Curious but polite to a fault, a particularly friendly bunch had graciously hosted me in their modest student pad in an apartment with views across to Mt. Cudi, on Turkey’s Iraq/Syria border, in one tradition the resting place of Noah’s Ark. So I wasn’t exactly surprised when a smartly suited man on a dusty Cizre street corner introduced himself not as a student of theology but as a teacher of the subject -- and he was just as friendly as his charges.
“Here…this is the one you want,” he pointed out helpfully, then gently pulled me towards a station-bound dolmuş (minibus). “Have a good journey.” I was taken aback to find myself seated amongst a crowd of young women, all veiled bar one, wrapped either in black or the vivid mauve headscarf so typical of Turkey’s Syrian borderlands. They eyed the lone male with discreet interest. I found out their destination when the last stop turned out to be Cizre’s maternity hospital. I’d foolishly trusted the dozy teenage bus-boy (I should know better, I’ve got two of my own) to tell me when we were the passing the bus station. He hadn’t, so I was forced to take another dolmuş back to the station. Still, if part of the point of travel is to see something new, I could now add Cizre’s maternity hospital to my list.
Where Turkey, Iraq and Syria meet
At the bus station I sat on a low stool, glass of tea in hand, to await the Nusaybin-bound bus. I exchanged a few pleasantries with the man sitting next to me, explaining that I was in Cizre gathering information for a guide book for independent travelers. “And what do you do?” I asked to keep the conversation going. Half expecting him to be either a theology student or teacher, I was a little surprised when he replied calmly, “I’m a petrol smuggler,” adding, with a gesture at the crumbling medieval walls behind the station and the ramshackle collection of concrete buildings that is modern Cizre beyond, “What else can I do?”
Cizre, located on the banks of the Tigris where Turkey meets Iraq and Syria, has always been an important staging post between Anatolia and Mesopotamia. Today, huge trucks thunder across the arched concrete bridge, taking goods and construction materials south into the Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq and bringing petrol and Ceylon tea, amongst other things, into Turkey. “It’s not bad,” continued my newfound friend. “I’ve got my own truck, I buy petrol in Iraq for TL 1; the customs officials take a half-lira bribe per liter, then I sell it here for TL 2.90.” It seemed a pretty low profit margin for such a risky business to me, but then I don’t live in Cizre.
Before heading out to the bus station, however, I’d discovered that Cizre has much to offer the visitor. The banks of the Tigris to the right of the bridge are being spruced up. Just past the bridge the citadel, until recently a Turkish military base, is awaiting restoration but just about open to visitors. Its black basalt walls are reminiscent of its cousin upstream, Diyarbakır, though the Tigris sliding past the walls here is much broader and more impressive. The two main points of interest within the citadel are the headquarters building of the notorious Hamidiye regiment, raised from the local Kurdish tribes by Sultan Abdülhamid II in the late 19th century, and the black and white base of the Belek Tower. My visit to the Arab-style Ulu Cami, with its wonderful tapering, cylindrical brick minaret, was marred somewhat by a fanatical local shopkeeper who suggested that not only was I not welcome to enter the prayer hall but that I shouldn’t even be in the courtyard -- at least not until I’d converted to Islam. In more than two decades of traveling around Turkey this had never happened to me before, but my “faith” was restored by two friendly imams at the equally impressive Persian-style Kırmızı Medrese. Before leaving this charming red-brick theological school, set around a pretty courtyard and dating back to the 15th century, they, having shown me every nook and cranny of this fine building, insisted I drink a couple of glasses of refreshing apricot juice with them. Later I found a türbe (tomb) housing Noah’s unfeasibly long coffin. If he really were that tall, he’d have been able to wade away from his ark atop 2,114-meter-high Mt. Cudi, not find himself stranded there.
Syrian border, German bridge
Nusaybin, an hour or so west along the Mesopotamian plain, is another unkempt, dust-caked border town. The checkpoint between ethnically Kurdish Nusaybin and the Syrian town of al-Qamishli, visible across a mined and razor-wired swathe of no man’s land, appeared to be closed, but there was no sign of any refugees from the strife in Turkey’s troubled neighbor. I found instead, in the backstreets, the ancient Syrian Orthodox Church of St. Jacob, and was shown around by the last Christian in town, Daniel. Having been mesmerized at last year’s Altın Portakal film festival by “Yuruyuş” (Walking, or “Meş” in Kurdish), a harrowing Nusaybin-set movie which follows the travails of a disturbed older man and a young boy against the backdrop of the curfew imposed as a result of the 1980 military coup, I just had to make a pilgrimage out to one of the chief sets, the iconic German Bridge (Alman Köprüsü), built as part of the Berlin-Baghdad railway in the early 20th century.
