Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Southeast Turkey: Part IV -- Antioch

A house in the old part of Antakya

On the last day of our Southeastern Turkey trip (now a few weeks behind us), we went to Antakya. This is ancient Antioch, specifically Antioch-on-the-Orontes. There were several Antiochs in the ancient world, but this one was very important. This is the Antioch that is mentioned multiple times in the New Testament of the Bible as one of the cradles of early Christianity. This region of Turkey is now called the Hatay, and some residents of Antakya refer to the city itself as Hatay.

The first thing we did on the morning of our Antakya day was take a trip together with the entire group up to the Monastery of St. Symeon the Younger. St. Symeon was a very interesting character in the history of early Christianity. He was one of a type of holy man called stylites (so his name is also recorded as Symeon, or Simon Stylites -- pronounced style-uh-tees when part of the name, but style-ite when used by itself). This was a monastic occupation known only in the East, particularly in Syria, which was the birthplace of the practice -- Symeon the Elder, after whom our Symeon styled himself, had been located just across the Syrian border from the Monastery we visited.

A stylite was a monk who removed himself from the world by climbing a tall column and sitting on top of it for the rest of his life. This accomplished two things: it removed all distractions besides prayer and meditation, and it drew a crowd. Stylite monks are some of the most difficult characters to understand in early Christianity because their goal was to be separate from the world, but they were obviously the type of people who craved a lot of attention. They had helpers who dedicated their lives to staying at the base of the column and passing them up food and drink in baskets tied to ropes. Symeon is a special case because his mother decided at an early age that he would be a stylite, and prepared him for it from childhood (and some of you thought it was pressure when your Mom wanted you to become a lawyer). A monastery was constructed at the base of the column during Symeon's lifetime, and people from all over the east flocked to check out the crazy guy sitting on the column. He performed miracles from time to time, but his main claim to fame was just being up there, in the heat and the cold, communing with God. If the life stories that were later composed about him are any guide, he eventually died of an infected sore on his leg which became gangrenous and stank horribly. Interestingly, the people who came to gawk at him, and the monks who attended him, considered this disgusting smell a sign of his sanctity, since he had been given grace by God to put up with such torment. The stories never talk about it, but surely other people just thought he was straight up weird.

But one thing can be said for the guy -- he definitely knew how to pick a scenic view! Candace had read about his life many times prior to this visit, and had always pictured the landscape as dry, dusty and desolate. Being so near Syria, and not far from the places we visited before that WERE dry and dusty (Harran, Urfa, etc.), we were completely shocked when we began driving into the countryside around Antakya and found it downright lush. High rugged hills surround the river valley of the Orontes, and everything is green, tree-covered, and verdant. It was a soggy day, but that somehow only made the place more beautiful.

One of our fellow Fellows, Ayse, is writing her dissertation on the monastery and has been working for several years to understand, measure, and make architectural drawings of the remains. She was of course the perfect tour guide. Here are some images of the monastery and church, with the column that Symeon sat on top of continuously for about 30 years. all that is left is the base. In the first picture, it is the big grey square block to the left of center:

Felipe Stylites sits on the column while Peter looks on.

Here's a view of the breathtaking landscape around the monastery:

Here's how they're using the land around the site in modern times:

After returning from the Monastery, the group went to a local shop that specializes in a traditional Antakya dessert, called kunefe. Kunefe is basically a nest of toasted shredded wheat soaked in syrup, eaten either plain or with kaymak (clotted cream) or dondurma (ice cream) on top. It is good, but quite sweet. From there, several people went on to another shop to try the OTHER traditional Antakya dessert whose name we can't remember, but which was described to us as a square of cornstarch covered in ice cream and rosewater. It really sounds quite unappealing, but several of the Turkish Fellows swear by it. We may never know.

Rather than gorging ourselves on sweets, we went for the other local speciality, a savory dish called lahmacun (some of you who have been to Turkey -- your mouths are watering, aren't they?). Lahmacun, pronounced "la-ma-june" is basically a very thin pizza, but without tomato sauce. It is super-crispy and topped with minced meat. It is served spicier, hotter, and cheaper in Antakya than anywhere else in Turkey. You take the roughly oval-shaped lahmacun, cover it in fresh-cut parsley (they give you a big bowl), squirt it with a lemon wedge, then fold it and eat it like a New York-style slice of pizza. Yum! And each lahmacun costs only about $1, so it's highly economical too. We can get it here in Istanbul, but it is just not the same.

