From Tarsus to Antioch, and the Syrian Gates

Tarsus, Adana, to Ceyhan, Aşağiburnaz, Payas and over the Syrian Gates (pass) to Iskenderun.

Tarsus shares a history with the rest of the coastal lowland strip between the Taurus Mountains and the Mediterranean.   This strip has been a contact point and place of change between cultures throughout the historical period.  The history is more than human…it is the history of the Earth itself.

Hearing of the earthquake in Van the day before yesterday, I am reminded of geological complexity of Asia Minor, and the relationship of those events to the region we are crossing.   I am also reminded clearly that Geology can predict culture and history – as if the land makes the people, as much as the people make the land. In Turkey four “plates” meet and create the land and its shape. They are the Eurasian, African, Anatolian and Arabian.

Humans have lived with that Geology for a long while –  the Neolithic people of Çatalhöyük knew it well.  For modern Turkish Kurds, the latest earthquake is a disaster.   Without looking at the Kurdish issue, it is possible to extrapolate a great deal about modern Turkey and how its society works – the standard of construction, with characterless and poorly built concrete frames normal, and even to a casual examination being hardly capable of supporting the buildings that are hung on them.   I understand that Turkey has very limited building standards, and even where they exist, there is no system of enforcement, and certainly none that cannot be subverted.  Turkey is however, a seismically active area – and it has always been so!

You will probably know about plate tectonics – perhaps more than just a theory.  The plates have been moving around in different ways throughout most of the history of the earth, creating complex landforms where they meet, move apart, rub along each other and dive one under another.


This very general map gives a good idea of the global scale and directions of the movements, while the one below shows generally the relationship between the Anatolian, Arabic and African plates – and the faults where they meet.


The further map below shows something more – the directions of movement.  The Earth and it’s plates are not always as rigid and fixed as we like to think.  The plates move relative to each other – they flex and bend under pressure, continental plates are made and destroyed over geological time.


Unsurprisingly, the movement of these vast masses causes mountains chains to rise  – oceans to open,  and continents to be shaped…and all of that is accompanied by earthquakes and volcanoes, etc.


From the map above, courtesy of the BBC, you can see the 7.2 magnitude quake and its origins.  If you have looked carefully at the maps above you will see the the new Van Earthquake took places along the Bitlis and Zagros thrust and fold belt – an active fault line of some size.

Indeed, vulcanicity and seismic activity has shaped Anatolia.  Inactive volcanoes and their ash have been under our feet through the highlands.  Earthquakes have reshaped cities and civilisation here.  The plate boundaries have created the Taurus Mountains, and the dividing mountains South East of the Gulf of Iskenderun, for instance…

If you look carefully at the little strip of land going down the Eastern Mediterranean (and which is enclosed by the Mountains and the Eastern Mediterranean) – it belongs geologically to the African plate, and not to Eurasian or Arabian even  – and the boundary stretching down to the Levant is known as the Dead Sea transform.  We will be following that trench down the Jordan valley and into the Levant an the “Holy Land”.  It is a natural route of communication now as it has been for 3,000 years – and probably much longer.

The Way

The extreme topography on our route has meant that people have needed passes – the Silician Gates (pass) and the Syrian Gates (pass from Iskenderun to Antioch) to pass through.  Indeed, those passes have been strategic ways for prehistoric people to Persians, Romans, Ottomans and even the European powers powers after WW1.

For centuries under the Byzantines, Antioch governed and controlled the Syrian Gates  –  and therefore the Silk Road from the East as much as Tarsus controlled the Cilisian Gates and its route into Asia Minor and West.  The 1st Crusaders came this way, building castles, reconstructing the places of early Christianity, as they saw it. Earlier, this lowland strip was the first area of Asia minor to become Muslim with Persians and Arabs arriving and creating a frontier with Christian Byzantium – at the Mountains.  Even earlier,  before the end of Rome and the beginnings of Byzantium these were areas of the first expansion of Christianity into the Roman Empire outside the Levant.

More recently Byzantine Muslims being resettled in more or less empty land – empty because of its poor ashy soil  – from the new independent Greece into Turkey after 1928 – were placed in new and dismal settlements in striking distance of Tarsus and the Mediterranean. In those centreless dusty settlements, we found the only hassle from children we have found in Turkey, the only drunks and the only Turks doing absolutely nothing in the day.  Dead-ended people, out of place and out of culture.

Our journey from Tarsus to Antioch is at 20m above sea level – hot sun and humidity which were forgotten in the highlands above Tarsus  –  massive, unattractive but friendly Adana, to Ceyhan with its nearby Crusader Castle, and Silk Road Caravanserais, then before Aşağiburnaz the villages of relocated Muslim Greeks – so rootless and unhappy.  Concrete unconscious Payas beside the ancient silk road,  and then after miles, literally miles, of army bases, coastal oil installations and port facilities  – Iskenderun.  Although Iskenderun seems more modern, less Asian and Moslem (beer is drunk in the open!)  – this was indeed the Silk Road via Antioch and from China  – and otherwise a vital Roman artery.  After Alexandretta as it was called, we found the Syrian Gates. A difficult route past endless new motorways without pedestrian ways (nothing new, just a bit more extreme) and then a 700m pass of the Syrian Gates through the coastal range to Antakya, (Antioch).   Some hours of cold again, and concrete highland towns that wait miserably for the freezing winter and first snow.  These inconvenient heights are that boundary between geological zones.

Antioch itself is more middle-eastern than other parts of Turkey we have passed through. It has an old core of warren-like streets leading up hills behind the town,  an old commercial core centred around the Orontes River, with a rambling covered souk, some ancient mosques – one converted from an earlier Church devoted to a Christian martyr, an a rambling modern concrete suburb – as unattractive as any we have seen.  Still, there are some more ancient buildings  – a standing Roman aqueduct.

Above all there is a welcome from the Father Bart, and the Capuchins who have been working in Antioch since the 19th Century.

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