A Travellerspoint blog


Antakya and Şanlıurfa

Segue to the 21st Century

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It took me a bit to figure out what was dfferent about Antakya; it was so obvious that I couldn't even see it. There were women here. Real women, not covered or hidden or hiding behind columns and not making eye contact upon fear of death. Women interacting with the world. Students were flirting with each other in the park. Boyfriends were holding hands with their girlfriends in the street. One long bus ride, and I'm back in a world I sort of recognize.

Şanlıurfa has some modern women, but most of the tourists there were Iranian. The women travelled in groups, always with a stern looking male escort walking in the front, and I thought of nothing less than federal marshals escorting the prisoners out on a day trip. One day a group of us took a desert tour to see some of the more remote pagan and Silk Road era sites. The small poor villages we passed through were more Arab, but the women were dressed in flowing silk robes that seemed out of India. Not that we always the women directly - we'd only catch glimpses of them as they spied on us from behind windows and half falllen antique walls.

Şanlıurfa, the birthplace of Abraham and City of Prophets, was the easiest of the cities to visit to date. It was clean, I met some cool other travellers at an old Armenian house-turned hostel, and the people had an easy way of interacting that drew you in. I stayed two and a half days, and left on a midnight bus to Antakya.

Which only left me one day in Antakya, and I was wracked from the ride. I heard the food here was amazing, but my experience has been that the home cooked meals I've had in the southeast have been amazing; the restuarant foods can't match it. And I don't have a guidebook, because most of the guidebooks don't even cover Antakya, and haven't seen many good candidates for dinner.

I actually thought this city would be more conservative. It was a center of decadence in the Greek world, and Antony and Cleopatra married on the shore near here - but all that was a long time ago, and nothing remains of those days but some mosaics - which were fantastic - and pieces of statue. Peter built the first Church here, and the pagans who converted were the first to be called Christian. Later is was part of Syria, and most of the tourists are from there.

I also blend more. Not much, as soon as I open my mouth the illusion is over. But in the Southeast it was very clear that I was a foreigner. Sometimes people stared, sometimes they all wanted to know my name, but I almost always felt like I was a center of curiousity. Here no one seems to notice, or care, even though I am sure there can't be more than a small handful of westerners here. The stares are gone.

Maybe it's the Mediterranean air that relaxes people. There's something about the sea that does that. The medieval world I was in now seems far away.

  • But even here there is the other side of the river, where the country immigrants live, and the women are covered and the streets are dirty and the centuries-old houses are falling down and the children all stare and follow you asking your name.

Posted by kanewai 07:34 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Yuvacali Kolu, Hilvan, Şanlıurfa Province

Modern Nomads or, How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm (After They've Seen Paree)

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The guide books say that Şanlıurfa is where you start to 'feel the Middle East,' but I disagree. We have certainly left Europe behind, what I feel is more a connection with the mountains that stretch across Iran to India, and north of that the vast steppes and deserts of the Silk Road. This feels like the beginnings of Central Asia to me.

I just came back from Hilvan, or rather a small village just outside Hilvan. We've left the rough terrain of the Tigris behind us, and are now in the gentler (at least, this part is) Euphrates River basin. I haven't seen the Euphrates directly yet, but we could see the mist rising from it in the distance yesterday afternoon.

I've been moving quickly, which is not my style. From Hasankeyf I spent the morning in the Suriani stronghold of Midyat, then it was back to Mardin to visit a friend from İstanbul who is doing his medical service there. I got more out of one hour's wander with him than I did in two days of wandering solo. The next morning, Palm Sunday, I took a bus to Şanlıurfa, and from there to Hilvan, and from there to Yuvacali. Good luck finding that on a map.

The villages there were a strange mix of the ancient and the almost-modern. There were three of us, hosted through Nomad Tours Turkey. Our first stop was visit to a Turkmen nomadic family camped in a 'village.' The camp was four long tents and one smaller one. Two of the tents were for the sheep and lambs. Massive guard dogs lay outside. There were troughs and trucks and even water and electricity piped in from the closest houses.

