Gaziantep: a cultural and culinary crossroad

Gaziantep: a cultural and culinary crossroad

August 15, 2014
  • Gypsy Girl mosaic at Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep | photo by Rhiannon Davies
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  • Gaziantep - Hollowed out dried aubergines and peppers | photo by Rhiannon Davies
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  • Gaziantep - Hand-stitched leather shoes | photo by Rhiannon Davies
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  • Divan Hotel Gaziantep
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  • Gaziantep | photo by Hasan Naci Akyol
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Still known to many as Antep (derived from “good spring” in Aramaic), the city’s name acquired the Gazi prefix (meaning ‘war hero’) as a tribute to her inhabitants’ heroic efforts of holding out against invading French forces during the Turkish War of Independence in 1920. Today, the city buzzes with life. While current media coverage generally cycles around Antep’s proximity to Syria, the city continues to be a beloved cultural and culinary destination.

Wandering through Gaziantep’s old streets can be a little disorientating, not least because of its jumbled layout. Every street feels different, at once the cobbled streets of a Provencal French village, the souks of Northern Africa, the backstreets of Valencia, or the bazaars of the Middle East. Yet, this seemingly confused identity is understandable given Gaziantep’s history and location. Not only was it built on an important crossroads, much like Istanbul, but as one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the world, it played host to the Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Hellenistic Greeks, Romans, Seljuqs, Crusaders, Byzantines, and Arabs – all of whom left their marks. These factors gave rise to a truly cosmopolitan city.

The evocative architecture takes its character from the classic Northern Mesopotamian tradition of life’s main faculties built as part of sprawling mosque complexes. Rows of domes, high archways and inviting doorways form the backbone of the historic center.

One of the most pleasant neighborhoods is Bey Mahallesi. Here, the traditional Gaziantep houses are made from light-colored soft calcareous havara or keymik stone and are typically just one or two storeys high. The area has a proliferation of cozy cafes and intriguing museums devoted to as far ranging subjects as toys, ethnography, and Atatürk. Despite the bustling city, life goes on here as usual – washing is strung out to dry, women in floral şalvar trousers and brightly colored headscarves sit and gossip in shady doorways.

Handmade crafts

The historic center is a joy to walk around, except for during the hottest summer months. The many covered bazaars (bedesten) ring with the continuous hammer of metal on metal, as the city’s renowned coppersmiths skillfully shape everything from double-handled pans (sahan) to long handled Turkish coffee pots (cezve) to ornately decorated serving plates. All of these make excellent souvenirs, as do the kutnu textiles, which come in a dazzling array of striped colors. These shiny woven fabrics are made from silk warps (lengthwise yarns) and cotton wefts (crosswise yarns), using a technique brought to Gaziantep in the 16th century from neighboring Syria and is kept alive by local craftsmen.

Gaziantep is also famous for its hand-stitched leather shoes known as yemeni, produced by local craftsmen, the köşker. They come in ruby reds, royal blues and mustard yellows, as well as the classic black and brown. These impossibly comfortable soft flat shoes are made from five types of leather, including water buffalo hide for the soles, and goatskin tops, and are stitched together with beeswax coated cotton threads. Hayri Usta, the most famous producer in the area, has even provided shoes for Hollywood blockbusters, including Harry Potter. Şehitler Caddesi No.64, Şahinbey; T: 0535 432 43 33

Magical mosaics

The impeccably preserved mosaics found at Zeugma Mosaic Museum, many of which date back to the second and third century A.D., are some of the best in the world. They were discovered in 1995 at the Hellenistic/Roman settlement of Zeugma, just east of Gaziantep. Although the importance of the original settlement was known, it wasn’t until the site was threatened, due the creation of the Birecik dam, that the wealth of treasures was discovered and properly excavated. The mosaics now on display at the museum would have previously decorated the floors of the villas built by wealthy merchants on the banks of the Euphrates.

