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GAZİANTEP (ANTEP)

Home town of the pistachio                      Population: 1,500,000

gazi2Old name: Ayntab

Gaziantep (or Antep for short) is a town that is very much on the up. During the 1990s it was perilously close to the frontier of what was thought of as eastern Turkey where most foreigners feared to tread, but it was also one of the towns that expanded rapidly as easterners migrated west in search of a better life.

The opening of the Birecik Dam in 2001 led to the flooding of the site of the wealthy Roman town of Belkis-Zeugma. After archaeologists rushed to rescue what they could of the magnificent mosaics that once decorated its riverside villas, the obvious place to put them on show turned out to be Antep, which thereby received a considerable fillip in the tourism stakes. 

Mention Gaziantep to a Turk and chances are that their eyes will mist over as they mutter the words çam fıstığı [pistachios]. Of course from the pistachios comes melt-in-the-mouth baklava, best sampled, perhaps, at İmam Çağdaş, a frantically busy restaurant in the bazaar, just steps away from the Anadolu Evleri, where they bake and dispatch two tons of the sticky stuff around the country every single day. Wolf yours down after a helping of spicy Adana kebap or a paper-thin lahmacun, and it should set you up for a night on the tiles in a town which offers a great deal more in the way of entertainment than you might expect.

Avoid the dubious- looking watering-holes lurking around Heykel, the main square, and instead head for pedestrianized Gaziler Caddesi where a string of atmospheric café-bars with live music and quirky décor cater to a largely student clientele. Yet more cafes can be found in the narrow streets of the Bey Mahalle where many of the old houses have been restored. You'll quickly find your own favourite. Mine is the Papirüs.

Don't leave town without: Sampling Antep's famously rich and sweet baklava made from locally-grown pistachios and drinking a bowl of beyran çorbası made from the rump of a sheep and flavoured with lashings of garlic

Backstory

A quick glance at a map reveals that Antep is only 30km from the Syrian border, a fact that has influenced its history, architecture and cuisine. Given its crossroads location, it goes almost without saying that over the centuries it was batted back and forth between the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Selçuks, the Mameluks and the Mongols, before finally falling to the Ottomans in 1516 during the reign of Selim I. 

While it was ancient history that bestowed many of the specific tourist attractions on Antep, more recent history looms large, too. In the early part of the 20th century, for example, there was still a sizeable Armenian community here who left behind some stupendous stripy churches. Then in 1920, during the Turkish War of Independence, the French invaded Antep in an attempt to carve out a fiefdom for themselves in southeastern Turkey.gazi3

After 10 months the city was forced to capitulate (of course the end of the war saw the French driven out again), but it had put up such a determined resistance that the epithet "Gazi [Heroic]" was added to its name in perpetual commemoration.

Around town

Where else could you possibly start a tour of Antep but in the shiny new Zeugma Museum (closed Mondays)? Here you will find a mind-boggling collection of mosaics depicting the life and legends of the Roman era, as well as a fierce-eyed statue of Mars, the Roman god of war, that was dredged unexpectedly from the ashes of old Zeugma.

Most famous of the mosaics is a tiny fragment depicting a so-called gypsy girl. Some authorities dispute this attribution, suggesting instead that it could be a representation of Alexander the Great who passed through these parts in the 4th century B.C. Whatever the truth, this headscarved, be-earringed face with the Mona Lisa look about it has become the most familiar symbol of modern Antep. 

gazi5The Zeugma Museum is by far the most important museum in Antep but recently lots of smaller museums have also opened in the back streets. Inevitably, some are much better than others but one especially worth looking out for is the Toy Museum, a rare attraction actually aimed at children. 

The Bayazhan complex contains Antep's own Kent Müzesi (City Museum) as well as a restaurant and bar. 

Antep's second most important attraction is the castle which sits atop an artificial mound of earth just like its much larger but otherwise virtually identical counterpart across the Syrian border in Aleppo (Haleb). The castle has undergone recent restoration and landscaping, and  its ramparts offer a great vantage point from which to view the surrounding area. (In May 2014 the castle was still closed while repairs were being carried out.)

Around the base of the mound money was poured into the partially successful restoration of an old hamam (Turkish bath) and the regeneration of an old coffee house with some pleasant stained glass and an inviting garden. Beyond these specific attractions lies the network of streets that constitutes the bazaar, a great place to browse for old and new copper and perhaps for the odd saddle or two. AntepfabricAntep produces a olourful cloth called kutnu made from silk and cotton

Recently the bazaar area has expanded considerably as more and more of the old hans are cleaned up and found new uses. Since the posh Şirehan Hotel opened work has begun on cleaning up many contemporary 19th-century hans in the same street.

