“Land of the Midnight Express”
Turkey is a vast country that is unique geographically in spanning two continents (Asia and Europe), additionally it is the crossroads where the fault lines of religious and cultural differences between east and west meet head on. This adventure entailed a journey to the less visited eastern part of the country, a compliment, and in some ways the antitheses to the trip I undertook exactly ten years earlier to the more visitor orientated western Turkey. Eastern Turkey is richly endowed with magnificent Islamic architecture, ancient palaces and bustling bazaars. Here the Ottoman influence still permeates the landscape and the day-to-day life of the local population still moves at a sedate pace, harking back to more distant times. The tourist boom that pervades the west of the country barely registers here in the parochial east, where tourists are definitely a curiosity rather than the norm.
A Brief History
This vast peninsular of Asia Minor, formerly known as Anatolia, experienced a rise in temperatures around 9,600 BC which initiated the nascent beginnings of farming in the region. As this took hold villages formed, populations increased, animals were domesticated and religion arose to promote social co-operation. Archaeological evidence of settled communities has been discovered that dates back to the 4th millennium BC. Many of the world’s great empire builders have passed through Anatolia, among them the Hittites, Alexander the Great, the Romans, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Seljuk Turks and the Ottomans. Anatolia’s seminal historical period commences effectively with the Hittites who migrated to the region around the end of the 3rd millennium BC. Concomitant to building great palaces and temples, the Hittites introduced the earliest written language to the region in the style of the cuneiform script. From around the 12th century BC Anatolia was settled by Greeks, who would leave an enduring legacy in terms of their culture and their architecture that resonates through to the present day. Throughout the centuries Anatolia would subsequently be ruled by a plethora of civilisations; amongst them the Urartians, the Lydians, the Phrygians and the Persians. Two centuries of Persian domination of Anatolia came to an abrupt end in the year 334 BC with the arrival of Alexander the Great, who swept through the region on his way to Persepolis and the borders of India.
The 2nd century BC saw the arrival in Anatolia of the Romans who instituted an era of cultural and economic prosperity within the country. With the subsequent splitting of the Roman Empire into two halves, the eastern half (Byzantine) now came under the jurisdiction of the Emperor Constantine the Great (324-327); the then provincial town of Byzantium was chosen as its capital and was renamed Constantinople (now Istanbul).
The late 11th century AD saw the Seljuk Turks establish their domination of Anatolia, followed at the beginning of the 13th century by the knights of the Forth Crusade who captured Constantinople in 1204. The arrival of the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century put the final nail in the coffin of the Byzantine Empire, where upon taking Constantinople they made the city capital of their empire and renamed it Istanbul. After nearly five hundred years Ottoman rule came to an end at the conclusion of the First Wold War in 1918. The year 1919 saw the commencement of the War of Independence against the western Allies who now controlled much of the country following Turkey’s defeat in 1918; this culminated in the proclamation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 with Mustafa Kemal (Ataturk) as its first President.
Independent Turkey initially enjoyed a period of democratic stability which ended abruptly in 1980 when the military seized power in a bloodless coup. Martial law was imposed resulting in the banning of activities by political parties, the curbing of press freedom and the arrest of many political activists. Democracy was restored once again with parliamentary elections being held in 1983.
Turkey is currently entering a transitional period in its history, the secular republic of Ataturk is under pressure as the country’s religious parties are gaining ground in the parliament and are pushing for change. Increasingly signage designating the Turkish republic is being removed from buildings and public places, alcohol consumption and flying of the national flag are being ever more restricted. As the country veers towards becoming a more ‘Islamic’ state the various political parties are battling physically and intellectually for the soul of the country. Against this backdrop democratic Turkey looks increasingly to the west, it is a member of NATO and aspires to future membership of the European Union.
This incredible adventure begins in Istanbul, a mesmerising city of mosques and minarets, redolent with history and the beating heart of modern day Turkey. We start with an orientation tour of the main sites, always a good way to find your bearings and to obtain a general feel for a city.
