Turkey’s Next Frontier

A journey through one of the world’s last, best travel secrets.

Şanliurfa, Türkiye

Şanliurfa, Türkiye

Photo by Ahmet RÜZGAR on Unsplash

THE OLD MAN SEEMED TO SPRING FULLY GROWN from the dry soil at Çavuştepe, 15 miles from Lake Van in the Kurdish heartland of Eastern Turkey. One moment I was laboring alone up the slope, and the next he was at my side, a wraith, thin and intense. He had a sharp, aquiline nose and wore a baseball cap with a strange inscription.

“I am Mehmet Kusman,” he said. I’d heard of him through the slim grapevine of foreigners who had climbed the hill where Sardur II, king of Urartu, constructed a fortified city 27 centuries ago. No one knew more about Sardur and his city than Kusman. He had taught himself to read the angular script of Urartian cuneiform, a Herculean 25-year task that began when he politely asked an archaeologist to help him decipher the writing on Çavuştepe’s walls. Kusman was one of the local workers at the site, an uneducated peasant wielding a shovel. “Only six or seven scholars on earth have mastered Urartian,” the archaeologist replied.

“For someone like you, it would be impossible.”

Kurds are offended by the word “impossible.” Today, Kusman is acknowledged internationally as an expert on the language and history of Urartu. When I met him, he had recently returned from an academic conference in Los Angeles.

Kusman walked me through corridors of massive stone blocks to a portal at the site’s highest point and began translating the words on its facade. “Nothing stood on this hill when I, Sardur, built my city,” he read. “I learned to build from our god Haldi, and brought water from the Goguna River to grow vegetables and fruit.”

The canal that irrigated the plain was still operating, a blue furrow coursing through fields of barley.

Kusman worked in a small wooden shack, just under the ridge, etching the Urartian alphabet onto black basalt tablets for tourists. “Çavuştepe makes some people afraid,” he said. “They look at the ruins and think, ‘Maybe this will happen to us, too.’

“Kurds don’t worry about that sort of thing,” he explained. “We’ve seen them all—Urartu, the Hittites, the Persians, the Mongols—and we’ve outlived them all.”

Before I left, Kusman translated the words on his baseball cap: “Our god Haldi taught me to build.” It had been a big hit at the conference in L.A., he said.

THERE ARE COUNTLESS REASONS to wander in Eastern Turkey: its golden hills set against a backdrop of jagged peaks and ridges; the unexpected wonders of its cities; the people’s generous hospitality and the resilience of their ancient culture. Stretching over 500 miles between the Caucasus and the Mediterranean, this is one of the last great travelers’ secrets.

A journey here is inevitably a sortie into the remote past. History confronts you at every turn, reaching back into the most distant eddies of human inspiration, and swirling ahead into the 21st century. My travels took me to cities like Diyarbakir and Şanliurfa, where parts of the Old Testament were set, to the complex of temples at Göbekli Tepe, which were built by mysterious architects more than 11,000 years ago and challenge our basic assumptions about the origins of civilization. Yet my trip also carried me forward in time to astonishing Gaziantep, a city bold and imaginative in its embrace of the future, and all but unknown in the West.

Yeni Diyarbakir

AFTER A NINE-HOUR BUS RIDE west from Van City to Diyarbakir, I was shaken out of a nap by a deafening chorus of automobile horns—and so disoriented that momentarily I thought I’d awakened in Shanghai. As far as the eye could see, high-rise apartment complexes covered the flood plain of the Tigris River. “Yeni Diyar,” my seatmate called it: “New Diyarbakir.” In 1995, the metropolitan population was less than 400,000. In 2010, it exceeded 1.5 million and had become the principal stronghold of Kurdish identity in Turkey.

The bus unceremoniously deposited me on the highway shoulder. “Yeni otogarı,” the conductor said: “New bus terminal.” The building wasn’t finished yet, but its parking lot had already supplanted the ilçe otogarı, the “district terminal” in the city center. When a taxi honked at me from under a solitary almond tree, I grabbed it and asked to be taken to a hotel.

We zigzagged through a bewildering series of yeni back roads, alleys, and vacant construction sites—anything to escape the jammed highway—but still wound up in a 10 mph crawl. Then, suddenly, nearly four miles of 36-foot-high Byzantine ramparts rose before us.

The city within will remind no one of Shanghai. Old Diyarbakir is the Middle East incarnate, the gateway to the Fertile Crescent and Mesopotamia, a 3,500-year-old trade emporium that preserves the sounds, odors, and sensibility of the Silk Road. Bazaars are common all over the Middle East, but in my experience none equals the dense, seething pageant of Ilçe Diyarbakir. In effect, the entire walled city is a bazaar.

