A Tale in Red: Snakes’ Castle, Sunflower fields, Churches and Mosques

July 1st, 2011

It was almost 8 am when we left Adana. It was a blue hot day, exactly as I knew it would be. Summer is full of bright days, high temperatures and sweat. As a precaution, we had water in the car, essential for days like that. Another significant thing was occasionally stopping to relieve our face and arms from the sun. Fırat put one of his CDs to play. We started with Trance. Our destination was Hatay or Antakya. 

Hatay is the name of a province in southeastern Turkey, bordering Syria to the south and east and the Turkish provinces of Adana and Osmaniye to the north. Like everywhere in Turkey Hatay region is full of stories. The settlements in the area began in the Bronze Age, and the city was part of the Acadia Empire. There were many civilizations, kingdoms and empires that settled there. However, it was in 64 BCE that Atióquia (Hatay) became an important centre of the Roman Empire.

In 63 CE, the armies of people who followed Islam conquered the region. Again a succession of dynasties took power over the area. In 877, under the protection of Seljuks, the Turks managed to settle there. In 969, it was the Byzantines who won Hatay. Philaretos Brachamios, a Byzantine general of Armenian origin, won the battle for the city and founded a principality covering Antioch to Edessa. Suleiman I, who commanded the Seljuks of Anatolia, recaptured the site. Then came the Crusaders and again the Turks until the region became part of Syria at the time, dominated by France.

Imagining this movement of the region’s cultures and dominations is interesting. Today, most of the population is of Arab origin, and Hatay has one of Turkey’s most extensive mixes of religions. Sunni and Alevi Muslims, Christian Orthodox Arabic, Greek, and Armenian are other ethnic groups and religions. It’s an authentic salad. What I knew about Hatay or Antakya was that my friend Hakan Demir was born there, and the city was beautiful. 

When I left Brazil, Mustafa Göktepe of CCBT – Brazil-Turkey Cultural Center and Mr Hamdullah Bayram Ozturk’s, sent us some contacts in the region. People who would show more about the culture and places worth visiting, and teach about the relationship between different ethnic groups. The cultural interaction between the various religious and ethnic groups interested me deeply because I appreciate seeing the world from my point of view and comparing it with other people, especially the locals.

Everyone knows that there is some tension in eastern Turkey. The voltage generated by the different ethnic groups that inhabit the region is news in many international newsrooms. The most known involve the Kurds, who inhabit Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. They want to create a Kurdish state in the region, which the government does not see well. Anyway, it will be pleasant to listen to the locals. The truth is between “my and your description of the facts”.

Along the way, Fırat decides to stop at a castle. Parking the car, we could see a small restaurant on the edge of the hillside; in front, there was farmland. The court was on the left, behind us. Fırat took his backpack with water and the cap and said, “It’s hot; put your cap on as well.” I hate caps. They heated my head, but I should use the lid to visit the castle. Otherwise, he just turns back and waits until I change my mind.

We started walking. The first couple of steps were easy, then a steep ramp. We had walked about five minutes, and Fırat looked at me and said, “Let’s go back. It’s too hot and steep, and you’ll be sick.” He knew me well, that heat destroys me, and I don’t go out when it’s too hot. But I wanted to see that castle, and when I want something, I usually get it.

“No, we got here and will go until the end.” And I started to walk and left him behind, walking on a narrow path on the mountain border. Picture after picture, we talked about what we saw in the castle’s history and sudden silence, and the only thing we heard was the camera click.

In the middle of nowhere, that castle was where people lived, fought, dreamed, and died. The castle’s name is Yılanlıkale, built in the 12th century during the Byzantine Empire by the Crusaders to control the whole plain around the Silk Road that passed nearby. The most exciting thing about the castle is its name, which means Castle of Snakes; some say it comes from many snakes around, but a legend has a better explanation. This legend involves Sahmaran.

“Shahmaran is a mythical creature, half snake, half woman, the. The human she encounters is a young man named Camasb (also known as Yada Jamsab, Jamisav, and Jamasp in other versions of the story). Camasb gets stuck in a cave after he tries to steal honey with a few friends, and his friends leave him alone in the cave. He explores the cave and finds a passage to a chamber resembling a magical and beautiful garden with thousands of off-white-coloured snakes and the Shahmaran living harmoniously. At this point, Shahmaran and Camasb fall in love and live in the cave chamber, and Shahmaran teaches him about medicines and medicinal herbs. Camasb misses living above ground and wants to leave; he tells the Shahmaran he will not share the secret of her living there. Many years pass.

The king of Tarsus becomes ill, and the vizier discovers the treatment of his condition requires the Shahmaran flesh. Camasb tells the townspeople where Shahmaran lives. According to the legend, Shahmaran says, “Blanch me in an earthen dish, give my extract to the vizier, and feed my flesh to the sultan.” They bring her to the town and kill her in a bath called “Şahmaran Hamam”. The king eats her flesh and lives. The vizier drinks the extract and dies. Camasb drinks the water of Shahmaran and becomes a doctor by gaining Shahmaran’s wisdom. 

Due to its antiquity, the same story has many variations.”

