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South-eastern Anatolia: the Wild South East

MSNBC Correspondent Nicole Pope claims that “too few people are aware of Turkey’s South East, a region that offers both historical sites and landscapes of spectacular beauty”. This is the land of the ancient Mesopotamia, the world’s first real civilisation (that is if you don’t believe in Atlantis), founded some twelve thousand years ago. Embedded between mountain ranges and the rivers Euphrates and Tigris, this region has been the source of legends for generations. Enjoy the mystery.

South East Anatolia is part of the Kurdish territory, and has been barred to visitors for decades due to severe security threats. Security has however significantly improved since late 1999, and this part of “Kurdistan” is now open to visitors again. Yet South East Anatolia is still a prime insider tip. It has rarely been discovered by Turks themselves, let alone Western tourists. You may only have a few years to discover this region before the whole land is flooded by the gigantic GAP irrigation project.

Diyarbakir

Diyarbakir is the capital of the easternmost region within south-eastern Anatolia, with borders to Syria and Iraq, and is typically the starting point of any tour of the South East.

The main sight is the three-mile long Byzantine city wall, made of black basalt stone and perfectly preserved. The wall features sixteen stone towers and four gates (Kapi), named by the cities they are facing: Dag Kapi, Urfa Kapi, Mardin Kapi and Yeni Kapi. Diyarbakir’s city walls are said to be the best preserved ancient wall world-wide after the Great Wall of China.

Downtown, the old city centre is very picturesque with its original architecture and mosques. Hasan Pasha Ham, an old caravanserai, now serves as a bazaar and is an excellent place to purchase original textiles and carpets. On the whole, the old town of Diyarbakir is simply a nice place to stroll, shop and relax in coffee houses.

Diyarbakir’s absolute highlight is one of the world’s most historical hotels, the Kervansaray. This old caravanserai was built five hundred years ago around a garden court and fountain, and was once frequented by the caravans travelling the old Silk Road. Today, the hotel has been fully renovated and includes a large pool and bar complex in the back, but still perfectly recreates the historical atmosphere. Here I had what was probably my most exciting hotel stay ever.

Malabadi Bridge, Batman

The city of Batman is a hundred miles’ drive east of Diyarbakir. The road from Diyarbakir to Batman leads through endless plains and cotton fields. Like everywhere in South East Anatolia where you see plantations, these are only a few years old. There used to be nothing but dry mud before the GAP irrigation project was launched. After one hour of driving, the landscape gets rougher, and finally gets desert-like.

There isn’t much to see in Batman itself, but a little outside, the Malabadi bridge offers some very interesting views. The Malabadi bridge is a large ancient stone bridge which crosses the Batman river, from which the city takes its name. At this point, antiquity meets modern technology, for right behind the bridge spans a large dam, part of the GAP project.

Hasankeyf

Hasankeyf lies another fifty miles south-east of Batman. The road to Hasankeyf follows the Batman River which twenty miles below the city joins the Tigris. The landscape gets ever more spectacular: salt lakes, stone deserts, deep canyons, caves, and mountain slopes in white, yellow and ochre colours.

Finally, Hasankeyf. Scientists are unsure how old this town really is, but it may well date back to the ancient Mesopotamian empire. The caves and structures which can still be seen today are between 4,000 and 5,000 years old – so these could be the oldest buildings you get to see in your lifetime.

The scene: beside the Tigris, the mountains rise a sheer 90 degrees from the water, around 80 metres high. The top of the mountain is covered with the ruins of an ancient palace. The core of Hasankeyf lies in a narrow side canyon, and the surrounding mountains are filled with cave dwellings. Where the side canyon meets the river, the remains of an ancient stone bridge cross the Tigris and the minaret (tower) of an old mosque overlooks the scene. Part of the fascination of Hasankeyf comes from its extensive caves, which have been inhabited for over 4,000 years (and still are!). Here the cave people still live without electricity or water, and are living witnesses of history.

There aren’t any official guides available in Hasankeyf, so you have to follow the kids who will show you around. Since there aren’t many schools around here, the kids make their living as guides instead of learning to read and write. The illiteracy rate in this part of Turkey is around 30%.

