To say that Gaziantep, a city standing astride the historic Silk Road in southeast Turkey, has changed considerably in the last couple of decades is a massive understatement.
Until relatively recently most tourists and travelers viewed the city as little more than the gateway to more exciting places further east across the Euphrates -- the bustling bazaars of Şanlıurfa, the giant heads of classical gods erected atop Mount Nemrut by the megalomaniac petty-ruler Antiochus of Commagene, or the gorgeous tiers of honey-hued mansions gazing down on the Mesopotamian plain from Mardin. Today, however, people are drawn to this vibrant city for its own sake. So what has changed?
Even with the civil war unfolding horribly across the nearby Syrian border, Gaziantep is a booming “Anatolian Tiger.” The massive Southeast Anatolian Project’s (GAP) irrigation and hydro-electric power generation scheme is undoubtedly the major reason why Gaziantep has become the economic giant of the region, with both agriculture and industry flourishing. This economic boom has enabled the city to significantly improve infrastructure – which is always an attractive prospect for the visitor in search of a comfy hotel room and a charming restaurant. But more importantly, from the point of view of tourism, this new-found wealth coupled with some bold thinking by the local municipality has enabled the city to make the most of a history so impressive that Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi described it, in 1671, as “the city that is the apple of the world’s eye.”
‘Dam’ed’ for the better?
The major turning point for tourism in Gaziantep, however, was the construction of the Birecik Dam on the Euphrates, some thirty-odd kilometers east of the city. It was well-known that there was a Greco-Roman settlement of some importance on the river banks, not far northwest of Birecik. However, it wasn’t until the remains were threatened by an inundation of floodwaters from the dam that there was an international outcry, which allowed first French, in 1995, and then an international team of archaeologists, in 2000, to rescue a simply stunning collection of mosaics. The name of the ancient settlement was Zeugma (link or bridge in Greek). Founded in 300 B.C. by a successor of Alexander the Great, it later became a wealthy trade entrepot and military post on the Roman frontier. The beautiful mosaics, most picturing delightful scene from Greek mythology, adorned the floors of the mansion-houses of rich merchants.
Gaziantep now has in its possession one of the most incredible and beautiful collections of mosaics in the world. The city did not waste its treasures. A massive new wing was added to the Gaziantep Museum of Archeology and intrigued visitors began to come -- Gaziantep was suddenly on the world map. Encouraged, the city began -- and continues to do so -- putting ever more resources into developing its obvious tourism potential as one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. But just what is there to see, mosaics apart, in a city still huddled, as it has been for a millennia, around a spectacular castle-mound dating back some 5000 years?
Heritage -- big time
Over the last few years, literally dozens of buildings in and around the center, from historic stone houses to Arab-style mosques and spacious “hans,” have been restored. Heritage is big-time here, and virtually every building of any historic note has a sign-board next to it giving some explanation of what you are looking at. Museums of all types have sprung-up, which revel in the city’s past and its unique Arab-influenced culture, from the tiny but exquisite museum devoted to Roman glass and other ancient artifacts through to one specializing in Gaziantep’s distinctive and famous cuisine.
The obvious place to begin your exploration is the kale (castle), a massive structure built atop a towering mound, which is half-natural and half the result of detritus built up over a millennia of occupation. The walls you see today date back to the time of the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the sixth century, but were re-modeled under the Mamluks during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
Unfortunately, it’s not possible to make the most of the grand views over the old city from the top owing to renovation work, but you can still approach the castle through the main gate and wander around the Panorama Museum, which is housed in a tunnel built into the ramparts. The museum gives vivid insight into Antep’s struggle against the French, who attempted to annex the city to French-mandated Syria during the Turkish War of Independence in 1920. Antep, as it was then known, was given the honorific prefix Gazi (warrior of İslam) as a result of that momentous struggle.
Exploring the bazaar quarter
Radiating-outwards from the skirts of the castle is the sprawling old bazaar quarter, which has recently morphed into a tourist-orientated cafe and shopping haven. It hasn’t lost its character, however, and there are still plenty of old stone buildings awaiting restoration amidst already made-over structures such as the smart Ottoman-era Zincirli Han, and even further out, the Şira Han, which houses the posh Sahan restaurant. Many of the mosques planted on these quaint streets boast distinctive Syrian-style minarets, and elaborate balconies topped by ornate conical wooden roofs -- such as the Ottoman-period Şirvani and Tahtani mosques. The curving street north and west of the castle still rings to the sound of traditional copper beaters, and you can relax on a low-wooden stool on the pavement to enjoy the city’s famous lahmacun (a tortilla-style bread cooked in a wood oven and smeared with spiced mince) from a hole-in-the wall bakery.
