Gaziantep: Turkey's copper and culinary capital now a destination for spies, refugees, insurgent and rebel leaders

Coffee seller in Gaziantep, Turkey
Gaziantep, a city in southern Turkey some forty miles from the Syrian border, has become a bustling hub at the center of the Middle East’s latest conflict. It’s a destination for spies and refugees, insurgent fighters and rebel leaders, foreign-aid workers and covert jihadists—all enmeshed in Syria’s multisided war, writes Robin Wright in her insightful article in this week's New Yorker. 

Until this summer, when ISIS began seizing large portions of Syria and Iraq, Gaziantep—or Antep, as the locals call it—was best known for its baklava, Wright reports. That's what I remember best about one of my most favorite Turkish cities.

Few American tourists venture off-the-beaten tourist paths of Western Turkey into Eastern Turkey, but despite U.S. government advisories against travel there for the past decade, those who have taken the time to visit cities such as Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, Marden, Diyarbakır, Van and others have been richly rewarded with new insights into traditions, history and food found nowhere else. These are some of the oldest, continuously inhabited cities in the world. I visited all of these places a few years ago, and consider that trip among the highlights of my travels in Turkey. 

Wright reports that Gaziantep's 1.5 million inhabitants have thrived as Turkey’s economic boom during the past decade brought rapid development to the Anatolian hinterlands. "The Forum Mall, which opened last year, has a Popeyes, an Arby’s, a KFC, a McDonald’s, a Burger King, and a Starbucks."

"For years, Turkey maintained cordial relations with Syria—the shared border is five hundred miles long—as part of a “zero problems with neighbors” policy. In 2008, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who was then Prime Minister, welcomed the vacationing Assad family at an Aegean resort. But not long after the Syrian uprising began, in 2011, Erdoğan declared, “It is not heroism to fight against your own people.” He urged Assad to step down, “for the welfare of your country, as well as the region.”

Since then, Wright reports, "Turkey has done more than any other nation to harbor Syria’s political and military opposition. Gaziantep is now home to the nascent Syrian Interim Government. Leaders of the Supreme Military Council and rebel commanders of the Free Syrian Army are regular visitors. The United Nations runs aid missions from Gaziantep, as do several other international organizations and a number of businesses."

It's sad then to see that Gaziantep as well as other Southeastern Turkish cities bordering Syria considered dangerous places that governments say tourists should avoid. The U.S. Embassy in Ankara has received reports that extremist groups may be planning an attack against the Syrian Interim Government building in Gaziantep, the embassy said in a recent statement. “We remind U.S. citizens that the situation in southeast Turkey, while usually calm, can change without warning and U.S. citizens should avoid traveling in areas close to the Syrian border.” Also advising against travel to his part of Turkey is the Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada It advises against non-essential travel to the provinces of Hakkari, Siirt, Sirnak, Mardin, Sanliurfa, Gaziantep, Kilis and Hatay due to an unpredictable security situation. 

Gaziantep's authentic bazaar 

I do hope things change soon for this region. It's well worth visiting, if not now, then hopefully in the near future. If you're planning a trip to Turkey, keep it on your radar. A just-opened Hampton Inn is ready and waiting. 

With nostalgia, I look back at my visit to Gazianstep as well as a home stay in a nearby rural Kurdish village, and share with you this report from 2011: 

Gaziantep, near the Syrian border, is Southeastern Turkey's most sophisticated and cosmopolitan city, known for its food and its copper crafts. People from Istanbul come for the weekend, the way we might go to Portland or San Francisco. The old city is filled with beautifully-restored 16th century mosques, inns and 19th century stone mansions. Like many of the cities in this area that we've visited, Gaziantep was an important trading center with its Middle Eastern neighbors and China. It was a stop on what was known as the second Silk Road that went to China via Iran and Afghanistan.

