Explore The Euphrates and Tigris basin
The basin of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, a broad plain ringed on three sides by the mountains is the most exotic part of Turkey, offering travellers a heady mix of atmospheric ancient sites and bustling Middle East-style towns. The region forms the northern rim of ancient Mesopotamia (literally “between two rivers”) and has been fought over for thousands of years. Having formed the boundaries of the Roman and Byzantine empires, the Euphrates and Tigris were crossed by Muslim invaders from the south and east after the birth of Islam in 632 AD. Thereafter, almost everybody of any import in Middle Eastern affairs seems to have passed through the region: Arabs, Crusaders, Armenians, Selçuks, Turcomans, Mongols and finally the French, who invaded southeastern Turkey as part of a wider attempt by the victorious World War I Allies to break up the defeated Ottoman Empire.
Traditionally, smallholding farmers and herdsmen scratched a living from this unrewarding land. Today, the new dams of the Southeastern Anatolia Project have dramatically improved fertility in the west of the area, but population drift to the big cities continues. Ethnic Turks are in the minority here. Close to the Syrian border, Arab influence is strong, but Kurds predominate the further east or north you go. The potential volatility of this racial mix has been exacerbated by the separatist sympathies of some Kurds, and there is often a security presence in the area – particularly around Diyarbakır and the frontier zone south and east of Mardin.
First stop coming from the west is Gaziantep, a city booming on its new-found industrial wealth. East of here, the road shoots across the plain to cross the River Euphrates at bleached Birecik before cutting through rocky uplands to the venerable town of Şanlıurfa – more commonly known as Urfa – well worth a couple of days’ sightseeing and a good base for exploring Harran, an evocative village of beehive-shaped houses, and Neolithic Göbekli Tepe.
North of Gaziantep, the spectacular mountain-top funerary sanctuary of Nemrut Dağı fully justifies a pilgrimage, though neither of the two bases for reaching it from the south – small, scruffy Kahta, and larger, tidier Adıyaman – are particularly enticing towns. Malataya, to the north, makes for a more attractive gateway to Nemrut, and boasts the nearby attractions of Eski Malatya and Aslantepe.
From either Şanlıurfa or Malatya, it’s a journey of half a day or less to Diyarbakır, a rapidly expanding, predominantly Kurdish city on the banks of the River Tigris. Famed for its 6km black basalt city walls, Diyarbakır is also peppered with some fine mosques and churches. To the south lies Mardin, with its atmospheric collection of vernacular houses set on a crag overlooking the Syrian plain. East of here, the Tür Abdin plateau, scattered with monasteries and churches, is home to the remnants of Turkey’s Syrian Orthodox Christian population. At its heart lies Midyat, a town of elegant mansions and working churches. The monastery of Mar Gabriel to the south, supported largely by émigrés, keeps the faith alive. Between Midyat and Diyarbakır, are the evocative ruins of Hasankeyf, breathtakingly sited on the Tigris, yet soon set to disappear beneath the waters of the İlisu Dam.
Travelling around is easy, with good bus links between all the major towns – though road-improvement works are prevalent in many places, increasing journey times. Hotel facilities have improved steadily and you will have little trouble finding a reasonable hotel. Summers are scorching; try to visit during spring or autumn.Read More
The Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP)
The Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP)
The colossally expensive Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi (GAP), or Southeastern Anatolia Project was begun in 1974 with the aim of improving economic conditions in Turkey’s impoverished southeast. Centred on the massive Atatürk Dam, the fourth largest in the world, the US$32 billion scheme has diverted waters from the Euphrates and Tigris to irrigate vast swathes of previously barren land and generate much needed hydroelectric power. The scheme also has a clear political aim in reducing support for the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) who have long been active in this region and vehemently oppose the project.
In terms of the local benefits of GAP, the improvement to agriculture is apparent from the main road. Eastwards from Gaziantep new pistachio and olive plantations flourish and cotton is being grown around Harran. Yet, while this has benefited large landowners able to secure state bank loans to buy fertilizer and machinery, smaller farmers have seen few improvements. Many have given up agriculture altogether and migrated to the cities to work as unskilled labourers.
Environmentalists point out the scheme’s other pitfalls, from local climate change caused by evaporation from the reservoirs, to depletion of the soil from the overuse of artificial fertilizers and severe loss of habitat for local wildlife. The region’s archeological heritage has been hit, too. While some artefacts have been painstakingly excavated and relocated (note especially the wonderful finds from Zeugma now on display in Gaziantep), much has vanished forever beneath the waters.