Below the palace at the mountain top, a cave has been fitted to host a small restaurant where you should try the shish from the grill outside. For some rest and a Turkish coffee, go down to the river, where small improvised bars are fitted outside on the river shore.

You may be among the first as well as the last Western visitors to Hasankeyf, as the city is marked for destruction. The huge Ilisu Dam currently being built further down on the Tigris, will flood Hasankeyf in a few years, submerging thousands of years of history. This truly is a barbarian act, only to be compared to the flooding of the Yangtse river in China and the destruction of ancient Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime. Maybe the Egyptians can teach them a lesson on how to build a dam while at the same time preserving ancient monuments (Aswan).

Mardin

Around 90 miles south of Diyarbakir, best suited for a day trip, the city of Mardin overlooks the whole region from the top of a mountain. The drive to Mardin is very picturesque, through fields, slight mountain slopes and spots of pine forests, one of the milder landscapes of Anatolia. Mardin is a wonderful site to discover old Islamic architecture and stonework. Take your time to promenade through the narrow old streets and squares with beautiful houses.

The main attractions in Mardin are Turkey’s oldest Koran schools, the Kasim Pasa Medresse and the Sultan Isa Medresse, both with wonderful stonework dating back to the 14th Century. From the roof of the latter you can enjoy a breathtaking view: to the north the city of Mardin with its arched windows and gates, to the south the endless plains of Syria. Mardin is only 10 miles away from the Syrian border, and on a clear day you can see the Syrian town of Al Qamishli.

Five miles east of Mardin lies Deyrulzaferan Monastery. Syrian Orthodox, it represents one of the smallest Christian communions on earth, which still holds worship services in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. There are some very old scriptures and relics to be found in this monastery. Instead of taking an official tour, speak to the abbot, Father Jacob. He is a very nice man who speaks perfect English and German and will be most pleased to explain to you in detail Syrian Orthodoxy and the history of the monastery.

If you have the time, he will lead you through a theological discourse of the various branches of Orthodoxy and the history of Christianity. I had a fascinating and uplifting discussion with him. However, pay him the respect he deserves and don’t raise too many controversial issues, as he and his community are extremely conservative.

Sanliurfa

Sanliurfa (or simply Urfa) lies 150 miles west of Diyarbakir, around a three-hour drive. Urfa is a green spot in Southeast Anatolia, with its many pistachio trees and spice plantations. It is also called the “City of the Prophets” because several biblical and Islamic prophets are said to have lived here.

The main sight is the Pool of Abraham, a system of pools and channels with thousands of carp. The carp are not to be touched or caught as they are sacred. There is a legend behind this: when Urfa was attacked by the Mongols, the inhabitants prayed to Allah and the attackers were turned to carp in an instant.

Next to the pool lies the beautiful Al Rahman mosque, and the old bazaar. The bazaar of Urfa is one of the most beautiful in all of Turkey and a perfect place for carpets, textiles and handmade jewellery, but also for food. Urfa is famous for its many sorts of red and black pepper, which I really recommend you try. Some are so mild that you can eat them without anything else, but there are also the extremely hot varieties. You should also buy fresh pistachios here, they taste a lot better and different from the roasted or salted kinds we can buy in Europe.

Urfa is also the city of pigeons, which are decorated with coloured rings. Hopping and flying around the town in masses, they are pampered and fed by the inhabitants.

On a wooded hill overlooking the town lies a small castle which offers a spectacular view, especially at sunrise or sunset. And after sunset, I would recommend the Edessa Hotel for your overnight stay; in traditional style, it blends in nicely with the old city.

Harran

Thirty miles south of Urfa, the ancient site of Harran is a town of houses – completely made of mud – looking like an apiary. They are evidence of the 4,000-year-old Hittite culture. Legend has it that the prophet Abraham spent many years of his life here. The mud houses are still inhabited and the people will be glad to show you around. A little outside are the ruins of the ancient Harran Islamic University, a huge stone structure looking pretty much like a castle. The culture in Harran here is more Arab than Turkish, so if you require guidance, the only foreign language spoken is French.