It looked almost like a complete American farm, except that it could be packed up and moved every month. The nomads estimated that they spent only one month of the year in their home village. The rest of the year the village breaks up, each family moving with their flocks from pasture to pasture. They use trucks to haul the equipment, so at least in one respect their lives are easier than 2000 years ago.

The family was only two brothers, their two wives, and the six children of one of the couples. It seemed like there was a massive amount of work for such a small family, especially considering that women do most of the hard labor. That part, and the strict gender segregation, remained traditional.

And yet there was a television inside the tent!

More mysteries of Turkey. Or rather, of human nature. They have this exposure to a wider, more cosmpolitan, world, and yet seem completely bound to their own traditions.

The same with the Kurdish village we stayed in. The family was wonderful, and we enjoyed home cooked meals with food fresh from the farm throughout the day. You could see the connection to India in both the food and the names. There were no harsh spices, but we had peynir and yogurt in the morning, and the mother cooked naan over a wood fire for each meal.

The village sat on the base of a tell dating back to at least the Bronze Age. They have found pottery with cuneiform inscriptions on it. Once people say that a Roman sarcophagus washed out in a rain storm and crashed into the living room. The kids have collections of old coins, rings, and sherds that they have collected. So many civilizations have come and gone here.

There was also a strict gender segregation, and we heard brutal stories of what happens to those who violat them. Five years ago in İstanbul I met a guy who was heading back East to his village, and he intended to be the first man to come out openly as gay in traditional Kurdistan. Now I wonder if he survived. They might be heirs to forgotten empires - and though the first unıversities in the world were founded here - but this generation are farmers trapped in poverty and illiteracy, and defenders of a culture that is both beautiful and oppressive.

And yet each summer the men of this village head to Marmaris to work as bartenders at the pools and discos. I'm always amazed that people can jump back and forth between a Biblical-era lifestyle and a Babylonian one. In the Peace Corps we lived, briefly, in a traditional world. All of us came back. And the Micronesians who move to Hawai'i rarely move back home to the islands. I always thought it was a one way street, that you could move from the past to the present, but never back again.

These boys come back.

... cue music ...

How 'Ya Gonna Keep 'Em Down on the Farm
(After They've Seen Paree)

Reuben, Reuben, I've been thinking
Said his wifey dear
Now that all is peaceful and calm
The boys will soon be back on the farm
Mister Reuben started winking and slowly rubbed his chin
He pulled his chair up close to mother
And he asked her with a grin

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'
How ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin' the town
How ya gonna keep 'em away from harm, that's a mystery
They'll never want to see a rake or plow
And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'

Rueben, Rueben, you're mistaken
Said his wifey dear
Once a farmer, always a jay
And farmers always stick to the hay
Mother Reuben, I'm not fakin
Tho you may think it strange
But wine and women play the mischief
With a boy who's loose with change

How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'
How ya gonna keep 'em away from Broadway
Jazzin around and paintin' the town
How ya gonna keep 'em away from harm, that's a mystery
They'll never want to see a rake or plow
And who the deuce can parleyvous a cow?
How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm
After they've seen Paree'


Posted by kanewai 23:54 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

Mardin to Şanlıurfa

Meditations from the Bus

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The village looked like any other, except that is was surrounded by snipers crouched down in the spring wheat. I studied the scene from the window, while the gendarmes searched our bus and studied us.

It was quiet and almost peaceful. There was the village, just a small collection of mud houses on a hill. There was the main road, and a military checkpoint, and there was us. And on all sides nothing to the horizon but green fields and rolling hills. An old shepherd led his flock past the young soldiers. A few cars passed, slowly, without being stopped. We waited, and when the search was finished we moved on.

