Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The ancient towns of Mesopotamia

26.05 - Diyarbakır - Hasankeyf - Midyat - Mardin

We really wanted to visit ancient towns of Hasankeyf and Midyat. Numerous people we met or stayed with told us the area around Diyarbakir was stunning, but these places, according to many, were a must. We were in luck because in Batman we hitched a ride with local (Turkish) tourists - two guys and a woman, whose destinations were the same as ours.


The cave-homes caves located on steep slopes of the rust-tinged canyon, connected by narrow pathways, reminded me of Mesa Verde in Colorado. Numerous niches resembled rooms where inhabitants of the old city lived, stored their goods and found protection from the invaders. There's a table, a bench, a store room, a broken-down mosque, a staircase, a balcony with a stunning view of the Tigris river you can't help but want to see every morning you wake up.

Apparently there's no place the Turkish flag wouldn't reach...

Sadly, the days of grandeur are over for Hasankeyf. Now these neglected structures are living on borrowed time, put in permanent custody of the Turkish government which unremittingly aims to whittle away all Kurdish legacy in this area. After forced depopulations in Kurdish-populated rural areas in the 1990s and burning down Kurdish villages, now Hasankeyf, together with big parts of Batman and Siirt provinces, is endangered with being washed off the Earth when the construction of Ilısu Dam is completed.

The state is undeterred in its plans and justifies its decision by saying the new dam would provide the poor, heat-wrenched regions of south-eastern Turkey with sufficient water; thus improve the productivity in agriculture. Less is known of the other reason, which is submerging a dense, difficultly-controlled network of tunnels used by members of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) to smuggle its members from Iraq to Turkey.

On the other hand, the Turkish government gives little attention to the concerns of over 70 thousands Kurdish residents living in nearby villages who will lose their livelihood; to the potential risk of increasing water and electricity shortage in Iraq; to degradation of natural habitat of many endangered species and, last but not least, to the historical and cultural assets of Hasankeyf.

The future in store for this site is an uncertain one. One thing I suggest you do is to visit this websIte and sign the petition written to UNESCO to save the ancient ruins of Hasankeyf from being written off. 


Midyat offers a patchwork of styles and religions that have thrived here in respect and understanding for centuries. In this town, one of the last strongholds of Syriac Orthodox Christianity in the Middle East, the fairly sizable Süryani community lives alongside with smashing majority of Muslim Turks, Kurds and Arabs. From the top of impressive Deyrulumur Monastery you can see the distribution of different religious groups in Midyat. Western part of the city is is inhabited mainly by Muslims; full of slim minarets of mosques peeping over houses. In the east it's church steeples that dominate the skyline - quite an odd view in Turkey.

Note the boy in the middle of the photo.

The inter-racial heritage in Midyat is also seen in physical attributes of locals - the features of Syriac people are much more European: fair complexion, blue or green eyes and light hair. Even spotting a freckled gingerhead, like the caretaker of kids learning in a Syriac school we visited or the elderly woman our drivers bought home-made red Süryani wine from, is not such a challenge. All far removed from Turks with jet-black hair, piercing black eyes and olive-colored skin.

In Midyat Syriac is still the main spoken language, but on the streets you hear it alongside with Turkish, Kurdish and Arabic. In the aforementioned Syriac school kids played in the courtyard, speaking only Syriac - we learned that their Turkish was just rudimentary. In the small church that was a part of the school we could see Bible used for the service - written entirely in Syriac. I was surprised to discover that nurturing the old tradition was so strong that the official language of the country they live in was thrown into neglect.

I wished we could have ventured our own paths in these absolutely interesting places. Unfortunately we were pressed for time and headed straight to Mardin after couple of hours spent together with our drivers. We left many yet not seen parts of Hasankeyf and Midyat behind, but at least there's something to come back to - inshallah.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Diyarbakır, a city at a crossroads

 24-26.05 - Erbil - Silopi - Diyarbakır

Eastern part of Turkey is a destination that seems culturally and geographically on the edge of the world for Turks living in the west. Many of my Turkish friends have never traveled any further east than to Ankara. Our next destination, Diyarbakır, located closer to Syria or Iraq than to the capital, is often called an informal capital of Turkish Kurds. Nowhere in Eastern Turkey can you meet people priding themselves so much on being members of the biggest nation in the world that doesn't have its own country and openly speaking about their language and cultural identity. By many perceived as dangerous, uncivilized, twisted in tradition and conservative inhibitions, it was a place we couldn't give a miss during out trip.

