There is no escaping the importance of that most succulent of fruits, the apricot, to the eastern Anatolian province of Malatya.
Turkey is the leading producer of apricots in the world, producing a mammoth 695,000 tons annually (2009 figures) -- almost twice the amount of nearest rival Iran -- and a staggering 95 percent of Turkey’s dried apricot production is centered in Malatya. Or, to look at it another way, between 65-80 percent of the world’s dried apricots are estimated to come from Malatya.
It’s hardly surprising therefore that the front cover of a city map I picked up from a tourist information kiosk in the city recently was adorned with a photograph of a bunch of pink-tinged, golden apricots ripening on a branch. Nor that the back cover of the same map showed the slender branch of an apricot tree fulsomely bedecked with pretty white apricot blossoms. The tourism gurus from the Culture and Tourism Ministry behind the city map had also thought it fit to add another couple of apricot images to the design, with a freshly picked fruit sprouting two leaves gleaming with water droplets (no doubt artfully contrived by the photographer) and another showing a neatly dissected ripe apricot revealing its stone-filled innards to all and sundry.
One of Malatya’s leading hotels is the Altın Kayısı (Golden Apricot), the focal point of the city’s municipality logo is three apricots and the city center and bazaar area are lined with shops devoted to apricot-derived produce. Most ubiquitous are the chemically dried apricots (the bright orange ones) and sun-dried (the brown, softer) ones. Then there are great, gelatinous mounds of the nut-studded apricot-pulp sweet, kayısı doner, sheets of rubbery pestil (made from apricot molasses) and boxes of apricots covered in chocolate and rolled in crushed pistachios. The apricot stone is even put to delicious use -- they are ground up to a marzipan-like paste and served as a chocolate-covered treat. Then there are various apricot extracts used to makes soaps and skincare creams. Apricots are big in Malatya -- and surely The Big Apricot makes far more sense as a nickname for Malatya than The Big Apple does as a moniker for New York.
City center diversions
Let’s put apricots to one side for the moment, however, and concentrate on what else there is to experience in this green and pleasant city. Although many of the traditional old Malatya mud-brick houses are now gone or are crumbling into ruins, a few have survived. The best place to see them is on central Eski Sinema Sokaği (Old Cinema Street) where a whole row of properties has been restored. One of these is the interesting Beşkonaklar Ethnography Museum, which is home to a collection of bygones such as muskets, hamam paraphernalia, hand-printing blocks, old tea services, looms and the like. Next door is one of the city’s best eating establishments, the Beşkonaklar Malatya Mutfağı. Unlike say, Gaziantep or Hatay, Malatya’s cuisine is not well known throughout the rest of Turkey, but it is a surprisingly rich one, and Malatya Mutfağı draws on a repertoire of 130 different varieties of köfte as well as many other dishes.
Malataya’s Archeological Museum is handily located on Kanal Boyu, an attractive street lined with posh but pleasant cafes and ice cream parlors located on both sides of a tinkling water canal, clogged with strollers on warm summer evenings. Even a cursory look around this fascinating museum will soon make you realize that although there’s little of great antiquity to be seen in today’s Malatya, this is in fact a very ancient settlement. It formed a natural gateway to Anatolia from Mesopotamia, the birthplace of civilization, and was already an important city some 6,000 years ago in the Bronze Age. Both the Hittites and the neo-Hittites were here, as were the Assyrians. In the Roman period, Malatya (then known as Melitene) was an important city and legionary base on the eastern boundaries of the empire. It was an important Armenian city in the Byzantine era before being absorbed successively into the domains of the Selcuk Turks, Mameluks and finally the Ottomans. Objects from most of these periods can be seen in the museum, which is dominated by finds from the site of an ancient settlement at Aslantepe, a newly interpreted and laid-out site a few kilometers out of the modern city and well worth a visit (see below).