Along one tight spiral of cobbled sokaklar (lanes), a rhythmic percussion echoes: brass hammers shaping pots and pans, water boilers and stoves, auto mufflers and cutlery. This is Demirciler Çarşisi, the blacksmiths’ market. Name any metal container or utensil, and the demircileri will make it on the spot, forging their wares in kilns stoked by pedal-driven bellows.

Nearly every corner has the kind of bakery that brings tears to the eyes of gourmets, where dough is patiently kneaded by hand, molded into thick loaves or flat pide, and baked in wood-fired ovens. Shopkeepers cry out the glories of fish from the Tigris, lamb’s innards and cow shanks, clucking hens and quacking ducks, pyramids of garlic and onions, tomatoes worthy of Naples, 10-pound cabbages, and 100-pound watermelons, the city symbol. And everywhere, in an explosion of exotic scents, vendors deal in Levantine spices and herbs, nuts, dates, and olives.

At dusk, the walled city is transformed into an open-air restaurant, the sokaklar awash with tables and stools, smoke lazily wafting from charcoal kebab grills. If you listen carefully, you can hear the voices of dengbêj, Kurdish lyric poets who sing their verses, or the mellow strains of a saz, a distant precursor of the mandolin.

There are 30 kilometers of sokaklar and çarşisi inside the walls, 20 miles of medieval shops, palaces, and hammams, traditional bathhouses. Old Diyarbakir prays by day in 21 mosques and passes the night in Sufi lodges where dervishes whirl into the morning.

Lost in its twisting alleyways, among caravansaries that once sheltered merchants and camels en route to Jerusalem and Mecca, I fell by chance on the Church of the Virgin Mary, a pagan temple that had been converted to Christianity in the sixth century. Its Syrian Orthodox pastor, Father Yusuf Akbulut, still celebrates Mass for his 30 parishioners in Aramaic, the language of the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. He taught me to say “thank you” the way Jesus would have said it to his mother—“taudi.”

DEEP IN THE MAZE OF OLD DIYARBAKIR, I found Şirin Gencer’s office on the second floor of a refurbished mansion, built by a wealthy Armenian merchant in the 18th century. [See “The Ghosts of Lake Van,” below.] The courtyard was an informal club for dengbêj, who serenaded us as we talked. Officially, Gencer is a tourism coordinator for the Southeast Anatolian Union of Municipalities, a regional administrative body. Her personal quest is to make sense of the transformation sweeping across Turkish Kurdistan, the stark contrasts between places like Yeni Diyarbakir, where she lives, and the timeless world of the bazaar.

She is a child of her globalized world, a young professional caught between a deep attachment to that enduring past and the efficient comforts of suburbia. “For a woman,” Gencer said, “security in Yeni Diyarbakir is the doorman in my apartment building. Here it is the dengbêj and the neighbors. They keep an eye on me all the time, watch me come and go.”

She paused. “I feel freer out there, in Yeni Diyarbakir, more modern. But what I lose is a sense of community.”

Inside the walls, she went on, “you get to know the shopkeepers. They’ll save a special product for you, give you a discount.” Outside, it is chilly, air-conditioned malls like the suburban Mega Center, which I’d visited the previous evening. The name spoke for itself.

Inside the walls, children run loose in streets too narrow for cars. Outside, Gencer said, they go on organized play dates arranged by their parents.“Most of my friends send their kids to private schools. The annual tuition can run up to $10,000.”

In western Turkey, where Gencer was raised, “you didn’t let on that you were a Kurd. People would avoid you. My parents only spoke Kurdish at home, when they were arguing and didn’t want my brother and me to understand. I had to take a course in my own language when I moved to Diyarbakir four years ago.”

By then new policies of cultural tolerance, instituted by the reformist national government that assumed power in 2003, had taken hold, with implications for everything from politics to the vocabulary of daily life. “It’s OK to speak Kurdish openly now, and people do in the old city,” Gencer told me. “But outside the walls, hardly anyone does.” For young Kurdish families in the yeni suburbs of Diyarbakir, Turkish is no longer dismissed as the language of oppression. It is accepted as a practical tool suited to modern life.


ABOUT 114 MILES SOUTHWEST of Diyarbakir lies Şanliurfa, known to the ancient world as Edessa, the common fatherland of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Roughly 2,000 years before Christ, tradition has it, the biblical patriarch Abraham, the Koran’s Ibrahim, was born in Edessa. A folktale cherished by all three monotheistic faiths holds that Nimrod, the Assyrian king, ordered the troublesome Abraham burned alive on a bed of coals. But the lone god of Abraham turned the coals into fish and the fire into two pools of water. Today, the scene of his salvation is a manicured rose garden surrounding the Balıklı Göl, the sacred pools.

