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Jihadists and refugees now the main ‘tourists’ in Antakya

Updated on April 11, 2016
St Peter's Grotto, one of many historic Christian sites in Antakya
St Peter's Grotto, one of many historic Christian sites in Antakya

Biblical city becomes tourism no-go zone.

Not many tourists visit Antakya these days. The Syrian border is less than 20 kilometres away, on the other side of the Nur Mountains. Today most of the foreigners who pass through are either Syrian refugees or jihadists.

Antakya’s quarter of a million residents have found themselves playing host to around 3000 displaced Syrians. Meanwhile, foreign fighters use the city as a stepping stone to the Syrian border, which they are able to cross by claiming to be aid workers. And rebels from the Syrian combat zone come here for rest and recreation – or urgently-needed medical treatment.

It’s a shame that tourists now regard the city as a no-go area because it is steeped in history and hugely significant to both Muslims and Christians.

Originally known as Antioch, this was one of the first places where St Peter, St Paul and other early Christian heavyweights came to preach the word of Christ: ‘And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch.’ (Acts 11:26)

Here you’ll find Turkey’s oldest mosque, Habib-I Neccar Cami. It’s named after a Muslim holy man, Habib-I Neccar, who was beheaded when he tried to stop pagans stoning two Christian prophets. They rolled his head down a hill. And the mosque was built on the spot where it came to rest. And today the head reposes in a crypt beneath the mosque.

Antakya also has one of the world’s finest collections of Roman and Byzantine mosaics plus a 500-year-old Turkish bath building where local men still sweat it out.

Last November I spent a week in Antakya researching my upcoming novel SORRY TIME. One of the most fascinating places was the covered bazaar, a maze of winding, cobbled alleyways like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. It's become the backdrop for an exciting scene in the book. Another scene is set in the Turkish baths.

Sorry Time is a revenge story that opens in the central Australian desert, where the nerdish Jonathan Chaseling crosses bloody paths with a pair of violent criminals, brothers Ali and Abdul Fazir.

Chaseling ends up following Ali, a meth-addicted jihadist with a penchant for beheading animals and people, halfway across the globe to Antakya. And it's here where the novel reaches its climax.

Look out for SORRY TIME in bookstores and online from early 2017.

Meanwhile, you can have a look at this brief Youtube clip, 'SORRY TIME: welcome to Antakya,' about my visit to the ancient city:


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