Soon, however, the road veers away from the course of the Biblical river and rises up and out of the valley, heading northwest, into drier, dustier terrain dotted with old-fashioned “nodding donkeys” bobbing slowly but ceaselessly up and down to wrest some of Turkey’s valuable oil reserves from beneath the badlands of upper Mesopotamia.
From Batman to Diyarbakır
Few visitors would agree with the assertion of one of my fellow passengers that “Batman is beautiful,” but I know what he meant. By the standards of the generally impoverished southeast of the country, oil-rich Batman is emerging as a shiny, prosperous city, with all the trappings of the “new” Turkey, from shopping malls and office blocks to private hospitals and schools. It’s a far cry from the drab, ramshackle Batman I remember back in the 1990s when, at the height of the conflict between the government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the local governor was alleged to have removed the city’s sole set of traffic lights as the green, amber and red colors of the lamps were the same as those on the outlawed group’s flag. But although Batman has indeed grown beyond recognition in the last couple of decades, its “ilçe otogar” (local minibus garage) remains its old, scruffy self. I gathered the information I needed for the guide book for independent travelers I was researching from a friendly and vocal cast of mustachioed dolmuş drivers, with many pats of the tops of low stools and invitations to join them for a glass of çay. The one-and-a-half-hour dolmuş journey between Batman and Diyarbakır is, after the picturesqueness of the Tur Abdin and the Tigris valley at Hasankeyf, flat and dull, with only the legions of storks nesting atop the pylons and telegraph poles striding across the flood plain of the Tigris worthy of much attention.
Dark but never dull
Many adjectives have been used to describe the great walled city of Diyarbakır, dramatically set on a bluff above a lazy loop of the Tigris, from black and dark to grim and forbidding. But never dull. Back in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cosmopolitan Diyarbakır was known (perhaps optimistically) as the “Paris of the East,” a sophisticated city with a population of Moslem Turks, Kurds and Arabs, mixed with Christian Armenians, Chaldeans and Orthodox Syrians. It produced distinguished writers like Cahit Sıtkı Tarancı and ideologues such as Ziya Gökalp. They lived in wonderful, rambling courtyard houses made of black basalt, their somberness enlivened with bold white limestone trim and motifs. Today the narrow streets these houses line, tightly packed within the nearly six-kilometer circumference medieval city walls, simply teem with life -- albeit of a rather different kind. Grubby-faced urchins ply the cobbled allies behind the superb Ulu Camii (currently under restoration), in front of the equally impressive Syrian Orthodox Church of the Virgin Mary, and elsewhere throughout the thirteen old quarters that make up the city within the walls. Many are the offspring of families forced into Diyarbakır by the conflict in the rural areas of the southeast in the 1980s and 1990s and, understandably, treat the backstreets of the city like it were one big village -- though unfortunately traditional village structures have broken down and many of these kids are running wild, victims of dislocation and poverty.
Traditional breakfast, Kurdish coffee
Settling down for a wonderful traditional breakfast spread in the beautifully restored, black-and-white striped Ottoman-era wonder that is the Hasan Pasha Han, it’s hard to imagine that just a few meters away in the backstreets you have to watch your pockets and fend off ragged kids. For this is the “new” Turkey, with local teachers, office workers and a smattering of domestic tourists taking their pleasures as they would in İstanbul, İzmir or Ankara. There’s fried egg with tender slices of lamb topped with pepper flakes, six varieties of local cheese, yoghurt and jam, cucumber and tomato, honey and butter topped with almond flakes, olives, sliced fresh fruit in syrup, clotted cream and even something I’d only ever had in Georgia, “acar,” a fiery walnut, bread and hot pepper paste – plus as much tea as you could drink.
Once, crossing to the Greek island of Meis, or Kastellorizo, from Kaş, I’d settled down at a cafe. “Turkish coffee, please” I asked of the friendly-looking waiters. He looked at me quizzically. I asked again. Then again and again. Finally it clicked, and I said “Greek coffee, please.” The waiter smiled knowingly and went off quite happily to get my drink. Nationalism in coffee has now stretched to Diyarbakır, where a local Kurdish brew has appeared on the menu of many establishments. It’s a little different from standard Turkish/Greek coffee, as it’s made with a touch of milk and crushed pistachio. “Actually, it’s not really Kurdish. It’s Arabic,” admitted one cafe owner. “But it’s definitely not Turkish.”
