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Antakya Mosaic Museum has the second largest collection of its kind in the world after the mosaic museum in Tunisia. One of the Roman mosaics here depicts the story of Narcissus. Surrounded by an ornate border, Narcissus, with a flute hanging from a string around his neck, a staff in his hand and hat on his head, is seated on a rock on a river bank, watching his reflection in the water. Behind him the water nymph Echo looks yearningly upon her beloved, for whom she burns with unrequited love.Could we compare the city of Antakya, the ancient Antioch, which stands on the River Asi - the ancient Orontes - to Narcissus? Perhaps, yes, because throughout its history how many nymphs, gods and kings have gazed with passionate longing at this magnificent city. Today, however, the waters of the river are too clouded to reflect the city's image, and it requires some effort and patience to reveal the city's beauty beneath the shell of economic 'development'. Despite everything, Antakya remains a beautiful and unique city, with its magnificent setting, traces of a long and colourful history, and cosmopolitan culture. Like all cities which rest their backs against the lower slopes of a mountain, it has an air of detached self-confidence.


Through times of war, earthquake, turmoil, and the pursuit of pleasure, the city has remained unperturbed.Legends relating to Antakya begin with Mount Habib Neccar (Silpius) which towers behind the city. According to one such legend, the city was founded over 2300 years ago by Seleucos Nicator I, one of Alexander the Great's generals, on the spot where an eagle dropped a headless sheep from its talons. The city's future king, Seleucos Nicator, had no trouble finding a name, calling it after his beloved son Antiochus.Following the Macedonians, Antakya frequently changed hands, being ruled in succession by the Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Byzantines again, Seljuks, Crusaders and Ottomans.Each stitched their own motifs into the tapestry of the city's history, forming tody'sg cultural, architectural, and ethnic synthesis.

At one point in its history Antakya was one of the three greatest cities in the Roman Empire, and at another a terrible earthquake left 250,000 people dead. Its destiny swung between being a prosperous trading city, and catastrophe in the form of war, siege and occupation.One of the most memorable periods in its history occurred between the two world wars. In the wake of the First World War France occupied first Antakya and later Syria, and in 1938 the Antakya region became the independent Republic of Hatay. After less than a year of independence however, on 23 June 1939, the Hatay parliament passed a resolution to become part of the Turkish Republic. The parliament building on the banks of the Asi in Antakya is a reminder of that period. It is hard to believe today that this strikingly lovely building was for years used as a cinema!


Antioch is also a biblical site, revered by Christians as the place where the Apostles began to spread Christ's teachings. Indeed the followers of Christ were first described as 'Christians' here in the cave church where St Peter was elected patriarch. In one sense, therefore, this church was the forerunner of the Vatican, and is an important shrine for Christian pilgrims today. One of the most moving millennium celebrations was held in the Church of St. Peter's.To discover the traces of Antakya's time of greatest power and prosperity, you must visit Harbiye, the areae loveliest picnic spot, today best known for its waterfall, 7-8 km from Antakya.


This was known in antiquity as Daphne, after the beautiful river nymph who fled into the forest to escape the impassioned Apollo. She pleaded for help from her father, the river god Peneus, who turned her into a bay tree to save her from Apollo's clutches. It is this poignant story which lies behind the fragrance of Antakya's famous bay leaf soap. The great majority of the mosaics in Antakya Mosaic Museum were excavated at Harbiye. They belonged to the magnificent temples and palaces which once graced this idyllic spot. Another interesting place to visit near Antakya is Cevlik just north of the town of Samandag. Here you can see the extraordinary Roman water tunnel built by Titus, rock tombs, and the shrine of Hizir. In your travels through the Antakya region you will receive a hospitable welcome at every village, and perhaps this warmth is just as worthy of conservation as its historic sites. So as Cezanne said, 'Everything has its day, so if you wish to see it make haste.' And one last thing; as you speed off to Antakya at the first opportunity, do not forget to taste two local specialities: pumpkin pudding and kunefe, a crisp sweet pastry made of vermicelli filled with cheese.

Necati Sonmez is a journalist

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