Mark Antony gave the lovely Cilician shores between Alanya and the Syrian Border to Cleopatra as a wedding present. Also associated with the region's past is St. Paul, a native of Tarsus. Today the area is known for its fertile soil which produces abundant crops, and for the hospitality of its residents.
Surrounded by densely cultivated market gardens, Mersin, the provincial center of Icel, lies midway on the eastern Mediterranean coast of Turkey. Its shady palm-lined avenues, city park and modern hotels create a pleasant ambience from which to visit the nearby historic sites and numerous beaches. A rapidly developing city and the largest free-trade zone port on the Turkish Mediterranean, Mersin has a regular car ferry service to Gazimagosa (Famagusta) in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. In the fish market, sample the daily catch in one of the several inexpensive restaurants. Other local delicacies include cezire, a local confection made of carrot rolled around a walnut center, and biberli ekmek, a small pizza topped with a spicy meatless sauce. Despite its very modern appearance, Mersin (ancient Zephyrium) occupies the site of an extremely ancient city. It was called Kizuwatna by the Hittites. At the Yurnuktepe tumulus, three m west of town, continuing excavations have unearthed several successive settlements dating back to 6000 B.C. to the Neolithic Age. It has also been learned from a letter from the Hittite queen, Puduhepa (1282-1275 B.C.), to the Ugarite king in Syria, Niqmepa, that the residents of Ura (Hyria) at the head of the Goksu (Calycadnos) River in Icel were engaged in sea trade with the Ugarites. There are remains of various civilizations throughout Icel, but the majority of remains are from the Roman, Byzantine, and Turkish eras.
FROM MERSIN TO ANAMUR
In Demircili (the ancient Imbriogon), north of Silifke on the way to Uzuncaburc, there are well-preserved memorial tombs of the early Roman period.
The drive up the mountain road to the magnificent ancient site of Diocaesarea (Uzuncaburc) at 1200 m is lined with large tombs. The remains of the impressive Temple of Zeus Olbius from the Hellenistic period, the Temple of Tyche, the god of luck, a monumental arch, a theater built between 161-180 AD, a Byzantine church, and a tower are outstanding. Four m to the east are the ruins of Olba (Ura) where the Roman aqueducts, theater, and fountain make a quick tour well worthwhile.
Continuing along the coastal road south from Silifke you come to the 5th century Meryemlik (Ayatekla), a Roman necropolis with the tomb and church of St. Thecla, the first female martyr / saint.
Tasucu, with good accommodation for tourists, is a resort town with sandy beaches and a harbor. Regular sea bus and ferry service connects the town with Girne in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Ovacik, 44 km west of Tasucu, is a quiet spot well-known for its fisherman's wharf and beach. The Peninsula (ancient Cavaliere) of Ovacik is one of the natural highlights of Turkey, an ideal area for diving. If this sport interests you, visit Kosrelik Bay (Afrodisias) and Kosrelik Island. Eighteen km southeast of Ovacik off the coast of Kos relik Bay, you will find Roman ruins and beautiful mosaics. Off Aydincik, to the west of Ovacik, the surrounding sailing waters are clearly marked, ensuring crusing safety along this breathtaking stretch of coast. The shore road that clings to the pine-clad mountain slopes, which plunge steeply down to the sea, offers spectacular views of cliffs, coves and the brilliant turquoise waters of the Mediterranean.
Another 36 km to the west of Aydincik, Bozyazi is a holiday center with clean and commodious camping sites along its wide beaches.
The fine, well-preserved Anamur Castle, set between two curving sandy beaches, commands a splendid view of the coastline. Originally built by the Crusaders in the Middle Ages, it later served as an Ottoman stronghold.
Thirteen km from Bozyazi and a few km inland, the town of Anamur is nestled in the mountains with banana plantations surrounding it. Just west of town on a beautiful beach are the ruins of ancient Anamorium with double ramparts, theater, odeon, bath and necropolis. Situated on terraces above the sea, it is perfect for a climb to the top which overlooks one of the cleanest and most pristine seasides in Turkey.
TARSUS TO ANTAKYA
East of Mersin, on the edge of the fertile Cukurova Plain, is Tarsus, the birthplace of St. Paul. Of ancient origin, the city was invaded and destroyed on several occasions. In the past, it had served as a capital city. Archeological remains to be seen are some bronze weapons, the Cleopatra Gate through which Mark Antony and Cleopatra passed when they came to Tarsus to meet, a Hittite temple, an ancient church, the Ottoman Ulu Cami, and the Kubat Pasa theological school. Little streams, waterfalls and shady trees at the Tarsus Falls on the outskirts of town are an idyllic place to spend an afternoon. The Karaburcak Park is perfumed by its groves of eucalyptus trees.
Set in the heart of the Cukurova (Cilician) Plain, Turkey's fourth largest city, Adana is at the center of a rich agricultural region and a thriving textile industry. The 310-m long Taskopru (Stone Bridge) built by Hadrian and repaired by Justinian, spans the Seyhan River which bisects the town; only 14 of the bridge's original 21 arches still stand. Of interest in the city are the Ulu Mosque built in 1509, the Eski Mosque, the Hasan Aga Mosque, the 19th-century clock tower and the old covered bazaar. To be included in a tour of the city are three museums: the Archeological Museum, which displays locally excavated Hittite and Roman remains; the charming Ethnography Museum; and the Ataturk Culture Museum.
After a day of sightseeing you can sample Adana kebab, a sensational spicy kebab of ground meat. Local beverages include shalgam, a drink made from dark turnips, and shira, a type of grape juice.