I don't know what I saw. This area was active during the Turkish government's war against the Kurds, and 100's, some say 1000's, of men were killed. There are peace initiatives, and the violence is over in most places. Not all, and I feel that I'm witnessing some relic conflict of the great, ugly 20th Century.

You can still see the scars of all the ethnic partitioning that occured in the past 100 years. Kurds have fled their villages after attacks by the military, and later by the same Kurdish militias that were meant to protect them. The Suriani have fled for Sweden and the United States after attacks by Hezbollah. The Jews left for Israel in 1955, and the Jewish quarter in Mardin is silent and lonely. The Greeks left in a 'population exchange.' And the Armenians were massacred in the 20th Century's first genocide, though it's dangerous here to mention it, if not illegal.

We value democracy, but I wonder if this is really democracy, this separation of people into their own ethnic enclaves. For a moment I think that there was a value to the old Empire. I wonder how much was lost when half the people left for their own homeland, or found themselves in the wrong homeland, or died fighting for one that never came. If you want to see the damage that nationalism can cause, come home to Mesopotamia.

But I know the old Empires were no better. This landscape is littered with the ruins of lost cities. Epic battles have occured in these fields. Alexander defeated Darius near here. The Romans fought the Persians fought the Byzantines fought the Mongols fought the Arabs fought the Crusaders fought the Turks fought the Allies fought the İslamists ... civilization started here, and we've been killing each other here ever since. The thick city walls and fortified towns on cliffs bear witness to that. And it was in Mardin - the City of Peace - that Sheikh Ahmad Ibn Taymiyyah issued his 14th Century fatwa against the Mongols, and jihad was born.

And so I watch Mesopotamia through the bus window, and I wonder what it is we need to finally bring peace. I met a group of German leftists here, down to support the Kurdish cause. I didn't mind the students' politics. I'm sure I was the same ... I was pro-Sandinista without ever having met a Sandinista, much less an actual Nicaraguan. I had a harder time with the couple my age. It doesn't take too much real world experience to learn that the basics - literacy, medical care, ample food - lead to far greater freedoms than Marxist rhetoric ever will.

And so I'm meditating on war, because I see it's impacts all around me, thousands of years worth of impacts, and yet the people here are gentle and warm and welcoming. There's a naturalness and an authenticity to every interaction that we'll never find in the west, and a lack of cynicism that is beyond me. You can take a man at his word. And though we know that dark crimes have occured, even in this generation, the city streets are safe peaceful.

And I don't understand this contradicton, not at all.

Posted by kanewai 13:42 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)


Time to shake things up

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Hasankeyf is an ancient city now in ruins built into the cliffs above the Tigris River, and it's beautiful and amazing and I'll let the photos tell the story when I get them uploaded.

My story is this: I'm a crappy tourist. I bus around, admire the sites, and then think, now what? Just being a tourist is too passive for me. I hate watching life. I want to be part of life. And sure that's a challenge when you only know a couple dozen words of the language, but I just can't hang wandering around smiling and taking pictures and calling that a day.

So tomorrow I reverse my tracks. I'm heading back to Mardin to stay with an acquaıntance from İstanbul whom I missed on my first round. Then, hopefully, on Sunday I join Alison of Nomadic Tours for, per her email, a walk to a nomadic camp, a Yezidi shrine, and some mysterious stone circle type ruins.

My flight leaves from Antakya & I can't change it, so I still need to keep working my way west and south. Ideally, this second week I'll be more of a participant and less a witness to this world.

(Basic travelogue details: after getting locked in the mansion most of the afternoon I emjoyed one last home cooked meal. A group of Germans arrived at the konağı, and I had a pleasant night drinking Suriani wine and talking politics with them. In the morning I caught a dolmuş to Midyat. A group of İstanbul travellers got on who had just backpaked through Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Their leader reminded me of a hippy college professor. Got off in Hasankeyf, spent a couple hours exploring the ruins above the river, and now the sun is heading down and it's time to grind).

