Travelling in a very small part of the Cradle of Civilisation – South Eastern Turkey.
Crossing the bridge beside the Malabadi Bridge, over the Batman Creek near the town of Silvan in southern Turkey, I arrived in Mesopotamia.
The Malabadi Bridge is a beautiful structure. A masterpiece architecturally dating from the 12th century. It is a spanned stone arch bridge, with a height of approximately 24m and length of just over 281 metres.
Mesopotamia (from the Greek, meaning two rivers) is referred to as the cradle of civilization. The world’s oldest civilisations inhabited this region, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and it was here that people began to read and write, create laws and live in cities. Today, most of Mesopotamia is in Iraq, but parts are in modern day Turkey, Iran and Syria.
Many empires, rulers and dynasties occupied Mesopotamia, from ancient times until today. The architecture, art and literature bears witness to the diversity of the history.
My travels were only in Upper Mesopotamia, now south eastern Turkey. I suspect I have left it too late to visit Iraq and Syria. Having looked out over both countries from the Turkish border towns will probably be the closest I will get.
Hasankeyf (ancient Assyrian name Castrum Kefa – castle of the rock), is being sacrificed to “progress”. The town has been flooded by the reservoir for the Ilisu dam on the Tigris River. On 5 July 2020, an article by Carlotta Gall appeared in the New York Times titled “An Ancient Valley lost to ‘Progress'”, (nytimes.com/2020/07/05/world/middleeast) which is well worth reading.
The Hasankeyf I visited is no more. This 12,000 year old settlement was once an important commercial centre along the silk road. Approaching the town, we passed cliffs, honeycombed with caves, which had been inhabited since Neolithic times.
Just prior to crossing the Tigris to enter Hasankeyf, the ruins of a 12th century bridge, which Alexander the Great may have crossed, came into view. I am sad to think that the ruins are now under water. No one will now experience standing on the banks of the Tigris looking at the piers of that bridge. Perhaps a generation who never experienced the wonder of that view will be content with an underwater view.
Hasankeyf stood on a rock, high above the river. It is hard to visualise the scene now. To sacrifice such a historically significant medieval site, with its palace, city walls, elegant houses and several mosques, including the Great Mosque, which was well preserved, is cultural vandalism. Some of the people who were displaced were the last of several generations of their family who lived there – some had even been born in one of the caves in the cliff.
Mardin, (known as Marida – of antiquity, Mardia by the Byzantines, Merde-Merdo-Merdi by the Syriac and Marde – Persian) where we were staying the night, is built on the slope of a hill, looking south over the great Mesopotamian Plain to Syria and Iraq. If we had telephoto eyes, it would have been possible to see the Persian Gulf.
Mardin has a very large number of Syrian refugees living in the city, in part because of the proximity of Mardin to the Syrian border. There has been a huge influx of Syrian refugees since 2011, and an escalation of the refugee crisis in 2014 meant a lot more Syrians were trying to leave their country. In October 2019 there were 88,000 registered Syrian refugees in Mardin – nearly 11% of the population.
Mardin is an architectural gem, with its ancient citadel and 14th and 15th century Islamic buildings – there are 14 historically important mosques in the city. The citadel, above the city was first built in 975.
The city has a medieval feel to it, with its narrow lanes and vaulted passageways under the upper storeys of houses. The old mansions are built of stone, decorated with carved stone fruit, flowers and animals. While strolling through this part of the city, people on their balconies invited us into their homes to taste their wine.
The most historically important mosque in Mardin is the Ulu Cami (Grand Mosque). Construction of this mosque began in 1184AD and was completed in 1204AD. I love the minbars, and the one in Ulu Cami, while not as impressive as many I have seen, was nevertheless attractive.
The refugee issue became apparent when we visited Deyr-az Zaferan, a Syriac-Jacobite monastery, 7km from Mardin. Although the monastery is open to the public, when we visited we were limited to a very small part. We were told that because the monastery was sheltering a large number of Syrian refugees.
The foundations were laid in the 4th century AD. There is an earlier underground chamber which is said to have been used by sun worshippers, as long ago as 2000BC.