The former church of Hagia Sofia is a supreme paradigm of Byzantine architecture and is Istanbul’s and Turkey’s most iconic monument. Built between the years 532 and 537 AD it served as a church until the Ottoman conquest, then as Istanbul’s principle mosque; now currently it is a museum. It is impossible not to be awe struck when you explore the interior of this magnificent building. Just across the main square from the Hagia Sofia is the Sultan Ahmet Mosque or Blue Mosque constructed between 1609 and 1616. With its multitude of domes and six Ottoman-style pencil minarets it is one of the supreme examples of Ottoman architecture .There is no getting away from the fact that Istanbul is a city with a plenitude of mosques, and my favourite is the Suleimaniye Mosque. Constructed between 1549 and 1575 by the Ottoman court’s supreme architect Mimar Sinan, this is mosque architecture carried to the zenith of its development. Towering pencil minarets and truncated domes emphasise the buildings harmonious exterior proportions. The interior of the building is no less spectacular with exquisite tile work and highly decorative stained glass. Having concluded the group tour it was time to head off on my own to explore the sites in more detail and spend the requisite time to pursue those ultimately elusive perfect photographs. The remainder of the day was spent revisiting some of the other sites I had encountered on my previous trip here ten years ago, only this time around I was armed with a serious digital camera. Istanbul is an exciting and vibrant city to visit, a destination where one foray is never enough and you are left feeling that a return visit is always on the cards.
The following morning we catch an internal flight east to Trabzon situated on Turkey’s north coast bordering the Black Sea. It is from here that the journey through the east of Turkey begins. The main occupation in this part of the country is farming and it accounts for sixty-five per cent of the region’s industry: grain, corn, rice, tea and hazelnuts account for the bulk of the produce. Situated a short distance southeast of Trabzon is the spectacular Greek Orthodox monastery of Sumela. The building complex is perched precariously 300 metres high up on a sheer rock face. Originally founded in the 4th century AD, its present form dates from the 13th century, with the last resident monks vacating the monastery in 1916. From the outside the complex has the appearance of a five-storey building perched in a niche on the sheer mountain face but once inside you are greeted with a scene reminiscent of the native Indian dwellings at Mesa Verde in the United States. Wonderfully photogenic ruins are set in a shallow cave opening and previously functioned as the monk’s cells, a refectory and various administrative buildings. The bijou Chapel of St Barbara is flamboyantly covered in vivid murals and is the sublime highlight and lodestar of the monastery.
The journey to Erzurum was through barren mountainous scenery punctuated by the occasional small town along the way. Erzurum is the largest conurbation in eastern Turkey with a population of around 400,000 people. We arrive at the end of a long arduous day on the road to be greeted by a spectacular storm of rain, thunder and lightning. Then at 11.42pm I am rudely awakened by my bed shaking beneath me for 4 or 5 seconds; this was my first experience of an earthquake, a common occurrence in this part of the world. Our tour of Erzurum commences with a visit to the Yakutiye Madrasah, built in the early 14th century this delightfully restored building boasting an elaborately tiled minaret currently functions as a museum. Inside the building separate rooms are dedicated to displays of jewellery, weapons, clothing, ceramics etc. The Uc Kumbetier are three bijou tombs dating to the late 13th century; the most impressive of which is octagonal in plan, with a conical roof, stalactite mouldings and some handsome animal reliefs. The Ulu Cami is one of Erzurum’s oldest mosques dating back to 1179, up to 4,500 people can pray at any one time in its spacious interior. As well as being decorative, the mosque’s ceiling maquarnas are employed to amplify the acoustics; they can increase the sound volume by a factor of ten. The mosques supporting roof columns are not set symmetrically in a straight line, but are offset by around 30cm from each other. This has the effect of adding greater strength for the support of the roof dome and also aids against the effects of earthquakes. These factors were mathematically incorporated into the original design of the building; mathematics was one of the great academic contributions made by Islamic scholars of the time. This flowering of Islamic academia has greatly enhanced global knowledge and transcends through to our current appreciation of mathematics and its application in our modern society.
Heading ever further east we reach the ruins of Ani, once the ancient capital of Armenia. With boundary changes down the years, Ani is now situated in Turkey and today it is located right on the border with Armenia with just a narrow river separating it today from the Armenian side. Ani was in the past a stopover point on the ancient Silk Road trade route. Its monuments display amazing artistic and architectural characteristics drawn from the various cultures and religions that once inhabited this region. There are mosques, churches, Turkish baths, a citadel and even a Zoroastrian fire temple. Once a wealthy metropolis, at its zenith in the 10th century it boasted a population of around 100,000 and as many as 1,000 churches. Ani’s prosperity came to an abrupt end with its destruction by the Mongol hordes in 1239 as they swept across the country expunging all in their wake. The photography here was exceptional, with the monuments set in a ravine amidst an atmospheric mountain backdrop. Allied with perfect light this made for endless photographic possibilities which did not disappoint.
The Ishak Pasa Sarayi is one of the most magnificent examples of 18th century Ottoman architecture. Built between the years 1684 and 1784, this half hill fortress and half oriental palace is located high on a bluff overlooking the expansive valley below. The palace and its viewpoint are the classic picture in every guide book and travel brochure. For someone with a penchant for photography, like myself, this setting is one of those iconic images that once you see a photographic reproduction, you are filled with inspiration to visit and make your own record of this remarkable vista.
