The spectacular ruined settlement of HASANKEYF, an hour’s dolmuş ride north of Midyat, is one of Turkey’s most evocative historic sites. Poised on the very lip of a sheer cliff, carved from the mountainside by the swift-flowing waters of the Tigris, stands a remarkable series of remains of Selçuk, Arabic and Kurdish origin. Below the ruins, the Tigris is spanned by the arches of a vintage 1950s concrete bridge, itself overlooking the mighty piers of its medieval precursor. It’s a photographer’s dream, especially at sunset and sunrise, while a meal at one of the many simple fish restaurants lining the bank beneath the cliff is unforgettable.
While many of the four-thousand-plus caves in the surrounding hills were inhabited in prehistoric times, the original settlement was founded by the Romans as an eastern bastion of the empire, and later became the Byzantine bishopric of Cephe. In 640 AD, the conquering Arabs changed the town’s name to Hisn Kayfa. During the twelfth century the Artukid Turcoman tribe decided to make Hasankeyf their capital, which it remained until the Mongols arrived in 1260. Hasankeyf then served as the stronghold of the Ayyubids, a clan of Kurdish chieftains supplanted by the Ottomans early in the fifteenth century.
The modern town of Hasankeyf is strung out either side of the road leading to the concrete bridge across the river. To reach the site, head to the southern end of the modern bridge, then turn left. The 1km road is lined by rows of souvenir stalls, selling everything from tasteful, locally woven goat-hair blankets to garish wall-hangings. Its initial section, fronting the river, holds simple restaurants – some with platforms out in the water at the foot of the cliff.
The first sight of note is the El Rizk Camii, built under the Ayyubids in 1409 AD, which has a beautiful minaret decorated with kufic inscriptions and tear-drop patterns, and is topped by a stork’s nest. It also holds useful toilets.
The ticket booth, beyond the mosque, marks the start of the ascent to the cliff-top ruins. Climbing the time-polished stone pathway is demanding in the heat of the day. The path cuts back from the cliff edge and weaves up to the Ulu Camii, an evocatively ruined, partially restored Ayyubid mosque, built in 1305, which holds a long, narrow prayer hall, finely carved mihrab and truncated minaret. Scattered all around are the remains of abandoned houses, exposed cisterns (take care), and Muslim cemeteries and mausoleums. Below it, the twelfth-century building conjectured to be the palace of the Artukid kings is perched right on the cliff edge above the Tigris. At the time of writing, it was under excavation and off-limits.
Head back down the cobbled steps to the cliff top, now guarded by a rail, next to the so-called Kücük Sarayı or ‘‘Small Palace”, which is off-limits for safety reasons. The grill to the left guards the entrance to the stepped tunnel, which once gave secret access to the river below but has now been deemed unsafe. Look right to see the four massive pillars of the old Artukid bridge, once the largest in Anatolia. Its central span is thought to have been constructed from wood.
From the cliff top, you can also see the conspicuous fifteenth-century Zeyn El-Abdin Türbesi, a beautiful, onion-domed cylindrical building clad in glazed turquoise tiles and red brick, across the river to the left (northwest). To explore, head back down to the modern bridge, cross it and walk west for ten or fifteen minutes either along the main road or the river banks. Constructed in 1475, it was made for Zeynel Bey, the son of an Akkoyunlu sultan, Uzun (Tall) Hasan. Recent excavations around the tomb have revealed an extensive complex of buildings including a couple of medreses (theological schools).