Tuesday, December 28, 2010


A few days before Christmas, my mom and I loaded up the car for a trip to Antakya, a town located 12 km from the Syrian border on the little part of Turkey that dips around the Mediterranean. The town is due south of Ankara, as far as you can drive in Turkey. Our drive involved a lot of fog, and the Ala Daglari (Crimson Mountains).


Antakya (referred to as Antioch in the Bible), from its founding in 300 BC was home to many different peoples and cultures: Greek, Hebrew, Persian, and Latin were all spoken in the streets. This is one of the major reasons Christian pioneers, St. Paul and Barnabas chose Antakya to spread Christianity. According to the Bible, it was in Antakya, that Christians were first referred to as Christians, and in 40AD the authorities of Rome named the community as such. For this reason, we thought it would be an interesting place to spend Christmas.

Our first visit was to the famous Mosaic Museum, one of the best collections in this part of the world. They are Roman mosaics, and depict Greco-Roman mythology.
The Yakto mosaic took up the floor of an entire room (5th century AD): The woman in the middle is called Megalopsychia, and she represents the loftiness of spirit (a gal after my own heart). She is surrounded by hunting scenes. The border represents a tour of the city of Antakya, from an Olympic stadium to the waterfall where Apollo raped Daphne.

Here is Orpheus playing on his lyre the beautiful music that charmed beasts and trees, and even charmed Pluto to release Orpheus' wife, Eurydice from the Underworld.

Mosaic of Awakening (5th c. AD):

Next, we visited Habib-I Neccar Camii (Mosque). Antakya saw Muslims for the first time in 638 AD after the invasion of an Arab Army led by Abu Ubayd. It became an important city for Islam as well as Christianity, spreading the religion through Anatolia for the 300-year period of Arab rule. This mosque was constructed in the same year, and is regarded as one of the first of Anatolia. It is named after the town martyr who bears an interesting story: Habib Neccar was a carpenter, who during the formative years of Christianity, carved idols to the pagans in his cave in the mountain. He was the first Christian convert in Antioch, as when the disciples arrived to preach the new religion, he stopped worshipping idols. However, the speeches of the disciples angered the community, and the ruler of the time threw two disciples in prison. When Simon, a third disciple, arrived to persuade him to free the men, the locals devised a plan to stone all the disciples to death. When Habib heard of this plan and tried to stop them, they killed Habib by cutting off his head. His head rolled down to the place where his mosque and tomb are now located.

We were on the hunt for information about Christmas Eve services. We found the Greek Orthodox Church all lit up with Mutlu Noeller (Merry Christmas) first, and planned to return the next day, Christmas Eve, for service. This church was built in 1833 in the Byzantine style, but the church burnt down in an earthquake in 1872. The Ottoman state allowed the church to be renovated and rebuilt according to the original structure. Russian engineers were involved in the renovation, and so the resulting architecture has Russian elements.

The Turkish Catholic Church was impossible to find at first. We finally found it the second day, on Christmas Eve. You can see, by the tiny sign marking its existence (Katolik Kilisesi), why we had trouble.

The Catholics arrived in Antakya in 1846 and were permitted by the Sultan to build a church. In 1977, it was moved to this residency, a small eastern-style monastery with enclosed gardens of orange trees.

From the rooftop, you can see the nearby mosque's minaret behind the church's cross.

There, we learned that that night a bus would be leaving from the Turkish Catholic church to go to St. Peter's grotto, for Christmas Eve service at 9pm. St. Peter's is the oldest church in the area, erected in circa 40AD. But, first, we would attend the earlier mass at the Orthodox Church:

The service lasted for over an hour and consisted entirely of a kind of Gregorian chanting, but with an Arabic influence. My mother and I had never heard anything like it, and rather than try to describe it, listen to the video below.

The priests conducted this service from an altar room, where they were hidden from our view. Occasionally, they would come out and lead the congregation in making the sign of the cross. There were tons of professional photographers there taking pictures of the congregation, the people lighting candles, etc. They were actually a bit obtrusive, and made me realize what I must appear like wandering around mosques taking pictures of a religious tradition not my own. We had to leave a bit early to catch our bus to St. Peter's.

St. Peter's church is situated inside a cave 2 kilometers from Antakya in the foothills of the Habib-I Neccar mountains. When St. Peter arrived in Antakya, he looked at the mountain and decided he'd erect his church there. It was supposedly the first church after the main one in Jerusalem. When the church was originally used, there were catacombs where the early Christians could hide from the authorities seeking to punish them for illegal religious activity. The escape tunnel has since been sealed shut by a landslide. St. Peter was thought to preach there from 47-54 AD. The facade of the church was built in 1093 by the Crusaders and was repaired in 1863 by Capuchin monks.

This service differed greatly from the one at the Orthodox church. Children put on a pageant, telling the story of baby Jesus' birth with acting and song. A 10-piece band of guitars, traditional Turkish instruments, keyboard, and drums accompanied our hymns. We sang Turkish lyrics to many familiar tunes, Silent Night, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. A Turkish politician (we think he was the mayor...and again many of the same photographers shot this event as well) spoke and then a man from a small country outside of Russia spoke with a Turkish translator. He said he was Buddhist, and there for the International Women's Chess tournament, and was delighted to take part in the Christmas celebrations of Antakya.

The small cave was so alive with children and joyful music, and when we visited the cave the next day to see it in daylight, it seemed so ordinary and lacking. Here are pictures of the church the next day:

And from the mountainside where St. Peter's grotto sits, Antakya at sunset.

Note the dense (smelly) fog sitting over the city. It was with us almost our entire stay and is a result of the many poor people burning coal to stay warm. We enjoyed our time in this old, interesting city, but were also glad to return home to a more modern, cleaner Ankara.


R said...

Very nice presentation. I visited StPeters Church over 50years ago, nothing has changed, ---RPR

Leslie said...

I love your photos. You have become quite the photographer. I had no idea Turkey was such an interesting and viusal place. You are so lucky to have this experience. I am glas you had so much fun with your mommy!