I reached Şanliurfa in four hours by bus from Diyarbakir, on a road that bisected vast plantations of cotton and grain between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Near the center of town lay the Balıklı Göl. Small boats, loaded to the bulwarks with modern pilgrims, floated gently on the fabled waters. At tables arranged under flowering trees, families relaxed over tea and sweets. The pools teemed with coal-black carp. They rose to the surface to feed on crusts of bread handed down by giggling children. It’s no wonder that many believers are convinced the Balıklı Göl garden is a remnant of Eden.

According to Jewish and Christian tradition, Genesis, with its tales of Adam and Eve and Abraham, was composed around 1,500 b.c.e. By the standards of another site that drew me to Şanliurfa, that makes it venerable but not especially old. Twelve miles east of the city, “old” takes on new meaning.

KLAUS SCHMIDT, a gray-bearded Bavarian archaeologist, is notoriously leery of visitors. But we had a friend in common, and after a brief hesitation he ushered me into the excavations at Göbekli Tepe, “Potbelly Hill.”

Under a wooden scaffolding, a crew of turbaned Kurds sifted painstakingly through the earth around four circles of 15-foot-tall stone pillars. “They are abstract statues of human beings,” said Schmidt, who has supervised the dig since 1995. “It is a religious gathering of some sort,” he said, at what appears to be a monumental temple complex that has been carbon-dated to 9,200 b.c.e. The sculpting and placement of its statues, weighing up to 15 tons each, required expert architects and masons and the deployment of hundreds of trained workers.

There is no sign of long-term habitation in the rubble at Göbekli Tepe. The four temples defined by the pillared circles—and at least 16 more nearby, as yet unexcavated—predate the earliest years of permanent human settlement. They predate the invention of metal tools and the wheel. They were already 7,000 years old when the Great Pyramid of Giza was assembled in Egypt for the pharaoh Cheops.

Until Potbelly Hill was discovered, it was thought that only settled, urbanized cultures were capable of building massive stone buildings. In 1987, Savak Yildiz, a Kurdish farmer, was plowing the hill and unearthed the first of a series of unusual sculptures that shattered this theory.

At the site, Schmidt pointed out the flat relief of a headless man, with what appeared to be an erect penis, lying prone in one of the circles. Was it a fertility god, a prehistoric Dionysus? Schmidt shrugged. “When a man dies,” he said, in the impassive tone of a scholar, “the body sometimes produces a final erection. This statue could be a matter of simple observation.”

Many of the pillars are decorated with ornate bas-relief sculptures of lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, asses, snakes, spiders, and birds. They comprise “a highly sophisticated system of symbols, pictographs relating myths or stories,” in Schmidt’s view. They were carved 6,000 years before the usual date given for the earliest recorded writing.

The enormous complex had been deliberately backfilled by the late Stone Age, around 8,000 b.c.e., smothered under tons of soil embedded with fragments of human and animal bones. Perhaps a new epoch had opened, Schmidt speculated, with no use for the gods who preceded it.

Gaziantep: City of the Future

UNTIL RECENTLY, Gaziantep, 90 miles west of Şanliurfa, was famous chiefly for Turkey’s best pistachio baklava and spicy kebabs. For thousands of Kurds fleeing from civil war a generation ago, it was also a sanctuary. Today, with an overall population of more than 1.4 million, about 30 percent Kurdish, Gaziantep is a city of immigrants—not desperate refugees but ambitious high-fliers from all over the country.

Surrounded by idyllic groves of pistachio and olive trees, a glittering metropolis has taken root. It has shopping malls that make Diyarbakir’s Mega Center seem like a corner store, pastry shops and cafés to rival Paris, and a profusion of hip neo-Italian restaurants. Home to just 2 percent of Turkey’s population, Gaziantep Province is a giant in the manufacturing world, its booming nation’s largest exporter and largest importer.

The city represents a clear vision of what urban living can and should provide. It’s oriented around a central park that crosses the city from end to end, with swimming pools, a planetarium, and even a year-round ice rink. Gaziantep boasts one of Turkey’s top universities, a state-of-the-art medical center, and the ultramodern Zeugma Mosaic Museum. Construction of a light-rail transit system is under way.

The system’s central terminus is Old Antep, a 4,000-year-old bastion that includes a residential neighborhood called Kurdish Hill. Its destiny rests in the hands of people like Ahmet Ertürk, 33, staff archaeologist at the Protection, Implementation, and Control Bureau, the preservationist wing of the municipal government. “Anyone who wants to build in the center has to come to us for permission, with precise blueprints and acceptable plans,” he explained. “We say ‘no’ pretty often and make lots of enemies.”

