THIS IS really most peculiar. I am in Gaziantep, a city of roughly two million inhabitants, and yet I would appear to be one of only half-a-dozen Westerners here. That would account for the occasional stare, then. And yet, by and large, the people are welcoming, hospitable, and hardly verging on the curious. This is the beating heart of Turkey’s southeastern Anatolia, around 60 miles north of Aleppo, Syria. And thereby lies the rub.
Prior to and during my visit, I note that the FCO’s official line is to advise against all travel to within six miles of the border with Syria. The FCO also advise against all but essential travel to the remaining areas of Sirnak, Mardin, Sanlurfa, Gaziantep, Kilis and Hatay provinces, due to the continuation of hostilities in Syria in areas close to the Turkish border, with a heightened risk of terrorism in the region still a clear threat.
The launch of the Arab Spring in March 2011 saw the protest movement sweep across many parts of the Middle East, in turn creating a migration tsunami. Situated as it is so close to the Syrian border, this has had a dramatic effect on Gaziantep. Yet this city has been markedly happy to step up to the breach, following by example the government of Turkey’s pro-active approach to its open-door policy. Since the end of 2014, Turkey has hosted more refugees than any other country in the world.
From an initial intake of 252 people, hundreds of thousands have crossed the border, and today over 2.5 million Syrians have taken shelter in the country. Currently, there are 340,000 registered ‘guests’ in Gaziantep, with 290,000 located in the city centre. Syrian migrants have successfully integrated into society, the children particularly benefiting through formal education at primary and secondary level. In fact, before the eruption of the civil war in Syria, the schooling rate at primary level stood at 85 per cent. Today in Gaziantep, tthe figure is at 98 per cent in first grade. For primary schoolchildren, the rate is over 90 per cent. With 49 schools in the city providing education and training, Syrian children are given the option to learn Turkish as part of the curriculum.
Fatma Sahin, Mayor of Gaziantep Metropolitan Municipality, says Gaziantep is trying to deal with all the needs of the Syrian ‘guests’, although the city is aware of the need to find more constructive and radical solutions in certain areas. “Being so close to the border, we have opened our doors and our hearts. As the human tragedy continues to unfold, so as a human being this affects us all. The policy that our president, prime minister and government implement across the whole country, will continue to reflect on our services in terms of the social municipality with the same brotherhood, stability and momentum.”
Extraordinary as it may seem, even in these bleak times, the city is keen to open its doors to tourism, and so it is that I find myself here to witness the richness of Gaziantep through its history, its culture and its gastronomy. Over the next five days, I am to truly discover the hospitality of this city, for wherever I go, I am greeted royally… the handshakes are genuine, the atmosphere cordial, the people wonderful.
Gaziantep has a history dating back 6,500 years. It has since taken bold steps to become a modern city and, situated on the old caravan trade routes, including the Silk Road, it has been the hub where many cultures have united, so one can understand how its cuisine has been influenced by migrants over the centuries, influences seen today in its many different, flavoursome dishes. And now is as good a time as any to let the world see what this vibrant city has to offer the visitor.
Aside from its olive groves and vineyards, Gaziantep is the centre of pistachio nut cultivation in Turkey. It is also famous for its three regional specialties: copperware products; lahmacun (Turkish pizza), a spicy Turkish/Middle Eastern dish consisting of a ground meat/vegetable mixture, spread on a thin bread crust; and the sweet pastry baklava. In fact, the Gaziantep kitchen has played a major role in influencing Turkish cuisine as a whole through its richness and diverse range of flavours. Through dishes dating back to the Oguz Turks, add to the mix the influence of Syrian towns such as Aleppo, with its soups, rice meals, kebabs and meatballs, and it is all-encompassing.
In December 2015, 47 cities from 33 countries joined UNESCO’s ‘Creative Cities Network’, the selections being based on seven creative fields: crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts, and music. The province of Gaziantep deservedly become one of them in the field of gastronomy, and I am to be treated to some exceptional cuisine during my stay.
It is 3am when I eventually check into the Sirehan Hotel, which dates to 1885 and is located in a particularly historical quarter of the city. The maze of narrow streets are deserted, shutters pulled over the parades of shops and bazaars, like closed eyelids ready for sleep. I love bazaars, the noise, the smells, the expected haggling over prices, the perpetual offer of hot, sweet tea to help tempt the buyer into submission.
My first morning in Gaziantep, and it is a leisurely start as the heat steadily intensifies to an anticipated 28 degrees. The streets are throbbing, the traffic chaotic as I emerge from the lobby and approach the copper bazaar for the first of many visits. I had anticipated a narrow, pedestrian thoroughfare, but I am wrong. Scooters and motorcycles weave their way past shoppers, whilst the shopkeepers sit on an assortment of stools, sipping tea and chatting with neighbours. Nobody pesters me to buy their wares, instead, a nod and a smile take precedence.
We head to the traditional Tahmis Coffee House, where I savour ground pistachio coffee and hot milk for the first time. It is utterly delicious. It is then not long before we arrive at Imam Cagdas Restaurant for lunch, where we are treated to a set menu of mixed salad, yoghurt, and lahmacun.
You might think that that is enough, but no. We are then served egg plant (aubergine) and Turkish kebab, followed by baklava. And the total cost… 43TL (£10).
After a pleasant afternoon’s stroll around Uzay Park, it is back to the hotel for a shower, before we head for the Emine Gogus Culinary Museum, the first culinary museum of its kind in Turkey, where we are met by city dignitaries and local paparazzi. I kid you not, our presence being of such significance, many photographs and videos are shot as we try our hand at producing Turkish cuisine.