Today we have a long day on the road as we leave Dogubeyazit and head towards Van. We travel very close to the border with Iran where there are innumerable watch towers perched on the hilltops. This region lies on a tectonic plate fault line with a number of active volcanoes. For mile after mile there are volcanic rocks and we drive through endless lava fields where the scenery resembles a barren featureless moonscape.
The Kurdish fortress of Hosep is situated on an imposing steep outcrop of rock. Its primary function in antiquity was to control the military road that ran from Van through to northern Persia. Built in 1643, it contains over 350 rooms including two mosques, a prison, three baths, a well and cisterns. No longer of any military value, today its most impressive quality is its location.
This morning at 5.15am I am once again awoken as an earthquake violently shakes my bed; measuring 4.8 on the Richter Scale. Apparently this area suffers hundreds of thousands of earthquakes every year, they are generally dismissed as commonplace if they register under 7.0.
Lake Van luxuriates in a majestic setting, fringed by mountains soaring to over 4,000 metres. It is the largest lake in Turkey and is seven times bigger than Lake Geneva. We take a boat trip on the lake out to Akdamar Island to visit the Armenian Church of the Holy Cross. Built in the 10th century the church is one of the most popular visitor attractions in the Van province. The building is constructed in the form of a four leaf clover, cruciform in plan with its roof in the shape of a pyramidal cone. Beautiful reliefs adorn the exterior of the building depicting such well known biblical themes as Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, Jonah and the Whale – all intertwined with animal figures and florid twisting vines.
Hasankeyf is an ancient town full of spectacular monuments; the remains of a 12th century bridge, an exquisite mausoleum, a mosque, a recently restored ancient hammam (Turkish bath), two unique minarets and numerous ancient cave dwellings cut into the surrounding rock faces. Situated on the banks of the river Tigris, the whole area is due to disappear beneath the waters of a massive dam project. There is currently no provision in place to save these monuments and additionally the dam would have an egregious impact on the local environment. Iraq and Syria have raised objections to the project as the Tigris flows through their territory after exiting Turkey. As well as submerging these irreplaceable monuments many people would lose their homes and need to be resettled; something the local populace is raising resistance against. One of these threatened monuments is the unique 15th century Zeynel Bey Mausoleum. Cylindrical in plan, it is decorated with turquoise and blue glazed bricks in a herringbone pattern, augmented with mosaic ceramics and geometric motifs. Highly unusual for Turkey, the architectural characteristics of this unique mausoleum are closer to memorial tombs found in Azerbaijan and Turkistan.
Back on the road we drive by the marvellously named town of Batman, I was fully expecting to see another sign pointing to Robin and then possibly to Gotham City! Our next stop was the Syrian Orthodox Deyr ul Zafaran or Saffron Monastery which dates back to the 5th century. The monastery contains three churches as well as doubling as a boys boarding school. Daily prayers here are conducted in Aramaic, the language at the time of Jesus, and as such attracts large numbers of the faithful.
Located in the south east of Turkey, the stone- age sanctuary of Gobekli Tepe is a unique monument dating back to the 10th millennium BC, and is the oldest known archaeological sanctuary in the world. The origins of Gobekli Tepe hail from a part of human history unimaginably distant, that of the hunter-gatherer. Only discovered back in 1995 it predates Stonehenge in England by some 5,000 years and is so old that it pre-exists settled human life. This extraordinary site is believed to be a place of religious rituals including that of animal sacrifice, substantiated by the discovery of copious numbers of animal bones. The main structures of the site are in the form several circles consisting of T-shaped megalithic stone pillars inscribed with carvings of animals, stylized anthropomorphic beings, crops and geometric shapes. The locale is currently around 20 per cent excavated, thus there are more blanks than answers surrounding this discovery, making this excavation possibly the most important archaeological site in the world today.
This region of Turkey is redolent with history; the first evidence of human settlement, the first recorded calendar, the world first peace treaty between the Hittites and the Egyptians was enacted locally at Kadesh. It is believed to be the site of The Garden of Eden the biblical birthplace of mankind. Modern day eastern Turkey in general is experiencing a boom in the building sector; an ever increasing need for housing due to people having larger families. Agriculture is a major industry here with many co-operative farm holdings, the main crops being corn, cotton and sunflowers.
