Light at the End of the Titus Tunnel

The past and the present meld together in illuminating discoveries on a rambling walk through the Vespasianus Titus Tunnel.  
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Rambling Roman burial grounds called necropolis, or ‘city of the dead,’ can be found across Turkey. While the one pictured is in Anatolia, about an hour away from the city of Antakya, it is the eerie beauty of the necropolis near the Titus tunnel that enthralled the author. Photo by: Marco Simoni/imageBROKER/Getty Images

The path is lined with tiny shops selling local sabun (olive oil-and-laurel soaps), bottles of wild honey and pomegranate syrup, bay leaf oil and an array of fruits, ranging from strawberries to plums. The vibe is unmistakably Mediterranean—citrus groves, laurels, olive trees, the works. I learn that the Greek myth of Daphne originated from this area; it is said that the virgin Daphne prayed to Zeus to be spared the attentions of Apollo, who offered her protection by turning her into a laurel tree.

Friendly shopkeepers beckon to sample their wares as I catch a brief break from the sun. In the distance is the gleaming Mediterranean Sea, a brilliant azure in the afternoon sun, beyond which loom the Nur Mountains, known in olden days as the Amanus. I am just south of the city of Antakya, in Eastern Turkey, close to the Syrian border, trekking through the 2,000-year-old Vespasianus Titus Tunnel, built during the Roman period. In ancient times Antakya, also called Antioch, was the centre of a great Roman Empire and an early centre of Christianity.

The Titus Tunnel is on the tentative UNESCO World Heritage list since 2014. According to UNESCO, “It is one of the most magnificent remains of the Roman period because of its size, well-preserved authenticity, and architectural and engineering features.” Near the tunnel is the ancient city of Samandağ or Seleucia Pieria, which was established by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Seleucus Nicator. It was from this city that exotic oriental goods were exported to Rome. It is said that Saint Paul sailed from this port on his first missionary trip.

The city of Seleucia Pieria had one major problem—it was under constant threat of flooding from the waters of the Orontes river flowing down from the mountains which used to silt up the harbour. The Roman emperor Vespasianus decided to build a tunnel system with a dam to divert the river and save the city from the flood waters.

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The Vespasianus Titus Tunnel, located in southern Turkey, was built to protect from floods the ancient city of Samandağ, established by one of Alexander the Great’s generals. Photo by: Arco/I. Gercelman/Arco Images/Dinodia Photo Library

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Ancient mosaics are a common feature in Antakya. Photo by: DEA PICTURE LIBRARY/De AgostiniEditore/ Dinodia Photo Library

 

The construction which began in his reign in the first century AD was completed only 150 years later, in the reign of another Roman emperor, Antonius Pius. “Thousands of Roman sailors, prisoners and slaves toiled hard, day and night to complete this tunnel which was gouged out of towering blocks of limestone rocks,” explains Dervis Keklik, our local guide.

“This was an extraordinary piece of engineering in those days when even dynamite was not invented,” he adds.

From the ticket counter, we follow a trail along the almost dry bed of the irrigation canal. A rock-carved inscription at the entrance of the first tunnel section bears the names Vespasianus and Titus. As we walk, the only sounds that break the overpowering silence are that of trickling water and birdsong. We walk through narrow gorges and rock faces several storeys high, framing the impossibly blue skies. There are pebbles and flowing water under our feet; cactus and wild rose grow from small rocky outcrops.

When we, a small group of tourists, walk out of the narrow gorge, we see a modern concrete irrigation canal that uses the tunnel to bring water to fields, and tractors that cultivate lands adjacent to the trail. A lone donkey, which has strayed from its herd stands placidly, looking at us. A wishing tree with bits of paper that look like birds without wings—wishes written down by locals and tied to the tree—flutter in the breeze.

We finally arrive at an arched Roman bridge, built with just blocks of stone over a trench, angled in such a way that the stones fit into each other like a jigsaw puzzle, without any mortar or binding. We go down a rickety wooden staircase, to the gargantuan entrance of the tunnel. The path into the cave gets darker, rockier and damper. I navigate my way gingerly around huge boulders and fragments of rocks, some covered with moss, and slippery. Guided by a small flashlight, I reach the other end, where we see a sliver of sunlight through a hole in the rocks. I marvel at this great engineering feat, so many years ago, created with just crude tools when there was no technology—oh, the Romans!

About 100 metres from the tunnel is a necropolis—Greek for ‘city of the dead’—essentially a large burial ground. This one is flanked by Roman rock tombs carved with reliefs, including the Beşikli Mağarası, or cave with a crib. The structure, set around a natural courtyard, has three or four arches at the front, and is completely filled with several storeys of limestone-cut Christian tombs lain between ornate pillars, dating from the first to the fifth centuries. “Most of the graves are now empty, pillaged by grave robbers,” explains Dervis. We clamber over the graves carefully to look at beautiful motifs—ivy leaves, flying birds, and lizards—carved into the rock facade. Ahead of us, local families and children climb up the arches and pose for photographs. The past and present blend seamlessly in that moment.

Essentials

The gateway to the Titus Tunnel is the town of Samandağ, in Hatay province in southern Turkey. While Hatay has an international aiport, it is more economical to fly to Istanbul first and then take a flight to Hatayaiport.

Antakya, 27 km/1 hr southwest of Samandağ, is the closest major city. The best way to travel between the two is to hire a taxi for the entire trip. Buses also regularly ply between the city and the town. The tunnel is a 10-min drive from Samandağ’s town centre. Do carry a flashlight and wear sturdy walking shoes.

Stay at the CankayaKonaklari Hotel, set in a historical mansion in the centre of town, with rooms built around a traditional courtyard (www.cankayakonaklari.com; doubles from Rs3,200, including breakfast).

While in the region, do not forget to sample Hatay’s local dessert delight, künefe—sheets of nooodle-like pastry layered with cheese, doused in sugar syrup and sprinkled with pistachios.

 

  • Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer, blogger, and a Japanese language specialist from Chennai. In her search for a good travel story, she has snowmobiled in Lapland, walked with the lions in Zimbabwe, and flown in a microlight over the Victoria Falls.

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