Now essentially a suburb of Antakya, Harbiye was once a Roman summer resort named Daphne, and if you've been to the archaeological museum you'll already have seen several mosaics from there. Today, there's not much evidence of the area's rich history, but it is still something of a summer resort, attracting Arabic-speaking tourists to its waterfalls in a gorge that has the potential to be quite spectacular. I say potential, because the gorge is filled with litter...plastic bags, bottles, boxes, cigarette butts, all thrown over the railings from the cafes positioned on the side of the gorge to take advantage of the views. The waterfalls are not particularly impressive, even less so with all the rubbish surrounding them. Maybe they are cleaned up in preparation for the summer crowds, but I have my doubts. Even the cafe owners were at it, hurling their empty cigarette packets over the side.
On the steep road down to the gorge from the dolmus stop, note the souvenir stalls. Aimed at certain Syrians I guess, you can buy carpets and keyrings with the face of the Syrian president on. Syria is just a couple of kilometres south, and many families are split by the border.
Getting to Harbiye is fairly simple. At the end of Hurriyet Caddesi (the main street in the old part with shops and cafes), keep going straight and uphill slightly until you reach the main road, where dolmus (minibuses) wait for Harbiye-bound passengers. A ten to fifteen minute drive, and you're in Harbiye. Walk downhill for the waterfalls...the driver will probably assume that's where you are going and tell you anyway.
The highlight of Antakya is supposed to be this cave church, a couple of kilometres from the city centre. I'd read about it, seen a couple of pictures, and was quite curious to see it, so set off one afternoon along the long Kurtulus Caddesi. It's a long walk, but the weather was dry and sort of sunny, and I always prefer to walk than take a taxi or a bus...I don't know, it feels like you get to know the place a little bit better. It wasn't the most interesting walk visually, and most of it was along a busy main road, but I soon came to the turn-off for the church, by a handily placed souvenir carpet shop.
I could see where the church was supposed to be, and I could see the road leading to the church, but something wasn't quite right. There was a large crane where I thought the church should be. Regardless, i carried on, assuming it was working on something nearby. The people at the tourist office would have told me if the church was shut, wouldn't they? Otherwise, why give me directions? No, it must be open.
I climbed the steep slope to the car park, and was relieved to find a few other visitors, all local, sitting on the wall and taking photos of the view back to Antakya. And a great view it was, a mountain on the left, with houses sloping down to the city centre, minarets piercing a large black cloud behind which the sun was about to disappear. I took a couple of photos, and went to explore the church.
There were people inside the church. People with hard hats on. People carrying ladders and saws and drills. A handwritten sign on the door said "Closed for Restoration until November 2013". Oh damn. A blue tarpaulin covered the main gate, so I couldn't even sneak a peek through that. Then it started to rain, ever so slightly. I was not in the best of moods.
Luckily the sun came out and lit up the hillside, the rain stopping within a minute or two. I followed a couple of elderly gentlemen who hoppedover a barrier in the road and climbed uphill, passing some ancient caves in the cliff. A little higher and I said hello to a shepherd entertaining a family with some newborn lambs, and a lady collecting herbs hidden in the grass. The sun sank lower, and out came the pigeons, just as they do in Damascus, swirling round and round above a particular house, the pigeon handler calling them from the roof. Not a complete waste of a walk then.
Cutting through the middle of the city, the Asi River is not the most impressive of rivers, but it's banks are still a pleasant place to walk. Unfortunately, most of the buildings on either side are modern concrete piles, not the prettiest bit of town, but in the evenings there was a constant stream of pedestrians walking in family groups, stopping at benches to take photos. In the evening, the bridges are lit up, as are parts of the banks, changing colours every few seconds.
Directly behind the Archaeological Museum is a riverside park, with a couple of popular outdoor teahouses, full of students playing cards and smoking nargile when I went. The small pond also has some of the fattest ducks I've ever seen.
Touted as one of the best in the world, Antakya's Archaeology Museum stands on the riverside in a modern building, just across the river from Old Antakya. The entrance has a few cabinets with Roman artefacts, bits of statues and columns and that sort of thing, but you haven't really come to see those. No...the star attraction is the huge collection of well preserved mosaics filling several large rooms, mostly found nearby in the suburb of Harbiye, which was ancient Antioch's summer retreat.
Now, I have to confess, I'm not really up on my Roman and Greek mythology, and while the captions made some sort of sense at the time, looking at my photos 9 months later, I couldn't remember who's who, so had to rely on the museum's excellent website to identify them (check the link below). But the mosaics are very impressive, very colourful and remarkably in-tact with no signs of heavy-handed restoration. And they're huge, covering whole walls. It's still a work in progress, and several mosaic sections lie incomplete on the floor in one gallery, slowly being put together piece by tiny piece.
Antakya's backstreets should be explored, and the best way to do this is just to dive in and get lost. The old town isn't that huge, so you won't be lost for long as you'll emerge on a busy road or in the market area at some point, and there are a fair few cafes in attractive old houses worth hunting down. It reminded me a bit of Old Damascus, the way the houses overhang the street, the way churches stand next to mosques (and there's even a former synagogue hidden away too), the way the cafes play Arabic music and serve Arabic sweets. There's not much in the way of sights, just a couple of old mosques...one in particular stands out, the Habibi Neccar Camii which used to be a Byzantine church.
