Turkey’s Mesopotamia (1) A stroll through Diyarbakır

mesopotamia.jpg ELSIE ALAN, GEBZE
When friends were coming to visit, my husband and I started to put together a fairly standard Anatolia 101 tour for neophytes including Çanakkale, Pergamum, Pamukkale, etc. — all sure-fire tourist pleasers.

Our friends had already been to Ephesus and Selçuk while on a Grand Med tour, so we included plenty of time in İstanbul to round out their Turkey experience. We were having some scheduling problems with the intercity buses when a deus ex machina fell out of the sky in the form of introductory cut-rate fares from a new company in Turkey, Sky Airlines. What particularly caught our cost-conscious eye was the fare to Diyarbakır, in the far Southeast. With tax, it was only TL 74 per person, cheaper than two fish dinners at our favorite local restaurant. Although we had been to the general area last year, to Syria, to test the new no-visa system (it worked fine), we were both sort of ashamed that neither of us had ever been to our own Southeast, except for a quick stay in Antakya, which while lovely, isn’t the same thing at all. After waking our friends up in California, in the middle of the night, to get their OK on the ticket purchases (those introductory fares go really quick), we made reservations for what was to be the 11th day of service for the airline, March 26.

Within a week from booking, we had a land tour pretty much in place. We were flying blind, except for the Internet, which had disappointingly little in the way of recommendations for lodgings except for four-star hotels — which was not at all what we were interested in. We were pretty excited about our itinerary, which crammed way too much into a few days, but what the heck, our friends didn’t know what to expect any more than we did, and we all liked each other, so we’d all explore the Southeast together.

A few days after their arrival, we took off from Sabiha Gökçen for Diyarbakır. By the way, it is a nice airport, but its prices for fast food make Atatürk Airport look like a bargain basement. In less than two hours, after a very nice flight, we were in Turkey’s very own section of old Mesopotamia, home to Abraham, the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, not to mention the Atatürk Dam and the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP).

Our friends had originally planned to come to Turkey a couple of weeks later, in April, but I had told them how beautiful the International İstanbul Tulip Festival was in early April, which it has been for the last two years at least, so they came earlier. Little did we know how uncooperative and unusually cold the weather would be, and how shy the tulips turned out to be, until it was too late and after our friends had left. So as it turned out, our rather last-minute switch to a Mesopotamian holiday was well-timed. As we got off the plane in Diyarbakır, all bundled up in long underwear from the still-bitter weather in the northwest of Turkey, we all breathed in the warm air of the Southeast gratefully, as only natives of sunny climes can appreciate. Even late in the afternoon, we could tell we weren’t in İstanbul anymore; the air was lighter, warmer, spicier and definitely drier. Ah, the smell of sun-warmed dirt.

A han turned coffee house
We figured out how to get to our downtown hotel and spent some time wandering around until we found an old han that was now a coffee house, and several stores selling copper and woven goods, beads and carved wood, Christian and Muslim “artifacts.” It was pretty normal tourist fare except without the really cheap kitschy junk, and more like Syria than İstanbul. We had a nice hot drink touted as “Kurdish Coffee” except it wasn’t really coffee, but a delicious brew made from nuts and spices and sugar. Our café host entertained us and was informative about our next day’s itinerary, since there wasn’t much else for him to do. With the official tourist season right around the corner, there was a marked lack of any sort of tourists anywhere in sight.

Diyarbakır is not exactly party central, so we got to bed early. The next day was sunny and warm and off came the long johns, off came the socks and layered undershirts; but we kept our socks and walking shoes because we had a big day ahead. Our hotel was near the great city walls and just walking to them was an adventure. I have been around Turkey just a bit, but I still felt like I was in a different country all together. I know that sounds trite, but that’s just how it is. The smells were different, the people dressed different, their Turkish was different. In many ways Diyarbakır resembled parts of Syria more than the parts of Anatolia I had been to.

People we saw were İstanbul-like in their solemn absorption in their business, but moved at a much slower pace, and of course there were very much fewer of them. The ladies were dressed in far cheerier colors than in the West, and one could see even less of their bodies but a little more of their hair. Their headscarves were hardly scarves, but much more dramatic draping and veiling, with hot, bright lavender being the color of choice for many. Many of the men wore şalwar pants with very baggy bottoms and much more narrow legs than we were familiar with. Many younger ladies were not covered and the young men looked like young Turkish men everywhere, although some wore the same şalwar as their elders. The children were funny and inquisitive and didn’t beg or ask for stuff. We surely saw a few beggars but they looked more like regular beggars, as opposed to some of the more dramatic professionals of İstanbul.

After taking what felt like 2 million pictures, we finally climbed the old city walls, and as impressed as we had been from below, the perspective from the top was overwhelming. I don’t know how any of those interminable armies that kept fighting there had the nerve to approach the city at all. The Theodosian Walls are spectacular, but the walls of Diyarbakir are purely threatening. The view of the Tigris plain was brightly open and breathtaking in contrast, with geometrically planted fruit trees in full blossom; the white trees marked out fields of electric green crops in the valley far below. A many-arched Roman bridge spanned the Tigris in the far distance, visible through the faint ground mist. Wow, how come nobody I know (except for two people) have been here, I wondered.

The grand mosque was closed for repairs but we went into the ancient Syriac Orthodox Church of Meryem Ana, which is still in use by one of the oldest followings in Christianity, as well as some underground areas off the city walls. (We just couldn’t get away from those walls!) We all agreed we had not had enough time in this fascinating city, but we had to end our exploration to get on to our next destination, Hasankeyf and a closer look at the Tigris River. I love just writing that name: Tigris River.

* Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.