The mountain-rimmed basin of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers is perhaps the most exotic part of Turkey, offering travellers a heady mix of atmospheric ancient sites and bustling Middle-East-style towns. Forming the northern rim of ancient Mesopotamia (literally “between two rivers”), the region has been of importance since the Neolithic period. The eastern boundaries of the Roman and Byzantine empires lay here, and the two rivers were crossed by Arab 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: Crusaders, Armenians, Selçuks, Turcomans, Mongols and finally the French, who invaded southeastern Turkey in World War I.

Traditionally, smallholding farmers and herdsmen scratched a living from this unrewarding land. Today, the new dams of the Southeastern Anatolia Project have dramatically improved the fertility of the area, but population drift to the big cities continues. Close to the border with volatile Syria, Arab influence is strong, but even here Kurds predominate and ethnic Turks are in a distinct minority. The separatist sympathies of some Kurds mean there is often a security presence in the area – particularly around Diyarbakır and the frontier zone south and east of Mardin (see Security, for more information).

First stop coming from the west is the city of Gaziantep, 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 pious town of Şanlıurfa – well worth a couple of days’ sightseeing. It’s also a good base for exploring Harran, an evocative village of beehive-shaped houses, the extraordinary Neolithic temple-complex of Göbekli Tepe, and the natural gateway to Yuvacalı village near Hilvan, where you can experience a genuine slice of rural life.

North of Gaziantep, the spectacular mountain-top funerary sanctuary of Nemrut Dağı fully justifies a pilgrimage, though the main base for reaching it from the south is small, scruffy Kahta. Malatya, 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, Turkey’s most militantly Kurdish city, on the banks of the River Tigris. Famed for its 6km black-basalt city walls, Diyarbakır is also peppered with fine mosques and churches. To the south lies the region’s tourist “capital”, 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, but set to disappear beneath the waters of the İlisu Dam by 2019.

Getting around is easy, with good bus links between all the major towns and new motorways like the 0-52 and 54 to speed things up dramatically. Decent accommodation is available virtually everywhere, but bear in mind that summers are scorching.

Prior to the civil war, it was possible to cross to Syria from Akçakale and Kilis, although the usual crossing point used to be Antakya in the Hatay.

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