And I assume you will be heading to Cappadocia next? Gaziantep? Strange…aha, you must like bakhlava! And don’t forget to try their kebap!
Uninspiring talks like the one above are what might await you when talking to a Turkish tourism professional. The typical image of Gaziantep among Turks is that of a nasty industrial city whose inhabitants do a decent bakhlava and entertain a passion for Sunday barbecues.
Until a few years ago, not much more could be said about Gaziantep, and travelers were a rare sight. But something is afoot in this working man’s town bordering Syria. Those who come now have the privilege to see a city transforming.
Buzz of the border town
Gaziantep grew from a dusty oasis town on the old Silk Road into an industrial city of millions in just a few decades. Carpets, shoes and machinery produced in the city’s factories are exported to the four corners of the country and its southern neighbours.
But Gaziantep has also started reviving its underloved historical heritage. For a country that has invested so much of its cultural tourism potential in kitschy trinkets and pushy sales tactics, the result is surprisingly genuine.
Erkan, who is currently converting a han and soap factory from late Ottoman times into a boutique hotel, sees a bright future for Gaziantep’s tourist industry. “Visitor numbers are increasing by 50% each year. 2 years ago this building was worthless, it was used as a storage depot for produce and animals coming from the village.”
Now, the last veterinaries are moving out of the han’s atmospheric courtyard, and craftsmen, antique dealers and coffee shops are slowly moving in.
He takes us around the city center. Some caravanserais have already been restored with verve, while others still look crumbling and forlorn. It gives a real Silk Road feeling, unlike the overly polished museum cities of Uzbekistan. The bazaars meanwhile ring with the sound of metal on metal.
Copper production and silver smithing is big in Gaziantep, and its amazing how many other things besides cooking plates and jewelry are still handmade in this age of cheap Chinese imports. The little ateliers that dot the old town put out handmade chimney pipes, tea pots and meat grinders. Other crafts Gaziantep is famous for are Kutnu weaving, Yemeni leather sandals and Sedef inlay, which uses precious seashells to brighten everything from backgammon boards and nargile pipes to cabinets and dining tables. Saule took an impromptu course in Ebru, the unusual and highly psychedelic art of painting on water.
Mosaic of the Middle East
Driving around the countryside in spring, the white and pink blossoms of almond and pistachio trees are a delight. Gaziantep is a large producer of pistachios and it is the main ingredient of the city’s famous bakhlava pastries.
If, like us, your mouth sticks as soon as you smell the stuff, try katmer. Similar to gözleme, katmer is endemic to Gaziantep and consists of a pancake stuffed with nut cheese and crushed pistachios. Surprisingly filling, without the feeling of teeth-rot that half a kilogram of bakhlava inevitably brings about.
A few years ago, Gaziantep counted 2 museums. Nowadays, there are more than 20. While we were not completely knocked off our socks by the Kitchen Museum and the Archeological Glass Museum, the Zeugma Mosaic Museum is definitely a must-see, as one of the best-run and most compelling museums in Turkey.
Opened in 2011, Zeugma is the largest mosaic museum in the world. With the building of the GAP project and several dams on the Euphrates river, many archaeological sites have been flooded. What is represented at the museum is the result of emergency rescue excavations, before treasure hunters and waves took out the precious stones.
The melancholy look of the Mona Lisa-like Gipsy Girl has been bombarded to the city symbol, and truly, it does make for a compelling sight, evoking nostalgia for a time none of us knew. But many of the other mosaics in the museum are far more impressive.
All of them were made during the Greek period around 1700 years ago. Seen from afar, they seem like gigantic paintings, with depictions of Greek mythology and illusions of depth created by abstract motifs.
The museum also holds the first cast bronze depiction of Mars, god of war, and the only known depiction of him holding an olive branch, suggesting peace and war were to the Greeks what kebab and baklava are to the Turks – one should always be prepared for both.