We then take our places at table for a delicious meal which begins with Yuvarlama, made with rice, meat, chickpeas, egg, yoghurt, flour, onion and seasoning. Never have I tasted anything quite like it before. The flavours of Gaziantep are multiple, in yoghurt dishes you will find saffron and peppermint, in liver kebabs there is cumin, and cinnamon in rice pudding. As anticipated, the following morning we wake to find ourselves splashed across most local and regional newspapers.
With over 400 dishes to speak of in the city, there is little wonder that Gaziantep has such a privileged place in both Turkish and world cuisine. However, this city has so much more to offer the visitor, for it is also rich in both culture and history.
Take, for example, the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, once the largest city on the eastern Roman border. Covering 20,000 square metres, it boasted many magnificent buildings, until AD256 when Rome lost the area to the Sassanids and the city was looted and destroyed.
The Gaziantep Museum Directorate and various archaeological teams began excavations in 1987, and in 2000, two magnificent villas were uncovered, known today as the Poseidon and Euphrates villas, containing hundreds of square metres of floor mosaics, wall frescoes, a statue of Mars and many other smaller artefacts. The completion of the Birecik Dam in 2000 saw the waters rise over the ancient city, but not before many mosaics, columns, fountains and artefacts were saved from being submerged.
The Zeugma Mosaic Museum opened in September 2011. The largest of its kind in the world, it is designed around a scenario based on the artistic and cultural aspects of Zeugma. Presenting the visitor with an architectural vision of the environment, with one-to-one scale streets, fountains, walls and structural elements, it is one of the most impressive museums I have ever visited.
One of the most captivating of all artefacts is the Maenad Mosaic, known as the ‘Gypsy Girl’, which is exhibited in a darkened room, designed like a labyrinth, itself creating an atmosphere of mystery with the spotlight on her haunting gaze. This modern-day symbol of Gaziantep is displayed on posters around many parts of the city.
The quarters, or neighbourhoods, of Gaziantep are generally named for the mosques which they were built around. Bey Quarter was named for the Bey Mosque that was constructed in 1857. Unfortunately, the mosque was substantially damaged during the French invasion and has not survived.
According to historical records dating to 1536, there were 50 original residential structures in the Bey Quarter, having been developed as a neighbourhood with paved stone streets that were wide enough to allow a loaded camel to pass.
Once an affluent neighbourhood, evidenced by the once magnificent mansions, the quarter lies within walking distance of the historic castle, the latter having been originally regarded as the city centre.
Until the 20th century, Muslims and Armenians lived peacefully side by side here. Evidence of this can be seen in the locations of St Mary’s Church (now known as Kurtulus Mosque), Old Church, Kendirli Church, Cinarli Mosque, Bey Mosque, and Eyuboglu Mosque, all of which lie within close proximity to each other. From the second half of the 19th century, Armenian residents were active in eduction and finance. However, during the 1950s the residents began to leave in favour of more modern apartments outside the quarter.
Visit today, and one sees areas still ripe for restoration and preservation. However, many streets have already been repaved with basalt stone. Electrical and telephone lines have been relocated underground, and water and sewer systems restored. Building facades are being cleaned, and structural damage is in repair. What we have here is a living and breathing museum. Restaurants, cafés and boutique hotels are springing to life.
For a trace of history, I visit Kimye House, which remains untouched with its painted frescos and sculpted cherubs on the walls and ceilings. On the flip side, the building that now houses the Bagdat Café has been restored to its former glory.
Talking of cafés, we prove regular visitors to Tahmis Kahvesii, the oldest of its kind in Anatolia. The café is on the opposite side of the street to Imam Cagdas.
Housed behind a wall of green shrubbery, it is a popular hub for young and old, some playing backgammon, others on their mobiles, whilst others enjoy the calming vapours of the nargile (Turkish water pipe).
Gaziantep has a lot to be proud of. With around 180 pastry shops producing world-leading pistachio baklava, the largest city park this side of the Euphrates, fantastic food served in great restaurants, a vibrant café culture, and quarters being lovingly restored to their former glory, for me, this visit has proved a mind-broadening experience.
To have the opportunity to step into the kitchens of the baklava team at Imam Cagdas and, on our final evening, to try our hand at making lahmacun with the great team at Sirvan was a special treat.
This lively, epicurean city buzzes with confidence and bonhomie, and is clearly ready to welcome adventurous travellers. With leading low-cost carrier Pegasus Airlines operating several daily flights from Istanbul Sabiha Gokcen Gaziantep, and return flights starting from just £20 including taxes and charges, it is time to place Gaziantep on your bucket list.
I leave you with the words of Mayor Fatma Sahin, so eloquently noted in her preface to the book Gaziantep Cookery: A Taste of Sun & Fire. ‘This cultural heritage leaves unforgettable tastes on the palate and treasured memories in the mind, which is why spreading awareness of this heritage around the world and passing it on to younger generations is one of the foremost tasks for which all of us are responsible.’
- All images Michael Cowton/Essential Journeys
GAZIANTEP – For more information on the city, visit www.gototurkey.co.uk
PEGASUS AIRLINES – The starting price for the Istanbul-Gaziantep route is £20 with Pegasus for the month of May. Visit www.flypgs.com/en for detailed information and the whole range of affordable travel services, from seat selection, online check-in, extra baggage allowance, in-flight meal choices, to hotel bookings, car hire and airport transfers.