Striking Beauty and Antiquities in Southeast Turkey
By Inka Piegsa-Quischotte
Praise where praise is due: I have to thank Turkish Airline’s excellent in-flight magazine for the inspiration to visit Mardin, Urfa and Hasankeyf in the extreme southeast of Turkey, close to the border with Syria.
The article and pictures reminded me that a great part of Mesopotamia, often referred to as ‘the cradle of civilization’ as well as the sources of the emblematic rivers Tigris and Euphrates are actually in Turkey.
I didn’t need any more incentive and the next thing you know, I was back in Didim on Turkey’s Aegean coast where I live part of the year, figuring out the best way to get to the biblical land.
The adventure started on the bus
Mardin, which I chose as the starting point for my SE Turkey foray, is a long way from the Western coast. You have to cover nearly 1000 miles to get there. Mardin, as well as Urfa, has an airport and you can take the easy way and fly there from Istanbul or Ankara, but where is the fun in that? I decided to use my favorite means of transport when traveling in Turkey, the comfortable and cheap long-distance coach.
The journey took nearly 24 hours, but there are half-hour breaks every four hours, assistants serve snacks and soft drinks on the bus, AC, TV and some with Wifi allow you to pass the time, if you aren’t too fascinated looking out the window and seeing the ever-varying Turkish landscape glide by.
Turkey’s east is definitely not on the must-see agenda of the average visitor to Turkey, which means your fellow travelers are locals going home to visit friends and family, carrying homemade food, kids and huge bundles with goodies purchased in the big cities.
Nonstop entertainment for the single foreigner with whom food is shared generously and conversations are conducted by sign language and the odd words in ‘Turklish’. Not once did I open my book, it was just so much fun to be a part of the happy crowd.
Mardin, the window to Mesopotamia
One look out my window and I saw what I had come to see: the vast plain of Mesopotamia, stretching out before my eyes all the way to Syria and beyond. It’s easy to imagine the thousands of years of civilization which have passed through here, from Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians to Romans, Seljuks and Ottomans, all leaving their traces.
I arrived around lunchtime and made my way to the wonderful boutique hotel Zinciriye, located in the old town, just below a towering mosque. It’s a madrassa, which means an ancient Islamic school that was attached to the mosque and has now been converted into a hotel and an excellent example of the intricate stone masonry Mardin is famous for.
The bazaar just below the hotel is medieval with tiny alleys and stone steps leading to stalls and shops. Two of the most outstanding crafts in Mardin are soap making and silversmiths. The works of art, all worked in the finest silver filigree I have seen there are incredible.
Climbing up and down countless stone steps, because Mardin is located on the slopes of a hill descending into the plain of Mesopotamia, I visited the Sabanci Mardin City museum, the Forty Martyr’s Church the most important Syriac church as Mardin is also a center of the eastern orthodox faith, as well as the Ulu mosque and a sin fin (without end) of richly decorated stone houses created by Syriac stonemasons.
A Tasty Kebab
So much exercise called for a rest and food and I sampled the particularly tasty Mardin kebab, which is made from minced lamb, mixed with crushed walnuts, dried apricot pieces and plenty of spices. For my next day’s trip to the Saffron monastery and Hasankeyf, I decided to hire a car and driver.
The hotel helped and, after an unbelievable breakfast spread, eaten in the traditional fashion, I was on my way with Yussuf, my guide, driver, interpreter and bodyguard all rolled in one.
Deyrulzafaran Monastery, the Seat of the Patriarch of Antioch
With all the mosques and monuments of the Ottoman Empire around Turkey, one tends to forget that Christianity has deep roots in the country too, particularly in the far East. One striking example is the massive saffron monastery about five miles east of Mardin and my first stop.
The monastery is located in a shallow basin surrounded by mountains and was until 1932 the seat of the Patriarch of Antioch and is today the seat of the Metropolitan of the diocese of the Syrian church of Mardin.
It was originally erected upon the ruins of a pagan temple and you can visit the remains down below. The monastery also has a huge collection of scripts and books, documenting the history of the Syriacs, the learned monks, and patriarchs.
