Diane and I have just returned from a long-awaited and very interesting 8 day tour of southeastern Türkiye, reported to be the origin of civilization itself. Unlike most of eastern Türkiye, the southeast is not mountainous, but rather an arid plateau at about 600 meters altitude. The region is more or less bordered by the great historical rivers, the Tigris (Dicle) in the east and the Euphrates (Fırat) in the west. Many of the people living here are Turkish citizens of Kurdish descent.
Evidently, the land can be fertile if it is irrigated. That is why the Turkish government has invested decades of work and trillions of Turkish Lira in the Southeastern Anatolia project. This giant public works venture has brought dozens of dams and hundreds of kilometres of aqueducts to the region, vastly increasing its capacity to grow crops and supply electricity. This once poor region is beginning to show the results of massive long-term investment.
We started on a Thursday, when we were taken by van from Alanya to Antalya, where we spent the night in a hotel and then took an early morning flight to Adana, connecting with a tour bus to Antakya (a distance of 210km). On the way Friday morning, we stopped for a group “Turkish” breakfast.
At Antakya, we visited the Hatay Archaeology Museum – known for its extensive collection of Roman and Byzantine Era mosaics. There are many important artifacts from the Paleolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic, Bronze Age, Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman, Eastern Roman, Seljuk and Ottoman periods in the museum. Of particular interest, we looked at a display about cranial deformation. Recovered skulls appear elongated as a result of being bound during infancy and early childhood when the cranium is still soft. A few of the human figurines recovered have been depicted in ways that suggest elongation of their heads. In this photo, Eric stands behind one of the recovered skulls to provide a baseline for comparison.
This statue of the Hatay Hittite King (soldier) is one of their most popular exhibits.
The Hatay museum is well known for it’s collection of mosaic floors that have been removed, carefully transported and relocated for display. Amazing.
Of course, this sarcophagus, discovered in the basement of an apartment building under construction is pretty significant as well.
Under the Romans, Antioch-ad-Orontes (Antakya) was the capital of the province of Syria with about 500,000 inhabitants. It became one of the empire’s largest cities – only Rome and Alexandria were larger – with a sizeable Jewish community. Saint Peter came here to preach, and Saints Paul and Barnabas used it as a base for missionary work. There were many converts from the local Jewish community, but it was here that the Saints decided to extend their mission to the Gentiles and call their followers Christians. We visited the first cave church in the world, originally built for the Apostle Peter – and modified to a three nave church in the 11th century AD. Peter, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus came to Hatay and made his first religious meeting in this cave. According the the Catholic Church, he is the first Pope and Jesus’s heir. He was killed by crucifixion in 67AD by order of Emperor Nero of Rome.
Next, we stopped to see 23 centuries of history on 3D display at the Necmi Asfuroğlu Archaeology Museum – also known as the Museum Hotel. When construction started on this hotel in 2010, they discovered what ended up being the world’s largest intact mosaic floor. Thirteen different civilizations (over fifteen centuries) are believed to have contributed to the mosaic, beginning in 300BC when the Greeks were ruling this area. Naturally, construction of the hotel was halted for six months while excavations took place. Then it was decided to shift gears and incorporate the antiquities into the modern hotel. The owners invested ten years in excavations and hotel construction.
Afterwards, we stopped in at the first mosque of Anatolia – the Habib’i Neccar mosque. In Antiquity, there was most probably a pagan temple in place of this current mosque. During the Christian era, it was converted into a church named after John the Baptist. In the Medieval Age, the city was captured first by the Rashidun Caliphate in 637, by the Byzantine Empire in 969, by the Seljuk Turks in 1084, by the Crusaders in 1098, and by the Baibars of the Mamluk Sultanate in 1268. Each time, the building was changed from church to mosque and from mosque to church, and of course has suffered from earthquake damage over the years.
Saturday morning, we stopped at the Harbiye waterfalls, located in a pleasant natural park full of cafes and restaurants. This photo (taken at 9am) shows restaurant seating where your feet are in the cold water while dining – a popular feature during the summer heat. The water rushes down the slopes, supporting dozens of restaurants and scenic views.
I bought this little stone carving of a Hatay region Hittite King (symbolic of the Iron Age), a memorable souvenir from a local stone carver for only 50TL ($3USD).
In the valley, on the way to Gaziantep, we saw a lot of different crops growing (corn and cotton being the most common), and farm workers were picking cotton by hand. We continued on to the city of Gaziantep (a distance of 205km), one of the oldest cities of Hittite origin. The city was part of the Kingdom of Armenia, the Hittite Empire, the Persian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, among others.