The market area lies north of the old part, a tangle of alleyways stuffed with everything you never wanted to buy. Hidden down a backstreet off the main market street is a collection of cheap cafes serving fantastic hummus and hot bread, the best place for lunch.
St. Peter's Church is one of the oldest churches in the world. It was here that St. Peter, St. Paul (formerly Saul) and St. Barnabas preached and where the first Christians prayed.
St. Peter came to preach in a cave here in 29 AD and stayed here until 40 AD. The cave chapel measures 13m x 9.5m x 7m. His congregation were the first people to call themselves Christians. The Crusaders added a stone facade to the chapel, after they conquered Antioch in 1098. There were also mosaics on the floor and frescos on the walls, of which only traces remain.
To the left of the altar is the entrance to a narrow tunnel through which the congregation could escape when they were attacked. My advice is, don't crawl through this tunnel if you are claustrophobic. It is long, very narrow, uncomfortable and totally dark in some places.
Pope Paul IV prayed here in 1963 and declared it an official pilgrimage site.
"Those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, and they spoke the word to no one except Jews. But among them were some men of Cyprus and Cyrene who, on coming to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists also, proclaiming the Lord Jesus. The hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number became believers and turned to the Lord. News of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he rejoiced, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast devotion; for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were brought to the Lord. Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church and taught a great many people, and it was in Antioch that the disciples were first called "Christians."
Habib-I Neccar Mosque is the oldest mosque in Turkey, It was built in 636 AD. The present minaret was added in the 17th century. Habib-I Neccar means "my beloved carpenter". The carpenter to whom the mosque is dedicated was killed by pagans whilst trying to protect two disciples sent to Antioch by Jesus.
Visitors are welcome inside the mosque and admission is free.
The Antakya Archaeological Museum was built in the 1930s under the supervision of the French archaeologist, M. Prost. It may not look like much from the outside, but inside the Museum of Archaeology houses a magnificent set of Byzantine mosaics, sculptures and great treasures like the Antakya Sarcophagus. There are also many exhibits from the Hittite period.
This museum has the second largest collection of Roman mosaics in the world. I have seen collections of mosaics all around the Mediterranean, but the mosaics here are some of the finest and most interesting I have seen anywhere.
This is the the place where i spent lot's of weekends in my childhood. Hatay Museum has one of the most impressive Roman mosaic collections in the world. There you find inspiring pictorial tales of Poseidon, Aphrodite, Dionysus, Daphne, Narcissus and many other ancient heroins/heroes. Still colourful and spirited.
If you follow the path from St Peters Rock Church you will come to a rock with relief of two faces, the face of Haron and Miriam (Mary).
I could not remember the story of the faces so I wrote to my friend Zehra. Neither shoe could remember the story so she went to the church to ask the people there (Thank you Zehra! It was very sweet of you!). The story goes like this:
The first natives of Antakya were struggling against plague. They asked a soothsayer for help. And this was the soothsayer’s suggestion: build a relief of Haron and Miriam on the highest point of the city, and this will save the entire city. So these people built the relief. After a while water started to come out from the bottom of these reliefs and people believed that this was a sign from God, sent to them. As a belief Haron brings people who go to hell after death here. They are purified from their sins and taken to the paradise by him again.
There was no water there when I was there in July, but I guess there will be running water in other seasons.
The older part of town with Ottoman houses is on the east side of the river. South of the otogar is a bazaar district with narrow streets and old houses.
The workshops for bikes (on the picture) are on Kurtulus Caddesi.
The cave is a natural cave with an altar and with a statue above. In the cave small traces of old frescos and floor mosaics can be seen.
Through the rock in one corner there used to dripp water, which was said to cure sicknesses and was used for baptism. But when I was there there was no water, only an almost empty bucket.
The church is situated 2-3 km north-east of the town. To come there you just walk Kurtulus Caddesi straight until you come to a sign where you should turn to the right. Then it is not far to walk.
The entrance fee is 5 000 000 TL (2 000 000 TL for Turkish citizens).
St Peter's cave-church is regarded as the world's first official Christian church. St Peter lived in Antioch for some years and it was here the new religion first got the name Christianity. In the cave the first Christians met and prayed secretly.
The front wall was constructed by the crusaders in the 11th century.
In the hills, about 8 km south of Antakya, is the town of Harbiye. It is the ancient Daphne and was during Roman time a wealthy summer resort with villas. Today there is a popular picnic area in Harbiye. A road is winding down the valley from the main road. Along the way there are many cafes, pools and small waterfalls. It is green with many trees and a cool place to come to a hot summer day.
There has been floods in the area recently, bringing a lot of litter to the slopes, but hopefully it will be cleared up.
Antakya Archaeology Museum has an outstanding collection of Roman mosaics from the 1st - 5th centuries AD. Most of them come from Roman villas in Harbiye (Daphne) or by the sea side. Just imagine, who were the people once having those fine mosaics in their homes. What a beautiful decoration they must have made!
Many of the mosaics have motifs from stories of mythology or hunting and fishing scenes.
The museum is open Tuesday - Sunday (closed on Mondays)
Entrance fee is 5 000 000 TL.