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Gaziantep: A City on the Brink

This morning it finally arrived in the mail. It took nearly 2 weeks to arrive from Turkey, but menengiç is worth the wait.

Menengiç?! you’re probably wondering, is a popular drink in Eastern Turkey that tastes like coffee and pistachio.  In reality, the thick, rich drink is made of roasted, crushed terebinth berries and milk. You can buy a jar of the paste-like menengiç online – it’s very hard to find outside of the region where it originated – even in Turkish grocery stores it’s almost never available.

 

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To ‘brew’ 2 servings of drink, all you need to do is mix 1 cup of milk with 1-1/2 tsp. of menengiç. Stir over medium heat until dissolved and fragrant, making sure the milk doesn’t come to a boil. Serve with sugar, as needed. Don’t swirl or stir to keep the mixture from settling. You’ll want the sediment of the berries to settle to the bottom.

 

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Softer and fruitier than Turkish coffee, menengiç may still be an acquired taste, but to me, it smells and tastes of Gaziantep, or as the locals call it – Antep.

 

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Living as an expat in Turkey was one of the most bizarre and rewarding years of my life. Moving to a country where I knew no one, and only familiar with what I’d seen and read online. The terrain was completely alien – desert-like. A language with few similarities, and few who spoke my own language around the city.

Situated only a few miles from the Syrian border in Southeast Turkey, Gaziantep has a very unique cross-section of cultures and has rich and beloved traditions. Just up the road from the ancient ruins of Antioch, Antep holds ancient roots itself as one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.

 

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A Bronze Age citadel lies in the center of the city. In its shadow, the famed copper bazaar, and one of my favorite hideaways around town, Tütün Hanı. Wandering through the labyrinth of copper and metalwork stalls within the smoky stone walls of the copper bazaar, the Tütün Hanı café is just beyond a bold stone archway, almost hidden amongst the metal goods and the buzz of locals and tourists filling the halls, looking for a deal.

The 18th century open air bazaar has been host to tobacco merchants and coppersmiths for centuries, among other vendors. The open square in the center of the winding halls of the bazaar is where the waiters of Tütün Hanı bring out nargile (hookah), hot Turkish tea and menengiç to those lounging on the pillows and Turkish carpets under the central tent.

Remove your shoes before stepping in, order a menengiç and an apple nargile and enjoy the sweltering Turkish day in the shadow of the cool stone walls.

 

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I have fond memories of lounging around Tütün Hanı for hours, shopping for copper trinkets in the bazaar and Antep as a whole. Hopping on the dolmuş (shared taxi/mini bus) to get around town, picking up the language and customs, befriending other expats and making new local friends with whom I’d go out to the ‘communist bar’ as the locals referred to it (one of the only bars in the conservative Muslim city). Drinking Efes beer and playing backgammon for hours in the chilly evenings.  Listening to live Kurdish folk music at the tea garden down the hill from my apartment.  Eating giant meals of kebab, lahmacun (lamb and herb-covered flatbread), nohut durum (flatbread filled with crushed chickpeas, herbs and spicy peppers), mercemek soup, and always with a giant glass of ayran (a salty yogurt drink). I think it’s safe to say that I quickly adapted to the way of Antep-life. I left my vegetarian ways when I moved to Turkey, and never looked back.

 

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Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia. It’s a modern metropolitan city, displaying its long and eventful history with pride. Across the country, over 5 years after I left the quiet desert city, Gaziantep is now struggling to keep the peace. Nearly 2 dozen ISIL members were arrested in Antep late last year. The city is feeling a cultural shift due to the massive influx of Syrian refugees. And nearly 2 years after I left, there was a bus bombing in the same region of the city I had lived not so long ago. It’s tragic to hear about a bombing anywhere in the world. It’s surreal to learn of one that happened in a neighborhood you knew so well.

Antep has weathered a great deal in its many centuries of existence. And while it’s on the brink of very heavy political and cultural events, the city will persevere. It will be challenged as it has been in the past, but the Turks are a strong culture with ancient traditions that I don’t foresee going anywhere, anytime soon.  I’m proud to have been able to become a part of Antep, even though it was only for a short amount of time. I’ll never forget the history, the food, the kindness of the locals, and the beauty of the culture. One day, I’d love to make my way back to that fabulously exotic part of the world!

