İpek Aslan treats visitors to her Gastronomy House restaurant like guests in her home rather than customers.
From her base inside a traditional Antioch building with stone walls and a timber interior, Aslan holds court in Hatay’s preeminent culinary institute, established in partnership with UNESCO and dedicated to preserving southern Turkey’s rich cuisine. Visitors can taste oruk, a meatball made with fine bulgur and minced meat with sauce, flatbread with pepper, diced lamb fried on an iron plate, hummus and more.
She is among the local entrepreneurs in Hatay determined to help the city regain its status as a top tourist destination and emerge from the shadow of the war in neighbouring Syria. The conflict means that there are now some 500,000 Syrian refugees in Hatay, accounting for a quarter of the population.
“Hatay has been affected by the Syrian war since the beginning,” Aslan said. “The centre of the city is not that close to the border, but people from the outside don’t know that, and relatives or friends frighten the tourists. They say that they shouldn’t go there, there is a war next door, but that has started to change. Now we have more tourists.”
A province in southern Turkey on the eastern Mediterranean coast, Hatay was once an autonomous region called Alexandretta after being part of the French mandate of Syria following the First World War. The province joined Turkey in 1939 after a referendum.
Syria continues to dispute Hatay’s status, and some official maps label it as part of the country. Fences divide some border villages with one side in Syria and the other in Turkey. Many Hatay residents have relatives across the dividing line, and during religious festivals, locals would form long queues in front of the official crossing points in order to visit their loved ones across the border. Arabic is heard almost as commonly as Turkish around the city.
Hatay welcomed the first waves of Syrian refugees in 2011 when civil war erupted across the border. As the war escalated, numbers grew; but Hatay has seen fewer incidents of violence or disputes between Turks and refugees than other areas in the country. Turkey hosts around four million Syrians in total, and as the country’s economic outlook worsened, growing public anger led to refugees being blamed for high unemployment and inadequate state services.
“A lot of people in Hatay have relatives and friends in Syria,” said the city’s mayor Lütfü Savaş, noting the province’s historical diversity and multiculturalism. “Our people are brothers and sisters with Syrians even without the blood bond, and that’s why we haven’t had any major problems with refugees.”
Nonetheless, the conflict affected the city’s fortunes. According to data from the Hatay municipality, numbers of foreign tourists dropped dramatically after the war began.
In 2010, more than 650,000 foreign visitors came to Hatay, compared to only 121,000 in 2016. Numbers have begun to rise again in the last three years, with 270,000 foreign tourists visiting in the first ten months of 2019.
“The war in Syria has affected the city, of course,” said Ganim Kıt, who owns the Petek Patisserie in Hatay. “Tourists thought that there would be bomb explosions everywhere and that it would be too dangerous to come here. But that has started to change. The situation in Syria is improving and I hope that the war will end soon, so that our city can attract visitors again with its history, culture, and food.”
The city has had other challenges, too. For example, municipalities around the country receive funds from the central government’s budget based on the number of citizens living there, a figure that does not include refugees.
This meant, said Savaş, that “we feed four people with the money for three”.
Nevertheless, the province hopes to introduce development plans to improve local industry and agriculture, though the mayor has pinned his hopes on growing the local tourism sector, drawing on the city’s natural treasures.
Among its attractions is the Orontes river, called al-Asi, or the rebel in Arabic, because it flows from south to north. Then there is the Amanus mountain range that towers over Hatay and ancient Antioch. The province is also known for the cultivation of medicinal and aromatic plants, owing to the seeds acquired and planted over the centuries when it was a key stop on the ancient Silk Road.
This heritage will be on display when Hatay hosts EXPO 2021, themed as the Gardens of Civilization. Savaş and his team expect more than 2.5 million visitors to come to Hatay between April 1 and September 30, 2021.
To boost local and regional tourism, local authorities are also investing in new ferry lines and routes linking Hatay with Mersin on the Mediterranean coast, Cyprus and Beirut. As part of a broad transportation scheme, new bus lines between Hatay and neighbouring cities are being planned, as well as an increase in the local airport’s flight capacity.
Accommodation options include the Museum Hotel, which belongs to one of Hatay’s most prominent families, the Asfuroğlus, and was initially supposed to be part of the Hilton chain of hotels. However, when ancient mosaics were discovered during excavations and a dispute broke out about the status of the hotel, the Hilton Group withdrew from the project.
The Asfuroğlu family began working with archeologists and the ministry of culture and tourism, eventually spending an estimated 100 million US dollars on the project. Now the complex hosts the largest one-piece mosaic in the world and a museum, as well as serving as a luxury hotel.
The municipality is also working to renovate the old houses lining the historic heart of the city as well as restoring old streets, often uncovering more ancient ruins underneath. Hatay and ancient Antioch have been home to numerous civilisations, and they host monumental religious sites belonging to Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Antioch was one of the centres of early Christianity, and is still home to Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic communities, among others. The city’s population remains diverse, and includes Sunnis, Alevis and Armenian communities.
But local resident George Asiyov said that it was undeniable that the Syrian war had changed the city’s character.
“In this neighbourhood, I know everyone and I don’t care if they are Muslim or Jewish or Catholic or Protestant – they are all my people,” said Asiyov, who is himself a member of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. “But I don’t know anyone outside my neighborhood any more. We don’t have any specific problems with Syrian refugees, but they did change the demographics of the city and I’m not sure whether this change is for better or for worse.”
A young man who works in a cafe near the St Pierre Church, who asked to remain anonymous, agreed that the Syrian refugees had done nothing wrong.
“They came here fleeing the war,” he said. “They work just like we do and they try to survive”.
But he also said that the city had changed.
“I grew up here,” he said, pointing to the area around the church. “During the night, it is not safe for tourists to walk around. Sometimes it is not safe even during the day.”
Food remains a unifying force in the city and one which is expected to play a major part in its rehabilitation. Hatay boasts a world class cuisine and was recognized by UNESCO in 2017 as the city of gastronomy. The Hatay Gastronomy House, backed by the municipality, was opened shortly after the UNESCO recognition. In addition to cooking traditional dishes, its team collects forgotten recipes to keep culinary traditions alive.
According to prominent food writer Mehmet Yalcin, due to its great mixture of Mediterranean and Arab cultures, “Hatay is now one of the rising stars of Turkish gastronomy”.
Yalcin said he was sure that the city could draw many more tourists if it invested in rebuilding its image.
“There aren’t sufficient accommodation options in Hatay and some parts of the city centre should be improved because they are too shabby,” he continued. “There are many Syrian refugees living in the city and their presence does affect daily life, as well as tourism. If Hatay starts working more on promoting itself and if it solves some of the problems that I have mentioned, then I am sure more visitors will come and the city will get the attention it deserves.”