The name derived from the saffron-colored sandstone which was used for the construction of the monastery. Many buildings form the square complex, connected by vaulted passages and comprised of chapels, several churches, altars and a room where the throne of the Patriarch is kept.
Hasankeyf, soon to disappear
About an hour later, we approached Hasankeyf, an ancient settlement spread out along the banks of the River Tigris. The most emblematic landmark is the medieval bridge, built in 1116 by the Selcuk’s, the remains of which span the river.
Before the Deluge
Thousands of manmade and still inhabited caves have been carved into the steep limestone cliffs and the towering walls of a castle, as well as several mosques and a blue-domed Haman, bear witness to the Ottomans.
But, there is more. Hasankeyf is deemed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements of the world, looking back over a history of 10,000 years and no less than 20 cultures.
Looking out over the slow-flowing biblical river Tigris and watching flocks of goats, sheep, and cattle coming to drink and to rest in the shade of the trees along the river banks, you can’t help but feel that time is standing still in this charismatic place.
More than the monuments it’s the unique aura of this special place that invites to contemplation and admiration. And all of this will disappear soon, in 2013, to be precise.
The long-planned, much disputed and postponed plan to build the massive hydroelectric Ilisu dam is finally coming to pass as Turkey has managed to get the necessary financing in place. The result will be that all of this ancient site will vanish underwater.
They say that efforts will be made to relocate some of the monuments, but how can you possibly relocate caves? So, if you wish to live a magical moment, go and visit Hasankeyf before it’s too late.
Urfa, City of the prophets
After my stay in Mardin, I took the bus again but this time only a short four-hour ride in the opposite direction, to Urfa, located east of the other emblematic arm which embraces Mesopotamia, the river Euphrates.
Like Mardin, Urfa’ s main attraction is the old town with the Halil-ul Rahman mosque, the courtyard of which features a lake with sacred fish. They are sacred because it was here that the prophet Mohammed was thrown into the fire by Nimrod, but God intervened, turning the flames into water and burning logs into fish.
Yet again, I stayed in a fantastic boutique hotel, the Cevahir Konuk Evi, at the foot of the old town. The hotel is a converted old palace with a wonderful tea garden where traditional musicians perform at night whilst dinner is served. Another place of worship in Urfa is the cave where the long-suffering prophet Job was born and which you can visit.
Harran – beehive houses and Turkey’s oldest mosque
Another car and driver took me approx. 50 miles south to Harran. The village is the site of the remains of Turkey’s oldest mosque and university and of a very interesting ‘show village’ which is today a tourist attraction but gives a brilliant insight into the way the traditional adobe house of the region, resembling a ‘beehive’ were constructed.
Surprisingly big inside and with very high conic ceilings, they are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Ladies who run the place will show off the purple and silver embroidered Kurdish kaftans and explain the ancient farm implements and other artifacts which were, until very recently, used by the local population.
This part of Turkey is, during the holiday season, visited by Turks who want to know about their own history but, luckily, there is not a trace of mass tourism.
Those foreigners who come are culture tourists who know what they are looking for, which makes it very pleasant to get around and has the much appreciate side effect of low prices and the absence of gaudy souvenirs and hassling vendors.
When to visit:
Preferably spring or fall because the summers in eastern Turkey are very hot and the winters cold and rainy.
How to get there
Turkish Airlines operate daily flights from Istanbul and Ankara to Urfa and/or Mardin. There is also a train service, but trains in Turkey can be very slow.
The biggest bus companies in Turkey are: Metro, Kamilkoc, Nilüfer, Pamukkale and there are many other local ones. Just go into one of their offices and they will do the bookings for you from anywhere in Turkey. The websites of each of the companies are poor and very confusing so I haven’t mentioned them.
I single room incl. breakfast cost EUROS 50 per night.
60 EUROS per night. (pictured here)
I hired a car and driver which in Mardin for a full day cost $120. Half a day in Urfa cost $60.
www.gezikutusu.com is a tour company in Marin which offers a great variety of trips to all the above destinations at lower prices. But, to get a tour conducted in English you need to book a few days in advance by contacting them by email.
Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic!! Even in the hotels, English is rudimentary, enough to make yourself understood but far from fluent. Make sure to carry a Turkish phrasebook with plenty of pictures with you.