Atatürk Dam

The huge Atatürk Dam is the centrepiece of the GAP irrigation project, 30 miles northwest of Urfa. The road to the dam is a dead end, so you will have to go back to Urfa for your onward travel.

The dam has flooded the Euphrates, and brought fertility to the whole region, but it has also started a political struggle with Syria over who gets how much water. The dam is a spectacular site to visit, but one should bear in mind the ecological effects. It is a two-sided coin: on the one hand it provides water to the poorest part of Turkey and thus creates new prospects for economic development, but the dam projects also flood ancient historical sites and destroy the original landscape.

There is an information centre which shows all the dams and irrigation projects currently planned in Turkey. Eventually, they want to flood 32% (thirty-two percent) of the whole surface of Turkey!

Gaziantep

Gaziantep (or simply Antep), is a 120-mile drive west from Urfa. Halfway along, the road crosses the Euphrates. There is a small resort area on the riverside which is very inviting for a short break.

Like Urfa, Antep is a very green town, with nut, pistachio and olive trees. With fewer sights to visit than the previous destinations, Antep is a pleasant town to get some nice views and relax at the end of a journey through Southeast Anatolia.

The town is overlooked by Kale Castle, which was built in Byzantine times, and restored by the Seljuks in the 13th Century. To learn about the Hittite and Commagene empires and their remains in Antep, visit the Archaeological Museum and/or the Hasan Suser Ethnographical Museum. End the tour with a stroll through the picturesque labyrinth of small streets.

Antep is also the home of Turkey’s most famous sweet dessert – baklava – which is a must-try, much better than the version you get in Istanbul.

Onward travel

If you want to stay in the region, there are three main options to continue your travel from Antep. I haven’t included them in my tour plan because they aren’t part of Southeast Anatolia any more:

  • North towards Nemrud Dag (centre of the ancient Commagene Kingdom), the Taurus Mountains, and Central Anatolia, the cities of Kayseri, Nevsehir and Konya, and finally Ankara
  • West towards the holiday resorts around Antakya, the biblical Antioch, and the city of Adana. Return flight from Adana
  • South, across the Syrian border to the city of Aleppo and through Syria, return flight from Aleppo or Damascus

A note on safety

Although terrorist activities by Kurdish radicals have almost completely stopped since the arrest of Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan in 1999, there still remains a small safety risk in Southeast Anatolia. Journeys should only be undertaken in the company of Turkish guides, friends or colleagues. Because there are frequent road checks by Turkish military and police, always have your passport with you.

Getting there and around

Turkish Airlines operate two daily flights each from Istanbul and Ankara to Diyarbakir and Gaziantep respectively. If you want to cut the tour in the middle, there is also one daily flight from Istanbul to Sanliurfa. Return fares are around £120 from Istanbul and £100 from Ankara. For further information consult the Turkish Airlines official website.

Travel in South East Anatolia is only possible by car and bus. Turkey’s largest car rental firm, Decar, has branches in Diyarbakir, Sanliurfa, and Gaziantep. There aren’t any motorways in the South East, so travel is quite slow. Calculate one hour for every 50 miles. Traffic in the South East is very light, not to be compared with the jams and mad drivers in and around Istanbul, so driving can be recommended to Westerners.

Travel literature

South-eastern Anatolia is hardly covered by any of the common travel guidebooks. I have recently bought an old second-hand APA Guide (now Insight Guides) which has eight pages on this region, including some very good photographs. If the new edition still includes this section, this would be the only guide to Turkey with coverage of the far South East, at least to my knowledge.

I was rather disappointed by Tim Kelsey’s Dervish – The Invention of Modern Turkey (1995), an account of his journeys through “Kurdistan”. Too political and thus terribly outdated, and lacking both inspiration and insight. But because it’s the only English book about the Turkish South East, you may want to pick up a cheap second-hand copy if you come across it on your journey. It’s currently out of print and not listed by any of the internet bookstores. Kelsey is also co-author of the Nelles Guide to Turkey.

A much more thrilling read are the novels by Anatolian author Yasar Kemal. His Anatolia Trilogy and Memed Trilogy will give you a vivid picture of myth, adventure and nature in this part of the world.

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