Southeastern Turkey: Throne of Gods
Mesopotamia (meaning "between the rivers") has been home to the earliest known human civilizations. The rivers Tigris (Dicle) and Euphrates (Fırat) have created such a fertile land. The cradle of civilizations have witnessed the traces of Sumerians, Hittites, Assyrians, Babylonians and Persians to Romans, Seljuks and Ottomans.
With hot temperatures in summer and way cold in winter, the best time to visit the eastern Turkey, is late spring, early summer or early autumn. Even then, you should be prepared for a huge diurnal range between day and night.
Let's discover together the hidden gems in the Southeastern Anatolia.
Diyarbakir, known in ancient times as Amida, has been a cradle of 26 civilizations during its 5000 year history. Surrounded by world’s second longest city walls, Diyarbakır Castle has 82 watch-towers; the most important of which is Goat Tower (Keçi Burcu), built on a sun temple and has been used as a jail for years and now used for art events and concerts. The city is recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status for the castle and Hevsel Gardens Cultural Landscape alongside the city walls. The bustling bazaar, centuries-old mosques (look for the beautiful Great and Safa Mosques) and churches (including the very first church built in the 1st century that was solely devoted to the Virgin Mary, the atmospheric Mar Petyun Keldani and Surp Giragos Churches), Deliller Caravanserai (today a hotel) can be on your attraction list.
Hasankeyf, a town of the city of Batman, is deemed to be one of the oldest continuously inhabited settlements of the world, looking back over a history of 10,000 years and no less than 20 cultures. Seemingly carved out from the cliffs along Tigris river, the town has been placed on the World Monuments Fund’s Watchlist of 100 most endangered sites in the world. The most emblematic landmark is the medieval bridge, built in 1116 by the Selcuks, the remains of which span the river. The long planned hydroelectric Ilısu dam will unfortunately leave the ancient site under water. Six monuments including Zeynel Bey Tomb, the 13th-century Artuklu Hammam and El-Rızık Mosque have been relocated last year to a new site. Before the rest of the town, including the medieval bridge from 1116 by the Selcuks, is gone for good, hurry up to see; looks like it's postponed some more days only 🙁 Make sure to enjoy unique views from the 135-meter long suspension bridge over dam lake.
An hour’s drive from Mardin is the charming and rustic old town of Midyat. Midyat is originally an Assyrian/Syriac (not to be confused with people from Syria) town in Mardin Province of Turkey. Syriac orthodox churches exist within the old city but the highlight is the Culture House, often the setting for Turkish film sets. The steeples of nine Syrian Orthodox churches peep up above the houses, although services are no longer held in most of them. In Mor Gabriel Monastery, 20 km to the east, church services are still held in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. Filigree silver processing is famous in the area, so you might wanna check out the silver shops around, girls 😉
Mardin, perched on a mountaintop, commands magnificent views of the immense plain below which stretches deep into Syria. The gorgeous hilltop city is characterized by its stone houses, crowning citadel as well as its narrow pedestrian-only streets. Considered an open-air museum due to its historical architecture, most buildings in Mardin use the beige colored limestone rock which has been mined for centuries in quarries around the area.
Turkey's most impressive former Post Office is housed in a 17th-century caravanserai covered with carvings, including teardrops in stone dripping down the walls.
Şehidiye Mosque is presumed to have been built by Artuqid Sultan Melik in the beginning of the 13rd century with the added-on minaret in 1917 by Armanian architect Lole. Latifiye Mosque, my favourite, is a big courtyard mosque with the best conserved portal among Mardin buildings. Similarly, it was built by Abdullatif who served to Artuqid sultans in 1371 and the minaret by Musul Governor Gürcü Mehmed Pasha in 1845.
The cavalry barracks commissioned during the reign of Sultan Abdülhamid II today serves as Sakıp Sabancı Mardin City Museum. It presents city’s long history and multicultural identity through photographs, handicrafts and items.
The Monastery of St. Ananias (Deyrulzafaran), about five km east of Mardin, is located in a shallow basin surrounded by mountains. It was the seat of the Patriarch of Antioch until 1932 and today it's the seat of the Metropolitan of the diocese of the Syrian church of Mardin. Its name derived from the saffron colored sandstone which was used for the construction of the monastery. The monastery was originally erected upon the ruins of a pagan temple. The remains down below and a huge collection of scripts and books, documenting the history of the Syriacs, the learned monks and patriarchs can be visited.