Posted by kanewai 07:27 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)


Mornings in Mesopotamia

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Another sunrise, another existential crisis. I stare out my window at the Cradle of Civilization and thınk, Why am I here? I'm bored. What's the point of this? These aren't my people. My people are in Ibiza. Why the hell did I choose to come somewhere that no one went?

It's possible that this is all just caffeine withdrawl. A nice cup of tea cannot compare to the adrenaline jolt of the three (minimum) cups of java that I usually start my day with. I'm fully aware that these morning crises might be bio-chemical and not existential at all.

This is Savur: inhabited since H. sapiens wandered out of Africa. The Romans built a fortress on one of the summits to control trade coming down the valley. The Byzantines called the nearby mountains Tur Abdin, the Mountains of the Servants of God, and buit their monasteries here. The Turkish sultanates moved in, and the Özturk family buit a mansion on the summit across from the Roman fortress. The current generation has opened up the house to visitors, and that's where I'm staying, at the Hacı Abdullah Bey Konağı. Other families built stone houses below, and now the two hills are like a prettier, more rural Mardin.

It's pretty. It's an important place that should be preserved. But there is not much for a tourist to do, and as a consequence there aren't any tourists here. My first day was: unpack bags. Nap. Explore the town with Serkan, though the only word I understood was tarihsel - historic. That took half an hour. It's a small town. I took another nap. I found an internet cafe and went online. I had a haircut. I drank tea with the old men outside the shops, and had the same conversation with each.

I saw another tourist, a backpacker from Spain, and that just made my day. I napped again. I waited for dinner. And ate alone (the backpacker was out taking photos, and got lost).

That's been the weirdest part of this trip. I'm staying in these fantastic places, living like minor royalty, but I'm usually the only one in the castle or mansion. It's like a sunnier version of a Hitchcock movie. Usually I meet plenty of characters on the road. There haven't been any out here, so I really am traveling solo.

The family matriarch cooked a meal using ingredients right from the farm, and that was enough to make me ask to stay a second night.

But morning two was a repeat of morning one: what am I doing here and what am I going to do with myself all day? I decided to walk to Kıllıt, a village about 7 km down the road. All I knew was that it was a Suriani village, had two restored churches, and was famous for it's wine.

And so I walked two and a half hours, only to discover that the village had been half destroyed during the war, that all the remaining men were out in the fields, and that no one had the keys to the church. And so I turned and walked back.

It felt good to out, though! My first thoughts when I hit the countryside were, this is why I travel! I'm American, heir to Whıtman and Kerouac, and the open road is it's own reason. And the road was beautiful. There were small new leaves on the trees, and the apple and cherry and dogwood were in bloom. It was a timeless scene - women wrapped in colorful shawls in down in the valley working the fields, and younger men tilling new fields with donkeys and wooden ploughs.

Occasionally farmers would pass me on their donkeys, or I'd cross paths with shepherds moving their flocks up to the hills. After a selaam and a wa aleıkum selaam they'd wish me a pleasant day and we'd move on. I was excited (and tired) when I first saw the village - it looked like a scene out of Arabian Nights, all stone houses on a hill and no modern development at all.

But when I got closer I realized that the buildings were crumbling and mostly uninhabited. Four school boys came out and warned me about dogs wandering the village. We went looking for a key to the Church but the director (Priest? I didn't recognize the word the woman used) was in town.

So. I doubted I could tour more, not with all the men out, so I turned around. I got lucky on the way back. After about a half hour walking a farmer hauling a load of wood back to town offered me a ride. All the farmboys were already piled on the tractor, so I rode on the trailer hitch bar. Basically, I just tractor-surfed Mesopotamia.

Later today I'll climb to the Roman fortress with Serkan. Tomorrow I'm off to Hasankeyf. It's famous - I certainly can't be the only one there!

Posted by kanewai 04:54 Archived in Turkey Comments (0)

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