Yet Zeugma was burnt to the ground by the Parthians during the mid-third century, while the mosaics covered by the burnt debris survived in near perfect condition for almost 1800 years. They now adorn the walls of this ultra-modern yet atmospheric museum, and some of their original settings have been brought to recreate the look of Roman peristyle villas. It’s here too that Gaziantep’s most famous pair of eyes look out forlornly, watching all those who enter her darkened room. The mosaic fragment thought to be Gaia (Goddess of the Earth) was dubbed the Gypsy Girl, for her wild hair and dangly earrings, was created with a specialized technique to bring her to life, allowing her haunting eyes to follow visitors around. Mithatpaşa Mahallesi, Hacı Sani Konukoğlu Bulvarı, Şehitkamil; T: (0342) 325 27 27

Culinary epicenter

Gaziantep is a city lauded for its culinary prowess and the city center market is a good place to start for food enthusiasts. Hollowed out dried aubergines, peppers, courgettes, and even cucumbers hang like edible Christmas decorations, just waiting to be stuffed. Colorful spices are heaped up into aromatic pyramids along the narrow streets. Ones to look out for are red pepper flakes (pul biber), saffron, and sumac (this sour ground berry can be bought in liquid form). You can also pick locally produced versions of sweet and sour pomegranate syrup, nar ekşisi, though make sure they don’t contain added sugar.

Baklava is probably Gaziantep’s most famous product, with hundreds of producers, all of whom exclusively make this gorgeous treat. Koçak’s baklavas are so light and crispy that their upper layers crack like papery shells as you gently cut into them with a fork. An abundance of syrup-soaked and finely-chopped pistachios spill out, sometimes revealing a heavenly kaymak center, truly the last straw for those watching their weight. Ali Fuat Cebesoy Bulvarı, Ş. M. Engin Özdinç Sokak No.3, Şehitkamil; T: (0342) 321 05 19

Open since 1887, İmam Çağdaş is more than a restaurant, it’s a bustling cavernous temple devoted to the local cuisine and particularly kebabs. Try the specialty, Ali Nazik, in which pieces of perfectly grilled minced lamb kebab rests on a bed of garlicky yogurt that hides a smoky aubergine base, topped with chili-infused melted butter. Crispy stonebaked lahmacun topped with a garlicky mixture of spiced minced meat is also worth a mention. Eski Hal Civarı, Uzun Çarşı No.14, Şahinbey; T: (0342) 231 26 78

Set in a renovated han built in the 1500s, Hışva Han may be a newer face on the culinary scene, but it aptly mixes history and modern cooking. The old stone walls exude atmosphere and there are even glass floors where you can observe half-buried artifacts of the past. The food is equally as stunning, with the gorgeous mezze platters taking center stage. Lale Paşa Caddesi No: 27, Karagöz; T: (0546) 490 2424

Even if you weren’t interested in Gaziantep cuisine before, the briefest of stays at Emine Göğüş Culinary Museum is likely to have sparked a certain curiosity. This small (but perfectly formed) museum is a homage to Gaziantep’s edible offerings, containing a huge amount of information and the main components of the region’s cuisine, along with traditional cooking implements, videos, and occasional demonstrations. Karagöz Mahallesi, Sadık Dai Sokak No.16, Şahinbey; T: (0342) 232 66 16

Where to stay
Divan
hotel is located just 4km from Gaziantep’s historic city center. There are 125 guest rooms and 48 suites of varying sizes. The spa is ideal to work off any extra pounds gained from the inevitable overindulgence. Sani Konukoğlu Bulvarı No.92/A, Şehitkamil; T: (0342) 999 13 33

Located in the winding old streets behind İmam Çağdaş, Anadolu Evleri consists of four lovingly restored Anatolian style houses based around a central stone flagged courtyard. Antique furnishings lend character to the 14 individually designed rooms, which are on the rustic side but reflect the original nature of the buildings. Köroğlu Sokak No.6, Şahinbey; T: (0342) 220 95 25

Rug enthusiasts
Every year in May, DOMOTEX organizes one of the world’s largest carpet fairs in Gaziantep, with more than 180 carpet exhibitors from both local and international origins. This year, the fair will run from May 22-25. For more information visit www.domotexturkey.com