Gaziantep, we visited the world famous Zeugma Mosaic Museum with a rich collection of Mosaics from the ancient city of Zeugma – largely flooded by the construction of the Biricik dam.
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Here we saw the famous Gypsy Girl (comparable in Display to the Mona Lisa).
We were very impressed, but had our fill of mosaics by now.
After lunch, we stopped at Gaziantep Castle, first built by the Hittite Empire as an observation point and later fortified by the Roman Empire into a main castle on top of a hill in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. It underwent further expansion and renovation under Emperor Justinian between 527 and 565 AD. The circumference of the round castle is 1200 meters. The walls are made of stone and the castle consists of 12 towers. Inside the castle the story of Türkiye’s war of independence is told using posed figures and story boards – very similar to what we saw in Ankara at Anitkabir (Atatürk Mausoleum).
We walked through the authentic old quarter of Gaziantep and the very cozy coppersmith’s bazaar. Here, we were amazed by the quantity of peppers on display.
In the evening, we went out for a cultural evening and dinner. Although this was planned for 7pm, and our group arrived at 7pm, there were problems. There was no printed menu, so you had to use your phone to read a QR code, and see the menu online. When the waiter came to take our orders, he went on to explain that despite the lack of printed menus, most items had different costs than what is displayed (even on the Internet – due to inflation (which made everyone very suspicious). For example, my meal was 170TL instead of 169TL – so, no big deal. But, when the food was delivered at 8:15pm, of 14 guests – both Diane and I were the only ones who did not get a meal, any meal. To make matters worse, it was obvious that several groups who arrived after us were already midway through their meals when “most of ours” arrived. So, Diane and I, announcing our zero tolerance for idiots – simply walked out and opted out of any further evening group meals. It was simpler for us, and Diane went on the Internet later that evening to write a scathing review of the restaurant’s service. Very fitting I would say. One of the not talked about challenges for this trip is to actually find good restaurants that have alcohol on their menu. Apparently, many of the locals will not frequent restaurants that serve alcohol. As we realized in the coming days, alcohol was nearly never on the menu.
On Sunday, we passed groves of pistachio trees, where the nuts are harvested in July/August every year. The trees were only 2 – 2.5m tall but can bear fruit up to 300 years. There were also many olive groves, trees that can bear fruit for 2,000 years.
We took a boat trip on the Euphrates River, the longest and one of the most historically important rivers of Western Asia. Together with the Tigris, it is one of the two defining rivers of Mesopotamia. Originating in Turkey, the Euphrates flows through Syria and Iraq to join the Tigris in the Shatt al-Arab, which empties into the Persian Gulf.
These are the remains of a Roman era castle, currently under restoration.
This trip took us to the half-flooded village of Halfeti. flooded when a damn was installed some years ago. The water is about 60 feet deep at this point, evidenced by the partially submerged minaret.
Several times over the course of this trip, we happened upon women, and also men – dancing to their traditional music. They didn’t dance for us, not for any money – just because they wanted to. It’s their culture.
Later, during a lunch stop, we saw some men playing OKEY at a coffee shop.
As we closed in on Mount Nemrut, we drove alongside a rare site in Türkiye, a producing oil well near the Karakus Temple. Remarkably, I discovered that there are 4 oil refineries in Türkiye, although national oil production is very low.
We walked over this Roman Cender bridge, built over 2000 years ago, made entirely of stone blocks, no iron (250m long, 7m wide). Up until 10 years ago, it was in regular use – until they built a new modern bridge nearby.
In the UNESCO-listed area of Mount Nemrut, we visited the Karakuş burial mound. This is an ancient burial monument known as a Royal mausoleum. It was built at the time of the Commagene Kingdom by King Mithridates II for his monther Queen Isias and two sisters, Princesses Antichos and Aka I in 30-20 BC. The monument consists of three Doric columns, each 9m/30ft high on top of a hill that rises high above the surround terrain with views for miles in all directions. The columns are topped with reliefs and statues of a bull, lion and eagle.
Next on the agenda was Mount Nemrut: a majestic burial mound at the top of the mountain constructed over 2100 years ago – and named one of the 100 must-visit places by the International Association of Travellers. After driving to a parking spot “near the top” of Mount Nemrut (starting temperature 18.5C), and a challenging uphill march of about 50 minutes (with thinning air), we reached the large burial mound that King Antiochos of Kommagene had built for himself (altitude 2150m) in the year 100BC.