We came down and decided to have some refreshments in the small restaurant. Firat decided to order a different drink: şalgam suyu

Although the Turkish word şalgam literally means “turnip”, şalgam is made with the sour and salty brine of purple carrot pickles, salted, spiced and flavoured with aromatic turnip (çelem) fermented in barrels with the addition of ground bulgur and rock salt. It is sometimes sold by street vendors who serve it from large goblets, but specialized shops also sell pickles called turşucu that sell non-industrial versions of şalgam. The industry uses no standard production technique, but the traditional method uses sourdough and carrot fermentation. Since 1996 there have existed factories for large-scale industrial production of şalgam in Turkey. The biggest producer of şalgam is the cooperation Doganay Gida, whose market share of the annual production is nearly 95%. While the drink is exported to Europe and Japan, no large-scale rotation exists in America. A company called Ersu tried to sell it as a “Black miracle drink”, but the campaign was eventually cancelled. While the industrial method takes 4–5 days, the traditional way takes 10 to 12 days. The unique taste of şalgam comes from lactic acid and ethanol. The process is an adaption of yeast fermentation and spontaneous lactic acid fermentation. (Wikipedia)

From there, we went to Hatay. In Hatay, we would meet Isa Bey (Mr Jesus in translation from Turkish). But it was a few kilometres away before another pit stop for Fırat to show me the Syrian border. He said something that reminded my school times. One of his teachers said those lands were fertile and excellent, so everybody fought for them. Sometimes I look at him and see a boy beginning to discover that theory and practice sometimes coincide.

We have entered Hatay, and I wondered what I had read about it. In ancient times, Antioch was a city of great importance for Christians and was influential during the Crusades. It is located on the banks of the Orontes River or Asi Nehri (Turkish), and all I see around are mountains. 

There are so many mountains. Nur, old Amanos, in the north, Mount Keldağ in the south and Mount Habib Nectar (formerly Silpius) in the east. I was curious to learn about these mountains, a green marble source. The region has many fertile fields formed by irrigation canals from the Orontes River. 

Isa Bey is a lovely man, humorous and hectic. He received us with open arms and began talking about the differences and how different religions lived peacefully there. We got into the car and headed to a restaurant, and I’ll try Hatay cuisine.

Isa Bey decided I should experience the best of Hatay culinary. He started by meze. Hummus, yoghurt, Surke, çökelek and bread. It was delicious. Then Fırat chose my main course. I loved my köfte but could not eat all my food, which disappointed Isa Bey. After lunch, we went to a mountain in the city’s neighbourhoods. Isa Bey wanted to show us a particular place.

The church of San Pedro, Knesset Sea Semann Kefa in Aramaic, is excavated in the rock in a cave on the slopes of Mount Sirius. It has 13 meters deep, 9.5 m wide and 7 meters high. It was used by early Christians and is one of the oldest churches of Christianity. The church’s history can be found in the Bible, which is told the story of Barnabas, who travelled to Tarsus to bring Paul to the city. They worked here in the community and followed Christ. It was in Hatay that the followers of Christ converts were first called Christians. The Tradition considers Peter the first apostle and founder of the Antakya Church.

The church had surviving parts, such as mosaics and frescoes, from centuries 4 and 5. It was believed that the existing tunnel there served for Christians to flee the Roman legions. In one corner, you find water. Interesting because it drips there coming up the mountain, and it was used for the ritual of baptism. I proved that water, which for Fırat was the greatest surprise since I drank from a mug shared by everybody who visits there.

I concluded that from the point of view of my travelling companion, I am full of frills.

The Crusaders modified the church in the 11th century and added a facade of arches. It was rebuilt by the Capuchin Friars in the 19th century by order of Pope Pius IX. Until Napoleon III contributed to the restoration of this church.

The church of San Pedro, like any church, is surrounded by a cemetery. Thousands of tombs are in the garden and even inside the church, near the altar. Nowadays, the Church of St. Peter is a museum. However, some ceremonies are still held there, including representatives of all religions in the region.

We left the church in a bit of a hurry; Isa Bey had some meetings and did not have much time for us. However, he wanted to show a place he believed to be most significant. We went to the Habib-i Neccar Cami (as you know, Cami means Mosque in Turkish and will always use the Turkish way to refer to the places).

This mosque is considered one of the oldest in Antakya and Anatolia. It was probably the first to be built in the city, around the 7th century, in 638, when Muslims conquered the city. It’s almost certain that the history of the place is much older. A Roman temple occupied the area, and during the Christian time, it was transformed into a church and finally into a mosque. The mosque was “built” by Ibn Abu Obayda Jerrah.

The mosque’s name relates to Habib-i Neccar, who is believed to have lived in Antakya in 40 BC. At that time, the Romans were pagans, or rather polytheistic, and two ambassadors for the future Christian Religion came to Antakya to convert the people. However, people mistreated the two ambassadors, throwing rocks at them and trying to hurt them. Habib-i Neccar believed in their message and attempted to protect them.

People did not like the position taken by Habib-I Neccar and gave him two options: “You return to your former religion, or we kill you.” He refused to embrace back the ancient Religion and was killed. However, much is said about how his death happened. People say his head was separated from the body in a cave on Mount Silpiyus, and the head rolled to the area where today the mosque was. Habib-I Neccar’s body was buried in the cave where he was tortured, and the pilot was buried in the tomb in the mosque. It is remarkable when a grave has a Christian and a Muslim lying side by side.

After the visit to the mosque, Isa Bey had to leave us. Then we went to the Archeological Museum of Hatay, famous for its collection of mosaics. I was fascinated, and I promised to only study each.

From the museum, we followed to a place where nature was the theme. Waterfalls. The most remarkable thing was getting to know two Turkish couples. One of the couples was a newlywed, and they were on honeymoon. The other couple had a beautiful son. It was fun having çay with them and having a light conversation.

We decided to stay at the hotel in front of the waterfalls. The most fun was that a wedding party was going on, so I could observe how they do their wedding parties.

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