Imagine setting out to build a straightforward five-star hotel, then realising that beneath your plot of land in Turkey’s southern-most province of Hatay are the remains of a Roman city dating back as far as 2,300 years. That’s what happened when the Asfuroğlu family were in the early stages of a new property that was simply meant to offer travellers somewhere plush to stay within easy reach of Antakya’s top tourist sites: the cave church of St Peter, the Hatay Archaeology Museum and the old town, all within walking distance. That was in 2009, and what followed was not only the construction of the innovative Museum Hotel Antakya, but the most important archaeological excavation in the area since 1930. Some 30,000 artefacts were excavated, such as glassware, coins and jewellery, around 400 of which will be on display in the hotel’s interconnected Necmi Asfuroğlu Archaeological Museum, named for the family patriarch and slated to open this month (it will have an entrance separate from the hotel but will be complimentary for those staying).
Once you familiarise yourself with Antakya – which you may know better as biblical Antioch and the Roman Empire’s third-largest city – it’s hardly surprising that there were archaeological treasures hidden beneath the planned hotel site. Around Hatay you’re confronted with something old and interesting at every turn, thanks to its rich religious history and position on the Fertile Crescent; the Hatay Archaeology Museum displays the region’s ancient mosaics, the largest collection of the decorative art anywhere in the world.
You’ll find a couple of the area’s most impressive mosaics within The Museum Hotel itself, part of a 17,000sqm archaeological site. Making up the ornate floor of a Roman agora, a 4th-century CE mosaic spans 1,050sqm, making it the largest ever found. And several years into the excavation, the team were surprised to find another mosaic, delaying the hotel’s completion an additional year and a half as they uncovered it and had to rethink how to work the hotel around it. This mosaic is the one I laid my eyes on first as I entered the hotel, on display beneath a glass floor in the lobby – mythical Pegasus being prepared by nymphs for Bellerophon’s wedding, in remarkably complete and fine condition even though it dates back to the 2nd century. From a historical point of view, it stands out as it includes the artist’s signature, a highly unusual feature.
Then there are the 5th-century Roman baths (look for the pipes that once allowed hot water to flow beneath and warm marble hammam floors), and yet another mosaic from a Roman villa of the same century that features Megalopsychia (magnanimity) surrounded by striking renditions of birds including peacocks, herons, hawks and pheasants – coincidentally, the hotel’s founding-family name, Asfuroğlu, also means “bird”. Elements of this mosaic are woven throughout the hotel’s design, which is as modern as the site is old. In the lobby, light falls through bird cut-outs in the ceiling, while charming bird statuettes decorate spaces all around; in guest rooms, a reproduction of the Megalopsychia mosaic adorns the wall above the bed.
Designed to sit above the ancient site without disrupting it, the hotel is perched on 66 steel columns, each carefully placed around the dig. Atop these lie a warren of open-air walkways and struts holding up the lobby, five F&B venues, a ballroom and meeting rooms, a spa and fitness centre, and 200 guest rooms and suites. Rooms are suspended above the site like chic container boxes, 38 with views overlooking the excavation from their balconies while others look out to the surrounding city and snow-dusted mountains. Inside, the cosy spaces feature geometric style and cool, earthy tones, with parquet floors, a spacious sitting area in even the entry-level rooms, and a marble bathroom with mosaic-like stained glass. Wooden ceilings and wardrobe doors are reminiscent of the style of the area’s traditional homes. Larger suites include dining areas and kitchen niches, while VIP families and their entourages seeking privacy can exclusively book the Nas Konut penthouse, a private corner of the property with up to four bedrooms that include a 750sqm suite – bigger even than the Presidential Suite.
There’s plenty beyond the history here. Head to Balans Spa, where a decadent Turkish hammam experience will leave your skin feeling as soft as the day you were born following a session of scrubbing, being encased in a silky lather and rubbed with locally made defne (laurel tree) oil. Or book into one of six treatment rooms, one reserved especially for facials and another for Thai massages. The gym offers state-of-the-art fitness with rooms for yoga and spinning classes, while two pools – one indoor and one out (the latter to open soon) – tempt for a soothing dip following a day of exploration.
Hatay is also a UNESCO City of Gastronomy and The Museum Hotel doesn’t skimp on its offerings. Overlooking the excavation on the lobby level, Birdy is a laid-back sports bar and café (try the plump manti – Turkish dumplings – soaking in a savoury yogurt sauce), while Ayan Meyan buzzes with crowds in the evening for gourmet takes on local dishes – pace yourself as you dip fluffy fresh Turkish pide into never-ending rounds of mezze, saving room for well-seasoned, succulent kebabs and ending sweetly with Antakya’s famed künefe. Be prepared for another tableful of mezze for breakfast at rooftop Sefahat, complete with gorgeous views to St Peter’s. Still to come are poolside Seyri Alem for lighter bites and shisha, and trendy Sixty Six (named for the number of columns in the hotel) with a bar and al fresco terrace.
This is just the start of your experience. I spent two non-stop, jam-packed days exploring Hatay and feel like I but scratched the surface. With an experienced guide like Selda Kuruoğlu (0090-532-344 4220) helping out, we wound through Antakya’s old-town streets lined with charming cafés and bountiful citrus trees, stopped in mosques and churches, nibbled on local fare in the bazaar and visited the beautiful old home of Antik Cam Evi, where glassblower Sadi Asfuroğlu keeps a museum of antique glass and creates original, historically inspired new pieces that make excellent souvenirs. Shortly outside of town heading into Hatay’s mountains, see the last Armenian village in Turkey, largely agricultural though with a complex history, and the pretty Harbiye waterfalls that were once an escape for the affluent in the Roman era; the cascading waters are said to be the tears of Daphne, who was turned into a laurel tree here to escape besotted Apollo. Then move to the shores of the Mediterranean where the country’s longest beach, Patara, is a big summer draw.
The Museum Hotel will draw you in for its historic riches, but you’ll find yourself staying for so much more.
This story was originally published in the February 2020 edition of Condé Nast Traveller Middle East, as seen below