I vaguely remember Gaziantep, as I had visited the city for business purposes almost a decade ago. What remains in my head is rather an archeollogical legend, Zeugma; than sillouette of the city.
At the time, the inhabitants were busy talking about the legendary city of Zeugma, to be spesific the amazing findings of huge residential mosaics carved to the floors and walls of the ancient city located on the slopes looking over the river, Euphrates (Firat). Not only the mosaics were regarded as unique but also statues like the one of Mars were on the verge of becoming famous worldwide in a short period of time. It seemed to me back then that the locals were not only curious but also a bit envious about the vast richness coming out of their soil, the soil they knew only to use for farming. My motivation and urge to go back to this ancient city was mainly due to this memory and therefore I was very excited to be able to see the museum of Zeugma at last which constitutes of all the artifacts and mosaics the art community succedeed in saving from the waters of the damn called Birecik.
The modern name of the city, Gaziantep, owes its name to the era after the Independence War of Turkey. The ancient names may vary, as the land was home to many well known civilizations; however, the one of the leading generals of Alexander the Great, Seleukos is believed to be the founder of the city. The city is famous about its gastronomy and many, it is believed, fly early in the morning to some famous restaurants in Antep just to eat a proper kebap at lunch time and return in the evening. As for me, I can not be classified as a meat lover nor a vegan but that is not going to prevent me from trying the famous dishes and kebaps of Gaziantep during my trip.
So my journey begins early in the morning with a friend of mine who is responsible for the beautiful pictures accompanying the article now and onwards. As we landed around 10 AM and felt a litle bit hungry, my motivation to see the mosaics and ancient sites became tradable for food. We found ourselves at Katmerci Zekeriya, whose pastry is so famous even in İstanbul that almost all the passengers of the plane were already there when we arrived at the place. We quickly endorsed the act as a ritual despite the fear of doing cliche things at the very first time of the day. Flaky pastry (katmer) by the way is a thin layered pastry made up of smashed pistachio and, as you can imagine, a calory bomb. It looks like baklava but it doesn’t taste as sweet as baklava. The waitresses don’t ask about the quantity of your order and just bring one portion to the table so that you won’t end up feeling obliged to run around the City for the rest of the day in order to burn these extra calories. The custom to eat katmer is early in the morning.
Eager to start discovering the city, we quickly found our hotel located in the oldest part and very close to the city fortress and old bazaars. The name is Anatolian Houses and it is a typical old mansion house.
As swiftly we leave our luggage to our rooms, we rush into one of the famous authentic bazaars of the city called the Copper Market. We were warned previously about the possibility that most of the shops would be closed on Sundays and we are eager to see the bazaar in its original mood of casual shopping. My first feeling of the bazaar is protection, we will learn why after we receive some information from the locals.
Copper Market: We are being told that the infrustructure of the Bazaar including 8 streets and 280 shops are rennovated according to a traditional typology of authentic anatolian trade markets by a project run by the Municipality and the same project has taken the award for Ancient City Restorations. During our mini walk, we enjoyed seeing craftsmen on job, and photographed plenty of them. The masters look serious while they are polishing the plates but we got the feeling they were playing in a natural movie of their own. We appreciate their professionalism, yet, apart from the tourists the bazaar is crowded with local inhabitants trying to buy their needs for the home. The surrounding is quite colourful and dynamic.
The Copper Market is surrounded by other famous bazaars like the Historical Malls called; Zinzirli Bedesten, Tütün Han and Büyük Buğday Pazarı. After we wandered around those malls we found ourselves standing in front of another historical building called Tarihi Tahmis Kahvesi (the Old Coffee House). This would be one of our first coffe breaks as the region is also famous with its Menengiç Coffee which I tried years ago in Hasan Keyf (another ancient ruin very famous and most of it is underwater now) and couldn’t figure out what it was. This specific coffee is prepared with milk and has a very smooth flavour different than a classical Turkish coffee.Tahmis means beaten in the coffee. The coffee was beaten in a walnut carved Stone mortar. According to an account, Murat IV took a rest here and drank coffe during the Baghdad Campaign. The biggest feature that separates this place from an ordinary coffee house perhaps is its witness to history, its being home to literature music and local shadow theatre plays (Karagöz) for many years. While we were resting there, a band of local players with instruments entered and persuaded us to flow into the natural rthym of the city.
After such a joyful break, we stop by the shop Eyüp Baharat in order to buy some spices and herbs as they are the sources of Gaziantep cuisine’s famous delicacies. The shop is located just across the coffee house and its owner Mr. Eyüp is a such a friendly salesman. We leave the place with wrapped red peppers and a package of special sweets made by a special technique of the region. Later I will try the pomegranate sauce when we get home and will fall in love with it immediately.
Lost in the Copper Market
As 2-3 hours are left of daylight, after lunch, we continue walking around the old town, this time paying more attention to its historical mosques. Many of the mosques in Gaziantep, date back to 12th – 14th centuries and we see a significant effect of Arabic architecture especially on minaret decorations. The wooden minarets of the mosques are rich in crafts yet give us a modest feeling of being spiritual while they are elegantly touching the blue skies. Different in decorative style, most of the mosques are built using cut stones. The oldest one is called Boyaci Camii, with its incredible blue glass ornaments carved into its minaret.
Around 4 PM, we decide to turn our compass to Zeugma Museum. The original plan was to visit the museum on Sunday however due to a possibility of going out of town for a half tour of Halfeti and Rumkale,we didn’t want to risk seeing the mosaics of world-known popularity.