After viewing the great statues of the gods at sunset on the east and west terraces and enjoying the unbeatable view (temperature had now dropped to less than 12C at bus level, not mountain level), and taking a few sunset pictures we (together with a few hundred other tourists) proceeded to the hotel for the night (departing at 1815).
We stayed overnight at a hotel in Adiyaman and on Monday, we drove to Urfa (distance 242km) and first stopped at the Ataturk dam, essential for the electrical and agricultural improvements in this area. It was constructed by Turkish engineers in the 1980 – 1992 timeframe and has 8 turbines.
We had a chat with two women picking cotton on their father’s farm. The one who has her hair covered is married. This farm is a good example of how the GAP agricultural project has enriched these people’s farms and livelihood through irrigation.
At Urfa, (the city of the prophets), there was a lot to see. The Prophet Abraham lived around 2000BC. He rejected the claim that Nimrut, the ruler of Urfa was God. Abraham destroyed statues worshipped by the people of Urfa and this incited the local idol worshipers to burn and “support their Gods”. A great fire was set on the place where we now see the lake. Abraham was thrown into the fire, and God cooled the fire. According to tradition, the place of the fire turned into water and the glowing embers of the fire into goldfish.
We visited the cave of the birthplace of the Prophet Abraham (2000BC).
Later, at Harran, there is a display of the last remaining Syrian houses built with mud. The city of Harran is mentioned in the Old Testament in the Book of Genisis and has a history of more than 6,000 years. The people living there are descendants of Akkadian and Sumerian peoples, and speak Arabic as a first language, together with Turkish and many also speak English. The city is well positioned along the historic Silk Road. These houses are located a mere 10km from the Syrian border, yet we saw no sign of refugees or any increased military presence.
These old-style beehive style houses were warm in the winter and cool in the summer.
Overnight, we stayed in Urfa and of course, had some very tasty kebobs.
On Tuesday morning we drove to Göbeklitepe (a UNESCO site) (literally “Potbelly Hill”), the place where human history is being rewritten. This historic site is the oldest discovered temple in the world and was built between 9,000 and 10,500 BC. It is more than 6,000 years older than Stonehenge in England and the pyramids of Egypt . As of 2021, less than 5% of the site has been excavated. Some have suggested that the site was chosen because of it’s high vantage location and proximity to good hard quarry stone.
The site comprises a number of large circular structures supported by massive stone pillars – the world’s oldest known megaliths.
Evidence indicates that the inhabitants were hunter-gatherers who supplemented their diet with early forms of domesticated cereal and lived in villages for at least part of the year. Tools such as grinding stones and mortar & pestle were analyzed and suggest considerable cereal processing. Archaeological evidence hints at large-scale hunting of gazelle between midsummer and autumn.
I noticed that the fabric side tarps (for shade) are held taunt with lines and Harken self tailing winches – 13 of them. I examined them. Every single winch was loaded counter-clockwise instead of clockwise, and none used the self-tailing feature. All were loaded with “riding turns” and would be very difficult to tighten or loosen. The person who installed these 13 $3500USD winches had no idea of how to use them. I notice stuff like this.
Then we drove to the beautiful historic city of Mardin (210 km), founded as early as 150BC and under UNESCO protection. One of our stops was the Mor Behnam church, one of the most important historical sites in the old part of Mardin.
This Assyrian/Orthodox church dates to the fourth century. Although we were not permitted to take photos inside, I did notice that the bible on the pulpit was written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ. How cool is that? Who speaks Aramaic now? Google says that Aramaic remains a spoken, literary, and liturgical language for local Christians and also some Jews. Aramaic also continues to be spoken by the Assyrians of Iraq, northeastern Syria, southeastern Türkiye and northwest Iran, with diaspora communities in Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan and southern Russia.
As we walked uphill towards the castle on the top of the city, I took this photo. Sadly, it was not possible to actually visit the castle.
We walked through many of the side streets and up the slopes below the castle and went upstairs to a coffee shop to see over the Mesopotamian plain. We stayed overnight stay in Mardin.
Wednesday morning, we visited the Deyrulzafaran Monastery, a silent witness to Anatolia’s ancient Christian past. This monastery was founded in the 5th century but has been endlessly expanded and renovated over the years.
The original site is said to be a pre-Christian Assyrian Sun Temple, attesting to the ancient Syrian presence in the region. At the monastery, and in the local area – I saw many young people wearing a crucifix around their neck. This photo depicts the cave area and hole for sunlight worship.
Armenian bishops are “buried” in this monastery sitting in a chair with their robes on waiting for the rebirth of Jesus, not prone in a coffin.