Ertürk began dreaming of a career in archeology at age 10, when he discovered an old coin during a school trip. “Then I saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and I was really hooked.”

His work, he told me, is framed by a relentless question: “I ask myself, over and over, why do some civilizations die while others stay alive?”

The answer, he has come to feel, is not preservation for its own sake. You have to allow for necessary and imaginative change. Gaziantep isn’t Diyarbakir, with its old quarter walled off from high-rise developments, any more than Diyarbakir is Shanghai. In carefully managed harmony with its past, Gaziantep is the future made livable. A

The Ghosts of Lake Van

Lake Van, set amid snow-capped peaks on the eastern edge of Turkey near its border with Iran, is among the most beautiful—and sobering—destinations in the region. Landlocked with no outlet, it is so naturally rich with alkali and sodium carbonate that its water is a natural detergent for washing clothes. The chief denizens are an eccentric breed of white cats, with one blue eye and one green, who enjoy diving in for a cooling swim, and a single species of fish that tastes like soap when grilled. But the lake’s peculiarities are not why the modern city that bears its name was constructed three miles away, rather than at the water’s edge.

The unspoken intention was to forget the 3,000-year-old Urartian lakeside capital it replaced. The shore was haunted. The old capital, with its spectacular setting, was the Pearl of Anatolia (Asia Minor). “Van for this life, paradise for the next,” its residents liked to say. In 1914, some 250,000 people—60 percent of them Muslim, including Kurds and Turks, and 40 percent Christian, mostly Armenian—lived there. Six years later, nobody did.

Charge and countercharge cloud what happened on Van’s shores: a revolt in 1915 by Armenian nationalists, a subsequent invasion and occupation of the city by Russian troops, the Turkish military campaign that recaptured it. The settling of scores. By 1921, there were almost no Armenians left anywhere in eastern Anatolia. The old city of Van had been leveled. Only in the past few years have the governments of Turkey and the Republic of Armenia, 100 miles to the north, undertaken promising negotiations aimed at healing the wounds of the terrible conflagration that erupted a century ago.

Today, while the lake still entices, what was once the Pearl of Anatolia is an uninhabited wasteland, broken by weed-choked mounds where homes, mosques and churches, schools and markets once stood. I spent a futile afternoon walking over it with a tattered old map, trying to determine where the streets had run.—FV

A Kurdish Opening

To travel in eastern Turkey is to follow an extended conversation between past and present that has reached a pivotal moment today. The region’s history and future are inseparable from those of its Kurdish citizens. Turkey’s 18 million Kurds—25 percent of the population—are key players in the country’s effort to win admission to the European Union, and in the Islamic world’s struggle to modernize.

Everything begins in the lush flood plains of two storied rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, where Kurds have resided for at least 5,000 years. This is where agriculture was born, with the domestication of wheat, barley, and lentils, and the taming of goats, sheep, and dogs. Kurdistan was the cradle of weaving, fired pottery, and systematic foreign trade, in the form of clay-tablet “spreadsheets” detailing commercial transactions among the kingdoms of Mesopotamia.

The Kurds have also experienced the world’s longest-running succession of invasion and sustained resistance, dating back beyond the 5th century B.C.E., when 10,000 Greek soldiers, marching home through the hills and valleys of Anatolia from a military campaign in Babylon, were harried and picked off, one by one, by Kurdish irregulars. Kurds brought down Roman legions in the age of Caesar as well, helped topple the empire of Byzantium, and conquered Jerusalem for Islam under the Kurdish general Saladin. Clinging fiercely to their traditional lands in what is now Eastern Turkey, western Iran, northern Iraq, and neighboring pockets of Syria and Georgia, the Kurds subsequently mounted periodic uprisings against Persian, Arab, and Ottoman Turkish armies.

After the Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, its government harshly suppressed the open expression of Kurdish culture for eight decades. In the name of national unity, authorities banned all educational activities, publications, broadcasts—even the recording of songs—in any language but Turkish. One effect was a civil war that took more than 40,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s.

The 2003 election of reformist prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, head of a moderate Islamic party, brought the steady dismantling of anti-Kurdish cultural laws. Wide-ranging reforms, known as the Kurdish Opening, were introduced in 2009. The initiative met resistance from Turkish nationalists, and political tensions remain high. But today the militant Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) no longer calls for the creation of a separate Kurdish state; a Kurdish political bloc holds power in many of eastern Anatolia’s city halls; and Kurdish-language television programs, books, newspapers, and websites are proliferating. There has never been a more culturally dynamic—or socially tranquil—moment to travel to the birthplace of civilization.—FV

This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.

Frank Viviano is a Sicilian-American journalist and foreign correspondent. He attended De La Salle High School in Detroit and the University of Michigan. His journalism career began in 1977.
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