About an hour and a half north of Midyat, and just outside of Mardin Province, lies the small village of Hasankeyf. A small and rustic village nestled on the shores of the Euphrates River, Hasankeyf is about as picturesque a place as anyone could possibly imagine. Although the modern city is not much to look at – as is generally the case with modern Turkish cities – historic Hasankeyf lines the banks of the river. Also noted for it’s hiking and interesting geography, Hasankeyf has at times been called the Capadoccia of the East.
Due to the protracted military conflict between the Turkish military and Kurdish rebels – which luckily seem has come to an end, finally – South Eastern Turkey has long been a no-go zone for tourists. With the easing of tensions in recent years the wonders of Turkey’s south is becoming a more and more enticing option. At the top of the list for any would be traveler in this area should be Mardin, a truly cosmopolitan city overlooking the fertile plains of Mesopotamia.
The wealth of Mardin is hard to put into words. An old city built on top of a mountain, crowned with a castle, Mardin is much more Arabic than Turkish. Mardin is actually unique in Turkey in that the general spoken language in the city is Arabic, the language in the province is Kurdish, but the national language is still Turkish. If you’re lucky, you can also hear and see scatterings of Syriac – one of the few living dialects of Aramaic – still spoken by the Syriac Christian community of the city. Mardin is also apparently home to members of the elusive and secretive Yazidi Community – a faith that seemingly blends together elements from Gnostic Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism, among other faiths.
The wealth of Mardin is not just measured in people. The city is known throughout Turkey as being the home of the best handcrafted silver goods available. The silversmith trade was a noted profession of Syriacs, and would often be passed down through a family line in older days. Syriac wine is also famous, and the main street of old Mardin is full of authentic wine stores selling their goods to Turkish tourists and city locals alike. The main street of the city functions as a checkerboard of dried fruits from the Mesopotamian plain, Syriac wine, and silver stores.
The wealth of Mardin also manifests itself in the buildings of the city. Similar to the old city of Urfa, old Mardin is a maze of narrow streets and older honey colored stone houses, with the addition of immense madrassas interspersed with ancient churches. Rooftop cafes rise throughout the city, competing for views of the plains below while the Leylan Cafe and Kitab bookstore in the center of the city sells wine, as well as books in Turkish, Kurdish, and Farsi.
The wealth of Mardin is something that must be experienced rather than read about, seen not heard about. Although a long way from the normal tourist destinations of Istanbul and Turkey’s western coast, Mardin is a must see. The warmth of the people alone – a mixture of the general Turkish/Kurdish/Arabic love of guests, coupled with a small town feel – makes Mardin a city I will never forget.
Forty kilometers east of the Turkish city of Kars, high on the windswept steppe, is piece of land jutting into Armenia like a dagger. Surrounded on three sides by deep, nearly impassable chasms and the barbed wire fence denoting the still closed border between Turkey and Armenia, lies the ruins on the ancient city of Ani – the one time capital of the greater Armenian Kingdom of the Middle Ages.
Aside from a brief trip to Kadıköy with Jen while in Istanbul, I had never managed to find myself on the Asian side of Istanbul for any particularly long stretch of time. Although the vast majority of all touristic sites are on the European side – the original site of Constantinople and old Istanbul – the Asian side still always had a certain allure to it. Maybe it was just something as simple as the fact that, although the Asian side is a different continent, it is still completely visible.
Regardless of why I was attracted to this side of the city, I managed to get my wish to explore it in detail after I returned from Germany. I had a one day stop-over in Istanbul before continuing on my way to Tel Aviv the next day, and I was very kindly welcomed to the city by an old student of my mom’s – Umut. Although we had never met before – we had only ever e-mailed each other – Umut and his family instantly and happily took me in and gave me a bed to sleep in for my night in the city. They even lived on the Asian side – lucky me!
When Jen came to visit Istanbul – over a month ago, as hard as that is to believe – she had one major goal for what she wanted to see in the city: the Aya Sofya. Although Istanbul is a magnificent city worth much more than it’s well known tourist draws, Jen was right to have that be her goal. One should not go to there and not bother seeing the Aya Sofya and the old city where Constantinople, and Byzantion before that, once stood. So, on Jen’s last day in the city, we set out to see the touristic Istanbul.
Seeing Istanbul by night from the Galata Tower really inspired me for the travels I later took in Germany and Israel – specifically, I developed the philosophy that if there is a hill or mountain behind any sort of city or town, climb it! The views offered in reward for this are almost always worth it.
The first iteration of this rule in practice was the climbing of Schlossberg behind Freiburg with my mom. Although we had no idea what was at the top of the hill, we were treated to fantastic views of the city at the top. Also unbeknownst to us, but heavily implied by the mountains name (Schloss means castle in German), was the old fortifications of Medieval Freiburg – awesome!
I am generally terrified of heights. It’s something that I’ve been trying to overcome for the past couple of years, with increased vigor here in Turkey so I don’t miss out on anything worth seeing; which is a lot! Civilizations just love to build tall monuments on top of even taller mountains. It was with this mindset that Jen and I set out to reach the top of Galata Tower a few hours before our New Year’s festivities were to start (you can read about those adventures here).