Zeugma/ Belkıs Ancient City; History and Significance
In 300 B.C. Seleucus I, one of Alexander the Great’s generals founded the city at a site of strategic and commercial importance on the Euphrates River (Fırat Nehri). He founded another city, named Apameia after his wife, exactly opposite the river bank and linked the two with a bridge over the river. In time, Seleucia grew but Apameia gradually declined. The name of the city was changed to Zeugma meaning Bridge/Crossing point and it became the largest city on the eastern border of the Roman Empire. With the spending of the missionary soldiers of the 4th Legion that settled there and trade that developed during peace time, the population grew to 80,000.
The existence of this ancient city was well known since 1917 however the world’s attention was cought after 2000 when many artifacts were uncovered during rescue excavations. Only 70% of the city could be saved before the Birecik Dam works were initiated and as a result of frantic efforts the twin villas called Poseidon and Euphrates were excavated and removed to Gaziantep Museum together with many building blocks, columns, fountains and naturally mosaics. The Poseidon and Euphrates villas are located in such a way that original positions are reproduced with the help of a giant wall photograph of the hill overlooking the river.The result is quite amazing I must say.
The visitor’s route through the museum begins with the mosaics of the Judgement of Paris, Oceanus and Tethys, and Aratos which are displayed on the walls. One of the most important exhibits in the museum is the Statue of Mars which was found during the excavations of the villa Poseidon in 2000. It was hidden under food jars in the pantry area and the reason is believed to be the attacks of Sassanids during that time. The 1,52 m. tall statue is actually designed to be in the square and has been mounted on a 30 cm basalt base atop and a 6.60 m column. As you know, Mars was the god of war (in Greek, Ares) and so the statue is gazing everyone with a distanced anger and displeasure. The raised right arm is bent at the elbow holding a spear while there is a flower in the left hand thereby symbolizing both war and fertility.
I would like to end my museum observations with world’s well known mosaic the “Gypsy Girl”. It is exhibited in a special room in the first section of the second flor. The room is designed like a labyrinth, creating an atmosphere of mystery with spotlight on the haunting gaze of the Gypsy Girl. My personal opinion is that in time, the fame of this Mosaic, could surpass the fame of Mona Lisa since the look, undefiable in expression, belongs to much older ages, thousands of years ago.
After this hectic day, we decide that it’s best to end this city tale without a hassle and cancel our trip to Halfeti and other ancient sites surrounding the region. I promise myself to come back again maybe in spring time. However, for those who love the stories of those ancient ruins some information is added below.
The ancient site in Dülük
The archaeological siteof the ancient city of Doliche is located in present-day village of Dülük and dates back in the Hellenistic era, around the 2nd c. B.C. It was the joining point of Eastern and Western cultures and a religious center for Teshub (Hittite god of thunder), Zeus and Jupiter Dolichenus. The largest known underground Mithraeum (temple of Mithras) in the world is in Dülük. There is also a necropolis, many grave chambers and churches carved out of rock here.
This place is 113 km far from Gaziantep near the town İslahiye and was opened to usage as a Hittite quarry and sculpture workshop approximately 3,500 years ago. The statues are scattered over a green hill some leaning to one side, some facing downwards. Most of them are lions with manes and wings in standing and sitting position. The others are sphinxes, battle cart, twin or trio mountain gods and creatures.
This town is located 62 km far from the city center with magnificient construction and natural beauties. There is a legend that St John the Evangelist carved out a cave in Rumkale to live in and to make copies of the Bible. It is said that his grave is there and because of this Rumkale is treated as one of the holy places for Christians. In the fortress, other than physical walls and towers, a small mosque, a Church of poet- Saint Nerses, Barşavma Monastery watern cisterns and wells can be seen though many structures are still unidentified.
On Sunday, we spent most of our day at a place called Bey Mahallesi, one of the oldest preserved districts within the city. Like the Copper Market the streets and old houses are restored by the public authorities and the Municipality of Gaziantep. Located at a slope, the district takes it original name “Bey” from the Bey Mosque which unfortunately couldn’t reach our time. While wandering around the streets recklessly, a peaceful feeling captured us along the walls of those old mansion houses. Actually one of the distinguished feature of this region is to be able to document the way older inhabitants of those houses live, with their central courtyards (called “hayat”), kitchens and pantries. This time, our coffee break is at Papirüs which is a very old mansion house with a huge courtyard (hayat) inside. It is also possible to walk in abandoned rooms and be amazed at the colourful wooden ceilings and old photographs of its non-living inhabitants.
DOORS AND STREETS OF BEY DISTRICT
Last but not least, we end our trip at a restaurant called Aşina (a favorite among the locals) and tried a dish called “yuvalama” which I liked very much. Now I realise that the article is a little bit lacking on the food side, so in order to close the gap here are some well-known dishes of Gaziantep.
Baklava and kebaps of Gaziantep are world famous (while I am writing this article the European Union has just approved the geographical designation of Antep baklava as Antep Baklavası). The spices that are used for making foods and giving a different delicious taste to the foods, tomato and pepper paste, sauces and mixes are the reason why Gaziantep foods and desserts have attained their fame. Some of the names are onion kebap, fine grain bulgur kebap, eggplant kebap, loquat kebap, truffle kebap, yoghurt soup with rice balls ( yuvalama), wheat pilaff, lentil pilaff, lahmacun, katmer (flaky pastry), twisted, triangle baklava and grape juice desserts (şira).
GOODBYE ZEUGMA, GOODBYE GAZİANTEP, GOODBYE GYPSY GİRL…
Written By: Nilüfer Akça
Photos By: Tarkan Aktaş