Superbly positioned on a bluff above a great loop in the Tigris, the old city of DİYARBAKIR shelters behind massive medieval walls of black basalt, enclosing a maze of cobbled streets and alleys. Many of its finest mosques and churches have been restored, and renovation work is in progress on many more. There’s plenty of decent accommodation right in the heart of the walled city, plus enough cafés and restaurants to keep the average visitor more than happy.
Diyarbakır struggled to cope with an influx of Kurdish refugees fleeing the state–PKK war in the 1990s, many of whom now occupy old houses in the very heart of the walled city. As a result, this is now the most proudly and most overtly Kurdish city in Turkey.
Be aware, however, that Diyarbakır still has a definite “edge”. Violent street demonstrations break out from time to time, while other potential hazards include bag-snatchers, pickpockets and the odd stone-throwing youngster. Indeed an old Arab saying runs “Black the walls, black the dogs, and black the hearts in black Diyarbakır”. That said, avoid the backstreets around and after dusk, and you’ll have no problem – the vast majority of the population are justly proud of their fascinating city, and very welcoming to visitors.
Diyarbakır dates back at least five thousand years, to the Hurrian period. Later subject to successive periods of Urartian, Assyrian and Persian hegemony, it fell to Alexander the Great and his successors, the Seleucids, in the late fourth century BC.
The Romans, who knew Diyarbakır as Amida, appeared on the scene in 115 AD. Over the next few centuries they and their successors, the Byzantines, struggled violently over the town with the Sassanid Persians. It was the Romans who built the first substantial walls around the city in 297 AD, though those visible today are the result of Byzantine and Arab rebuilds. The threatening basalt bulwarks gave the place its popular ancient name – Amid the Black – which is still used in the Kurdish language. The modern name comes from the Arabs: in 638 the Bakr tribe of Arabs arrived and renamed the city Diyar Bakr, or “Place of the Bakr”. With the decline of Arab influence, Diyarbakır became a Selçuk, then an Artukid, and finally an Ottoman stronghold.
The city’s position on the banks of the fertile Tigris encouraged fruit growing, particularly watermelons which are still cultivated here. In the old days they are said to have weighed 100kg, and had to be transported by camel and sliced with a sword.