Southern Turkey boasts ancient civilizations around every corner
Updated: Feb 7
Turkey’s Mediterranean shore, often called the Turquoise Coast, runs more than 900 miles, sprinkled with picturesque beaches and classical ruins. The Tarsus Mountains form a dramatic backdrop along much of it. Though it was ravaged by wildfires this year, it is a favorite of Europeans, but virtually unknown to Americans. It was also a favorite of the ancient world: Byzantines, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Romans, and many other civilizations used these Mediterranean beaches as their playgrounds. Even Mark Antony and Cleopatra met here, in Tarsus near Adana, beginning their powerful political alliance and fabled affair.
A little further to the east, the shoreline becomes rougher, the tourists fewer. But there is an embarrassment of riches for those with an interest in antiquity and classical civilizations. We chose a small swath (about 155 miles) of this part of Turkey, from Adana to Gaziantep—not technically on the Mediterranean—to explore during a recent visit. Repeatedly, our discoveries proved to be inspiring, amazing, sometimes transformative.
Our first stop was Gaziantep, most often called simply Antep. For most people, it’s known as the pistachio capital of Turkey and for the hot Aleppo pepper used in its cuisine. In the past decade, it has become known for something else: one of the largest mosaic museums in the world. This came about because of the Turkish governments plans around 20 years ago for new dams on the Euphrates. Part of that plan meant flooding anything in its way, including historical sites that go back for millennia. Archeologist raced to save all they could, always begging for just a little more time before floodwaters covered the artifacts forever.
In this case, Zeugma, very close to Gaziantep, was in the sights of the Turkish government. Zeugma is thought to have been founded by a general in Alexander the Great’s army, originally two cities on either side of the Euphrates River. It was a vital military center for the Romans and was home to mix of very wealthy military and civilian residents who built impressive homes and villas distinguished by magnificent mosaics.
The excavations that were begun in advance of the flooding discovered homes, public buildings and market squares that contained one of the largest and most important collections of Roman mosaic art ever found, ironic since much of the floor mosaics had disappeared and the villas looted by black market smugglers in the early 1960s, like many other ancient sites in Turkey.
What the archeologists could get out in time was amazing: figures and stories from Greek and Roman mythology came alive. Dionysus stumbled with his wine, Eros and Psyche were together again, Zeus carried off Europa, Odysseus found Achilles. And “The Gypsy Girl,” Turkey’s own “Mona Lisa” now sits in splendid glory in her own viewing room at the Zeugma Museum in Gaziantep.
The fine workmanship, the artist’s eye that turned stone into art, show that the heart and soul of the artist drive the technology, not the other way around. With so much found, before the flood gates were opened, one must wonder how much more there was that was submerged forever by the Turkish government. And what gives any government the right to destroy cultural heritage?
Though Gaziantep offered many more museums—it was literally the "Bubba Gump" of museums, with a litany like Bubba’s shrimp varieties—we were off to Antakya, or Antioch, in the Hatay Province.
Antioch was founded around the 4th century BC by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Because of its location, it benefited from the spice trade and the Silk Road and was one of the most important cities in the eastern Mediterranean half of the Roman Empire.
It is also called the “cradle of Christianity” since it is the location of the first Gentile (non-Jewish) Christian church, and the location where followers of Jesus Christ were first called Christians. The cave in the mountain where the Apostle Peter preached currently has a small edifice fronting it. Though the Catholic Church has named Antioch (or the Church of St Peter there) as a pilgrimage site, there are few visitors. It is difficult to reach, and it is not publicized well. The site is run by the Turkish Ministry of Tourism, which charges a small entrance fee and provides a slight security presence.
I had it all to myself for most of my visit. Though there isn’t much to see, when what you are seeing sinks in, it is impressive. The Apostle Peter came to this very spot, preached in that cave, and helped organize a church, a church and religion that grew far beyond what he could have imagined when he was acting upon the simple “Go and teach all nations” command.
This one stop made the entire trip worth it. I am not a bucket list type of person, and Antioch had not been a “must see” for me. But this simple place that said, “this was real, this person was here, and this happened” helps validate our history and our lives.
Antakya also has several outstanding museums, with mosaics dating back to the Hellenistic period, as well as statues that date from the Hittite to the Roman periods. That museum is also home to the Suppiluliuma statue of a Hittite king by that name. The statue is quite unusual looking, and replicas are a favorite tourist item.
Finally, we visited Adana. Most Americans know it as the home of Incirlik Air Base. It is and always has been a massive economic and transportation hub, but also has its share of historical sites. Cleopatra’s Gate was built in the Middle Ages to commemorate the 41 BC meeting of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at that spot in nearby Tarsus. Many centuries later, Paul the Apostle, raised in Tarsus, would become one of the leading thinkers and writers of the Christianity.
The trip showed us an amazing collection of ancient civilizations along the southern Turkish Mediterranean area. It’s an area that is sure to bring even more discoveries. There’s a saying that every time someone digs in Turkey, a civilization is unearthed.