Some serious money has gone into restoring the Ottoman-era bazaar quarter filled with spice and nut sellers and craftsmen turning out everything from rolling pins to baklava in the back of little storefront shops. I was thrilled to come upon this coffee seller with his copper urn. Men dress up like this in Istanbul to pose for pictures with tourists, but this guy was the real deal. Notice the string of paper cups around his neck. He opened the lid on the urn to show me hot coals in the bottom keeping the coffee hot. The coffee, called murra, was thick, sweet and scented with spices. I was about to buy a cup, when the coppersmith on the left, bought one for me, the posted for a photo with his cat.

Baklava and other similar sweets made with pinkish, half-ripe pistachios, is Gaziantep's speciality. Baklava is to Gaziantep what coffee is to Seattle. There are more than 150 shops, one or two every block it seems. Imam Cagdas, a big busy shop founded in 1887, ships its baklava worldwide, but we preferred the smaller, one-man shops where you either order a box to go, or eat it there at one of a few tables in the back. Most keep things simple and offer little else besides water or tea.


A baklava shop on every corner 

Bakers at work 

It's common in bazaars and markets around the world to see craftsmen working in front of shops selling products made in China or mass-produced in factories, but that's not the case in Gaziantep. Everything you see is made in the workshops, from cutting sheets of copper, to pounding, plating and etching the designs. The more intricate the design, the more expensive the piece. We paid about $6 each for two small, hand-pounded copper pans.

A few of the old mansions have been turned into boutique hotels. Below is the Asude Konak where we stayed. It took the owners 10 years to restore the 108-year-old house into a five-room inn on a pedestrian street above the town center. The boutique hotels tend to be expensive - we paid around $100 a night - but they have load of old-time Turkish atmosphere.


Dinner at Asude Konak 

The owner, Jale, above right, loves to cook and guests can arrange to have dinner here. It was Mother's Day, so she invited us and another couple to join in a family kebab party - sort of like a Sunday barbeque. She and her mother, left, made a half-dozen different kinds of kebabs, including our favorite, eggplant and lamb, along with plums and lamb and another with roasted garlic.


Kebabs on the grill

They filled the rest of along table on their outdoor patio with plates of fresh greens and mint, yogurt dips, bread and salads. Some drank Raki, a high-powered anise liquor that produces a cloudy drink when mixed with water. Others had Ayran, the refreshing yogurt drink made with water and a dash of salt. Antep is surrounded by fertile farmland and has a climate ideal for growing olives, pomegranates, many types of fruits and vegetables and raising 
sheep. There's an excellent culinary museum with explanations in English of all the local dishes. We didn't find it until our last day, but if I had it to do over again, I'd go there first-thing, so that I'd know more before setting out for the restaurants and markets.

Find out more about Southeastern Turkey on my Turkey Blog. Sadly, there's another addendum to add to this post. As I mentioned earlier, I spent the night in a Kurdish village as part of a rural home stay program organized by Nomad Tours. Founder, Alison Tanik, a British woman, and her husband, Omer, had moved from Istanbul to his home in Yuvacali when Alison began looking for a project that might help improve the lives of the 1,000 or so residents. 

When Intrepid Tours, an Australian tour company, contacted her to ask if she knew about any homestays in the area, she suggested Yuvacali, and Nomad Tours was born. Omer's sister, Pero Salva and her husband, Halil, pictured below, were the first hosts, and our hosts for our overnight visit. Sadly, Alison now reports, business has all but collapsed due to all the problems on the Syrian border.  


Our host family in Yuvacali village

"We are not taking bookings, and, indeed, there are no enquiries. So, we have just left things to lie quietly at the moment."

At the same time, she says, the UK has introduced some harsh policies regarding immigration. "We cannot satisfy the rules for a settlement visa in the UK for Omer, so his plan was to come on a visitors' visa, as he has done many times before." But his latest visitors' visa application was refused. "So the girls and I are in the UK; Omer is in southeast Turkey; neither of us can visit the other; and the business is not operating! Can it get any worse? On the positive side, we are all safe and well."


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