Also worth seeking out are the ornate clock tower and the attractive Yeni Camii, built in 1912 and looking very much like a copy of a multi-domed 10th century Byzantine church. Just north of here is the Şire bazaar, where smart Malatya shoppers snaffle up the superb local produce at the best prices (including, of course, apricots in season). Malatya had a large Armenian population up until 1915, and one of their churches, the Taşhoran -- a colossal but roofless and locked-up structure which you can only view from the outside -- survives just beyond the ring road. It’s also a reminder that slain Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink’s hometown was Malatya. Other luminaries that were born and raised here include Ataturk’s successor, İsmet İnönü, whose statue dominates the central square, and the reformist and former Turkish President Turgut Özal.
History in the suburbs
A few kilometers out of town but easily accessible by city bus is the settlement mound at Aslantepe. Carefully excavated over many, many seasons by Italian archaeologists, this large hüyük (man-made mound) was built up over several millennia of occupation, from about 4,000 B.C. to the medieval era. There are many such mounds in Turkey, but only a handful (Troy and Tilmen Hüyük in Gaziantep spring to mind) have been made as accessible to the general public as here. You can wander through the remains of a mud-brick palace dating back 5,500 years, examine a temple almost as old and see the remnants of a neo-Hittite palace. Everything is logically and clearly explained in a series of display boards -- there’s even a mock-up Bronze Age mud-brick dwelling at the site entrance, along with copies done by local sculptors of some large statues found here. These include the two lions which give the site its name of “Lion Hill,” and the Hittite god Tarhunzas. The views across apricot orchards (there we go again!) burying the surrounding village to the distant mountains are excellent.
Another Malatya suburb easily accessed by city bus is Battalgazi (also known as Eski Malatya or Old Malatya), the new name for a settlement that dates back to the Roman period at least. Here the modern suburb has sprung up amidst the ancient walls, parts of which are currently under reconstruction. It’s enough just to wander around this oversized village and admire the crumbling remains, though a couple of important buildings have been thoroughly restored. The 17th century kervansaray, the Silahtar Mustafa Paşa, looks too new to be true, so comprehensively has it been restored, but it is impressive nonetheless with its massive courtyard and big winter hall lined with fireplaces. Much better is the Selcuk-era Ulu Camii, with a beautiful dome, the interior of which is decorated with a herringbone design of blue-glazed tiles. The town square has numerous teahouses where you can while away the time waiting for a bus back to the city center, and where tea is a bargain at Kr 35.
There’s much more to see and do around Malatya. The annual apricot festival starts on July 8, which draws both locals and international buyers, then there’s the green oasis town of Darende (where the shrine of Somuncu Baba is located) an hour away from the city. But the main reason why tourists and travelers head to Malatya is that it provides a beautiful and much-less busy access route to the Hellenistic mountaintop sanctuary of Mount Nemrut -- a greener and prettier route up to the colossal statues atop the peak than from dusty Adiyaman/Kahta to the south.
Malatya airport is 28 kilometers from town, with regular Havas bus links. There are daily direct flights from Ankara and Istanbul to Malatya with Turkish Airlines (THY) and from Istanbul with Onur Air; from most other major Turkish cities with Anadolujet via Ankara.
Where to stay
Budget: Otel Park Atatürk
Cad 17, 0422 3211691,
Mid-range: Yeni Otel Yeni Cami Karşısı, 0422 3231423, http://www.malatyayenihotel.com/
Top-end: Hanem Fuzuli Cad 13, 0422 3212839, www.hanemhotel.com.tr.
Eating and drinking
Beşkonaklar Malatya Mutfağı on Sinema Cad 13 has a posh, old-fashioned dining room and pleasant garden with local dishes as the main attraction Nostalji on Mucelli Caddesi is also set in an old house but is much more laid-back, with nargile and coffee as much a feature as snacks.
Museums and sites
Aslantepe: Tuesday to Sunday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., TL 3
Archeology Museum: Tuesday to Sunday, 8 a.m.-noon, 1-5 p.m., TL 3
Beşkonaklar Ethnography Museum: Tuesday to Sunday, 8 a.m.-5 p.m., free.
Visits to Mount Nemrut from Malatya including a night’s stay (TL 100) can be arranged through the Guneş Hotel on the mountain (0422 3239378).