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
First stop coming from the west is the city of
North of Gaziantep, the spectacular mountain-top funerary sanctuary of
From either Şanlıurfa or Malatya, it’s a journey of half a day or less to
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.
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.
Rapidly expanding GAZİANTEP, with a population approaching a million and a half, is the wealthiest city in the region. A principal beneficiary of the GAP project, it derives its income largely from textile production and agriculture (and is especially famed for its pistachio nuts). Tourism is now a major industry as well, and many of the city’s beautiful, pale-stone historic buildings – especially its hans and mosques – have been restored and made accessible to visitors, with explanatory display boards in English. The Zeugma Mosaic Museum, whose collection rivals the best in the world, is simply stunning; it alone would make a trip here worthwhile. Unfortunately, its role as a major trade entrepôt and tourist destination has been hit since 2012 by the civil war in nearby Syria – Aleppo, Syria’s second city, is just 100km away. Cross-border trade has dried up, and visitors put off by a bomb that killed nine civilians in August 2012.
Gaziantep has been successively occupied by the Hittites, Assyrians, Persians, Hellenistic Greeks, Romans, Selçuks, Crusaders, Byzantines and Arabs. Locals still call it “Antep”, a corruption of the Arab ayn teb (“good spring”); the prefix “Gazi” (“warrior for Islam”) was added to honour the Turkish Nationalist forces who withstood a ten-month siege by the French in 1920. For centuries Gaziantep held a mixed Muslim and Christian Armenian population. The Armenians were expelled during the vicissitudes of World War 1, but their attractive old quarter remains on a hill above the prominent Atatürk statue in front of the Adliye (court) building. The traditional Muslim bazaar quarter, centred on the castle, lies a short walk northeast of the Atatürk statue.
The superb new Zeugma Mosaic Museum, slightly inconveniently located on the ring road north of the city centre, exhibits a superb collection of mosaics rescued from the once-luxurious Hellenistic/Roman border city of Zeugma, now virtually submerged by the Birecik dam on the Euphrates.
On the ground floor, where visitors enter, arrows direct you along the best route around an incredible array of mosaic floor panels, taken from the houses of wealthy citizens at Zeugma. Particularly impressive are the re-creations of Roman peristyle villas, complete with their original mosaic flooring and wall frescoes. The mosaics themselves, most of which portray scenes from Classical Greek mythology, including Perseus and Andromeda, Eros and Psyche, and Pasiphae and Daedelus, are well labelled in English.
Below ground level, a section is devoted to the bathhouse of a gymnasium complex, including mosaics, water pipes, toilets and the under-floor heating system – and a magnificent bronze statue of the god of war, Mars. The first floor holds yet more wonderful mosaics, including a superb scene of Zeus kidnapping Europa. The mosaic panel that has become a symbol of today’s city, the enigmatic face of a young female known as the “Gypsy Girl”, gets a darkened room all to itself.
The free, 15-minute video on the history of Zeugma that’s shown at regular intervals, to the left of the entry turnstiles, is well worth catching.
The beehive-style houses of HARRAN (Altınbaşak), 45km southeast of Urfa, are an established tourist attraction. The village has grown up within the crumbling remnants of the old, 4km circumference walls of a settlement once much more important than Urfa. Harran has strong biblical links, too: according to Genesis 11:31 and 12:4, the patriarch Abraham dwelt here before moving onto Canaan.
These days, Arabs and a few Kurds live amid the ruins of old Harran, surviving by farming the newly irrigated fields and smuggling goods across the Syrian border, 10km south. The stone-built, mud-covered beehive-shaped buildings owe their distinctive shape to the fact that no wood is used as support. Virtually all are now used for storage or animal – not human – habitation.
Harran’s enigmatic ruins exude tragic grandeur, dwarfing the beehive dwellings of the ethnically Arab villagers. Near the jandarma, an artificial tumulus marks the site of the original settlement. Excavations currently under way here, by a team from Ankara University, have revealed the remains of an Umayyad palace. North of the mound, and most impressive of the ruins, is the Ulu Cami, the first mosque ever built on what is now Turkish soil. Its substantial square minaret, originally built in the eighth century, was mistaken for a cathedral belfry by T. E. Lawrence when he passed through in 1909. The layout of the mosque, much rebuilt under the Ayyubid dynasty in the twelfth century, can be made out clearly, though only fragments of its structure survive relatively intact.