North of the city, at the Seyhan Dam and Lake, are shady walks, quaint tea gardens and restaurants set in a cool place to escape the heat. At sunset, look back toward the city to the peaceful, winding ruby river, lined with twinkling lights.
The nearest beaches with accommodations are at Yumurtalik, where an ancient harbor castle dominates the picturesque fisherman's wharf. And at Karatas, fishermen will enjoy the scene and the catch at Camlik Park.
Off the road from Adana to Iskenderun, near Yakapinar, lies Misis, a city which derived its wealth from its position on the Silk Road. There are several Roman ruins at the site, including a beautiful fourth-century mosaic pavement depicting Noah's Ark and the animals. Further along the road are the impressive ruins of the Yilanlikale (Sahmeran castle) atop a rocky peak that dominates the Ceyhan River. South of Yilanlikale, in the Sirkeli region, a somewhat weathered Hittite relief marks Muvattalish's stop here on his way to Egypt. North of Ceyhan lies the village of Dilekkaya, (the ancient Anavarza), where you can view the ruins of a Roman-Byzantine city and an impressive castle. The small museum at the site has two particularly fine mosaics from Roman baths. Osmaniye, inland from the head of the Gulf of Iskenderun, is the turn-off for two more ancient sites. The road to Karatepe takes you to the ancient Roman city of Castabala, where a colonnaded street, theater, baths and a fortress on the hill evoke a bygone era. At the Karatepe National Park, (a neo-Hittite site), the remains of the summer residence of King Asitawada, tablets bearing Hittite and Phoenician inscriptions which were important in deciphering the Hittite language and an open-air museum with fine bas-reliefs reveal the importance and astonishing aesthetic of this ancient civilization. There are two statues of bulls, and one with a human body topped by a lion's head.
This region was much fought over during the Crusades and the impressive fortress at Toprakkale was, for a time held by the European armies. Further back in history, Alexander the Great defeated Darius III and the Persian army in 333 BC at the Plain of Issos (Dortyol). Today this area is covered with large citrus groves which supply the country with oranges, tangerines and lemons.
At Yakacik (Payas), off the highway that outlines the coast of the Gulf of Iskenderun, the splendid 16th-century Sokollu Mehmet Pasa Complex includes mosque, bath, bazaar, caravanserai and medrese. Other monuments include the Cinkulesi Tower of Jinns) and a castle.
Iskenderun, formerly Alexandretta, was founded by Alexander the Great after his victory over the Persians on the Plain of Issos. Today it is a busy commercial center and port with a fine harbor. Excellent hotels, restaurants and cafes line the sea front surrounded by parks and palm trees. The culinary speciality of Iskenderun is sumptuous prawns. Epicureans should also try both kunefe, a hot dessert of sweetened shredded wheat filled with melted cheese, and humus, an appetizer of pureed chickpeas, garlic and paprika. Good souvenirs include hand carved wooden tables and chairs and other objects of wood.
On the coast south of Iskenderun, the resort town of Ulucinar (Arsuz) boasts good beaches, hotels, guest houses and restaurants.
On the way to Antakya, off the main road, is the mountain resort of Sogukoluk where you can retreat from the blazing summer sun. After you cross the Belen Pass, stop at Bagras Castle, which was held at various times by the Byzantines, Mamluks and Crusaders. The castle was originally built to control the route to Arabia. There is a chapel in the castle.
Antakya, the biblical city of Antioch, lies on the Asi River (Orontes) on a fertile plain surrounded by grand mountains. Once the capital of the Seleucid kings, it was notorious for its wealth and luxury. In Roman times, the city continued to thrive with commerce and culture. It featured prominently in early Christianity, as the place where the name "Christian" was first coined.
The Antakya Museum houses one of the richest collections of Roman mosaics in the world (Open weekdays except Monday). These fantastic mosaics in stone were uncovered mostly at excavations in Antakya and nearby Daphne. Outside the town is the Grotto of Peter the apostle. In 1983, the church was declared a sacred site by the Vatican. Other places of interest include a bustling bazaar and the Mosque of Habib Neccar.
South of the grotto, the iron Gate was one of the actual entrances of biblical Antioch. Strolling through the old part of town, you cannot help recalling that Paul, Peter, Barnahas, and others walked these streets, for little has changed since that time. The Castle of Antioch, set high above the city, offers a magnificent view over the city and the plain.
South of Antakya is Harbiye, the ancient Daphane where, according to mythology, Apollo tried to make the wood nymph, Daphne, his lover. To escape him, she changed into a laurel tree. The city was a luxurious suburb in Roman times. Covered with orchards, gardens, laurel trees, and waterfalls, this is an excellent place for a good meal. In October, delicious Harbiye dates are in season. Wonderful laurel scented soap can also be purchased here.
Samandag, 25 km from Antakya, is a resort town with a pristine beach. Seleucia Peria (Cevlik), north of town, was founded around 300 B.C. and by the time Paul and Barnabas started on their first missionary journey from here it was a busy port. The most interesting monument to see is the Tunnel of Titus, built to divert rain water. Even by today's standards it is a tremendous engineering achievement. You should also drive to the Temple of Zeus at Kapisuyu village for a spectacular panorama of the ancient harbor, sandy beach and fertile plain.
Two roads lead from Antakya to Syria: the one to the east and Aleppo passes through the frontier town of Reyhanli; the one to the south goes through Yayladag towards Lazkiye, Tripoli and Beirut.