Then, we went to the ancient ruins of Dara, one of the most important settlements in Upper Mesopotamia, founded in 505 as a military garrison town to protect the eastern frontier of the Eastern Roman Empire from the Sassanids. This ancient city consists of structures carved into the rock and is spread over a large area. It has been preserved with a wall 4 kilometres in length. There are remains of churches, palaces, bazaars, dungeons, armouries and water dams. There are also cave dwellings around the village, dating back to the late Roman period.
First, we looked at the rock-cut chambers of the necropolis, following the tradition of pagan beliefs. Paganism is a very old belief system relying on respect for nature and sanctity of everything be it an animal, earth, plant or rock. With the spread of Christianity, simple graves became more popular than these rock-cut tombs (obviously less effort required as well).
Next, we saw the Church cistern (also in Dara), which was later used as a jail. The columns and stone block walls are very impressive, but wait until you see the inside. The sign said that it held 2,000 cubic meters of water.
Sadly, the sanctity of this piece of antiquity has been spoiled with hundreds of cigarette butts left by scores of uncaring visitors (likely not foreigners).
Driving only only 5km from the border with Syria – there was still no sign of any military presence, but then, suddenly – we drove right alongside the border and did see barbed wire and a wall less than a hundred metres from the highway. This wall is apparently 564km long, 2m X 3m concrete. The space between the wall and the fence is mined, and a variety of electronic surveillance is weapon systems are employed.
In the afternoon, we visited the Mor Gabriel Monastery, the oldest surviving Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world. It is located on the Tur Abdin plateau near Midyat, founded in the year 397. It is in amazing condition, and incredibly clean.
The monastery is an important centre for the Syrian Christians of Tur Abdin with about fifteen nuns and two monks occupying separate wings, as well as a fluctuating number of local lay workers and guests from abroad. I asked to take a photo of one monk, but he refused. The monastery is currently the seat of the Metropolitan Bishop of Tur Abdin. In its history, the monastery has produced many high-ranking clergy and scholars, including four patriarchs, one Maphrian, and 84 bishops. There are, apparently – 12,000 people buried inside the walls of this monastery.
We stayed overnight in Midyat, the heart of the motherland (the Tur Abdin plateau) of the Arameans. A town known for the beautiful architecture that can be found in the historic district. The old quarter of jumbled honey-coloured stone buildings amid a labyrinth of narrow streets is truly beautiful. The streets wind around tiny houses and ornate mansions, passing under arches and through ancient doors that open into cool courtyards. Here is where I’d like to mention an odd subject – bedsheets, or how to make a bed “Turkish style”. We are accustomed to sleeping on a bed fitted with a bottom sheet, a top sheet, and a blanket or cover of some description. In Türkiye we have stayed in many different AirBnB’s, and Hotels, and it seems that they never include the top sheet. The blanket lays directly on your skin, and what blanket there is – is never big enough. Single people that were on the same trip were not fussed about this because they had a double/queen/king sized bed with a blanket that was the same size – and it’s not tucked in at the foot end, and it is just barely the same size as the bed, not larger at the sides, not at all. With one person sleeping in the bed, this is no problem. However, I can’t understand how two people can share a bed fighting over this skimpy little blanket! Consequently, in most hotels – we asked for additional pillows, another top sheet, and even a second cover.
Since we have seen so many Orthodox Churches here, I questioned what is the difference between regular Christianity. Google says: “The Orthodox Church believes the Holy Spirit “proceeds from God the Father,” while for Catholics and Protestants, the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son”.
We first visited the Virgin Mary Church. According to the local Syrian community, this 6th-century church was originally founded by the Three Kings of the East.
In the city centre, we stopped in at a silversmith shop, where the craftsmanship was truly amazing.
We then proceeded to the Staats Gasthuis, one of the famous places where popular Turkish TV series and movies are shot. The state guest house has 3 floors and offers a wonderful view. Today, the state guest house is run by the Midyat Municipality.
We looked out – and saw many rooftops where there was a metal bed frame, always painted blue. This scene, we recalled from our visit a few days ago with the “bee-hive” houses. Apparently, in the summer heat people like to sleep outdoors and above the reach of scorpions – and BLUE repels scorpions.
We had some fresh squeezed orange juice.
Pam had some henna applied to her hand.
Then, we drove to Hasankeyi, an ancient town and district located along the Tigris River in the Batman Province in southeastern Türkiye. It was declared a natural conservation area by Türkiye in 1981. Despite local and international objections, the city and its archaeological sites have been flooded as part of the Ilısu Dam project. By 1 April 2020, water levels reached an elevation of 498.2m above sea level, covering the whole town.
