Into Earthquake Country
25 September 2023
Another long drive with views improved by the towering Taurus Mountains. Turkey is a mountainous country and the Taurus Mountains curve 350 miles through southern Turkey separating the Mediterranean coast from the central Anatolian Plateau.
It extends all the way to the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. Turkey’s highest peak is Mount Ararat in the east at 16,854’; peaks in the Taurus range are as high as 13,504. Snow skiing is a popular sport.
Thankfully, mountainous crags and spotty vegetation break up what is a long drive back to the southern coast. Once over an approximately 5,500 ft pass, we reenter beautiful green forests. We journey south to within 12 miles of the Aegean to the ancient city of Tarsus.
The city’s history dates back over 6,000 years and was a major stop for traders traveling north from Syria and was the heart of the Cilician Plains. Excavations have unearthed early settlements of Hittites, Assyrian, Persian and Roman. These rocks and ruins reflect a long and interesting history for Taurus.
As legend tells, Perseus, son of Zeus founded Tarsus sometime after he beheaded the Medusa. Pompey brought Tarsus under Roman rule and it became the capital of Cilicia. Tarsus also serves as the final resting place for a few Roman emperors. The city played host to the first assignation between Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Still standing is the gate through which they “maybe” entered the city in 41 BCE.
However, Taurus is best known as the birthplace of Paul the Apostle. Paul, or Saul of Tarsus, was born in Tarsus in about 5 CE. He didn’t start out as a “good guy” but converted to Christianity sometime around 32 CE. Paul then made several missionary journeys. He is credited with spreading the beliefs of Christianity around Asia Minor and Europe.
Around 1102, the first St. Paul’s Church was constructed in Tarsus. The present church was erected in 1862. The church is small and occasionally is used for religious services. Currently, it is a museum. Also in the city, a water well that supposedly belonged to Paul. On another small site are the ruins of the Mausoleum of the Islamic Prophet Danyal. Belief is that he was buried near the Grand Mosque in the historic center of Tarsus.
I escape Tarsus after lunch. It is 91°, feels like 101°.
Neptune god of earthquakes, shaker of the earth, spare us.
From Tarsus we continue our drive southeastward about 160 miles, skirting Turkey’s border with Syria. We drive through Adana, past arid, rolling landscape and large black lava boulders. Eventually, our route takes us into the southern region of the Fertile Crescent. At least 15,000 years ago, most of our ancestors passed this way on their journeys north and east.
Our destination is Gaziantep. The old historic city is known for its food, charm, and brass craftsmen who continue to shape household utensils by hand.
In February 2023, it became world-famous for its proximity to the epicenter of a 7.8 earthquake. Parts of Gaziantep suffered heavy damage. Thousands of aftershocks have followed. I want our Sirehan Hotel to be solidly built!
The Sirehan is in the center of the historic city and surrounded by shops, neighborhood mosques, and many Hans. Hans are the name for the labyrinth of large covered markets of Gaziantep where not only merchants sell their wares, but much manufacturing also takes place. Within, there is a plethora of smells and colors. Also, there is always the sounds of pounding and chipping as the copper and brass makers work on their next product.
The two-story Sirehan Hotel, built in 1885, resembles a fortress. It was once a grand Han along the Silk Road. Now it is a grand hotel complete with a wonderful large courtyard for dining. Since it’s construction, it has withstood dozens of tremors.
This region of Turkey is earthquake country and signs of damage can be seen along our route. I feel relief by the hotel’s apparent sturdiness, yet I still take note of places of shelter and exits. I have lived in California too long not to make a plan!
In spite of its size and bustle, Gaziantep is a nice town. Contributing to its charm, a Castle sits atop a central acropolis. The city has several interesting museums, including the Hammam which covers the tradition of a Turkish bath. Craft shops and markets featuring spices and long strings of dried fruits, spices, dried nuts and pistachios abound. There are all sorts of delicacies and treats to satisfy anyone’s sweet tooth. From the Kurtulus Cami Mosque to the ubiquitous Atatürk Museum there is much to explore.
Gaziantep even has an annual GastroAntep Food Festival.
The city is also renowned for its pistachios and baklava. Oh my, the baklava is divine. We stopped for a break in one of the best shops/restaurants in the city. There was a multitude of choices. I am positive that all shapes and sizes would be superb. I had a wonderful wedge.
Turks are the biggest consumers of tea in the world! The Turks were fast to adopt it as their favorite drink. Explains a lot about meals in Turkey.
Morning ritual is the Call to Prayer and a Mediterranean-style breakfast with a wide selection of olives, cheeses, eggs, breads and jellies, and a bunch of stuff. Most times great yogurt but it continues to be a challenge to get a pot of coffee on the table. Wanting milk seemed to surprise them. Always tea is served which occurs throughout the day and at every meal – lots of tea is served. I’m not wild about tea on the best of days.
Gaziantep Zeugma Mosaic Museum
We visit the amazing Gaziantep Zeugma Mosaic Museum. It is the largest of its kind in the world. East of the city and along the Euphrates River, archaeologists unearthed many priceless mosaics at the Belkis-Zeugma Site. Fortunately for me, my excellent guide through the rocks and ruins of Turkey is a professional archeologist. Damla worked at the Zeugma dig for many years.
Zeugma (Seleucia), established in the early 3rd century BC, was founded by Seleucus Nicator, a successor to Alexander the Great and founder of the Seleucid Kingdom. It was he who built the very first bridge over the Euphrates.
On display is “Gypsy Girl,” the famous Roman mosaic unearthed in 1999. A fragment of the whole, it is a stunning representation of the craft. Many other beautiful Hellenistic and Roman mosaics found at Zeugma are on display. It is impossible to choose a favorite. In 2014, three large glass mosaics were discovered at Zeugma, one of which depicts the nine muses. Additionally, other spectacular mosaics depict Eros and Psyche Oceanus, Zeus and Europa, and Dionysos the god of wine-making. The loss of any of these mosaics would be a tragedy.
A significant part of Zeugma has been submerged and lost as a result of dams built along the Euphrates. However, work proceeds to save the ancient city’s artifacts and mosaics. Thankfully, the museum remained unharmed from the earthquake.
Too Brief My Visit
I have had far too little time in Gaziantep. Several city sites from antiquities, proximity to the Euphrates, and the history of the region demands more. Gaziantep is a city that requires more than an afternoon for exploration. However, “talking heads” call and I will heed the siren call to hear what mysteries they may hold.