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In İskenderun on the trail of Alexander the Great May 20, 2011

Posted by Yilan in Human rights abuses.
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Fishing harbor, İskenderun Few towns in Turkey can boast such an illustrious name as İskenderun, the small town in Hatay, the tiny sliver of Turkey that turns down towards Syria, that commemorates the Macedonian king,Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.), or Büyük İskender, as he’s known in Turkish. The reason is not hard to find.

Just a short way north of town, near Dörtyol, is İssus, the site of a decisive battle in 333 B.C., which Alexander put to flight the troops of the Persian king Darius the Great, despite being outnumbered by roughly three to one.

Alexander’s route across Turkey

Alexander was one of those larger-than-life figures that history adores despite the sometime savagery of their behavior. Born in what is now Aegean Macedonia currently occupied by Greece, Alexander was the son of King Philip of Macedon and inherited his father’s already extensive kingdom. This, however, was not enough to satisfy a man whose expansionist cravings would match those of the greediest of today’s industrial tycoons. In 334 B.C. he set off to conquer Asia Minor, crossing the Hellespont, as so many modern travelers do, near Çanakkale and then heading to Troy where he laid a garland on the tomb of his hero, the Trojan prince Achilles, and bestowed his armor on the Temple of Athena.

From there Alexander headed south along the coast, seizing Ephesus, where he tried to persuade the locals to let him pay for the rebuilding of the Temple of Artemis in return for rededicating it to himself; when that plea failed, he financed the Temple of Athena at nearby Priene instead. Sardis fell to Alexander, as did Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), whose sturdy walls proved no match for the new catapults mounted on towers with which they were assaulted. Alexander’s troops then pressed on round the Mediterranean coast as far as Antalya where, to the north, the lofty Psidian city of Termessos was the only place in Turkey to successfully resist them. Further north, the Psidians of Sagalassos were not so lucky, and after defeating them Alexander continued up as far as Gordion, near Ankara, where, in the most famous story associated with his stay in Turkey, he used his sword to sever the Gordian Knot holding together a chariot marking the tomb of the great Phrygian leader Gordias. The man who could undo the knot was destined to become the Lord of All Asia, or so it was said, and thus was Alexander’s path set.

The troops then turned south again, transiting Cappadocia before passing through the gap in the Taurus Mountains known as the Cilician Gates and marching along the coast east to İssus. There Alexander lured King Darius into battle on a site hemmed in between the mountains and the sea, thus making it hard for him to take advantage of his superior troop numbers. The result was a triumph, which might have persuaded a lesser man to call it a day. Alexander, however, was not that man and instead pressed on as far east as India, dying eventually in Babylon on the ill-fated return journey.

İskenderun and around

So much for the back story, which many will remember anyway from the Hollywood movie with Colin Farrell playing Alexander and Angelina Jolie his mother. Of course there’s nothing in modern İskenderun (Alexandretta until 1939) that has anything to do with Alexander, but the city is still too readily written off as part of the industrial sprawl that spreads east from Ceyhan, which means that many people skip past it on the main Adana-Antakya road without ever getting out of the bus. If they did so and then made their way down to the waterfront a pleasant surprise would await them. A long strip of the shore has recently been relandscaped, with parks, walking trails and a rather nice municipal cafe where senior citizens while away their days basking in the sun and soaking up the view over cheap glasses of tea. At the northern end there’s even a rather nice fishing harbor with colorful boats tied up at the quay and fishermen hard at work mending their nets.

Of course there are few visible traces of a pre-1970s İskenderun other than a handful of crumbling Ottoman houses on streets that also harbor three churches, the prettiest of them the domed Armenian version. The town center Cumhuriyet Meydanı, however, is dominated by a very impressive early 20th-century building that once housed the Adalet Sarayı (Palace of Justice), now relocated to an enormous building on the city outskirts. Its most conspicuous feature is a fine clock tower that, like much of the façade, is decorated with geometric patterns picked out in blue and orange; to judge by its decor the nearby Merkez Bankası (Central Bank) must have been built at the same time and by the same architect. Look out, too, for a lovely galleried building in an overgrown garden facing the sea that once housed the British Consulate.

Even if you’re not overly interested in maritime history, it’s worth popping into the Deniz Müzesi (Museum of the Sea) overlooking the waterfront park since it also doubles as the local history museum and contains impressive images of nearby sites such as the Belen Pass, once a renowned beauty spot but now marred by ugly concrete buildings (a caravanserai designed by Sinan has been subjected to one of those “restorations” that renders it effectively new).

The obvious place to visit from İskenderun should be the site of the Battle of İssos, but unfortunately the precise location is no longer easy to pinpoint, not least because modern development has drastically changed the landscape. Never fear, though, because İskenderun makes a good base for an excursion north to Payas (Yakacık) where, close to the sea, a magnificent mosque complex dating back to the 16th century takes its name from Sokollu Mehmed Paşa, one of the grand viziers to Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent who also gave his name to a mosque near the Hippodrome in İstanbul. The vast, abandoned caravanserai part of it is slated to be turned into a hotel, which might mean that its kapalı çarşı (covered bazaar), a long row of shops that are only currently open during Ramadan, might find permanent new use. The mosque itself is a relative tiddler tucked away at the heart of the complex and with a courtyard graced by a gnarled old olive tree said to be as old as the mosque itself. Right beside it stand the ruins of a Crusader-cum-Ottoman castle surrounded by a moat which could conceivably be refilled with water as part of the grand redevelopment plan.

İskenderun is disappointingly short on lovely sea-facing places to stay, although a new shopping complex right beside the barracks promises to incorporate a five-star hotel. One option, then, is to hop into a dolmuş and press on down the coast to Arsuz (Uluçınar), a small beach resort that has something of the feel of a truncated Ağva about it, perhaps because a river opens into the sea there. Arsuz is dominated by the venerable Arsuz Hotel, which boasts a wonderful location right beside both the river and the beach. Book ahead if you’d like to stay as the other options are nowhere near as appealing.


Arsuz Hotel, Arsuz. Tel: 0326-643 2444

İmrenay Hotel, İskenderun. Tel: 0326-613 2117


There are regular minibuses to İskenderun from Adana (Yüreğir terminal) and Antakya. Alternatively, the intercity buses running between Adana and Antakya’s main bus terminals will drop you off here.


1. Jack Selig - October 31, 2013

In March of 1971 I visited Iskenderun at the age of 19 while in the U.S. Air Force. I also climbed Mt. Nimrut Dag of local fame. Turkey was then isolated yet beautiful to explore. I lived in the Mountains near the city of Malatya, travelled by hitch hike or train or bus wherever my alloted time away from the site allowed. A magnificent county of many influences. Now at age 62 I still reflect upon my time there. Mer Habba!

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