Back in 2000 when I was working for the Lonely Planet Turkey guidebook, I paid a visit to Elazığ in Central Anatolia. Things didn't go altogether as planned. No sooner had I stepped out of my hotel to go in search of a bite to eat than I was stopped by a plainclothes police officer who demanded to know what I was doing. Happily, he backed off when I asked him why I should have to account for myself to him. Still, I spent an unhappy night worrying that he might come to the hotel to check up on me.
The next day after visiting Harput, I spotted the ticket office for dolmuşes to Tunceli and decided to pay that a visit, too. But at the last of many checkpoints along the road I was told to get out of the dolmuş and a policewoman was summoned to interrogate me. When I said that I had just come to have a look round, two more plainclothes police officers were assigned to drive me to a restaurant by the river. When I said that I would prefer to look at the shops they followed me around the town center for an hour before conducting me to the ticket office and waving me on my way back to Elazığ.
This autumn when I found myself back in Elazığ and staying in an unexpectedly smart hotel, it occurred to me that this was a part of Turkey about which most of the foreign guidebooks have little to say simply because it used to be so difficult to explore properly. So I decided to stay put for a few days and see what potential tourist attractions I could find.
Elazığ itself may make a good base for exploring the area but it's an uninspiring town with very little to offer a visitor. The museum is typical. Finally reopened after lengthy restoration, it contains finds from some of the archeological sites drowned after the completion of the Keban Dam in 1974. It's hard to appreciate them, though, when a security guard dogs your footsteps as if terrified that you might be about to make off with them.
In the colorful market you'll see fat freshwater aynalı sazan (lake carp) for sale. Otherwise the only “sights” of Elazığ amount to a short street (Kazım Efendi Sokak) of restored houses, the huge İzzet Paşa Cami built in 1972, and the sad remains of a large 19th-century Armenian church now serving as the centerpiece for a car park.
Harput is to Elazığ what Battalgazi is to Malatya: the older neighboring settlement where all the interesting historical buildings can be found. The good news is that it now has a boutique hotel created out of what was not so long ago a row of crumbling houses, which means that you could now choose to stay here and use Elazığ merely for transport.
In recent years a great deal has been done to attract tourists to Harput. Most conspicuously, the huge castle standing on a rock that is its centerpiece has been restored. Unfortunately, the various structures excavated inside it are still covered with low corrugated-iron roofs that make it impossible to inspect them, a particular shame when the site has a rich history involving not only the mysterious Urartians, who were the original builders, but also a brief period in the Middle Ages when it was seized by the Crusader king, Baldwin II of Jerusalem, a story surely crying out to be exploited.
Aside from the castle, Harput is home to a collection of medieval mosques, the finest of them the Ulu Cami (1166) with its curiously stumpy, leaning tower, and the prettiest the Arap Baba Cami, dating back to 1280, whose founding father is buried in a chamber to the rear that smells sweetly of rosewater.
Harput's other most advertised attraction is the Church of St. Mary (Meryemana) that sits below the castle and is believed to date back to the second century, making it one of the oldest, if not the oldest, Syrian Orthodox church in Turkey. Sadly, I've paid three visits to it without ever being able to see inside.
To get an idea what Harput must have looked like before the earthquakes that laid it low you should pay a visit to the lovely Şefik Gül Kültür Evi, a stone house near the Ulu Cami which has been restored to show off the town's lost lifestyle. Also well worth visiting is the Ensar Mangal Vadisi restaurant which, in winter, dishes up dinners inside the lovely old hamam beside the 15th-century Sara Hatun Cami.
Before leaving town you should nip behind the Lunapark to inspect the statue of Balakgazi, an Artuk ruler of Harput and the man responsible for capturing first Joscelin, the Crusader king of Edessa (Urfa), in 1122 and then King Baldwin II of Jerusalem, who arrived to try and rescue him in 1123. Balakgazi died a year later and was buried in Aleppo.
Those of a more adventurous disposition might want to strike out east from Elazığ to Palu, where a modern town sits on the banks of the Murat Nehri (river) five kilometers away from the ruins of the original settlement on the slopes of a mountain which seems to have been abandoned at around the time of World War I.
Here the Urartians built another castle high up on a craggy rock, although only the very fittest would be able to get up to it now; it was only abandoned in the 17th century. Below it sits the early 16th-century Çemsit Bey Mescidi (chapel), beautifully restored despite its lonely location.
Beyond it a track winds round the base of the crag, passing the remains of several more mosques and a hamam, most of them dating from the period between the 15th and 17th centuries when Palu was the seat of an obscure Kurdish beylik (princedom). Eventually, you'll come to the substantial remains of a 19th-century Armenian church. The views from here are wonderful. Not surprisingly, the foundations of a hotel-restaurant complex were being laid as I visited.
The track winds back to modern Palu via the newly restored IV. Murad Köprüsü (Murad IV Bridge), which runs beside a suspension bridge carrying the railway. On the way down it's possible to visit the scant remains of another Urartian site and Byzantine church although they stand on private land.
Heading west out of Elazığ you might like to drop in on Keban, the small town once famous for its silver and lead mines that gave its name to the dam that so drastically changed the local landscape. Today, it's home to the lovely Yusuf Ziya Paşa Külliyesi, a mosque complex that was built as late as 1793 but that included a library, medrese and hamam. Sitting in a dip beside the main road, it's a delightful building, a truly unexpected find in such an out-of-the-way location.
Just up the road from the mosque, what looks at first like an old caravanserai turns out to be the remains of a large Armenian church similar in design to the one in Elazığ.
The bus from Elazığ runs as far as the administrative offices of the Keban Dam. On the way it crosses a bridge offering magnificent views of the Fırat (Euphrates) hemmed in by the mountains; a pair of fish restaurants offer the perfect place to stop for lunch. Alternatively, you can eat at the Çırcır Şelalesi (waterfall) on the edge of town as you approach from Elazığ.
WHERE TO STAY
Harput Butik Hotel, Harput. Tel:0424 215 1313
Hotel Grand 23, Elazığ. Tel:0424 218 2323
İlbey Hotel, Elazığ. Tel:0424 234 0007
Marathon Hotel, Elazığ. Tel: 0424 238 8686
HOW TO GET THERE
As well as flights from İstanbul, there are plenty of buses to Elazığ from Malatya and Diyarbakır. Unfortunately there is no central bus station for local services. Instead dolmuşes to Palu leave from the Doğu Garaj, while those to Keban leave from the Minibüs Otogarı. Those to Harput depart from a more central bus stand on Harput Caddesi behind the İzzet Paşa Cami.
Statue of Balakgazi, Harput
Ruined Alacalı Mescidi, Palu
Yusuf Ziya Paşa Camii, Keban