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.

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