The account of the history of this province which we quote below is taken from ‘Eastern Turkey’ by the Nişanyans. They rightly call the half of Turkey east of Ankara “the more interesting half of the country” and we recommend their guide to anyone planning to travel in this area.
“The province that hangs down from Turkey’s belly like a loose appendix – formerly the Sanjak of Alexandretta, now called Hatay – used to be part of the Syrian provinces of the Ottoman Empire. It came under French rule when France occupied Syria at the end of World War 1. In the 1930s it developed into a major diplomatic sore between Turkey and France.
Turkey demanded the Sanjak with the claim that it had a Turkish majority. Several population counts, held under different rules, yielded conflicting results. The Arabic-speaking Alevis agitated for a separate ‘Alaouistan’, which would be neither Syrian nor Turkish, and have its capital at Latakia (now in Syria). Arab nationalists were furious in Damascus. An election was held with unexpected results for Turkey. Sabres rattled; with bigger worries looming in Europe, France yielded. Elections were renewed two months later with radically different results. The local parliament proclaimed an independent Republic of Hatay in September 1938. In June next year it resolved to abolish itself and join Turkey. A large part of the local Christian population emigrated to Syria. The Turkish landowners, who held considerable property in northern Syria, were ruined.
The word ‘Hatay’ was proposed in 1937 by Atatürk to designate the disputed province. For a long time, calling the chief city of the province by any other name was seen as just short of treason: maps that labelled it ‘Antakya’ were regularly banned by the General Commandantship of Maps of the Ministry of National Defense. Things are looser nowadays, although on the other side of the border, official maps still go on painting the province as a part of the Syrian Motherland.”
So now you know the recent history of Antakya and Hatay province. Its ancient history is even more fascinating. Most readers will recognise Antioch from the Bible, but may not know that during the 2nd century AD, Antioch, modern Antakya, was one of the three most important cities in the Roman Empire alongside Rome itself and Alexandria, now in Egypt. Nothing remains in situ from Antakya’s glory days as a vital Roman outpost but the museum is filled with incredible mosaics from that period.
Antioch later featured in the Crusades, when it was subjected to a six-month siege before the Crusaders finally captured the city. Little remains from those times as well, apart from odd fragments of the old walls. Antioch today is a bustling modern Turkish city, with an old quarter featuring narrow alleys and leaning houses, with more than a touch of Arabic atmosphere. You hear Arabic spoken on the streets, and there are three working Christian churches scattered in the old town.
More on Antioch, or as we should say ‘Antakya’, soon.