Friday, August 26, 2011


Gaziantep's an old city, a very old city. It's got a huge historic bazaar and a castle on a hill and plenty of picturesque old mosques.

It's also a new and growing city. As tourists, in town for only two days, we only saw the occasional hint that old Antep, the city that our Lonely Planet told us about, is not the complete picture. One hint was the modern, crowded tram line that we crossed paths with once or twice. We didn't take it, because it didn't take us anywhere we wanted to go. It was of no use to us. We're tourists, you see, and the tram was built for people who live there.

(Aside: Gaziantep was historically known just as Antep, which is still how most people refer to the city. During the Turkish War of Independence, in 1920-21, Antep was besieged by French forces and held out nearly a year before surrendering. In commemoration, in the 1970s Antep's name was officially expanded to Gaziantep, or 'Brave Antep'.)

So, while I acknowledge that we never saw the bulk of the city that over a million people live and work in, the parts of Antep that we did see are bustling and fascinating.

First, the food.

Turks acknowledge Antep as the local baklava capital. You can hardly walk for five minutes in the city center without passing a couple of baklava stores, and what they sell is incredibly sweet and contains perhaps twice the pistachio content of baklava elsewhere. Don't be put off by the amount of green in your baklava; it's supposed to look like that and it's delicious.

Now that you've got yourself a sugar high, what's next?

The bazaar has its touristy sections, it is true, but it goes on for blocks and blocks and on the whole is geared more towards locals than tourists. The spice shops that you walk past smell wonderful. They're the real thing, not just something put out to impress travelers.

You know you're visiting the real deal when a bit later you walk past a creepy array of torsos.

Our pre-arrival trawl for information told us that the archeology museum in Antep was a must-see for the Roman mosaics, but they were soon to move all mosaics to a new museum located in Parts Unspecified. We arrived at the old museum to find that this was indeed the case, and all the mosaics had been moved to a new location several kilometers away.

We stuck around the old museum for a time, just to see what was left of the collection. To be sure, it was certainly in a transitional phase, and the guy at the front desk seemed almost apologetic that we'd paid admission to see a dimly lit half-empty hall undergoing renovation. That said, it still houses an impressive display of Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine artifacts. What especially interested me by the exhibit of ancient coins were displays showing exactly what the coins were worth; I don't remember exactly but it was along the lines of 'In 200 BC ten drachma could buy one head of cattle OR a slave's wages for three months OR forty jugs of wine'.

You also learned the interesting fact that, at one point in Anatolian history, it took three years of a schoolteacher's wages to buy a house. Assuming that schoolteacher then owned the house free and clear, I suspect that's more than three years of a schoolteacher's wages would buy nowadays.

Afterwards, we took public transit to see the new museum, located well outside of the tourist center of town, near the train station. The museum is somewhat inconvenient to get to, but it is big and beautiful and gorgeous. It is entirely given over to mosaics, most of them from the nearby ruins of the Roman city of Zeugma, now largely underwater due to hydroelectric dam construction.

The mosaics are beautiful, generally following such common Roman themes as Oceanus and Tethys. Then there's the Gypsy Girl.

The Gypsy Girl is famous. Unearthed only in the late 1990s, she's become a symbol of Antep and she's kept in her own room at the museum.

As you can see, she is a fragment of a much larger mosaic. I think that has worked in her favor. I suspect she wouldn't be half as beguiling if her entire face were still intact. Her fragmentation has effectively shrouded her in veils, making her all the more intriguing.

That said, there's a theory that she is actually Alexander the Great, which would presumably be more clearly seen if her/his full form and original context were intact. Whether that makes her/him more or less intriguing is for you to decide.

No comments: