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1001 Nights on the Ancient Silk Road

Hotel Kervansaray, Diyarbakir

Ever-new theme hotels in Las Vegas lead you to believe that you no longer need to embark on a long-haul flight to explore the Occident and Orient. It can all be found within a square mile on the strip of Las Vegas, room service and gambling included. But America’s theme hotels are but a poor copy of the real cultural, historical and architectural monuments which need half a lifetime to explore and the other half to comprehend. And I have yet to find in Las Vegas the old man in the coffee-house, his facial contours drawn by the hardships of rural life, who will tell me legends about places and people, heroes and villains. Stories carried over from generation to generation throughout the centuries, not those myths created in a month’s multimillion dollar marketing campaign.

The Real Thing

Throughout my travels I have always sought authentic and original experiences. And I pride myself on having found what could be one of the most historic hotels in the whole wide world: a five hundred-year-old caravanserai, the Hotel Kervansaray in the city of Diyarbakir, Turkey.

Once frequented by caravans transporting precious silk from China to mediæval Europe, it is now a scenic hotel for initiated adventure seekers and a few business travellers alike.

A Reminiscence of the Silk Road

Diyarbakir is situated in the most southeastern spot of Anatolia, Turkey, only a stone’s throw away from the Syrian border and a few miles from Iraq. Throughout the centuries, Diyarbakir was an important station on the Silk Road, the land route which connected the markets of the Far East and Central Asia with the metropolitan centres of Western Europe. Silk, jewels, carpets and spices have travelled on the Silk Road, and so have stories and legends. And long before that, around 4000 BC, this region was at the centre of the ancient Mesopotamia, the mysterious civilisation between the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, home to the legends of 1001 Nights.

Try to imagine this load of history packed into one hotel room, and you might just gain a glimpse of what I was lucky to see at the Hotel Kervansaray.

Nowadays, thanks to the collapse of the Soviet empire which bordered with Turkey in the east, Diyarbakir is once more a commercial centre for East-West trade. Which was the reason for my visit. I travelled the region in October 2000 as part of an incentive tour for our Turkish business partners. Since the end of terrorist atrocities in this predominantly Kurdish region in 1999, travel to Southeastern Anatolia is now mostly safe. But the region is yet to be discovered by most Turks, let alone by foreign tourists.

A Hotel-Oasis in the Anatolian Desert

The Hotel Kervansaray is beautifully built around a garden court. Palm trees rise high into the sky, and a fountain spends fresh water at the centre of the court. Around this oasis, the hotel is built like a fortress in square shape. Arched galleries surround the court on two levels, from which heavy wooden doors lead into the rooms. And the thick stone walls not only used to pose an insurmountable barrier to the attacks of bandits and rebels, but have also withstood the tooth of time.

The hotel’s restaurant and bar are hidden deep in the fundaments of these mediæval walls. The huge stone columns which support the arched ceiling somewhat resemble a prehistoric cave dwelling. But the heavy structure is eased by the frivolous ongoings in the cellar bar, which is a popular meeting place for locals and hotel guests alike. The typical Turkish brew, Efes lager, flows in gallons and is accompanied by servings of raki, the local spirit.

The oasis and garden court theme reappears in the pool and bar complex at the rear end of the Hotel Kervansaray. This area was added to the hotel a few years ago and is open only in the summer season. The pool lies surrounded by palm trees and a bar pavilion. It is a fine place to lean back in your sun chair and glance at the endless Anatolian desert over an ice-cold Pina Colada. You have reached your oasis, and onward travel will be met with mixed feelings of reluctance and melancholy.

1001 Nights in my Hotel Room

My company had been kind enough to book me into a suite. But the two rooms would hardly qualify as such in any other four or five star hotel. Blank, white painted stone walls and scanty furniture, only consisting of a sofa, table and fridge in the lounge room, and a king-size bed, desk and wardrobe in the bedroom – these surroundings create a reminiscence of the simplicities endured by caravan travellers centuries ago.

The bathroom and shower were clean and spacious, but required two calls to the reception front desk for the hot water to run. No minibar could be found in the room, and the television didn’t have either cable, satellite or Pay-TV. Thus I had to resort to one of the handful of local channels until I fell asleep.

I woke up in the middle of the night from the gentle kisses of two oriental beauties. I noticed the mild scent of spices and exotic oils which the girls had filled into small golden cups on my bedside. The floor was covered with yellow roses, and an oil lamp had been lit on the corner table. What had resembled a bare prison cell a few hours ago, had been turned into a royal suite of an oriental harem.

Sephika, the girl to my left, gently removed the bed sheet and covered my legs with Kashmir fleeces and silk towels, the rare kind of Atlas Silk only to be found in Usbekistan’s Ferghana Valley. Rana, her equally beautiful and skilled sister, lifted my head over a silver bowl and washed my hair with holy water from Abraham’s Pool in Sanliurfa, the city of prophets.

We were abruptly disrupted by a hammering noise from the door. Before I had even fully recollected my senses, I heard the door lock breaking, and within seconds the room was filled with a bunch of men with dark faces, bronzed by the same unforgiving sun which burns all life in Turkey’s Cukurova plains. They exuded the smell of a herd of Anatolian cattle, and their ripped clothes and marked bodies were witnesses of many battles fought.

Out of their middle, a tall man approached my bed. Unlike his comrades, he was dressed in splendid silk, and his fingers were decorated with gold rings and jewels from the finest goldsmiths in Adana. In his belt rested a sword with enamel inlays and silver engravings. “My name is Ali Baba. I have come to take possession of your wives and your belongings,” the stranger said.

In a moment of anger and wounded pride, I stood in my bed and raised my fist against the intruder. But before my punch could reach him, his sword had hit me right through the heart. In the few seconds I had left to live, I didn’t feel pain, only the warmth of my own blood running down my chest.

I didn’t die. I woke up before that, awakened from what was only a dream. A dream inspired equally by the legends of 1001 Nights, the novels of the early Yasar Kemal, and the unique scenery of this hotel. The TV was still on, and showed an Anatolian folk dance festival. I switched it off and slept peacefully through the rest of the night, assured that the caravanserai’s thick walls would protect me from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Try to beat that, Vegas.

Hotel Kervansaray ****
Ziya Gokalp Bulvari
Tel: +90 (412) 228 8130

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