Return to Diyarbakır

travel1.jpgUlu Cami
I first visited Diyarbakır, in southeastern Turkey, in 1992. In those days it was a brooding place barely clinging to a small tourist trade in the face of its political problems.
Visitors were advised to stick to the main streets and not to ask too many questions; the great basalt walls that ringed the old city only added to the air of tension. It was much the same, if not worse, when I returned in 1994 to find a tank guarding the main intersection in the old town, not far from the Ulu Cami. In 1998 I employed a guide to steer me through the warren of tight-knit streets behind the mosque. His primary task was to keep at bay the crowds of children who jostled my every footstep. I knew that it would be unwise to press him to talk about what went on after dark.
Two years ago a flying visit to the city lasted just long enough to tell me that at least on the surface things had changed considerably, so it was with great pleasure that I returned there recently to find the old quarter a great deal more relaxed and welcoming, at least to outsiders.

This is especially good news because Diyarbakır has enormous potential as a tourist destination. For most visitors the Ulu Cami remains the first port of call. Screened from the main square by a wall with a deceptively small arched entrance cut through it, the mosque runs along one side of a spacious courtyard and immediately evokes the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, albeit without the glittering mosaics. Built in 639 on the site of the ancient Mar Thoma church, the Ulu Cami is the oldest mosque in Anatolia, and you could pass several happy hours here simply inspecting the carved inscriptions on its facade, and the ancient columns and capitals reused in the surrounding buildings.

Despite having been restored several times over the centuries, the Ulu Cami has a timeless quality about it, which is hardly the case with the Hasan PaÅŸa Hanı facing it across the road. This magnificent stripy structure focused on a wide courtyard dates back to 1573, but by the mid-1990s it was in a sad state, abandoned by all but a couple of carpet dealers. Now, however, a facelift has restored its former joie de vivre. Cool music attracts a youthful crowd of students, and what were once the rooms in which trade goods would have been stored while their owners slept upstairs have been converted to house unexpectedly chic souvenir shops. You’ll have trouble dragging yourself away from the inviting teashops ringing the courtyard and the first-floor gallery.

The han and the mosque are readily accessible from the main road, but to get a real feel for old Diyarbakır you need to plunge into the medina-like back streets, which harbor intriguing small museums, ancient churches and lovely old mosques with extraordinarily beautiful minarets. The snag is that the streets are narrow and winding, rarely wide enough for a car to pass, and once you’ve got lost in them it won’t be easy to find your way back out again (the tourist office in the DaÄŸ Kapısı [Mountain Gate] provides a good free map).

Easiest of the museums to locate is the Cahit Sıtkı Tarancı Müsezi, which is very close to the Ulu Cami. Although the house was once home to one of Turkey’s finest romantic poets and exhibits some of his belongings, you come here primarily to admire the exquisite local architecture in which flowers of white stone are incised into the heavy basalt to picturesque effect. The house in which Turkish nationalist Ziya Gökalp was born in 1876 is similarly beautiful in design, if a little harder to find. Likewise the Esma Ocak Evi (house).

Several churches are grouped together near the striking, stand-alone Dört Ayaklı Minare (Four-Footed Minaret), in front of the much more conventional Åžeyh Mutahhar Cami. Most interesting is the Meryemana Kilisesi (Church of the Virgin Mary) which is still used by Diyarbakır’s tiny Syrian Orthodox community, although the Mar Petyun Keldani Kilisesi (Chaldean Catholic Church) is also surprisingly large. The Armenian Surpagab Kilisesi stands in ruins, but if you go to send a postcard from the post office near the Four-Footed Minaret you’ll find yourself unexpectedly queuing for your stamp inside another church that has been given a new lease on life.

No one could visit Diyarbakır and overlook the extraordinary walls with which it’s ringed. Built from basalt, these date back to the days of the Roman occupation, although every successive ruler of the city appears to have felt the need to stamp his mark on them by adding a tower or tweaking a length of the wall. Recently some stretches have been spruced up to appeal to visitors with the addition of landscaping and children‘s play areas. In theory you can walk right round the walls, certainly at the bottom and in some places along the top of the ramparts. In reality, however, gecekondus (shanty towns) still cling to parts of them, and you will probably feel very conspicuous, not to say uncomfortable, venturing into these on your own. Unfortunately this means that two of the most photographed towers — the Yedi KardeÅŸ Burcu (Seven Brothers Tower) and MalikÅŸah Burcu (Shah Malik Tower) – – continue to be largely off-limits for the time being.

On the other hand the easing of tensions here means that what used to be the closed military zone of the İç Kale (Inner Citadel) is now open to the public, who access it by passing under an impressive high-arched bridge dating back to 1206-7, the time when the Artukids held sway from here to Mardin. A project to restore all the buildings inside the fortress seems to have ground to a halt, but this is still a peaceful and evocative place where you can inspect the remains of an old prison and of the Kara Papaz Kilisesi (Church of St. George). What’s more it’s right beside the 12th-century Hazreti Süleyman Camii, where several early Islamic heroes are buried, attracting crowds of worshippers no matter what the time of day.

But this is a town with almost limitless attractions to detain its visitors. There is, for example, the glorious Gazi Köşkü, a stripy stone summer house dating back to the 15th century that sits out in the fields overlooking the Dicle River (Tigris) and now houses a lively restaurant and tea garden. Then there’s the local archeological museum, the Deliler Hanı (now converted into the Otel Büyük Kervansaray), the Selim Amca restaurant that dishes up delightful kaburga dolması (stuffed lamb ribs shredded onto rice), innumerable glorious mosques that rarely see a foreign tourist and a cheese market that is a mouth-watering feast for the eyes.

Finally, there’s the Dengbej Evi, a wonderful new venture housed in one of the better-signposted of the old houses in the back streets. Dengbej is a style of unaccompanied music in which the great sagas of Kurdish history are recorded. Sitting in the enclosed courtyard, admiring the exquisite stone architecture and listening to the old men relaying their songs back and forth, you have to pinch yourself to remember that this is still Diyarbakır and that not all its problems can be so easily airbrushed away.

06 December 2009, Sunday


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