Alexandretta (in Turkish, Iskenderun) is located in Turkey's Hatay province on the southeast shore of the Gulf of Iskenderun, just north of Syria. The ancient port city, noted for its fine harbor, was founded by Alexander the Great c. 333 b.c.e. It remained relatively small and unimportant in late Roman times, referred to as "Little Alexandria" (hence Alexandretta) in contrast to the much larger Alexandria in Egypt. It was captured by the Ottomans in 1515 under Selim I. Under Ottoman rule it became an important Mediterranean port and trade center. It developed into an outlet for trade during the 1590s due to its position as an overland trade route to the Persian Gulf. Because of rampant malaria, however, only its commercial functions kept it alive. Yet with the draining of its marshes, health improved—and thus so did commerce and production. With the agricultural boom that began around 1890, Alexandretta gained importance as an outlet for farm produce, but it was eventually eclipsed by Tripoli and Beirut, since the railroad came to it only in 1913.
During World War I, the Sanjak of Alexandretta was assigned to France under the Sykes-Picot Agreement. It became part of the French League of Nations mandate in Syria. Its population was an ethnic mix. In 1936, French authorities estimated that 39 percent were Turks, 28 percent Alawi Arab, 11 percent Armenian, 10 percent Sunni Arab, and 8 percent various other Christians. In December 1937 Turkey denounced its 1926 treaty of friendship with Syria, and France sent a military mission to Ankara threatening war. By July, France and Turkey came to an agreement to supervise elections in Alexandretta with 2,500 troops each. Fearing Italian expansionism, France had taken the Turkish side, arranging that twenty-two of the forty members of the new assembly would be Turkish. Alexandretta was ceded to Turkey in 1939.
Since annexation, Alexandretta has become strategically and commercially important to Turkey. During the Cold War, North Atlantic Treaty Organization planners assumed that the Turkish defense against a Soviet thrust into eastern Turkey could be supplied only through Alexandretta and Mersin. Consequently, a network of paved roads was built from the Gulf of Iskenderun into the eastern interior. Hostility between Iraq and Syria during the 1960s and 1970s threatened to close pipelines that brought Iraqi petroleum to Syrian ports. Iraq then arranged with Turkey to build pipelines from Iraq to the Gulf of Iskenderun, at Yumurtalik and near Dortyol, just north of Alexandretta. The first oil arrived in 1977. Alexandretta's tidewater location at the point in Turkey nearest its major Middle Eastern markets led to the construction of a large steel plant. These investments have made Alexandretta one of Turkey's fastest growing cities. As of 2003, the population was 171,700.
see also turkey.
Khoury, Philip S. Syria and the French Mandate: The Politics of Arab Nationalism, 1920–1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.
John R. Clark
Updated by Noah Butler