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The Hatay

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Extending like a stumpy finger into Syria, the region known as the Hatay has closer cultural links with the Arab world than with the Turkish hinterland, and its multi-ethnic, multi-faith identity gives it an extra edge of interest. Antakya (ancient Antioch), a cosmopolitan city and gastronomic centre set in the valley of the Asi River, and İskenderun, a heavily industrialized port, are the two main destinations.

The region only became part of modern Turkey in 1939, having been apportioned to the French Protectorate of Syria following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire. Following the brief-lived independent Hatay Republic of 1938 it was handed over to Turkey after a plebiscite. This move, calculated to buy Turkish support, or at least neutrality, in the imminent world war, was successful. It was Atatürk, in a move to “Turkify” the region, who dreamt up the name “Hatay”, supposedly based on that of a medieval Turkic tribe.

The majority of people here speak Arabic as well as Turkish, and there’s some backing for union with Syria, though de facto Turkish sovereignty remains recognized. Although relations between the two countries improved dramatically during the “zero problems with neighbours policy” from 2002 onwards, the civil unrest in Syria in 2012, and President Assad’s refusal to listen to Turkish calls for reform, meant that friction was, at the time of writing, once again escalating.

Arab influence in the Hatay goes back to the seventh century AD, when Arab raiders began hacking at the edges of the collapsing Byzantine Empire. Although they were never able to secure long-lasting political control over the region, the Arabs did establish themselves as permanent settlers, remaining even when the Hatay passed into Ottoman hands.

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