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A hotel? An archaeology site? Or both?

Courtesy Emre Arolat Architect

The Turkish architect Emre Arolat's vision for the Antakya Museum Hotel. According to the design plans, the archaeological site is preserved as a museum site and the hotel is situated 30 feet above.

ANTAKYA, Turkey – When Necmi Asfuroğlu decided to build a hotel in Antakya, a small city in southern Turkey near the Syrian border, it made good business sense. The city, like the country, is in the middle of a growth spurt.  Trade has been expanding and tourism from Turkey and other countries is on the rise. 

Asfuroğlu, who built his family firm on steel and concrete production, as well as textiles, moved into construction. He secured building permits, got a franchise from Hilton Hotels, had plans drawn up, brought in his project manager, and thought he’d have a working hotel within 18 months. 

Three years later, his has to be one of the most ambitious hotel projects in the world. While digging the foundation of the building, workers found … the past. Lots of it. 

“I thought the project was gone … dead,” said Asfuroğlu, through an English translation by his son, Asaf Asfuroğlu. Instead it has turned into much more.


‘Unparalleled discovery’
Authorities quickly turned what was going to be the hotel basement into a major archaeological site. For seven and a half months, Dr. Hatice Pamir, a professor of classical archaeology at Antakya’s Mustafa Kemal University, led almost 30 scientists from around the world, aided by about 100 workers, in a massive dig funded by Asfuroğlu.

Geoff Tofield / NBC News

The father and son team of Asaf, left, and Necmi Asfuroglu look over plans of their hotel-preservation project in Antakya, Turkey.

With its long history involving the ancient Greeks, Romans, early Christians, Byzantines and Ottoman Turks – Turkey is full of layers of ancient culture. The modern city of Antakya was the ancient city of Antioch, one of the great cities of the Roman world that rivaled Alexandria during its heyday. It was also a center of early Christianity: St. Peter the Apostle, one of the founders of the Roman Catholic Church, was said to have lived and preached there for some time. 

This city, known for the Cave Church of St. Peter (widely believe to be the first Christian church anywhere) and for fabulous Roman-era tile mosaics unearthed during excavations in the 1930s, now has another gem. 

Experts believe they uncovered one of the largest intact tile mosaic floors in the world, measuring just over 9,000 square feet. In the course of the excavations, they also uncovered the remains of buildings and dwellings that go back perhaps 2,300 years.

There are a number of mosaics on the ancient floor. The largest probably belonged to a 6th century public building, possibly a house of government, according to Pamir. The floor is a series of nine side-by-side panels, each panel decorated by a wide variety of geometric patterns in different colors.

Right now the mosaic is covered over and not available for viewing by the public. Neither Pamir nor the Asforoglus have rights to release photos of the finds … so the anticipation builds.  

Timothy Harrison, professor of Near East archaeology at the University of Toronto, has seen the site and was awed.

“This excavation, in my book, is unparalleled. It is one of the premier discoveries made on the planet in … I don’t know how long.” He added, “It’s a thorough excavation on a scale we very rarely see.” 

Asfuroğlu, the developer, is a little more expansive: “It was a summary of human history,” he said.

Geoff Tofield / NBC News

The huge mosaic discovered during the archaeological dig in Antakya, Turkey is covered in stones to preserve it until the hotel's construction is completed.

How to preserve history – with a modern twist?
Summary of history or not, Asfuroğlu now had a vexing choice.  He could have walked away, but says “that would have been a disaster.” 

Preservation is expensive and under-funded, but moving the beautiful floors and other remarkable finds is unthinkable.  His hotel project could continue, the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism said, but with challenging conditions: no concrete could touch any area of significance beneath the hotel, and the plan would have to incorporate a museum. 

Asfuroğlu consulted a number of designers, some of whom declared his challenge a pipe dream. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism and the Architectural Commission were not optimistic. Then Asfuroğlu consulted Turkish architect Emre Arolat, who was moved by the historical significance of the project. 

Arolat’s plan seized upon an ancient riverbed running through the excavated property, a narrow strip which would allow for the placement of support columns. The architect’s design concept features a building which will sit about 30 feet above the site, with views of the site from common areas, even from the hotel’s rooms. There will also be museum-like access.

Asfuroğlu and his son Asaf recount that the proposal literally brought applause from the Architectural Commission and Ministry board members.

With the preservation and design issues solved, actual construction is finally under way.  

Courtesy Emre Arolat Architect / Courtesy Emre Arolat Architect

The Turkish architect Emre Arolat's design plan for the Antakya Museum Hotel. According to the design plans, the archaeological site is preserved as a museum site and the hotel is situated 30 feet above.

Combination of commerce and preservation
The support columns are being put in place after the holes, called valves, were completed (the irony is not lost on the Asfuroğlus that some of the 66 valves, about 80 feet deep and 5 feet wide, were created just as they would have been 2,000 years ago). 

The mosaics, the Roman buildings and everything else have been carefully re-covered until construction is complete. Costs have soared from an estimated $30 million to approximately $100 million. 

It is, say father and son, a labor of love and a progressive combination of commerce and preservation. 

Pamir, who led the field excavation, agrees: “This represents a positive example of the coordination between cultural heritage management and modern urban development.”

Harrison, the professor who has worked extensively in the area, applauds the pragmatism of the museum/hotel project.

“It’s a fair compromise; and a good job so far,” he said.  “In a difficult situation, a good decision was made.”

“It will be a world-known project, and we are proud of it,” said Asaf Asfuroğlu.

His father added, “It is a symbol of Antakya. I could have done three hotels for the cost of this one. But this is fun, a challenge, a pleasure.”

You can’t book your night at the museum just yet, but stay tuned. The Antakya Hilton Museum & Hotel should open in the spring of 2014.

Geoff Tofield is the Deputy Director of NBC News international news coverage. 

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