A world within its walls Turkey’s city on the Tigris

diyarbakir1.jpgA street in Diyarbakır with the city castle in the background
A man with a smiling, open countenance hails me in the street. “Welcome, welcome to my city. Where are you from, my friend? How can I help you?” As a teacher of English, newly retired from one of the city’s state schools, he’s delighted to learn that I am from the UK.

When he finds out what I’m doing here (updating a well-known guidebook to Turkey), he invites me into a nearby hotel, and we sit drinking coffee and exchanging pleasantries. After checking out his friend’s hotel (which gets a thumbs up, by the way), he leads me down the city’s main north-south thoroughfare, then a short way up a narrow side street. Dusk is rapidly slipping away into night, and the old, black-stone houses lining its cobbled length accentuate the alley’s darkness. Seconds later, I’m sitting, sipping sweet, black tea in the atmospherically lit courtyard of a building which, my host assures, dates back 400 years. Now a café, this substantial place was once home to a wealthy Armenian merchant family. Middle-class couples sit chatting and eating around the courtyard’s central pool, home to a motley crew of hapless terrapins.

Then a friend of my friend turns up, with a gaggle of young foreigners in tow. They’re exchange students from Germany, taking a break from their studies in distant EskiÅŸehir. Soon we’re all whisked off to a wedding taking place in a brightly lit barn of a building just outside the ancient city walls. We don’t know the bride or groom, or any of their friends or relatives — nor does my newfound teacher friend. He was, however, acquainted with the manager of the wedding reception hall, and that’s enough. A formally dressed singer, backed by a vast array of musicians, belts out wedding standards from the stage.

The girls from the group of visiting German students were soon up on the dance floor, linking little fingers with the other female guests to form a shaking, shimmering line. My friend’s friend receives a gentle rebuke for standing on a chair and strutting his stuff, though it’s hard to imagine things getting out of hand when the strongest stuff on offer is cola. Around 11 p.m. I bid farewell to my friend, his friend and the German students and trace my way back through the quiet, dark streets of the old city to my hotel.

The casual hospitality described above is not unusual in a country noted for its generosity to travelers. But this is no ordinary Anatolian city: this is Diyarbakır. For many in the western parts of Turkey, this ancient walled city is associated with (occasionally violent) dissent, whose predominantly ethnically Kurdish inhabitants stubbornly refuse to play by the rules laid down by the founders of the Turkish Republic.

Prejudice against the city is not confined to modern times either. In the mid-19th century, visiting British clergyman George Percy Badger quoted an Arab proverb that ran, “In Diarbekir [sic] there are black stones, black dogs and black hearts.” In theory, however, this atmospheric old trading center, perched on a bluff above a graceful curve of one of the world’s most famous rivers, the Tigris, should be one of Turkey’s premier tourist attractions. According to some sources, as well as its spectacular location, within its 5.5 kilometers of medieval city wall, Diyarbakır boasts the biggest concentration of historic mosques, churches, hans (basically a caravansary within a town) and mansion houses in Turkey — bar, of course, Ä°stanbul. Yet despite its undeniable attractions (and excellent air, road and rail links with the rest of the country), relatively few travelers, either domestic or foreign, make it out to a city once so cultured it was known as the “Paris of the East.”

Back in 1990, British travel writer Diana Darke, author of a pioneering tourist guide to eastern Turkey, wrote perceptively, “Diyarbakır is special in the way that Avila in Spain, Aleppo in Syria and Fez in Morocco are special, all cities that have until recently been bounded within their walls.” So, you may still be wondering, is it actually safe to visit a city so fascinating that it rivals Aleppo and Fez? The answer, of course, providing you follow a few basic precautions, is a resounding yes. The caveats are much the same as in any other big city — when walking around keep your valuables secure (pick-pocketing and bag-snatching are not unknown) and avoid walking down the narrow back alleys or along the fabulous city walls at dusk, as the occasional street urchin may decide to take a pot shot at you with a stone. Bearing this in mind, a mazy wander through the cobbled old streets of the Sur İçi (Inside the Walls) is an unforgettable experience, where the worst that will happen is that you’ll temporarily lose your bearings.

