Mardin to Diyarbakir

Monday, 30 September 2019

It is a month since we left Melbourne and we have been on the go the whole time.  We are exhausted but we still have four days to go before we head back to Istanbul and can have a rest before going on to France.

Today was another long driving day – about 500 km.  We are still heading roughly South and today crossed the Taurus mountains and down to the flatter land of Mesopotamia (the vast land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers).

The first part of the journey took us along the Southern shore of Lake Van which is the biggest lake in Turkey.  The lake has no outlet and like the Dead Sea, Lake Urmia and others it is saline or soda saturated so it cannot be used for irrigation, drinking water etc.  It is pretty though and probably keeps the climate more tolerable than it would otherwise be.

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We stopped briefly at a 16th century caravanserai near Tatvan which, although old, was not photogenic and at the Malabadi bridge near Batman.  The bridge was built in the 12th century and is the longest stone arch bridge in the world with a span of 41 m.  It has a beautiful 24 m high arch and has recently been renovated in 2011.

We stopped at a Lokantasi in Batman for lunch.  A lokantasi is a restaurant that specialises in local dishes and they are all out on display for you to look at and choose.  Lunch was very good.

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As it was such a long day we had considered taking the more direct route to our destination of Mardin but relented when Adem assured us that it was worth going the longer way to see the village of Hasankeyf which is soon to be submerged beneath the lake of a new dam on the Tigris river and then on to the old town centre of Midyat.  We stopped for a coffee at Hasankeyf and viewed the old village from the opposite side of the river but there did not seem to us to be much point in trawling through yet another scruffy Middle East village.  They have carted off the greatest old treasures of the village including a few tombs and minarets leaving stuff that is presumably not worth saving.  As the village has been inhabited for 12,000 years there are no doubt relics of great value that will be lost but nothing much for the “non-archaeologist” to appreciate.

The weather South of the Taurus is noticeably hotter and today was cracking 30º C so we were not impressed when Adem dragged us through the tatty backstreets of Midyat on a long circuitous route to the old centre because he “thought we would be interested in comparing new and old”.  We gave him a right bollocking and told him to bring the van around to the old part to pick us up.  We have told him several times that we spent five years living in Jordan and, quite frankly, any Middle East town looks pretty much like any other Middle East town.  He says he understands now – until next time!  The old part was quite nice, although it was undergoing some pretty extensive reconstruction works.  The architecture is Syrian and so quite different to what we have been seeing for the last few weeks.

Along the roads in these parts there are many road blocks.  In the past these were because of Kurdish separatists but now their purpose seems to be to intercept refugees from Afghanistan and Pakistan, clamp down on drug running and also because of the 2016 attempted coup on the Turkish government.  We got stopped a couple of times today but the last one was a real going over.  We had to get out of the van and produce our passports, a sniffer dog went over the whole van, mirrors to look underneath etc.  When they realised we were western tourists and our guide showed them his official ID it was OK but the “secret” plain clothes policeman still peered at our passports suspiciously.

In Mardin we are staying at an historic hotel in the old quarter so it was up a hundred steps and into our stone cell for the night – just like the monks.  We dined at the terrace next door on a Mardin kebab and an Adana kebab.


Tuesday, 01 October 2019

Just outside Mardin we visited the Syrian Orthodox Deyr Az Zaferan monastery which was only a little bit different to all the other (Georgian and Armenian) monasteries we have looked at over the last month.  This one did have a very long history, having started out as a pagan sun temple, then a Roman castle before becoming a Christian monastery.  It is also the “seat” of the Suriyani (Syrian orthodox) patriarch.  Next was a madrassa which was very plain and not so interesting.  Our last cultural visit in Mardin was to the Mardin Museum which, like the other museums we have visited, was quite interesting.  In this part of the world the history museums all go back as far as the Neolithic period.  It is quite incredible how long the history of settlement in this part of the world goes back. 

Next we went searching for a shop selling the local Mardin soap (like the Aleppo soap we have been using for years but which is no longer available from Aleppo itself).  We say “searching” because, although Cheryl had the address and gave it to Adem, we still went haring off in the wrong direction with Adem asking all and sundry for directions.  It is not only Arabs that do not have a sense of direction, it seems to afflict Turks and Kurds as well.

The soap is definitely “artisanal” and is cut off big blocks with a “cheese wire”.  We bought 3 different sorts – the Mardin one containing pistachio oil, another with almond oil and some that will hopefully stop Clive’s itch (two years now).  They all have an olive oil base.  When we asked what was in the “anti-itch” it was “dirt” and “tar”.  Clive is really looking forward to giving it a try.

Adem had intended we lunch at a restaurant next to the museum and had checked with the owner yesterday that it would be open today, but it wasn’t.  We asked him why it seems that communication is so difficult even though both people are talking Turkish.  He replied that Turkish is not an “exact” or “precise” language and it is often necessary to talk around and about a subject and even then meanings are sometimes not clear.  We lunched instead at a simple workers döner joint and it was very tasty.

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The van had been sitting in the sun for a few hours so when we got in after lunch we felt like döner ourselves for the drive to Diyarbakir.  It took just about the whole trip to cool down.  The AC in the back of the van is useless!

Diyarbakir is a large city with a population of 1 million and it is sort of the default Kurdish capital.  We stopped first at an 11th century bridge over the Tigris river and had a chai in the shade as we admired the bridge before heading up into the old town for a street stroll.  It seems like a nice city – the people are very friendly, smile a lot and offer you samples to try (sugared almonds, a basil drink called Rehan, a coffee drink called “dibek”, the “fruit leather” called “pestil”).  It was interesting just to walk along and look at all the wares for sale.  In the bazaar the old caravanserai, Hasan Pasha Hani (1575), has been restored and is now a very appealing area for restaurants and cafes.

