turkey 2011

Typical breakfast at Hasan Pasa Hani, Diyarbakir

Ah, breakfast in Diyarbakir, overlooking a restored 16th-century caravanserai—once a stopping place on the Silk Road. Let’s see, we have lamb omelette, cucumber, tomato, olives, eggplant, orange, watermelon, yoghurt, strawberry syrup, fresh baked bread, honey and more. And tea, of course. How can one live without tea? Now we’re ready to explore this ancient Tigris River city in southeastern Turkey, with its intact 1,700-year-old basalt walls, its equally old Syrian Orthodox church, its black-and-white mosques and Sufi tombs and pedestal minarets, its labyrinth of pedestrian passageways. Diyarbakir should be a World Heritage Site. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Street scene, Diyarbakir Diyarbakir City Wall - AD 300-500 - 2nd in length only to Great Wall of China

We spent October in Turkey, travelling by bus and train, and greatly enjoying Istanbul, Cappadocia and Ephesus, all major tourism sites. We also explored southeast Anatolia, a more traditional part of the country, where few visitors go and where you can still catch glimpses of ancient Asia. The region fascinated us, and I’ve featured it on this webpage rather than covering the better-known places. (This was just before the Syrian crisis.)

Street scene, Diyarbakir Otel Buyuk Kervansaray restaurant, Diyarbakir

If you tell people you’re going to Diyarbakir, the cultural heart of the Middle East’s 30 million stateless Kurds, they often look aghast. “Isn’t it dangerous?” they say. Perhaps it was 25 years ago, when rebellious members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party warred openly with the Turkish army. But today, though bloody incidents still take place along the distant Iraqi border, Diyarbakir is as safe as anywhere else in Turkey. We wandered at will, and many people talked to us and tried to explain the Kurdish predicament.

Our guides to a museum in this alley, Diyarbakir Open air Sufi sarcophagus outside City Wall, Diyarbakir

Seyh Mutahhar Camii (1512) with detached minaret standig on 4 'legs', Diyarbakir Street scene, Diyarbakir Protestant Kilisesi entrance, Diyarbakir

Diyarbakir and the other cities of southeast Turkey have not seen the same investment in infrastructure—in rapid transit, for instance, or sewage and water systems, or public housing—as the rest of the country. There are plenty of army bases, however. While Iraq’s 5 million Kurds have attained a degree of self-government (after being subjected to chemical warfare by the Hussein regime), the 15 million Kurds in Turkey are still seeking some autonomy. Many want a separate homeland, a concept that is not appreciated in the rest of the country.

Mardin Mardin Museum

Now we’re in Mardin, a much smaller city southwest of Diyarbakir and only a few kilometres from the Syrian border. Beneath its crumbling citadel, Mardin hugs the slopes of a hill and looks south over the flat, seemingly endless Mesopotamian plain. One navigates the old town via a maze of winding alleys, underpasses, arches, steps and gateways. One vehicular street serves the entire district; donkey taxis carry the heavy goods (and suitcases).

Deyrul Zafaran Monastery

Above is Deyrul Zafaran, just east of Mardin, a gorgeous monastery and seat of the Syrian Orthodox patriarchate for 700 years, until 1933, when officials moved their HQ to Syria. Syrian, Armenian and Chaldean Christians once flourished in this region, co-existing peacefully for centuries with Muslims and Jews. Today, only a handful remain.

View fom Kasri Abas Butik Otel, Mardin View fom Kasri Abas Butik Otel, Mardin

When we first arrived in Mardin the weather was cloudy; a dust storm had reduced visibility to a few metres. That night, a rare, violent cloudburst cleared the air, and in the morning we could see deep into Syria. Mardin sits right on the northern edge of the “cradle of civilization,” where agriculture was first practised and some of mankind’s first permanent settlements were located. (Little did we know that this region would soon be flooded with refugees.)

Kasri Abas Butik Otel, Mardin Kasri Abas Butik Otel, Mardin

Bazaar Mardin - clothing and home goods section Mardin transportation

Our six-room hotel, the Kasr-i Abbas, is a new venture, created from a cluster of thousand-year-old homes. The rooms have no air-conditioning, as the metre-thick sandstone walls keep interior temperatures constant: warm in winter, cool in summer. We sit on the terrace to eat breakfast or enjoy Turkish coffee with an evening breeze. The place is heaven.

Pond with supposedly sacred carp

Our final stop in the Kurdish region is Sanliurfa, or Urfa, a major pilgrimage centre west of Mardin. This is where the prophet Abrahim (Ibrahim) was supposedly born and where Job lived. The holiest sites are in the Golbasi area; mosques, pools (filled with sacred carp), beautiful parks and walkways. Pilgrims flock here from the far reaches of Islam; we encounter a group from Iran, for instance, the women all dressed in long black chadors.

Mevlid-i Hamil Cami, Urfa Urfa street scene

PA160552 PA160576

Traditional clothing is quite common in the east. Most women wear head scarves, though fewer than one per cent cover their faces. The man above right is wearing the baggy pants known as shalvar. The couple at left found the region rich in culture, layered in history and endlessly rewarding to visit. Thank you, Turkey, for a safe and exotic journey.