Antakya – centre of early Christianity and multicultural metropolis on the border with the Middle East
Hatay, the southernmost province of Turkey, is at the gateway to the Arabic Middle East. The atmospheric province metropolises of Iskenderun and Antakya, formerly known as Antioch, make a worthwhile alternative destination for travellers to Turkey who are prepared to make a further journey from the destination airport of Antalya. Hatay has a long and varied history as it forms the interface between different cultures, religions and states: Sunni and Christian Arabs, Alawis, Turkish Sunnis, Arameans and Armenians create a mixed society which is now able to co-exist peacefully, giving the multicultural society a colourful overall character. Early Christianisation meant that the region was often a pawn during its history: all world religions and armies of the world at that time passed through Hatay, leaving their mark upon its cities and countryside.
Antioch was one of the most famous cities of antiquity and the ancient Near East – and the third largest, after Rome and Alexandria. The Romans built magnificent aqueducts and sewer systems; the main streets of the city were illuminated at night. Antioch acquired economic importance through its geographical location situated between the Mediterranean, the Orontes River, and the caravan routes to Persia and Syria.
After the turning of the eras (B.C. to A.D), one of the first, secret Christian congregations developed in Antioch – and the oldest church in Christianity. Its prayer room is not a church building, as is familiar to us from the Middle Ages: following the crucifixion of their Saviour, the Christians were a persecuted sect who gathered together secretly in Antioch under cover of darkness in a cave. According to the writings of the Apostles, the now famous St. Petrus Grotto, with its stone altar, is the oldest church interior in history. It lay buried for many centuries until the Crusaders rebuilt the church after recapturing the city, enlarging the prayer room and constructing a facade.
Antioch continued to change hands many times over the centuries, suffering devastating conquests: in the eleventh century, the Crusaders wrested this centre of trade from the Arabs. Byzantines, Arabs, Mamelukes from Egypt, Armenians from the Kingdom of Cilicia: all fought for the supremacy of Hatay and possession of the metropolises of Antakya and Antioch. The Ottomans, who stormed the city in 1517, were nevertheless able to bring peace to the region for five hundred years, until the First World War.
The multicultural coexistence of people from different religions, ethnic groups and cultures in Antakya is not only a claim, but an everyday reality. Both Arabic and Turkish are spoken in the cafés and bazaars, Christian services are held in the Arabic language, Alevites, Sunnis, Orthodox Christians and Jews lend this southern Turkish city on the Mediterranean a cosmopolitan, vivacious atmosphere today.