We ate dinner with Adem and Orhan and tried the local speciality which is liver kebab (ciğer kebabı) –very tasty.  We then walked a short way to a special shop serving kadayif, another local dessert made of a sort of shredded pastry stuffed with pistachio nuts.


Wednesday, 02 October 2019

Another long day starting at 08:30 and finally getting to our next hotel in Urfa at 19:30.

We started with a walk along a short section of the city walls around the main bastion.  Diyarbakir apparently has the second longest intact old wall in the world after the Great Wall of China.  It is quite impressive.  While we were in the old bastion area we also looked at the Hazrat Suleiman mosque which is the 5th most important mosque in Islam as it house the tombs of 27 of the Prophet Mohammed’s “disciples”.  Next we visited another very good history museum containing a lot of the relics discovered in the area to be flooded by the new Ilusu dam.  It would seem that anywhere you strike the ground with a spade around here you are going to come up with some relic.

Like most places in Mesopotamia, Diyarbakir has a long and convoluted history (since the Palaeolithic age).  To quote from the brochure we were given: “starting around the 3rd millennium BC by the Hurrians, then the Mitanni, the city was ruled by a long list of regional kingdoms, caliphates and empires including the Assyrians, Aramean, Scythians, Medes, Persians, Macedonian, Seleucid, Parthian, Armenian, Roman, Sassanid, Byzantine, Umayyad, Abbasid, Seyhogullari, Hamdani, Marwanid, Seljuk, Beyliks, Artuqid, Ayyubid, Ak Koyunlu, Turcoman, Safavid and Ottoman!

While we were up on the wall Adem pointed out an area of new housing development and said that it was the area of fighting and bombing during the battles between Government and PKK forces as recently as 2014 – 2015.  Gaziantep was the centre of a lot of PKK activity.  We asked what finally settled the conflict down between the PKK and the Government and he seemed to think that it was the Kurds coming to realise that Turkey could descend into the same chaos as Iraq and Syria if they continued.  It would seem that the Government has met them halfway in terms of loosening controls of the ban on their language, culture etc. and has been spending a huge amount of money in Eastern Turkey in recent years on infrastructure.  Maybe there are some good stories in the world after all, but of course you would never hear it on the news.

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What has surprised us about this holiday in Turkey has been that we came expecting “Turkish” culture and have instead been immersed in “Kurdish” culture.  Kurds, incidentally are completely different to Turks.  Actually they were here for a thousand years before the Turks barged in from Central Asia.  Their language has completely different roots and they may have drifted up to this part of the World from the region of present day Yemen.  In ancient times they were the Medes.

Next we visited the main Diyarbakir mosque, Ulu Camii, which started as a pagan temple, then a Roman temple, then a synagogue, then a church, then a mosque all the while without it being totally destroyed and rebuilt each time.  Consequently, it is an unusual mosque.

The mosque was followed by coffee refreshments in the covered caravanserai and a return visit to the amber shop for a little bracelet.

We next visited a “Dengbej” house where older Kurdish men gather to “sing their history”.  Half a dozen guys meet every day except Mondays and take turns in singing episodes of Kurdish history.  This is how they kept their culture alive during the decades of Turkish repression.  It was a genuine and quite moving experience to sit and listen to and quite different to the “folkloric” performances put on for coach tours.  You can listen to a short video clip below.

(Older) Kurdish men still maintain their traditional dress of baggy “harem” pants and waistcoat but have largely given up wearing turbans.  The ladies do not seem to cover as much as their Turkish sisters and can be quite attractive.

After a sumptuous lunch in a nicely converted hammam it was a long and hot afternoon’s drive.  We have renamed our van the Mercedes Tandoor and we sit in the back roasting like a pair of kebabs.  All the money got spent on the panelling and the curtains and the AC is crappy.  The big lunch and the heat put us to sleep until we arrived at Ataturk dam on the Euphrates river.  Ataturk dam is the 3rd largest dam in the World (never sure how these things are measured – reservoir volume, dam volume, dam height).  Anyway, it was big at about 180 m high.  Clive was happy.

A final hour and a half drive into Urfa then half an hour in horrible traffic and a few missed turns before we finally arrived at our next hotel.

Turkey has a population of about 80 million and even out here in remote Eastern Turkey every city we come to gets bigger and more modern than the last.  We started at Kars with about 100,00, then Van with 500,000, then Diyarbakir with 1,000,000 now Urfa with 2,000,000.  All of them with Kurdish majority populations and all of them looking modern and thriving.  Such a change from the scruffy, destitute villages and towns in Georgia and Armenia.  The roads in Turkey are generally better than the roads in Australia but are suffering in the larger cities with too much traffic.

There are an awful lot of army/police road block installations in this area but mostly at present they are unmanned.  Also, quite a lot of the police vehicles are armoured and armed.  But then on a clear day you can probably see Syria from most of the route we have been following for the last few days.

We arrived late in Urfa and there was some difficulty in finding the hotel again.  The small “butik” hotels don’t have signs out the front and it’s easy to go past them without knowing.  Often the locals don’t even know about them.  We had eaten such a large lunch and it was late so we did not bother with dinner.  The hotel is nice and was once something to do with the Church of the 12 Apostles immediately next door (now a mosque).


© Cheryl & Clive Miller 2019-20