I know a neat excavation . . .
There’s a lot of ruins in Mesopotamia . . .
Mesopotamia’s where I want to go
Oh Oh, Oh Oh . . .
From Mesopotamia by the B-52’s
Mesopotamia – the land between the rivers – was the subject of one of my earliest geography lessons. As a young scholar at Chicago’s Clissold Elementary, I learned that Mesopotamia was “the land where civilization began.” Over simplified that lesson may have been, yet the towns and archeological sites between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in Turkish Mesopotamia are, if not the oldest on the planet, not much younger.
The archeological museum in the city of Şanlıurfa (ancient name, Edessa) contains a life-size statue of a male figure, crudely carved from limestone, which is at least 11,000 years old. It was unearthed during excavations in the town proper and thus attests to Urfa’s very long history.
The honorific şanlı, meaning glorious, was bestowed on the city of Urfa by the Turkish government to commemorate its resistance to the French invasion and occupation of 1918-1920.
As Turkey’s second holiest city after Konya, Urfa is a place of myth as well as history. There is a tiny cave, said to be the prophet Abraham’s birthplace that is venerated by believers of all three religions of the book. As an adult, Abraham infuriated local King Nimrod, who had him catapulted from a great height toward a bonfire below. God saved Abraham in the nick of time by turning the fire into water and the burning embers into fish. On the spot today, there are sacred pools teeming with thousands of protected carp that visitors can feed with special fish food bought from a few licensed vendors. A corollary to the myth of the fish is that those who dare to catch and eat them will go blind.
On April 23rd, the day of our visit, Urfa was celebrating Turkey’s national children’s holiday. The park around the pools, the mosques, the citadel and all the historic and religious sites were crowded with pilgrims and tourists many of whom came from nearby Syria. To be in this southeast corner of Turkey is to feel the exoticism of the Middle East in a way we never do in Istanbul.
Swarthy men wearing şalvar trousers and checked keffiyeh accompany women with henna tattoos on their cheeks. Fabrics of the brightest colors are displayed in the souk. Citizens here speak Kurdish and Arabic as well as Turkish.
Holiday Urfa was a perfect spot to begin what was to become one of the most interesting of all our Turkish travels. The artfully decorated Manici Hotel where we stayed two nights supplied excellent service in a luxurious setting, and our first-day lunch was a banquet served at a historic restaurant. These experiences and all others during our first four days were arranged by ARIT, The American Research Institute in Turkey. As with any tour provider, ARIT handles all logistical details. The uniqueness of an ARIT tour lies in their itineraries and the qualifications and experience of those who lead the tours. Because its mission is to present and explain the history, architecture and cultures of the many successive civilizations of Asia Minor, these tours take participants to sites that are off the beaten tourist paths and might not be accessible any other way.
On this occasion our principal guide was Professor Geoffrey Summers, a professional archeologist and articulate presenter with an encyclopedic knowledge of pre-Christian and Pre-Islamic cultures. He took us to the recently excavated Göbeklitepe (Potbelly Hill), a site as unusual and mysterious as Stonehenge only far more ancient.
The hill is actually an extensive artificial mound surrounded by a flat plain not far from the city of Mardin. Excavating the mound, what the archeologists have discovered are some circular stone-lined pits inside which are rings of larger, T-shaped stones set vertically and covered with reliefs of birds, snakes, and a variety of animals, some of which look to be prehistoric. There is no doubt that the stones are anthropomorphic with the bar of T representing arms or shoulders and the short vertical section above depicting the head.
The mysteries surrounding these strange works are who created them and what purpose they served. They aren’t tombs, nor is there any evidence that they were part of any ancient settlement. One supposition is that those who came here may have been a pre-agricultural people who used the site for votive purposes. As archeological digs go, this one is quite young, having been worked for only ten years. There is certainly much more to be discovered here, which, in time, may answer some of the many outstanding questions that Professor Summers enumerated. What was especially interesting about his commentary was being witness to an archeologist’s thought process. His words were less about results and certainty than about the kinds of questions archeologists ask and the ways they go about trying to answer them.
When we and our companions weren’t studying archeology, we were looking at monasteries and churches. It may interest some of you to learn that the land around the ancient cities of Mardin and Midyat have for centuries been home to the Syriacs, Syrian Christians whose ancient liturgy is celebrated to this day in Aramaic, said to be the language spoken by Jesus.
Some years ago many Syriacs left their ancestral homes to escape persecution and prejudice, and although a few are now returning, their churches and monasteries serve tiny populations. The monasteries, some of which have ancient origins, have recently been restored and configured with modern toilets and gift shops to attract tourists.
At the 5th-century Deyr-az-Zaferan Monastery we were introduced to a kind of death chamber where dead monks and priests would be left to decompose sitting upright in a chair ready to spring into eternity.
To travel in Turkey is to climb, so at Hasankeyf, a town on the Tigris River that is under threat of submersion from a proposed dam project, we climbed a tortuous path to a mountain lookout over the beautiful Tigris Valley.
From this aerie we saw cliff faces honeycombed with abandoned cave dwellings. We looked down on historic minarets and the picturesque ruins of a Roman bridge. Across the river a parti-colored patchwork of fields rolled toward a line of mountains dark against the blue sky. Overhead, white clouds cast moving shadows on the landscape. Everywhere around us were yellow blossoms of wild mustard. It felt great just to be alive.