Human bones and a church
The İç Kale, an inner castle situated in the northeast corner of the old walled quarter, started to open to visitors when the Turkish military pulled out a few years ago. It’s still a work in progress, with the recently restored Byzantine Church of St. George (later a Selçuk hamam) closed to visitors for reasons unknown, law courts, stables and a prison still awaiting restoration. In fact I’d half expected to find the whole place cordoned off and littered with white-coated forensic scientists combing the grounds for body parts, as the restoration work here accidentally brought to light bones said to belong to Kurdish victims of JİTEM, a clandestine wing of the gendarmerie responsible for extrajudicial murders back in the 1990s. Instead it was full of teenagers smoking in the rafters of the roofless late-nineteenth century prison, and courting couples admiring the view of the Tigris from the outer walls.
Of all the changes I noted in Diyarbakır, the biggest was the total transformation of the Armenian Church of Surp Giragos. Tucked away in the backstreets of the southwest quarter, this church had been a roofless and empty shell for decades, home only to nesting swallows. On my last visit it had been closed for restoration and I couldn’t gain entry, not even through the backyard of the Kurdish family whose house backed onto the churchyard, which was my usual “doorway” to what is reputed to be the largest church in the Middle East. Now here it was, traditional flat roof back in place supported by rows of black basalt arches decorated with white limestone trim. The altars, all five of them just a couple of years ago a rotting mess of wood and plaster, were gleaming with gilt. Turkish rugs lay on the black basalt floor and, the fact that it was facing east and not south apart, it looked more like a mosque than a church -- hardly surprising, I suppose, in an area where the two faiths lived side by side for over a millennium.
Passage to Ararat
For the first time on my trip I used an inter-city bus to get to my next destination, Doğubeyazıt, in the shadow of Mt. Ararat on the distant Iranian border. It was a night bus too, so I didn’t get to see much of the scenery on a route which took me back through my starting point of Bitlis, along the northern shores of lake Van, then due north through the mountains to Ağrı and along the valley of the Murat River to my goal. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that, were it not for the presence of 5,167-meter Mt. Ararat looming across the plain from the town, the wondrous fantasy palace of İshak Paşa on a nearby hilltop and its proximity to the main border post with Iran, few people would come to Doğubeyazıt unless they absolutely had to. But these are compelling reasons. Despite a new(ish) glass and steel roof that has visitors putting their cameras away in disappointment, İshak Paşa is one of the most compelling sites in Turkey; perched high above the Ararat plain, it is a riot of architectural styles more than worthy of the late-eighteenth century Kurdish chieftain who ordered its construction. Everyone from fervent Christians and Ark-hunters to climbers and skiiers is obsessed with one of the world’s most famous mountains -- and border trade is big business the world over. The accommodation and eating scene in the town was less than inspiring. Given what’s happening in not so far off Mardin, I thought a boutique hotel or two would have sprung up since my last visit, but no such luck. And the best eating place, a female-run Women’s Consultation and Solidarity Center (or KAMER, an organization fighting against the abuse of women in Turkey) cafe had closed down. There are plenty of passable places, though, and no one with an iota of romanticism can fail to be inspired by the stunning views of Ararat and the crumbling folly of İshak Paşa.
I was given a lift to Van by a friendly local travel agent on his way to pick up a Japanese client from the provincial capital’s airport. We crossed the spectacular Tendürek Pass (2,644 meters) in cloud, snow still semi-smothering the contorted lava flows of this Mordor-like volcanic landscape. On the far side of the pass the weather lifted and we stopped for a welcome glass of tea at the Muradiye Falls, raging with spring snowmelt water and embellished with a vivid rainbow arcing across the spray.
Last up. In the wake of the quake: Van.