Kasımiye Madrasa, is a two storey building centred around an oblong courtyard leading way to an astonishing view of old Mesopotamia. Once an old Islamic school built in 15th century by Sultan Kasım Bey who from Aqquyunlu, the monument today serves as El Cezire Art Museum.
30 km from Mardin city center, is the Ancient City of Dara. The Roman city was featured prominently in the Roman-Persian conflicts of the 6th century, with the famous Battle of Dara taking place before its walls in 530 AD. Located on the Silk Road, the city is known as the Ephesus of Mesopotamia in ancient sources. Established as a military garrison town in the 6th century by Roman Empire, Dara was even under the Arabian invasion a century later. An important note is that 70% of Dara is still under the ground.
Sanliurfa was praised as the city of the prophets Abraham, Eyüp, Hiob, Jethro and St. George, who were said to have lived here. The cave in which Prophet Eyüp had suffered leprosy disease in the name of God is visited as the Position of the Prophet Eyüp. Carp-laden lake (Balıklı Göl) is where prophet Abraham was thrown into the fire by King Nimrod and God turned the flames into water and logs into fish. Nimrod had in fact all the male babies killed after a soothsayer's projection. Abraham who had survived it by being secretly born in a cave (Mevlid-i Halilulrahman), years later had denied the paganist divinity and was thrown into fire from the citadel because of it. Could you have imagined this is the same event that motivated the creation of çiğ köfte, the famous raw dish of the area! According to lore, when King Nimrod collected all of the wood in Urfa in order to build the execution pyre, the wife of a hunter came up with the idea to prepare venison raw in the absence of firewood. She mixed the meat with bulgur (a type of wheat), herbs and spices and crushed the mixture with stone implements until it was palatable. This fatless, raw, minced meat is treated with spices while kneading the mixture, which is said to "cook" the meat.
To capture the spirit of Urfa, wander through the vaulted bazaar and linger in the courtyards of Barutçu or Gümrük Inns joining locals sipping tea. If you ask me, the most interesting thing around was men wearing lilac headscarves; yes, not just women but also men! I also respect their tolerance to tourists 🙂
South of Urfa, close to the border with Syria, is the extraordinary village of Harran. Harran is an ancient site that has earned many mentions in the Bible, among others, that this is the place where Adam and Eve came after they were expelled from the Garden of Eden. The village is the site of the remains of Turkey’s oldest mosque, university and of a ‘show village’ of beehive houses. Surprisingly big inside and with very high conic ceilings, these houses are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. As a part of the tour you get to learn about the ancient farm implements and other artifacts used by the local population and even try kaftans (local dresses)!
City's most famous and recent attraction is Göbekli Tepe (‘Pot-bellied Hill’), the world’s earliest temple sanctuary. Its rock-carved animal reliefs date to 9000 BC, a full 3,000 years before the earliest known city. First unearthed in 1995, the Unesco World Heritage contains monumental circular and rectangular megalithic structures, interpreted as enclosures, which were erected by hunter-gatherers likely to be used in rituals.
The route to Mount Nemrut takes you past the massive Atatürk Dam, a spectacular gorge to Karadut and Kahta with stop at the historical Roman bridge at Cendere and Karakuş Tumulus. Cendere Bridge, the second largest preserved arch bridge from Roman times, was built during the Roman emperor Severus reign (193 - 211 BC). The Karakuş Tumulus is a funerary monument for Queen Isias, Princesses Antiochis and Aka I of Commagene, built by Mithridates II of Commagene in 30–20 BC, near the modern village of Çukurtaş.
Mount Nemrut in the city of Adıyaman, is one of Turkey’s most astounding sights. Lost to memory for 2000 years and rediscovered by a geologist in 1881, Mount Nemrut National Park is home to two hierothesiums, open-air shrines to the gods, with huge limestone statues of Apollo, Fortuna, Zeus, Heracles, and Antiochus I Epiphanes, King of Commagene. In the 1st century BC, King Antiochus had a tomb-like monument built for himself atop the 2134 meter high Mount Nemrut. Flanking the tumulus are giant statues of himself (in their original upright state, they would have been eight to nine meters tall), lions, eagles and various gods. Visiting this site involves a rather strenuous climb of a few hundred meters, so be prepared. Once at the top, you will be amply rewarded with the sight of the giant statues, the magnificent stone carvings and the breathtaking panorama of the adjacent mountains, valleys and the Atatürk dam-lake. The UNESCO World Heritage site is at its most dramatic either at sunset or sunrise and the views from the summit are sublime. Bring warm clothes, though, as there is always a cool breeze at the summit.
