(written April 2016)
After our normal Sunday morning meeting with the saints at Antakya Christian church, T. and I normally stroll out for a light lunch and a bit of fresh air.
One Sunday in March, as we made our way down the pedestrianised Saray (Palace) Street it struck me how much it has changed since we first arrived some eight years ago…
Then it was not just a normal road, but an important road, forming a narrow but significant artery linking two major roads. Then the traffic was reduced to crawling along the narrow roadway which, thankfully was primarily a one way street. I say ‘primarily’ as motorcycles, push carts, bicycles and the odd car would still insist on going on their desired way whether it conformed to the road signs or not. Additional to that was the throng of pedestrians swarming down the too small footpaths on either side.
Pedestrians struggling to find space amidst the chaos of vehicles, bicycles, motorcycles, carts ladened with goods for sale and lorries. Confusion, dust and noise dominated the so-called thoroughfare.
It was a route to be avoided whenever you could.
That was then.
Now it has been fully pedestrianised. The road surface has been replaced. No longer are pedestrians limited to narrow and uneven footpaths on either side of the roadway. Now we have a cobbled strip down the centre for delivery trucks servicing the businesses – access is highly limited and controlled by large hydraulic posts which can be lowered to be flush with the road or raised to form an impassible barrier for four wheeled or greater vehicles.
On either side of the fine cobbled surface we have smooth stone flagging making for a smoother walking experience. There is also the now common addition to new pavements being laid, of a strip of special, bumpy tile which is laid in a continuous strip which affords a guide for visually impaired people to aid them as they travel down the road.
Being a pedestrianised area, special plantings have been installed. These range from floor beds, maintained and replanted through the year as various flowers come in and out of season. There are special, decorative trees which have been grafted and shaped over years to form a kind of living basket weave of living trees. Fountains have also been installed added both the beauty of flowing, spraying water and the harmonic sound of gurgling, bubbling water. These are fitted with coloured lights adding a special attraction when darkness falls.
Modern Antakya, living and breathing on top of its ancient forebears has been afforded a special place on the pedestrianised way. In doing essential upgrades to the storm sewer system the local Council uncovered three arches which were buried under the street. They are standing in situ and rather than lifting them and placing them elsewhere, or back filing them and leaving them under the street, it was decided to make them a feature. Now you can stroll down the former street and there, fenced off but still accessible in a trench in the street the three arches in their glory standing ready for all and sundry to have a view from the surface surrounding them.
I don’t know what they were part of. It could have been a shop, boat yard (the Asi river is nearby), an ancient, historic or old government building – there is no indicator as to what it once was. But it is now on display.
In addition to the plantings of flowers, decorative trees and fountains, they have brought in old olive trees – gnarled and knotted with time and still producing an abundant crop of olives in season. These are set on a small belt of grass, the landscape sculpted to form a wee rise where the oldest looking olive tree has been transplanted.
There is a seating area shaded by producing orange trees. These ever green trees both bring shade and the bright orange fruit – that remaining above easy picking height, adds a wonderfully colourful element to the peaceful tranquility of the space.
Although now pedestrianised and technically only open for people on foot, one will still encounter hand carts, bicycles and motorbikes as they make their appearance. Often they cause some confusion as they power their way through the crowds.
However, primacy has been given over to people, and for this reason, there are lots of people which then make up crowds and crowds they are. The street, once home to so many different kinds of transport, now nominally limited only to people and yet it is still teeming, bustling and busy with humanity.
On this particular Sunday in March there seemed to me more than normal. There were young people with their mobile telephones and back packs, smiling and laughing and girls clumped together, boys hanging out – and the inevitable pairing off. There were also the middle aged and elderly who were evident as this was proving to be a very pleasant, sunny afternoon.
After a long winter, the pleasant weather seemed to be calling to all and sundry to step out and take the air.
At the end of the pedestrianised street we came to “Köprü Başı” (The Head of the Bridge), the site of the ancient stone bridge, an artefact from Roman times which was demolished in June 1972 to enable works on the river to reduce the risk of flooding and was replaced by a much larger, concrete structure.
To cross the bridge you must first cross the road which runs along the eastern bank of the river. Now at this point it is a four lane divided roadway. Normally in this land, practically speaking, crosswalks have precious little meaning.
In practice a Turkish crosswalk is a designated place where the pedestrian is responsible to avoid traffic and choose the appropriate time to cross without inhibiting the flow of vehicles. Almost without exception, crosswalks exist in name and signs and paint, but not in function.
Except here. Here, often, I can not say every time, cars will grudgingly yield and allow precedence to pedestrians. It is one of two places here in Antakya where you can, with a watchful eye, cross a street relatively freely.
Having successfully crossed the street and the modern bridge we turn up-river, continuing our stroll on the board walk which the Council has constructed on the banks of the Asi river.
Asi is the modern name for the river known in ancient times as the Orontes. This river rises in the south, in Syria. It flows northward and at one point it forms the physical border between the two nations. It then turns basically west and after a ways turns roughly south to run down the valley, through the city of Antakya and on to the Mediterranean Sea.
It was once a nice, ‘natural’ river, now it is damed up stream in Syria and in the summer months many little temporary earthen dams are thrown across the river in Turkey to facilitate local irrigation needs.
But this being spring, the temporary dams are yet to be constructed and the river is full of runoff from the winter rains, muddy water, which, uninhibited is flowing freely down the river to the Mediterranean sea.
The boardwalk, gracing both banks of the river, is on this day crowded with happy, smiling, strolling people: young people and old, families – it seems like the bulk of the city have answered the call.
As we make our way upstream, we encounter a constant stream of smiling faces as people meander and stroll along, little knots of people contentedly wandering along the sides of the river.
Some are conservatively dressed, others not quite so, and yet modest by western standards and others dressed more to fit in, in Manchester or Bristol than one may assume for an Eastern Turkish city.
It is also noted that this is a very mixed crowd. Due to the on-going, four year old conflict in our neighbour, our city has received more than its share of the influx of refugees.
One might generalise and postulate that many of the poor have taken refuge in official camps whilst at the same time others of the same socio-economic group have been making do in accommodation in the towns. It would appear that the upper middle class are living in rented flats in the cities; they are well dressed, often with cars – not infrequently, very nice cars.
On this particular day, they too are out, strolling the banks of the Asi. They too are smiling, maybe on this day the problems of their homeland, if not forgotten, are pushed out of their minds for a brief respite.
Husbands and wives, children of all ages, strolling in the gentle sun and enjoy the simple pleasure of taking a family stroll without fear or intimidation.
Today, we are all equal, strolling under God’s sun, enjoying family, friends and a most pleasant of days.
Wish every day were like this – but, alas, war is just over the border, not far from this oasis of tranquility and peace. Here there are smiling faces, ice cream and fun for the children. Not many kilometres away all of this is a distant dream, a faint recollection.
Enjoy today. Give thanks for your blessings.