The monks were nowhere to be seen. They apparently speak Aramaic – the language of Jesus. It would have been interesting to hear the language of Jesus spoken. I did hear Aramaic spoken a few months later in Ethiopia, so all was not lost.
I fell in love with the replica of Al-Jazari’s Elephant Clock in the Kasimiye Medrese in Mardin. Al-Jazari (1136-1206) was an Islamic scholar, mechanical engineer and inventor. He wrote a book, in 1206 “The Book of Knowledge of Ingenious Mechanical Devices. The Elephant clock is a splendid example of an Ingenious Mechanical device. It is a weight powered water clock, and stands 22ft high. The timing mechanism is in a water filled basin inside the elephant. The serpents play a part in the moving of the water.
Different cultures are represented on the elephant clock. The elephant is Asian, representing India, dragon like serpent represents China, phoenix on the top represents Egypt and the turbaned figure represents muslim cultures.
I really covet that clock.
The market in Mardin was excellent. I rarely enjoy markets, and unlike other people, have never found a treasure or a bargain in the many markets I have visited. This market was very clean and tidy, with the usual wonderful array of food. The silk scarves were the loveliest I have seen in markets. There was also a lot of soap, made by the Syrian refugees.
Harran (ancient Carrhae), now a village near the Syrian border, was an ancient city of strategic importance situated on the road from Nineveh to Carchemis. It was mentioned in the bible, (Patriarch Abraham’s family settled there – Genesis), but it was in existence long before biblical times. Ruins date back to the 3rd millenium BCE. Arriving in Harran, seeing the kumbets (mud brick houses, constructed without wood, which resemble beehives) and the ruins, transported me back to antiquity.
Local people no longer live in the beehive houses in Harran, but that did not diminish the feeling of antiquity. One of the houses is set up as if people live there. I loved the carpets and cushions.
I thought Stonehenge and the Egyptian pyramids were pretty old. Well, they are, but not as old as Gobekli Tepe, in north western Mesopotamia, about 20km from Urfa. Dating from around 9,500BC, the standing stones/T shaped pillars are 5,500 years older than the first cities of Mesopotamia, and are about 7,000 years older than Stonehenge and are from the neolithic period. Some of the pillars are plain, others have high and low relief stone carvings decorating them. The site is thought to be the first human built holy place. I have visited a lot of standing stones over the years. I am over awed by all of them, but I was blown away by those at Gobekli Tepe.
Urfa (Sanliurfa, Edessa, Adme) is in upper Mesopotamia, and is said to be where the prophet Abraham was born. He was born in Ur, but where is Ur. Ur of the Chaldeans is in southern Iraq, whereas Urfa is in northern Mesopotamia. The arguments for and against are fascinating, but I think I shall go with Urfa. I visited his birthplace in Urfa – a cave), saw the castle from which he was thrown by Nimrod, and dipped my finger into the sacred lake which Allah formed in place of the flames into which Abraham was to land. The burning logs were turned into fish. The lake is full of fish – descendants of the burning logs perhaps. The cave was pretty nondescript, but watching the devout pay their respects was quite fascinating. Kneeling and praying, and then, still on their knees, moving backwards out of the cave, to show respect.
After a busy day following Abraham, I retired to the roof terrace of my hotel with a glass of wine. Enjoying the views, and contemplating watching the sun go down, I was attended on by hotel staff. Madam cannot drink alcohol on the roof terrace, as it overlooked a mosque. Madam retired to her room without a view, so as not to offend.
The large noisy market in Urfa was as good as that in Mardin. I am always drawn to the spice stalls by the aroma, and the beautiful colours.
Driving to Kahta, I had my final view of the Euphrates, and drove out of Mesopotamia.
It was not my last view of Mesopotamia. From Kahta we journeyed up into the hills to climb Nemrut Dagh to visit the surreal setting of a handmade terrace, on which sat monstrous seated statues of different gods. I have written about my visit to Nemrut Dagh in “A Recent Journey into the Distant Past” (24 July 2017). If you are interested, you can scroll down to my very first post.
From Nemrut Dagh, there is a spectacular view across the Euphrates Valley, deep into Mesopotamia. A perfect place from which to farewell Mesopotamia.