Most people who do make it out to Turkey’s city on the Tigris tend to stay in one of the many hotels close to the DaÄŸ Kapısı (aka the Harput Gate), one of the four huge gateways that breach the crenellated black basalt walls of the city. Just south of the gate, on the right-hand side of the main street, Gazi Caddesi, is the charming Nebi Camii, a 15th century Akkoyunlu mosque constructed from alternating bands of black basalt and white limestone — giving it a most attractive appearance. To the left of the mosque is Ä°zzet PaÅŸa Caddesi, leading in a couple of hundred meters to the İç Kale (Inner Castle). Until recently, this was an army base and off limits to visitors; now it is open to the public, and the fascinating collection of buildings inside it is under various stages of restoration. It’s possible (with care) to scramble up onto the walls and look east over the green and fertile valley of the Tigris just below. The main building of interest, though, is the substantial, twin-domed early Byzantine church of St. George, later used as a palace by one of the Muslim dynasties who succeeded the Christians. Close by is the Artukid-era mosque of Hazreti Süleyman, built in 1160, each Thursday thronged by largely female pilgrims praying for their wishes to be granted.

If you need a break from you explorations, a natural choice is the atmospheric Hasan PaÅŸa Han, built in 1572. Built (like the Nebi Camii and many other historic buildings in old Diyarbakır) from contrasting bands of black and cream stone, the double-story aisles running around the courtyard are home to a collection of jewelry, antique and souvenir shops as well as a number of quaint cafés specializing in clotted cream and honey breakfasts. Down from the han on the right is the city’s most important building, the Ulu Camii (Great Mosque). It boasts an austerely beautiful prayer hall, enlivened by arched arcades and a decoratively carved wooden ceiling, but most (non-Muslim) visitors are more interested in the elaborately carved late-Roman capitals and frieze-work reused in the ornate courtyard of the mosque.

Down a side street to the left is the curious Four Legged Minaret, detached from, but a part of, the adjacent Kasım PadiÅŸah Camii. This Akkoyunlu mosque is pretty but not exceptional, but the square minaret is built atop four columns, so it’s possible to walk underneath the structure. Local lore says that if you circle the minaret seven times, your wish will be granted. Just along the alley from here is an early 16th century Chaldean church, though unfortunately the last remnants of the community in Diyarbakır moved to Ä°stanbul last year. A little further along the alley a charming Kurdish family holds the key to the Armenian church of Surp Giargos. They told me that the sizeable 19th century church would soon be restored, with money raised by diaspora Armenians, but for the moment, you’ll have to be content with viewing a roofless shell of a building, where swifts wheel between the stone arches. There are several other Armenian churches under restoration in the old city, but the town’s only “working” church (apart from the American evangelical church opposite) is the Syrian Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary, over to the west and not far from the Urfa Gate.

Diyarbakır’s ruling pro-Kurdish Democratic Society Party (DTP) municipality is working hard to promote the city’s multi-faith, cosmopolitan heritage (head to the municipality tourism office west of the DaÄŸ Kapısı for lots of attractively produced literature about the town). It seems a little late, given that only one Armenian couple remains in the city and just five Syrian Orthodox families. But late is, I suppose, better than never, and at least the buildings, if not the communities, will survive as reminders of when, as late as the early 20th century, at least a third of the population of Diyarbakır was Christian. The Church of the Virgin Mary dates back to the third century and has been beautifully restored. On Sundays, it may be possible to attend a service, given in Syriac, a language closely related to that spoken by Christ, Aramaic, but it’s best to see the priest the day before rather than just turning up.

There are literally dozens of other things to see in Diyarbakır, from its famous cheese bazaar to eastern Anatolia’s most impressive Ottoman mosque, the Behrem PaÅŸa Camii, and from the culinary institution that is Selim Amca’s Kaburga Sofrası (home of tender lamb ribs stuffed with fragrant pilaf rice) to the beautiful courtyard former home of Ziya Gökalp, one of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s ideological mentors. But let’s finish up at the city’s famous walls, just to the left of the Mardin Gate and a fraction south of the noted Deliler Han (now a boutique hotel). Here is one of the best vantage points in the city, the Keçi Burnu (Goat’s Nose). Well restored, this mighty tower was first built by the Romans, then like the rest of the walls, was bolstered by the successive conquerors of the city — from assorted Arab dynasties to the Selçuk and then Ottoman Turks.

Look out across the Tigris below you, wriggling through its shallow valley en route to the distant Persian Gulf. The land beyond the river, untouched by its life-giving waters, is barren and inhospitable. Then you realize what an oasis this city is, the last navigable point on the Tigris and astride the ancient trade routes across Anatolia. In conventional “tourist” terms, Diyarbakır may not be pretty, but it is endlessly fascinating and has an atmosphere all its own. Don’t be put off by the city’s bad press — come and see it for yourself.

18 August 2009, Tuesday