This is Turkey's non-airbrushed slice of Mediterranean coastline. A handful of distinctly local-style beach resorts lie between the industrial port cities. Crumbling ruins sit among acres of intensely farmed countryside with nary a tourist in sight. In the ancient towns of Tarsus and Antakya, atmospheric old-town fragments cling on amid the modern hubbub.
Southern Hatay Province's fascinating melding of religions, languages and foods is reason enough for many to linger. For others, the wealth of important early Christian sites is the eastern Med's ace up its sleeve. The area's historical riches encompass a dizzying timeline of kings and conquerors that stretches from Karatepe's late-Hittite remnants, through Roman Anemurium, to the clifftop castles of once-mighty Cilicia. The stretch of the Mediterranean that most people miss is full of surprises for those who make the trip.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Eastern Mediterranean.
This incomparable museum contains one of the world's finest collections of Roman and Byzantine mosaics, covering a period from the 1st century AD to the 5th century. Many were recovered almost intact from Tarsus or Harbiye (Daphne in ancient times), 9km to the south. The entire collection from the old museum in the centre of Antakya has been moved to purpose-built premises just out of town on the D430 to Reyhanlı.
Near Narlıkuyu, a road winds north for 2km to several caves – sinkholes carved out by a subterranean river and places of great mythological significance. The walk from Narlıkuyu junction to the main entrance gate is quite steep. Enterprising locals usually offer taxi services up the hill for ₺10 (one way).
Rising from an island 250m offshore, impossibly romantic Kızkalesi Castle (also called the Sea Castle) is like a suspended dream. Check out the mosaics of birds and trees in the central courtyard, where there are the remains of two chapels side by side, and the vaulted gallery with 13 arches. Walk along the castle walls and climb one of the four towers (the square one at the southeast corner has the best views).
Archaeology buffs should make a beeline for the Karatepe-Aslantaş Open-Air Museum, within the national park of the same name. The ruins date from the 8th century BC, when this was an important town for the late-Hittite kings of Cilicia, the greatest of whom was named Azitawata. Today the remains on display consist of statuary, stone reliefs and inscribed tablets – some of which have played a critical role in helping archaeologists decipher the hieroglyphic Hittite language.
Anemurium's sprawling and eerily quiet ruins stretch for 500m down to a pebble beach, with mammoth city walls scaling the mountainside above. From the huge necropolis area with 350 tombs, walk south past a 4th-century basilica; look behind it for a mosaic of a leopard and a kid flanking a palm tree. Above the church is one of two aqueducts. The best-preserved structure in Anemurium is the 3rd-century baths complex, with a palaesta (training area) with mosaic floor.
The remnants of Roman Diocaesarea sit within the village of Uzuncaburç, 30km northeast of Silifke. Originally this was the Hellenistic city of Olba, home to a zealous cult that worshipped Zeus Olbius. The impressive Temple of Zeus Olbius, with two dozen erect columns, lies to the left of the one-time colonnaded street. Beside the temple are various sarcophagi bearing reliefs. Other important Roman structures include a nymphaeum (2nd century AD), an arched city gate and the Temple of Tyche (1st century AD).
Tentatively listed for World Heritage status, this remarkable monastery perches on a terraced slope high above the Göksu Valley, northwest of Silifke. Above the entrance is a cave church chiselled into the cliff face. A grand entry adorned with richly carved reliefs of angels and demons leads into the ruins of the western Church of the Evangelists with its re-erected Corinthian columns. The better preserved 6th-century Eastern Church is considered to be one of most ambitious early examples of domed-basilica architecture.
Amid the scant ruins of Seleuceia in Pieria at Çevlik, 5km northwest of Samandağ, is this this astonishing feat of Roman engineering. From the ticket kiosk, follow the trail along an irrigation canal and past some rock shelters, finally arriving at a Roman arch spanning the gorge and the tunnel entrance. At the far end of the channel an inscription provides a date for the work carried out by sailors and prisoners from Judea.
The compact Old City lies between Adana Bulvarı and Hal Caddesi. It includes a wonderful 60m-long stretch of Roman road and a labyrinth of alleyways hemmed by Tarsus Historical Houses, many crumbling, but one now housing the Elif Hatun Konağı boutique hotel. Just southeast are several historic mosques, including the Eski Cami (Old Mosque), a medieval structure that was originally a church dedicated to St Paul. Adjacent looms the barely recognisable brickwork of a huge old Roman bath.