A medley of melodies rules the cozy cafes along the cobbled-stoned streets of the old city of Gaziantep in south-eastern Anatolia of Turkey. The synchronised rhythms of violins, clarinets and darbuka (goblet drums of Mesopotamian origin) halt as the call of azaan streams into the air. Shining domes of mosques overlook every street corner. Through its food, language, history, architecture and music, Gaziantep establishes itself as a potpourri of culture. Being one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities of the world, it has seen the rise and fall of great civilisations— Greeks, Romans, Byzantine and Ottoman to name a few.
The Museum City
The industrial city, which is home to more than two million people, is dotted with museums. The Zeugma Mosaic Museum is the largest mosaic museum in world, housing an incredible display of mosaics, excavated from ancient Roman villas that date back to 300 BCE, from the submerged city of Zeugma. You get to watch Greek mythology come alive on these gargantuan panels. The most popular of these—The Gypsy Girl—is a striking portrait of a girl on a mosaic that has now become the symbol of Gaziantep.
Continue museum hopping and immerse yourself in the bath culture at Gaziantep Hamam Müzesi. Constructed during the Ottoman rule in 1577 by Lala Mustafa Pasha, the hammam consists of three main parts— Frigidarium (cold room), tepidarium (warm room) and caldarium (hot room). Public bath culture dates back to the Bronze Age, and its influence has been so strong that indigenous words related to the bath culture have trickled into idioms and folksongs of Gaziantep.
A few metres ahead along the cobbled-stoned lane is Emine Göğüş Mutfak Müzesi, a culinary museum established by Ali Ihsan Göğüş, the first tourism minister of Turkey, as a tribute to the rich food culture of Gaziantep, a city which has inscribed its name as the UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy. The museum educates outsiders about Gaziantep kitchens, dishes and drinks, ingredients, preservation and storage, utensils, hosting the guests, picnic culture and meals for special occasions.
A fluorescent red haze emanates from under the coal and wood fired oven. Placed on top of it, in a copper vessel, Turkish coffee gurgles. Anti-caffeine people can find solace in the frothy white yoghurt-based salty drink Ayran. Non-vegetarians cannot leave the city without sinking their teeth in the succulent Doner Kebabs—diced pieces of lamb/beef served on pitta bread. Vegetarians can have Pide, a variation of pizza and Lahmacun, a kind of crunchy flatbread with spicy toppings.
While in Gaziantep it is hard to protect one from the sinfully sweet desserts. A tint of green dominates most of it – Pistachio. The nut, which is cultivated on a large scale here, has found its way to most of the dishes, most famously in Baklava, a filo layered pastry dunked in sugar syrup or honey and stuffed with a generous amount of pistachios.
Bedestens is the local term for bazaars with a concrete shade. In the Copper bazaar, calls and murmurs of locals rise and fall in an interlude perfectly complemented by the clacking of hammers on copper. Handmade copperware is a specialty here along with spices, Yemeni shoes and mother-of-pearl ingrained woodwork. Sitting comfortably at the intersection of Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic culture Gaziantep awaits to be discovered by the world.
Words: Tania Banerjee