The eleventh-century citadel, in the southeast corner of the old walled city, is possibly built on the site of the ancient temple of the moon god Sin. Three of its four polygonal towers have survived reasonably well, but take care scrambling around as there are several holes in the upper part of the structure.
Harran is thought to have been continuously inhabited for at least six thousand years. It became a prosperous trading town under the Assyrians, who turned it into a centre for the worship of Sin, god of the moon; there was a large temple here, later also used by the Sabians. Planet worshippers, they stand accused in some accounts of holding lurid orgies and carrying out human sacrifice, and with the arrival of the Arabs were given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. In 53 BC the Roman general Crassus was defeated here, crucified and had molten gold poured into his mouth by the Parthians. Despite this, the Romans later converted Harran into an important centre of learning, a role it continued to play under the Byzantines, then the Arabs, first under the Umayyad dynasty, then the Ayyubid. However, the arrival of the Mongols during the thirteenth century meant devastation.
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).
Despite the fact it’s drab and nondescript, the dusty town of KAHTA, as the most commonly used gateway to Nemrut Dağı and its spectacular mountain-top sanctuary, receives more than its fair share of visitors. Many travellers arrive from elsewhere in Turkey at the provincial capital of Adıyaman, 25km west, though several inter-city bus companies have services direct to Kahta. There is nothing of interest in the town, but it’s only 1km from the Atatürk Baraji reservoir, where there are a few pleasant waterside restaurants and picnic spots.
The largest producer of apricots in the world, MALATYA, is a seldom-visited city of nearly half a million people that’s set in a broad green valley around 60km north of Nemrut Dağı. Despite a long history going back over five thousand years, during which the Assyrians, Hittites, Romans, Selçuk Turks and Ottomans all held sway, there’s little of any significant age left to see within the city. Nonetheless it makes a pleasant overnight stop before tackling Nemrut Dağı, while, very close at hand, the old town of Eski Malatya offers an interesting diversion, as does Aslantepe (Lion Hill), a millennia-old settlement mound that’s been newly interpreted for visitors.
Scratch beneath the surface in Malatya, and an at-times uneasy mix of Turkish nationalists, devout Sunni Muslims, Alevîs and Kurds soon becomes apparent. Always a political town, it’s the home of two former presidents of the Republic, General İsmet İnönü and part-Kurdish Turgut Özal, and is also the birthplace of Armenian-Turk Hrant Dink, slain by an ultra-nationalist Turkish teenager in 2007.
The old Şire Pazarı, in the centre between Atatürk Bulvarı and the ring road, is devoted to local agricultural produce, namely cherries, mulberries, apples, walnuts and, especially, apricots. There’s an apricot festival (second week in July) at Mişmiş Parkı, 5km east of the centre.
Following fifty years of meticulous excavations by Italian archeologists, the 16,000-square-metre settlement mound at Aslantepe, dating back to the fourth millennium BC, has recently opened as an open-air museum. At the entrance stand newly carved copies of some of the monumental neo-Hittite statuary found here, including the god Tarhunzas and a couple of fine grinning lions – after which the site was named when the originals were discovered in the nineteenth century. There’s also the reconstruction of a typical mud-brick Bronze Age house.
A signed walkway leads visitors through the various layers of this complex but fascinating site, which has seen occupation in the Chalcolithic era (fourth millennium BC), the Bronze Age, the Hittite era, and finally the Roman and medieval periods. You can walk through the mud-brick remains of a palace dating from 3000 BC and a temple built circa 3500 BC. In the latter, archeologists found over a thousand pottery bowls – evidence of very early mass production. Everything is well explained by a series of informative display boards.
The top of the mound offers fine views, across a veritable sea of apricot trees, to the distant mountains.
The ruined Roman/Byzantine/Selçuk/Ottoman town of Eski Malatya, or “Old Malatya”, north of modern Malatya, has now been engulfed by the modern settlement of Battalgazi.
From the main square where buses arrive, which holds plenty of shady çay places as well as a few basic restaurants, a 200m walk southwest brings you to a massive seventeenth-century kervansaray, the Silahtar Mustafa Paşa. The building has been so heavily restored it looks like new, and some of the former stables are now shops selling tacky souvenirs, but the kışlık (winter room), with its fine cross-vaulted ceiling and rows of fireplaces, is impressive.