I’ve noticed that the more I travel the more interested I become in smaller intricacies of each city I see – particularly graffiti. Having just come back home to Malatya from almost three weeks of traveling in Istanbul, Germany and Israel, I am amazed by the amount of amazingly artistic work I saw and the range of topics covered. Particularly interesting was how a large portion of all the art was in English – I guess the world of graffiti is flat.
As 2012 wraps to a close, I feel compelled to give a special post of ‘Turkey in Review.’ I’ve been extremely fortunate with the amount I’ve been able to travel and see within the past four months and, although I’ve missed a lot, I can’t help but be happy with what I’ve seen. So, without further ado, here is a quick and dirty review of some hot-spots in Turkey for any of you thinking of traveling in this amazing country.
Visiting Mount Nemrut (Nemrut Dağı) was my first major Turkish excursion, and it also featured prominently on my life bucket list. Built as a burial mound on top of one of the highest peaks for the king of the Commagene Kingdom in South Eastern Turkey, the mountain is definitely worth a visit, though maybe not necessarily for the reasons you may think.
Our meeting with Fırsat on the bus to Hatay proved to truly be an auspicious start to one of the most enjoyable weekends I’ve spent in Turkey yet. Although, if I had to wager, I would say that it would be very difficult to not enjoy a weekend in the old city of Antioch – in very few places have I truly gotten the feeling of a vibrant city feeling right at home being the place where history and modernity collide.
For example, although being on the border with Syria and having a strong Middle Eastern influence, Hatay was extremely casual in terms of dress. Whereas Malatya is much more conservative with any inter-sex displays of affection or any sort of daring clothing, women in Hatay “commonly wear mini-skirts, if you’ve noticed” as Fırsat had earlier put it with a wink at me and Fabio over tea. This is all the more interesting when put into context – you’re almost as likely to see a Syrian rebel enjoying some R&R in Hatay in full combat fatigues or military boots as one of these modern ladies.
This past weekend, after being completed exhausted from my Istanbul trip, I decided to take it easy and relax in, and around, Malatya for a change; however, I very quickly became antsy – no matter how much Breaking Bad I was watching – and I decided to go check out the old city of Harput in Elazığ, Malatya’s neighboring province and longtime rival. I had thought I would be alone, having only made plans Friday night for Saturday, but my German neighbor Suzanne was also intrigued and volunteered to come along with me.
So, on Saturday we set out together. After a bus into the city center of Malatya, a mini-bus from Malatya to the center of Elazığ, another mini-bus to a different bus terminal, and then a final short bus ride we had arrived at Harput. Harput reminded me instantly of Battalgazı – b0th are smaller, historic cities that are quickly becoming depopulated and swallowed up by the new city built below it. Whereas Elazığ is a thoroughly modern city, Harput has apparently been the city of dwellings – and castles – since at least the 8th century BC. Pretty intense!
The original reason that I had set my eyes on visiting Harput was its historical significance. One of the first cities built by the Turks when they arrived in Anatolia, the city remained an important trade-hub and strategic location up through the fall of the Ottoman Empire; today, however, much of the city’s former greatness has been lost following a devastating earthquake a few decades ago. The city is only now truly being restored to it’s former glory. Due to this, the Harput kalesi – which I had hoped to be thoroughly impressed by – was a bit of a let down as only the stronger outer walls survived the devastation.
The views from the castle’s summit outpost continued to be fantastic, though, especially since modern Elazığ is built in the valley below. I had also been hoping to be able to explore the castle’s dungeons – which one housed Count Baldwin, a crusader king – but they were also unfortunately blocked off. By complete chance, though, Suzanne and I stumbled upon the remains of Mother Mary Church – now just the collapsing outer walls of what was once probably a beautiful structure. This, and the peaceful fall colors of the surrounding hills, made up for any disappointment the castle may have caused.
After what we wrongly presumed would be a light lunch – typically – Suzanne and I visited the other famous sight of Harput, Ulu Camii (the Grand Mosque). Although not incredibly interesting or beautiful without context – it is a simple rectangular mosque, which is technically interesting since it follows the Arab design instead of the round design the Turks would later adopt from Orthodox Christians – the mosque is renowned for two reasons: it is one of the first mosques built by the Turks in Anatolia, and it also has a famous leaning minaret which is still in use although it constantly looks ready to topple.
On the way back from the mosque we also stumbled upon the shrine, and burial sight, of Mansur Baba – a Sufi saint from the region. Apparently Harput is full of folk heroes and saint shrines, but unfortunately we did not have time to find the rest and we begin our multiple bus trips back to Malatya.
All in all, Harput may not have been the most amazing place I have seen in Turkey. I did see a beautiful sunset from the mountains there, though, and the historical context of the area certainly made it fascinating in retrospect. There is something about visiting historical sights, especially when they are still living, that truly helps to put give life some sort of, perhaps not perspective, but emphasis.
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It was Friday night, and I was staring at a restaurant menu along with three other Fulbrighters in shock. The prices listed were at best twice as expensive as anything I’d seen. Even more surprising, alcohol – several types of alcohol, to be exact – were listed alongside the food. Quickly, the restaurant that had only a few minutes before sat only us, began to fill up as more and more people came in from the street. I can’t believe this, I thought to myself, I’m going through culture shock. Where am I?
I was in Istanbul, and I had never felt further from Malatya.