When approaching Gaziantep by road, you can’t fail to note the literally millions of pistachio trees planted across the bleached landscape which have done so much to boost the local economy. The bazaar is full of small shops specializing in local produce, including big sacks full to the brim with the nut that Gaziantep has made its own, so much so that it is usually known in Turkey today as Antep Fıstığı -- literally “Antep nut.” You can even buy small brass nut-crackers, hand-made in the bazaar, designed especially to tackle those rogue, nail-ripping nuts that have failed to split properly in the roasting process. The vast array of pungent spices on offer, along with the delicious smells wafting from restaurants like the famed İmam Cağdaş can’t help but stimulate your interest in the local cuisine. One way to learn more is to check-out the intriguing Emine Göğüş Culinary Museum (9 a.m.-6 p.m. daily, TL 1), set in an old house in a back-street north of the castle.
More museums -- and the Armenian quarter
Also worth seeking out in these lively streets is the wonderful Medusa Glass Artifacts and Archeology Museum (9 a.m.-7 p.m. daily, TL 4). The exhibition space may be just a few small rooms in an old courtyard house but the quality of artifacts is stunning -- from terracotta toy Hittite war chariots to exquisite Islamic-era gold work and much else besides. It’s also a great place to unwind with a coffee or cold drink and watch the pet-monkeys squabble in their cage. A ten-minute walk to the northwest, past Gaziantepspor’s stadium, the Gaziantep Museum of Archeology may have been stripped of its Zeugma mosaics but is packed with interesting objects -- don’t miss the relief carved basalt slab in the garden with a vivid representation of the Hittite storm-god Teisheba.
The area southwest of the city center is the old Armenian quarter. This maze of alleys running between beautiful old courtyard houses is home to the Hasan Süzer Ethnography Museum (Daily 8 a.m.-noon and 1 p.m-5 p.m., TL 3). Although set in a nineteenth-century Armenian house, the museum captures the essence of the home as it was in the 1930s with its new Turkish owners, and gives a vivid insight into a bygone Gaziantep.
Around the corner is another old Armenian house, now the fine Papirus Cafe, where you sit in a shady courtyard and enjoy a Turkish coffee, and then pop upstairs to see some incongruous European style and scene wall paintings. Further up the hill is the Kurtuluş Camii, a massive black and white domed stone structure, which previously was the Armenian St. Mary’s Church, built in Italianate style in 1892. At the foot of the hill on busy Atatürk Bulvarı is the Kendirli Kilise, the city’s former Armenian Catholic Church, also black and white, but quite different in style from its apostolic rival up the hill. Further west is the state-of-the-art Gaziantep City Museum (open 9 a.m.-6:30 p.m., free), with all kinds of displays dealing with the history, culture and social life of the city -- especially in the 19th and 20th centuries.
It would be nigh on criminal, of course, to leave this fascinating city without visiting the Zeugma Mosaics Museum (Tues.-Sun., TL 8), an inconvenient but easily “bus-able” kilometer or two northeast of the center on the ring road. It’s the jewel in Gaziantep’s already well-burnished crown and truly a world-class museum.
How to get here
Gaziantep Airport, some 20 kilometers from the city center and linked by Havaş bus, can be reached from most Turkish cities with Anadolujet via Ankara. There are also direct flights from Antalya with Sunexpress, from İzmir with Sunexpress, and from İstanbul with Sunexpress, Pegasus and Turkish Airlines.
Where to stay
Budget: Evin, Kayacık Sok. 11 Tel.: 0 (342) 231 34 92. Central, clean and comfortable and a bargain with double rooms from TL 45.
Mid-range: Zeynep Hanım Konağı, Eski Sinema Sok. 17, off Atatürk Bulvarı. 11 Tel.: 0 (342) 232 02 07, www.zeynephanimkonagi.com. The boutique hotel set around the small courtyard of a former-Armenian house provides compact and comfy accommodation in this historic part of town. Double rooms TL 95.
High-end: Tuğcan, Atatürk Bulvarı No. 34. Tel.: 0 (342) 220 43 23, www.tugcanhotel.com.tr. It is a luxury five-star establishment with spacious rooms tastefully furnished in contemporary style -- and a pool. Doubles from TL 160.