The wonderful Ulu Cami, a huge mosque complex commissioned by Selçuk sultan, Alâeddin Keykubad, is a five-minute walk south. Built around a central courtyard, it comprises both summer and winter mosques. The latter consists of plain stonework with massive pillars, and the former of a central bay with a soaring domed roof flanked by two wings.
Seen from the south, MARDİN looks spectacular, its tiered layers of vernacular houses, mansions, mosques and churches clinging to a huge citadel-topped rock that rises out of the north Mesopotamian plain. Sunset is particularly striking, with locals flying kites, a deep-blue sky filled with wheeling swifts, and shadows swallowing up the patchwork of fields on the endless plain.
Mardin’s position has always made it a strategic military outpost – the higher of the two castellated bluffs today sports golf-ball radar domes. The population is a mix of Kurds, Arabs, Turks and Syrian Orthodox Christians, the latter of whom are known in Turkey as Süriyani. Since the conflict between the state and the PKK wound down in these parts, Mardin has boomed. Thanks largely to domestic visitors, it has become the centre of the region’s tourism industry, a popular (and overpriced) spot for well-off İstanbul Turks in search of the “quaint east”. Many boutique hotels, fashioned from the charming old buildings, have opened in recent years, along with a few upmarket standard hotels. Handmade soaps are big business, as are silver jewellery and, more prosaically, dried fruits and nuts. Mardin also boasts the small Sinemardin film festival (wsinemardin.com.tr), held towards the end of June, with the accent on Middle Eastern cinema.
The old town lies on the steep southern slopes below the citadel. The principal street, Birinci Caddesi, branches off the main road at the western end of town, and rejoins it at the eastern end.
Mardin’s probable Roman origins are lost in a welter of war and conquest, while its later history is tied up with the development of early Christianity. The first Christians to settle here were Syrian Orthodox, who arrived during the third century AD. Having survived the period of Arab occupation from 640 to 1104, the Christians were left alone by the Selçuk and Turcoman rulers. Today, eleven churches remain hidden away in the backstreets.
From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries, the citadel was the capital of the Artukid Turcoman tribe. They beat off Arab attacks and endured an eight-month siege during the first Mongol onslaught, before falling to the second Mongol wave under Tamerlane in 1394. The Mongols doled out death and misery in equal measures to Christian and Muslim alike, before, in 1408, handing Mardin over to the Karakoyun Turcoman tribe, who built the (now ruined) palace and mosque inside the citadel walls. It became an Ottoman possession in 1517.
Before and during Turkey’s War of Independence, Mardin’s Christian population was drastically reduced by massacre and emigration. Following renewed emigrations in the early 1990s, only a few hundred practising Syrian Orthodox, Catholic and Armenian Christians remain. Fortunately, local émigrés who made good in Europe and the USA are now pouring money into the Syrian Orthodox communities in Mardin and the Tür Abdin.
Mardin has a vibrant Christian heritage, and Christians and Muslims have always intermingled rather than living in separate quarters. The Syrian Orthodox Kirklar Kilise (Arbin Söhad in Syriac) or Church of the Forty Martyrs, which dates back, in part, to the sixth century, is the most welcoming church to visitors. The best time to attend is Sunday morning, at around 9am, when the local Süriyani population comes to pray, though you must dress respectfully and photography is forbidden.
Next door, Mar Yusuf Kilisesi (St Joseph’s) serves the town’s tiny Armenian Catholic population. Lacking a priest, it’s usually locked, and the congregation attends services at the Kirklar Kilise.
Mardin’s largest church, the Süriyani Katolik Kilisesi (Church of the Virgin Mary), is used by five families of Syrian Catholics, and adjoins the local museum. The Mar İşmuni Kilisesi, which has a typical Syrian Orthodox walled courtyard, stands at the bottom of the hill in the southeastern part of the old town, while back on the main street the newly restored Keldani Kilise (Chaldean Church) is easily spotted but usually locked.
The remote, grandiose mountain-top sanctuary at Nemrut Dağı is unforgettable, while the mighty stone heads that adorn the temple and tomb of King Antiochus have become one of the famous images of Eastern Turkey.
Most visitors want to get here before dawn, in order to watch the sunrise. The majority of the available minibus tours are therefore geared up to suit those timings, despite the drawback of making such an early start – between 2am and 4am, depending on season – and the crowded and chilly conditions at the summit, which is 2150m above sea level. Between late October and April, there’s often snow on the ground. Minibus tours also target sunset, when it’s not so cold, and the setting sun bathes the western terrace in a warm glow. A daytime visit means fewer visitors and the chance to explore the sanctuary at leisure and in the warmth.