On a sadder note, a distressing sight in Turkey’s Southeast is the poverty, especially in the faces of the hordes of children who ran toward us every time our bus stopped. Greeting us with “hellos,” the only English word they know, they would cluster around hoping for some token – a coin, a pen . . . anything. Young girls would make small garlands of wild flowers and try to sell them for a lira.
At the village of Dara where we visited the ruins of a Roman garrison town, one young boy walked silently at my side throughout our entire visit. Although he was only nine years old, his eyes looked much older. At the end of our walk, after I had given him some coins, I was rewarded to see him with a Popsicle he had bought with some of the money. In his place it’s exactly what I would have done.
At the end of our fourth day the tour ended in the Kurdish city of Diyarbakır. Saying goodbye to our companions, we went in search of a hotel. It felt good to be on our own. Tours have their advantages. To give maximum value, tour operators schedule visits to as many sites as possible. Although Kay and I were pleased with everything we saw, we find sightseeing at a pace that is not our own to be fatiguing. In many ways we prefer to be on our own armed with maps, guidebooks and historical references. What we may miss by this approach is balanced by other pleasures, such as the chance encounters with locals that occur spontaneously.
Diyarbakır is one of the region’s largest cities. Its ancient core is distinguished by the dark basalt walls and towers that once enclosed it completely. Today, a walker can practically circumnavigate the old town on top of these walls.
The old town is notable also for several interesting historic mosques and churches. Among the former is the Ulu Cami (Great Mosque), built in Arabic style. That is, it’s an oblong building much longer than it is deep and without the domes that characterize Ottoman mosques. Of greatest interest to us was its immense courtyard enclosed by buildings whose facades incorporate columns and other elements of late Roman buildings.
We also visited a Chaldean church hidden in the back alleys of Diyarbakır. Chaldeans are Syrian Catholics, of which very few remain in the area. I recall that in Detroit many inner-city convenience and party stores were operated by Chaldeans.
On our last night in the Southeast, while we sat eating in a nearly empty café in the city of Gaziantep, we were suddenly joined by two female Turkish university students followed by a male friend. The young women, who study English at their university and were in fact preparing for an English test the following week, wanted to talk with us but couldn’t manage it. Their male friend, who had learned his English while working a summer job in the Wisconsin Dells, did the talking. We know from other sources that the English taught in most Turkish universities is grammar and reading. Students graduate with a degree in English without being able to speak it. What was charming about this encounter was these women came on their own initiative to sit with us and simply listen.
In Gaziantep we visited the city’s museum to view its magnificent collection of Roman mosaics rescued from the antique town of Zeugma before the rising waters of the Birecik dam submerged them. These mosaics, some very large, once formed the floors and pool bottoms of Roman residences. They depict mythological figures and scenes that, for the wealthy citizens of the time, would have been common knowledge. As lovely as are the central figures themselves, the ornamental borders that surround them are of equal interest.
Of the various sights we had looked forward to on our trip none was more eagerly anticipated than Nemrut Dagı or Mount Nemrut, whose summit contains the fifty-meter high tumulus of a megalomaniacal king and the mighty stone heads that once adorned the giant statues of his mountain-top temple complex.
As a jumping-off point for our ascent we chose the town of Kahta near a huge artificial lake formed by the Atatürk Dam on the Euphrates.
Shortly after checking into the Zeus Hotel, we headed for the mountains and the national park surrounding our destination. It was a lovely drive that took us past villages where peasants still follow a traditional way of life. At times we slowed as cows and sheep crossed the road and chickens scattered in front of our car.
The mountain road ended at a car park, and when we stepped out of the car I was happy to put on the long johns I had brought with me. In the valley below the air had been pleasantly warm, while here at nearly 7,000 feet, a cold wind was blowing.
From the car park it was still a steep, rocky 600-meter trek to the summit, a painful ordeal for Kay with her bad knees. Fortunately, a man with a donkey found us and carried her up for a fee.
As fascinating as are the tumulus, the heads and the temple remains, they are equalled by the experience of the summit itself — so high, so remote, so magnificent. In every direction the views are unforgettable.
King Antiochus I Epiphanes (64-38 BC), who ruled over the small and short-lived Commagene Kingdom, seems to have been a monarch of extraordinary vanity. He might not be remembered at all were it not for the colossal temple complex he had built for himself on Mt. Nemrut. He thought of himself as divine or at least the equal of the gods. In his own words:
“I, the great King Antiochus have ordered the construction of these temples . . . on a foundation which will never be demolished . . . to prove my faith in the gods. At the conclusion of my life I will enter my eternal repose here, and my spirit will ascend to join that of Zeus in heaven . . .”
With these words in mind, to look upon the cracked statues and fallen heads of Antiochus himself, along with those of Zeus and other gods, is to recall lines of Shelley’s poem Ozymandias:
“. . . Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
It was a wonderful feeling to finally view this star attraction of Turkey’s Southeast. As I stood there gazing at the immense pyramid estimated to contain 30,000 cubic meters of small stones, I tried to imagine the titanic effort that must have gone into its construction. Nothing that we do today compares.