towards Mersin.
I stop by the ancient port city of Elaiussa Sebaste en route, where I briefly chat with the excavation team. They show me the mosaics on the ground of the agora decorated with fish. There’s a sea bream mosaic, and it shines bright as if it has just been taken out of water. Apparently, the passing of the centuries is not enough to erase the traces of craftsmanship.
In the city center, I am welcomed by Mersin Port, an important center of commerce. Here, the cranes ceaselessly load or unload cargos on and off ships. At the end of the port begins the long coast, lined with palm trees, manicured green spaces, and parks. The nearby cafés and restaurants are lively with joy. Being in a Mediterranean city really makes one feel happy. Exploring the Mersin Museum of Archaeology, I see that past civilizations also experienced this happiness. The museum is very rich as Mersin is the home of ancient cities such as Soli (Pompeiopolis), Kanlıdivane, and Anemurium, and the mounds of Yumuktepe and Gözlükule. It displays exquisitely selected artifacts and information billboards focusing on special themes such as Aratus the astronomer and amphoras. Moreover, the museum also hosts a delightful workshop filled with children’s laughter. I record the clay tablets and painted stones left on the table by tiny hands to dry into my memory as the loveliest artifacts I’ve seen.
After leaving the museum, I mingle with the crowd on Silifke Street to visit the markets where you can easily find what you’re looking for. Mersin cuisine attracts visitors to the markets with its delicacies such as tantuni, kerebiç, sıkma, and cezerye. Next, I drive to Adam Kayalar (“man-rocks”). Nearly 70 kilometers from the city center, this cult site features rock reliefs carved on the steep cliff of a deep channel, dating back to 100 BC. Due to the portrayal of 17 humans and a goat figure from the Roman period, the locals started calling it “Adam Kayalar.” Below is a spectacular view: Kızkalesi Castle resembles a shiny pearl on the sea in the horizon.
There are many castles in Mersin – such as Silifke Castle up high and Mamure Castle at the foot of the Mediterranean Sea – but Kızkalesi speaks for all. Before visiting the castle, I head for Uzuncaburç, i.e. Diocaesarea built as the cult site of the ancient city of Olba. At the entrance, there’s a ceremonial gate; on my left are the forest-dense columns of Zeus Olbios Temple and up ahead is the Temple of Luck, still standing. I hit the road as the sun begins to set behind the aqueducts of the ancient city of Olba. A fisherman waves at me when I arrive at the coast, and he starts singing joyously. This may be the best thing to do when faced with the beauty of the cove! I sit at one of the garden swings on the coast. As I swing back and forth, I listen to the fisherman’s song and gaze at Kızkalesi, blushed by the sunset.
One of the two castles guarding the cove, Kızkalesi was built in 1099 on an island 200 meters off the main coast. Legend has it that a soothsayer told the ruler of the province that his daughter would be bitten by a snake. The ruler built this castle to protect his daughter from the snakes. The food sent to the girl at the castle included a basket of grapes. The girl wanted to eat the grapes, but a snake hidden in the basket poisoned her.
After the sunset, the castle’s silhouette first disappears into the night and then is illuminated by colorful lights; I imagine it is saddened by the story of this young girl it failed to protect. I head for a fish restaurant in Narlıkuyu. It would be amiss not to stop by a banana orchard in Mersin. The owner of the greenhouse in Anamur says the banana flowers make cracking noises at night as they bloom. Mersin is situated in a geography which makes you believe that the world is indeed beautiful. I feel this again at Gilindire Cave in Aydıncık. Formed over millions of years, the stalactites and the stalagmites shine bright like diamonds. The calm lake waters of the cave resemble a magical mirror.
This feeling continues at Cennet-Cehennem (Heaven and Hell) sinkholes. You can take the stairs to the Heaven hole but there’s no entrance to Hell – maybe it doesn’t want to reveal all its secrets. Mersin invites me again to visit Alahan Monastery, Mut Castle, and Göksu Delta.