From Mardin to Midyat
I first visited my next stop, Mardin, a short journey northwest of Nusaybin, in the early 1980s. Today it is hard to imagine that this rapidly developing tourist hotspot was not so long ago a run-down backwater village visited only for its superb vernacular and religious (both Christian and Muslim) architecture, and stunning views across the tawny patchwork fields of the Mesopotamian plain. There was then only one, pretty lousy, concrete monster of a hotel, whose only recommendations were that the rear rooms boasted great views down to the Syrian border and that it was cheap.
Mardin appears to be in danger of being consumed by its own success. The gorgeously carved, honey-hued houses are being gobbled up by boutique hotels at an alarming rate, chic cafes and souvenir shops are replacing the traditional “bakkal” (grocer) on the busy main street of the old town, and hotels, cafes, restaurants and bars are all quite happy to charge İstanbul prices in what remains a relatively impoverished part of the country.
Mardin does, however, make a great base from which to visit nearby star sites such as the Byzantine city of Darra and the former Syrian Orthodox patriarchal seat of Deyr-az-Zaferan. It also stands on the edge of some of Turkey’s most appealing countryside, which I could appreciate as my dolmuş rumbled east to Midyat across the “Plateau of the Servants of God,” the Tor Abdin, home to Turkey’s remaining Syrian Orthodox Christian population. It’s an appropriately Biblical landscape of rolling hills dotted with vineyards and valonia oak, particularly appealing in its spring finery, with almonds blossoming and the newly emerging leaves of riverbed stands of poplar an impossibly vivid green.
The Christian heritage of Midyat is much more obvious than Mardin’s, with bell towers rising gracefully above weathered stone houses clustered on a low eminence peeping up above the plain. Even here, however, change is afoot. I checked out a couple of posh new boutique hotels and joined the throngs of camera-clicking İstanbulites in the courtyard of the ancient church of Mor (St.) Barsaumo. The famous silver shops of Midyat (there must be over 50 of them) were busier than Migros on the day before the Şeker or Kurban Bayram shutdowns, so I decided to head on and down to the Tigris again -- though not before sampling a delightful portion of the regional specialty “perde pilaf” (lightly spiced pilaf rice cooked so as to emerge with a succulently chewy crust) at my favorite Midyat lokanta.
Village of the dam(ned)
“No one wants it, but what can we do?” shrugged a local resignedly. The fate of Hasankeyf no longer hangs in the balance, as it did for decades. The die has been cast, the dam wall 70 kilometers downstream begun. Some seven or so years from now, one of Anatolia’s most majestic sights will disappear forever beneath the waters of the Ilısu Dam and this small settlement on a lazy curve in the Tigris will disappear for good. “That’s where we’ll have to live,” said a local restaurateur, pointing from his cliff-top establishment across the snow-melt laden flow of the Tigris to the skeletons of some anonymous concrete buildings clustered together high on a tawny hillside. Another local told me that although he’d receive about TL 30 million for his drowned house, the apartment across the river was going to cost three times that -- and how was he going pay back the installments with no work?
The wonderful minaret of the El Rizk Cami will disappear beneath the waters, as will the unique, Central Asian-style tomb of Zeyn al-Abidin across the river, along with the mighty piers of the medieval bridge which stride across one of the world’s most famous rivers. Much of the old city, ruled successively by the Byzantines, Sassanid Persians, Kurdish Ayubbids, Turcoman Artukids and Akkoyunlu, clinging to the cliff tops high above the river, will survive. But this will be an abject apology for what Hasankeyf once was. “They’re doing it to destroy the Kurdish identity of the region,” one disgruntled local told me. “It’s to hold Syria and Iraq ransom,” grumbled another, aware of the importance of controlling water supplies feeding into the water-starved Middle East. One of the security guards told me 30,000-plus tourists (largely Turkish) had visited the previous day. Even at a modest TL 3 a head, that’s good money for a government milking the last profits out of something they have taken the decision to destroy.
I crossed the Tigris at Hasankeyf early the next morning, destination Diyarbakır.
Next up: From the Tigris to Mt. Ararat.