 

Halfeti: A Village Above and Below the Euphrates River

On the drive to the village of Halfeti, from the city of Gaziantep where I was living, the morning air was warm and breezy as the car wound through the Turkish countryside. It was early May.  Pistachio and olive groves popped up here and there along the road. Red poppies grew wild, in full bloom. Stone arches every few miles, remnants of the Roman empire.

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The car began to descend toward the Euphrates River, or Fırat as it is known in Turkey.  The winding road narrowed and the icy turquoise water came into view. Cliffs rose from the water.  Ancient ruins of homes long uninhabited were carved into the stone cliffs. The car quickly slowed as we rounded a corner.  A child stood fearlessly on the edge of the road; behind her, a sheer drop to the ancient water below.  She shared a friendly smile with the foreign faces that drove past.

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The old Citroën we were in slowly rolled into the village of Yeni Halfeti (translated as ‘New’ Halfeti).  The old city and its inhabitants had re-located to higher ground along the steep grade of the river due to the construction of the Birecik Dam in the late 90s. The old village was one of many to be flooded, forcing the inhabitants to abandon their homes and built new ones up the hill; creating a new life as their old one was lost to the Fırat.

We parked the car along one of the side streets, and made our way down to the river where we found a waterfront cafe that was open and serving breakfast. We found our way onto the floating, covered dock, and seated ourselves in the shade. The morning hadn’t quite worn off and the village wasn’t yet up and about. Drinking Turkish tea, I sat on the edge of the dock, letting my feet dangle into the river, admiring the trees and roofs still visible under the milky blue surface.

Looking further down river, a minaret rose from the water, the mosque that holds it up disappeared with the rest of the old village. A minaret that has become one of the most identifiable symbols of the village.

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Since business was slow, and we were obviously tourists to the town, the owner of the cafe came out to greet us and to proudly make his recommendations of what to see nearby. Conveniently, he had an employee with a boat which, for a reasonable price, was able to take us around to show off these sites. Once we cleared every crumb of our traditional Turkish breakfast of local cheeses, freshly baked bread, olives, cucumber and tomato salad, eggs and tea, the young man who would be our tour guide had arrived at the dock with his prized toy – a rickety motor boat that I wasn’t sure would survive the day.

We bought some beers from the kind cafe owner, placed them in the young man’s cooler, piled into the small boat and off we went.

The river was calm near Halfeti. My Turkish friends, our guide and I rode upriver in what felt like slow motion. We couldn’t help but pull the boat over about half way to Rumkale – one of the destinations recommended by the cafe owner – to explore some of the ancient cave houses carved into the steep hills.  Observing them from a distance wasn’t enough. They smelled stale and there was evidence of fires built long ago inside the dusty rock walls.

Carrying on upriver, the imposing Roman fortress of Rumkale came into view high above the water, dominating the peninsula on which it was built, created by a wide turn made by the Fırat.

Ibrahim, our guide, tied the boat to the small floating dock on the Eastern side of the castle as we all cautiously climbed the worn steps to the fortress. The top of the seemingly never-ending hill was grassy and overgrown.  We explored the crumbling ruins of the Church of St. Nerses, built in or around the 12th century.

After loafing around in a nearby man-made cave, drinking the beers we brought from the cafe, in preparation for the trip back down to the boat, we sat on the edge of the grassy ledge and looked out onto the bend of the technicolor river that flowed through the ancient and untouched land that protects it.

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Back into the boat, we crept our way back toward the cafe dock where we started off the day’s adventure. The thought crossed my mind that one of the enormous ancient fish of the Fırat could have gobbled up the little boat and its passengers in 1 bite should it like; moving so slowly, we were no competition.

Burnt from the Anatolian sun, and exhausted from the climb and exploration, our group, including our beloved Ibrahim and the cafe owner, enjoyed locally caught fish, beef kebab and rakı (an anise-flavored liquor – a favorite among Turks).

For hours, we lazed about on the dock, enjoying the late-afternoon breeze. Few patrons visited the cafe that Tuesday afternoon. As the sun began to set, over the steep hills, we all lined up at the edge of the dock, rakı in hand, dangling our feet into the chilly water as I had that same morning. The perfect way to round out a beautifully adventurous day before a star-filled drive back to the city.