The result of one man’s delusions of grandeur, the great tomb and temple complex of Nemrut Dağı was built by Antiochus I Epiphanes (64–38 BC), son of Mithridates I Callinicus, the founder of the Commagene kingdom. A breakaway from the Seleucid Empire, covering only a small territory from modern Adıyaman to Gaziantep, the Commagene dynasty wouldn’t rate much more than a passing mention in histories of the region had Antiochus not chosen to build this colossal monument to himself. Having decided he was divine in nature, or at the very least an equal of the gods, he declared: “I, the great King Antiochus have ordered the construction of these temples…on a foundation which will never be demolished…to prove my faith in the gods. At the conclusion of my life I will enter my eternal repose here, and my spirit will ascend to join that of Zeus in heaven.”
Antiochus’s vanity knew no bounds – he claimed descent from Darius the Great of Persia and Alexander the Great – but eventually he went too far, siding with the Parthians against Rome, and was deposed. This was effectively the end of the Commagene kingdom, which afterwards passed into Roman hands.
The sanctuary lay undiscovered until 1881, when Karl Puchstein, a German engineer, located it while making a survey. Although he returned in 1883 with Karl Humann – the man who removed the Pergamon altar to Berlin – to carry out a more thorough investigation, only in 1953 did a comprehensive American-led archeological survey of the site begin.
Organized minibus trips to Nemrut Dağı run in summer from Kahta, Malatya and Şanlıurfa. Given the distances involved, they are about the only way to get there if you don’t have your own transport. Note that the summit road is usually only open from April 15 until the first snowfall of winter, but outside the peak summer months (July & Aug) there may well be insufficient demand to make up groups each day. For more on the best time of day to visit the site, see Nemrut Dağı.
In season, there are sunrise or sunset tours from Kahta – sunset trips leave around 2pm and return at 10pm; sunrise tours leave at around 2am, returning at 10am. Best arranged by the transport cooperative – see Bayram Çınar at the Karadut market, opposite the dolmuş garage – the trips cost TL125 for the dolmuş, irrespective of numbers, with the entrance fee extra. They should include the subsidiary sites of the Karakuş tumulus, Cendere bridge and the ancient Commagene capital of Arsameia.
Don’t be bludgeoned into booking a tour before you check various options – indeed, assuming you arrive in time to catch the last dolmuş (6pm), it’s far better to head straight up to the lovely village of Karadut. All the accommodation options here arrange summit tours – a taxi to the summit costs around TL35, a minibus around TL50 (regardless of numbers, entrance extra); tours including the subsidiary sites TL100. Sunrise tours see the subsidiary sites on the return, sunrise tours en route.
Tours from Malatya, on the north side of the range, may look more expensive, but if you count in the night’s stay virtually at the summit, the difference is negligible. The main disadvantage is that you miss out on Nemrut’s subsidiary sites, but on the other hand you view both sets of heads at sunrise and sunset, and you get to stay at the welcoming stone-built Guneş Hotel (t 0422 323 9378), which has clean and cheerful en-suite rooms and good food. A Kurdish yayla (summer tent encampment) lies a few minutes’ walk away.
Bookings are best made the day before, either at the tourist office or the tea garden to one side. Departures are usually at noon, reaching the summit in good time for sunset; the return trip starts at about 7am, allowing time to admire the sunrise, and reaching Malatya at about 11am. The TL100 fee per person includes transport, lodging and two meals, and trips run even if there’s only one taker; the entrance fee is extra. If it suits your onward travel plans, after viewing the sanctuary at sunrise you could walk over to the south side of Nemrut and join one of the groups seeing the subsidiary sites on the way back to Kahta.
Visiting Nemrut from Şanlıurfa has the advantage of cutting out Adıyaman and Kahta, and can include a trip to see the Atatürk Dam, but the 420km (14hr) round trip takes in lots of uninteresting scenery.
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.
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. While this has benefited large landowners able to secure state bank loans to buy fertilizer and machinery, however, 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, including local climate change caused by evaporation from the reservoirs; depletion of the soil from the overuse of artificial fertilizers; the lowering of the water table; and severe loss of habitat for 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.