These stereotypes were quickly scuppered. Our driver (worth mentioning for his driving style better suited to those who don't freak out when the driver drastically speeds over 100 km/h in a beaten-up jalopy) dropped us off in the most posh part of Diyarbakır we could imagine. The street - by no means a men-only territory - was lined with glaring neon signs, loud music beamed out of clubs and restaurants - night life in full swing. Instead of completely covered women accompanied by their husbands we saw beautiful girls with faces covered not with veils but with makeup. They wore tight-fitting jeans, deep neckline blouse and high-heel shoes, which made them look even more European than me. Ale's comment "Too many girls at once. I'm not used" conveyed the atmosphere most distinctly. Moreover, the first community we plunged into were the gay friends of our hosts with whom she wanted to evaluate a survey for work purpose. The thing that absolutely stood out was how open they were about their sexuality, dressing up as girls or talking about their affection. I know other gay men you would never assume of being homosexual unless told so, while our host's friends didn't even try to conceal their behavior from newly met people. Turkey is full of surprises. It started with people, and soon the city itself followed.

The Old Town of Diyarbakır forms an intricate maze of cobbled, twisting alleyways, bustling bazaars, spacious courtyards and old mosques. It's also a home to churches that used to serve different religious groups that mingled in this region in the old days - protestants, Syriac Orthodox, Armenian Orthodox, catholics. Nowhere in Turkey have I seen so many non-Muslim places of worship.

We discovered thematic bazaars where anything you ask for, from shoddy junk to price-worthy treasures, can be found. No wonder big supermarkets aren't too widespread in Turkey - anything you need you can get on the bazaar. We splurged a few liras and bought delicious fruits I've never seen or eaten in my life. A vendor from a toy stand also gifted Ale with a spinning top, that kind I saw in Morocco but never in Poland. When we passed a bakery and I felt the irresistible bakery air whiffing from inside, I couldn't do otherwise but give in to the temptation of hot anise bread rolling out of the oven. The friendly vendor gave it to me for free, in spite of the fact that I insisted on paying. Oh my, this bread was so taste-bud-bursting! We were sharing our free lunch on the steps close to the bakery when one of the workers saw us sit there and inquired whether we wanted to get some chairs. We were absolutely fine with the steps, but he brought them anyway - and took them away when we once again politely refused his offer - but brought some tea instead. These common people have nothing to do with the way they are portrayed in the west as malevolent fanatics.

There aren't many white tourists in Diyarbakır, so we could count on the novelty value. It was hard to walk a short distance without being stopped by curious kids fascinated with foreigners, vying for their photos to be taken, asking what our names were (probably the most common question we received), where we came from and which football teams we supported. Older boys also besought us to let them play with the spinning top. The long game started - locals showed us how to spin like a master, Ale refreshed his childhood-acquired skills and I made a total fool out of myself.

Concerning foreigners, let me clarify this. Ale, with his significantly darker complexion was easily taken for a local, while I was branded as tourist and yabanci at first sight. In my Poland my natural tan is the biggest envy of my solarium-obsessed friends, here it doesn't even let me blend into the much darker crowd of locals.


The center of Diyarbakır is circumvented by an impressive city wall, dating back to 4th century AD, second in length only to Great Wall of China. Though bearing traces of past wars and raids, its sections that can't be accessed by the public are well-preserved. Still, there are parts that are walkable - and these ones are slowly disintegrating. There are no guardrails and in some places the wall is just wide enough for one person to stand. One wrong move and chances are that you might fall 10 m to your death. We climbed the southeastern side of the wall, from where you can see a vast panorama of the Tigris Valley stretching below. It's a hilly area of rich agriculture and fields bursting with green vegetation where people shriveled to tiny dots gather the crops; surrounded by immense barrens parched with heat. Houses just beyond the wall reminded me of underdeveloped dwellings in rural areas of Morocco. That's the poorest corner of Diyarbakır we've seen, a typical gecekondu district full of scrappy-looking, tightly-packed houses built in hurry, for little money, without proper permissions; devoid of electricity and fresh water, inhabited mainly by Kurds migrating from rural areas. It's a dramatic contrast compared to modern apartment blocks in the affluent suburbs where our host and her friends lived.

Diyarbakır, theoretically disreputable, didn't seem any wilder or more dangerous than elsewhere in Turkey. It's a city at a crossroads, on one hand untouched by time, hanging on to traditions, on the other, flinging into modernity. Its heritage amazes with diversity and harmonious coexistence of different civilizations and religious groups. Concerning locals, the ones we met there were excellent examples of hospitality and it was a large ask to wish to be treated any better as visitors. So, when coming to Diyarbakır, leave your stereotypes behind.