I was told that this relocation of the town was not without problems. The people protested to the government and most apparently without housing for 4 years, and many left the area never to return. They just moved here to this new town 3 years ago.
The houses were not free, many people could not afford to buy the provided houses – and some people from outside the area (who were not displaced by the rising water levels) even tried to get in on the deal and buy a subsidized house. Also, the constructed houses were identical, which made it difficult for seniors to return to the right home in the evening.
This is an old mausoleum originally built in the 14th century by a Persian leader buried there. It is round on the outside but octagonal inside. It was moved uphill and seems to be in it’s original spot (but it’s not).
We heard that there are still 3 families living in the caves because they have domestic animals – not permitted in the new town. These people have electricity and running water, but have remained living in the caves – basically because they cannot afford to move. The water level in this photo (Fall) will rise 3-5m in the spring.
In summary, the damed area runs for a length of 180 Km along the river and impacted on more than 200 villages. This particular village dates back 12,000 years, and was inhabited at the same time as Göbekltepi.
Back to the subject of oil wells -we saw more as we drove through the Batman region and even one exploration well drilling just outside of the town of Karpuzla.
This is a photo of one of our group members, Wolfgang (on the right), together with a local.
We stayed overnight in Diyarbakır (Midyat – Savur – Diyarbakır (149 km)).
On Friday, we enjoyed a walking tour of Diyarbakir, the entire city centre is within the ancient city walls, making it effectively one big open-air museum. The city wall was built in 346AD and much of it has been renovated. The 5700 meter long city walls of Diyarbakir are 10-12 meters high in places. It is remarkable with its 82 bastions and the main gates that open in 4 directions. The beautiful reliefs on the bastions can be seen almost everywhere. The walls of Diyarbakir, one of the rarest castles in the world and considered the longest city wall in the world after the Great Wall of China, bears witness to a long history.
Along the way, I stopped to get new foam insoles in my sandals. We were clocking 10-15,000 steps per day, on rough ground – so my feet were getting pretty sore.
I took a photo of this local, relaxing at the Ulu Mosque.
These pictures were taken at the Four-Legged Minaret, part of the Sheikh Mutahhar Mosque, built by Akkoyuniu Kasim Han in 1500. It is interesting because the minaret is built on 4 monolithic columns.
We visited St. Giragos Church, the largest Armenian church in the Middle East. It was damaged by PKK Terrorists in 2015, underwent 7 years of renovations and reopened in 2021. I did not go inside, dissuaded by a very officious sign clearly listing 14 restrictions – I was wearing shorts. Also on the list was “no photography” and “no handguns”.
There was a group of 4 plainclothes police officers who just walked out of the church, all with guns – but no shorts.
Unfortunately while our group was walking down a small alleyway, a teenage boy stole Wolfgang’s gold necklace from around his neck and ran off with it – disappearing in the maze of streets and alleys. The police response was swift and concerned – and remained with us for more than an hour. But – even more amazing, we were informed later that day (while at the airport preparing to fly back to Antalya) that the thief has been arrested and the necklace recovered!
We saw the Virgin Mary Syriac Church. This church was first constructed as a pagan temple in the 1st century BC, and the current construction dates back to the 3rd century. The church has been restored many times, and is still in use as a place of worship today. I saw another Aramaic Bible on the pulpit.
We climbed the city wall for a great panoramic view of the city and the Mesopotamian plain.
We then drove to the The Ten Eyes Bridge over the Tigris River. This magnificent bridge, is known by four different names: Ten Eyes Bridge, Tigris Bridge, Silvan Bridge and Mervani Bridge. In some sources about the history of the bridge, it is known that it was built in the 6th century during the reign of Anastasias I. The bridge was destroyed by the forces besieging the city over time, and was later repaired.
At the end of the day Friday, we took an evening flight to Antalya, and then an organized bus to Alanya. As we returned to the boat at 0230, we were exhausted. This trip was a memorable one, we saw so many of the wonders of Türkiye, all rolled up into one 8 day trip. However, it comes at a price, not a significant financial price but a different kind of “price”. Even with a small group of only 12 tourists, everyone has different interests, and different capabilities. The older people get, the more uncompromising they become – and sometimes for good reasons. Three of the 12 were unfit to visit many of the sites. There are a lot of steps, a lot of stairs, rarely any ramps for wheelchair or walker bound tourists – and often not even a handrail. The safety standards for touristic sites in Türkiye are well below that of North America and Europe and it has become much more noticeable with this trip.