Sixty kilometers away from Adıyaman, lies the summer capital of the Commagene Kingdom, Arsemia Temple. Withing the complex, The Dexiosis Relief shows a hand-shaking scene between King Mithradates and Hercules, carved in about 50 BC. The largest rock inscription in Anatolia tells of the political intentions and the religious beliefs of the Commagene Kingdom. Above this inscription, following the path up the mountainside, are the foundations and mosaic floors of the Arsameia Palace.
Halfeti's old town remained under water when Birecik Dam was completed on Euphrates River in 2000. In 2013, Halfeti became a member of "Citta' Slow". The town can be visited by small boats that can be hired along the shore. The most dramatic views of the Old Halfeti when you sail around on the boat are semi-submerged houses made of stone, trees, mosque minarets, remnants of the old castle and palace and other historical monuments that can be seen over and under the water.
Gaziantep is an important agricultural and industrial center, and is famous for its copperware, pistachio nuts and baklava. In the city center, you’ll find the Gaziantep Fortress and The Ravanda Citadel. The ancient city of Zeugma (meaning "the bridgehead") on the River Euphrates has been described in international literature as the ‘second Pompeii’, as it was discovered under the rubble of a 2000 year old earthquake. The museum, second largest of its kind, the mosaics unearthed a total of 2,500 square meters. The outstanding archeological exhibits at the Zeugma Mosaics Museum display the extent of the wealth of the people back then. Notice the beauty of the Gypsy Girl mosaic "Maenad" from 2nd century AD, as well as the bronze statue of Ares the God of War.
Yesemek houses the largest open air sculpture workshop of Antique Front Asia. The site was first discovered in the 1890s and excavations in the middle of the last century uncovered some 300 half-finished orthostats or stone statues. Research suggests that the quarry was active during two separate periods: during the Great Hittite era from the 15th to 12th centuries BC, and then again in the Late Hittite era between the 9th and 8th centuries. The statues, probably intended to be used as gateposts and weighing up to 15 tons each, can be divided into three main categories depicting lions, sphinxes, and bearded mountain gods. Do, definitely, add this place on your itinerary. The pleasing sound of the stream cascading down the hillside completes the beautiful scenery.
Home to one of modern Turkey’s most cosmopolitan religious and ethnic make-ups, Antakya has been a crossroads for civilizations for ages. As an important early center of Christianity, the city houses many churches. Church of St. Pierre is the earliest place where newly converted Christians met and prayed in secret. The pilgrimage site itself is a cave carved church into Mount Staurin.
World’s largest display area for mosaics is here in Antakya Archeology Museum. The museum contains one of the world's finest collections of Roman and Byzantine mosaics, recovered from Antakya, Harbiye, Tarsus and Roman Mediterranean seaside villas, covering a period from the 1st century AD to the 5th century.
Very recently, during the construction of The Museum Hotel Antakya, 1050 square meters of mosaic was discovered. This priceless mosaic rug, created by 13 different ancient civilizations, is exhibited (as a raised basement) along with other findings in the hotel. What a precious stay that would be!
Antakya has recently been selected to become the fourth UNESCO World City of Gastronomy so make sure to check out some culinary around.
Don't forget to talk to the locals, they are a delight to have a chat with. They will find their way, don't worry 🙂
As per itinerary suggestions, I'll share my option as a short but intense one. My tour started in Diyarbakır and ended in Adana (convenient for the airport but skipping Adana itself in fact). Since there are too many things to see, you can decide to extend it as you wish. You can opt to add Van to your list. The underrated trending destination is waiting to be discovered. Check out my blog post solely on the area.
Day1: Diyarbakır - Hasankeyf - Midyat
Day2: Mardin - Urfa
Day3: Harran - Göbeklitepe - Adıyaman
Day4: Halfeti - Gaziantep
Day5: Yesemek - Antakya
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