On a fleeting visit, Gaziantep can come across as a typically ugly modern town. With time on your hands, however, it's well worth poking about its back streets, whereupon you will discover the many narrow alleyways lined with sturdy old mansions, their slightly forbidding exteriors barely hinting at the glories to be found inside.

To get an idea of what one of these mansions would have looked like in its heyday, head straight for the Hasan Süzer Museum (closed Mondays) which lies to the southwest of the main square dominated by an equestrian statue of Atatürk. In typical Antepli style, this house boasts a courtyard patterned in black and white marble with tiered living rooms opening on to it on all sides. The rooms have been restored to suggest Ottoman grandeur, although what may linger most in your memory is the cave-like storage area beneath the house with its curious and unexpected echoes of Cappadocia. 

gazi6If you can afford to splash out on your accommodation, you can get to know the architecture more intimately by booking into the stylish Anadolu Evleri (Anatolian Houses) or the rather more ramshackle Belkis Han, two hotels created out of rooms clustered around stripy-floored courtyards.

Several cafés have also been created inside old mansions. Finest is the Papirüs Cafe where tables are set up around a gnarled old tree in thecourtyard. For some time this building actually accommodated the Iranian Trade Delegation; the upstairs rooms are a fast-fading fantasia of mirrors and frescoes crying out for conservation.

gazi4Kurtuluş CamiThe mansions aside, Antep's other architectural gems are its mosques, some of them converted out of old churches. In a nod to Syria's proximity, their minarets are often jauntily capped and balconied. Even more striking, however, are the bold black and white stripes that surround door and window frames, and often sweep across the mihrabs too. 

Most magnificent of these striped buildings is the gigantic Kurtuluş Camii, which started life as a cathedral in 1892.

Easier to find is the Kendirli Kilisesi, an Armenian Catholic edifice which dates back to 1860 but was rebuilt in 1898. It now serves as a concert hall. gazi1Kendirli Kilisesi

The lovely 19th-century Armenian Church of St Mary has been converted into the Ömer Ersoy Cultural Centre. 

Sleeping

Gaziantep has lots of business-class hotels to suit all budgets and a handful of lovely boutique hotels. Unfortunately most of the older hotels still belong to the days when the designers threw all their energy into cheering up the lobby area, leaving none to spare for the bedrooms. 

Anadolu Evleri 

Belkis Han Tel: 0342-220 2020 (?)

Castle House. Tel: 0342-231 4142

Dayı Ahmet Ağa Konağı. Tel: 0342-232 1626

Ibis Hotel. Right beside the Forum Shopping Centre within walking distance of most main sights. Tel: 0342-211 0030

Novotel. Right beside the Forum Shopping Centre within walking distance of most main sights. Tel: 0342-211 0000

Şirehan Hotel. Tel: 0342-221 0011

Utkubey Hotel

Yesemek Otel

Zeynep Hanım Konağı

Transport info

There are daily flights from İstanbul to Gaziantep as well as buses from Ankara and most major towns in the vicinity. You can even get here from Adana by train. Gaziantep Oğuzeli Airport (GZT) is 20km south of the town centre.

Within town many buses leave from near the square with the big statue of Atatürk usually known as Heykel. The bus stop itself is called Balıklı (Fishy) despite there being not the slightest sign of any fish. It's a pretty chaotic spot although someone will probably help you find the bus or dolmuş you need.

You need to have bought a ticket before boarding the bus. Tickets are on sale in some büfes including the one in front of the bus terminal and in Balıklı square - stock up in case there's nowhere to buy one when you want to return. 

Minibuses to Birecik, Maraş, Nizip and Urfa leave from the main otogar. To get to Düllük take the Beyerbeyi bus from Balıklı.gazi7Sellers of meyankökü şerbeti (licorice drink) mass on Gazi Caddesi

Antep has a three-line light rail system but it is of almost no use to tourists despite running to the station (Gar).

Day trip destinations

Araban

Belkis-Zeugma

Birecik

Düllük

Kahramanmaraş

Karkamış

Kilis

Nizip

Rumkale

Tilmen Höyük

Yesemek

Read more: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-142852-the-hidden-glories-of-gaziantep.html 

Read more about the museums: http://www.todayszaman.com/travel_museum-city-gaziantep_353274.html

Images of Gaziantep's colourful mosques: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.290849551082284.1073741862.137912259709348&type=1

gazi8

 

 

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