After appreciating the gastronomic offerings, Amanda, Ivana, Alyson and the two of us hired a couple of taxis to take us up to one of the city's most important monuments, the Church of St. Peter (here called San Pierre). As those of you who are familiar with your Bible know, Antioch was one of the earliest areas outside of the Holy Land to which Christianity traveled. Paul and
Barnabas were here as missionaries. In fact, in Acts chapter 11, the Bible says "The disciples were first called Christians at Antioch." That's a pretty big deal! (Note: Before the term "Christian" was invented, the followers of Christ were known as Nazarenes).

The apostle Peter was here as well -- in Galatians 2, Paul writes about a conflict he had with Peter there. But Peter was an important figure in the history of the church at Antioch, as is evidenced by the church with his name. This is not just any church -- according to legend, it is the very first church, the first official meeting-place for Christians in the world. While we have our doubts about the validity of that statement, it was definitely associated with Christanity, and with Peter, from very early times.

It is basically a church carved out of the rock of a cliff face. The facade was added in the 10th or 11th century by Crusaders. Here are some views of the exterior and interior:

There is a natural fountain inside where water used to be collected for baptism and because it was thought to cure diseases, but because of earthquakes there is now very little water trickling out.

A visit to this church, if you are Catholic, earns a Plenary Indulgence from the Church, meaning that you are immediately relieved of the earthly punishment for all of the sins you have committed in your life up until that point, without the need to carry out any penance, or to spend time in Purgatory after you die. This is the highest level of Indulgence available from the Church, so clearly this is an important place to visit!

Higher up on the cliff face we could see small caverns:

Our taxi driver said they were "prisons" but we think monks' cells are more likely. Thanks to the high-powered zoom on Candace's camera, you can see that some of them even have carved decoration.

After the church, we returned to town and went to the Archaeological museum. This museum houses the third-largest mosaic collection in the world (after the Bardo Museum in Tunis, Tunisia and the museum in Gaziantep that we already wrote about), all recovered from wealthy Roman houses in ancient Antioch. Some of them are important particularly for their unusual iconography, found nowhere else. Others are impressive for their sheer size:

We were a bit disappointed by the appearance of the mosaics overall. Unlike the mosaics in Gaziantep, these appeared dull and cloudy, most likely the result of old restoration and conservation techniques, perhaps treatment with a chemical which has since darkened the surfaces. It's really too bad.

After the museum we spent the afternoon wandering in Antakya. It is a pretty town, with the Orontes flowing through the middle. There are still some neighborhoods which radiate the charm of the Ottoman period. It is also an interesting town because the Christian heritage has remained strong -- we visited both a Roman Catholic and a Greek Orthodox church, in addition to several mosques, one of which is the oldest in Anatolia, Here are some pictures of buildings in the old part of town:

A really cool door

A closeup of the door's knocker

We also spent a little time in the marketplace, which is a bit like the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, only smaller and not geared towards tourists. It wasn't as much fun as our regular Sunday market though, which we will try to write about and post pictures of soon.

Then, after meeting up with the group for a hearty dinner,

Mmmm...Liverburger. Where we did NOT eat!

we drove to the brand-new Antakya airport and boarded a plane back to Istanbul, and back to our "normal" life here. It has been several weeks since the trip, but it seems that every time we look back on it it appears more and more special in our memory.

We thought some of you might like to see a picture of some of our friends here at the Center. Here they are in the courtyard of the Catholic church in Antakya. From left to right are Fulya (Turkey), Amanda (University of Wisconsin), Ivana (Serbia), Alyson (UK), and Nino (Georgia -- the nation, not the state). All day long, when it was threatening to rain on us and ruin our day in Antakya, Ivana kept saying "Don't worry -- my grandmother always said that when angels travel, it never rains." And it didn't!

The trip was a wonderful opportunity to not only visit some amazing sites, but to experience a culture (several really) completely different from our own. Although Istanbul is amazing, now we feel that we have really been to the Middle East.


Dan N. said...

Stuff like this really makes me regret leaving behind academia. I am green.

Mom said...

I took time to catch up on reading your blog this evening. You have some awesome photos. Looks like you made a good camera choice, Candace! Gaziantep, Urfa and Antakya all are on my list of places to visit for sure now, and with the new airport in Antakya it is certainly more doable this time around. Thanks for taking time to keep us up to date and post pictures. I know it is very time consuming, but it also gives you a chance to remember and retrace some of your travels, doesn't it?