The town of Sanilurfa is renowned as the birthplace of the patriarch Abraham, revered by Jews, Christians and Moslems it has become a traditional centre for pilgrimage. In ancient times Sanilurfa was a staging post for the overland trade routes between Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the Mediterranean coast. Today with a population of around 500,000 this is quite a sizeable conurbation; it boasts one of the finest bazaars in the country along with some photogenic monuments with which to keep any visitor more than occupied. There is a gorgeous panoramic view from the top of the Citadel of the townscape below. The actual climb to the top is breath taking, requiring at least one libation break on the way up at one of the numerous cafes. Abrahams Pool, the Zulmiye Mosque, the Grand Mosque, the Hali Rahman Madrassa and the Mevlid-i-Halil Mosque are just a few of the monuments that make Sanilurfa a dream location for a photographer and his camera. A wonderful day was concluded with a meal of chicken kebab and salad in a pitta bread, washed down with mineral water and a sweet tea; all for the princely sum of £1.30.
Situated in close proximity to the border with Syria is the village of Harran, home to some 400 unusual constructions known as beehive houses. The unique design of these crushed clay and mud brick houses with their conical shaped roofs allows them to remain cool in the summer and warm through the winter. These beehive shaped structures, constructed in the north Syrian style, are reminiscent of the Trulli houses of southern Italy. Looking at this small dusty passe settlement of Harran today, it is somewhat hard to believe that it was once a major economic and religious centre dating back some 3000 years. Evidence for this history is presently being unearthed through a substantial archaeological dig currently underway around the remains of the Grand Mosque. Constructed in 747 AD, not much remains standing today from the mosques original structure. There are a vast number of stone blocks scattered around the site that resemble a giant Lego kit waiting to be put back together again.
On our journey today we make a brief stop at the Ataturk Dam, started in 1978 it is as yet still incomplete, mainly due to political objections from Turkey’s neighbours. It is now estimated that the project will be completed in 2020. The dam forms an 800 metre barrier across the Euphrates River, which flows for 2,800 Km making it the longest river in Turkey.
The mesmeric site of Nemrut Dagi was the undisputed highlight of this entire journey, the jewel in the tourist crown of eastern Turkey and my primary reason for choosing this trip. Situated at the summit of the 2150 metre high mountain of Nemrut Dagi is the Heirothesion of the Kommagene King Antiochus 1, which is dedicated to the kings own glory and that of the gods. Antiochus’ tomb is concealed somewhere inside a 50 metre high man-made burial mound. The terraces surrounding the mound are lined with the remains of what was originally the temple mausoleum built by Antiochus in the 1st century BC. The collapsed columns and the remains of the temple - visible today - are a legacy from the Roman incursion into Anatolia. The real centrepiece of this site is the array of sculpted heads, remnants from the many long since disappeared colossal statues that once stood here. These heads depict representations of various deities including Zeus, Hercules, Apollo, Hermes, as well as Antiochus himself. We visited Nemrut Dagi twice, once for sunrise and once for sunset, the former being the more atmospheric experience. The photographic opportunities were tremendous as the vast stone heads littering the summit were bathed in the soft golden sunlight. Up at 4.30am, the sky was covered in a panoply of stars as we drove to the base of the mountain, we then waited in a small tea shop to keep warm with the aid of blankets and hot drinks. A hike up the mountain, then followed by a numbingly cold wait for the sun to pop its head above the horizon and cast its magical rays. The sun distributed its early morning gift, bathing the scene in a soft orange glow, vanquishing the dark sky for another day. All at once the site became photographic Valhalla and all thoughts of the cold were rapidly forgotten.
Built on a narrow mountain spur high above the valley are the spectacular ruins of the Mameluke fortress of Yeni Kale, completing the scene below it in the valley is the elegant Seljuk Kahta Bridge constructed around 1206. Both are set in dynamic mountain scenery and this was the perfect place to relax and absorb the combination of mother-nature and man-made structures complimenting each other.
The last stop on this tour was Gazientep, the city has the third largest economic output in the country after Istanbul and Ankara. The city’s Mosaic Museum is housed in a beautiful modern building and is the repository for a spectacular collection of these tesserae exhibits. Gazientep’s main claim to fame is that it is the provenance of the deliciously sticky Baklava and there are innumerable shops selling this delightful confectionary.
This journey through the least visited eastern region of Turkey, with a day in Istanbul thrown in for good measure, was a delight. A diverse offering of cultural sights - from the ubiquitous mosques, a Kurdish fortress, an Ottoman palace, a stone-age sanctuary dating back to the 10th millennium BC and a hilltop mausoleum – these were just some of the attractions encountered on this journey. Encompassing some breath-taking scenery, uncrowded sites, the paucity of mainstream tourism and its associated trappings, photo opportunities unlimited and the odd kebab along the way. All of the above encapsulated eastern Turkey as a remarkable travel destination. The journey in its entirety involved travelling a distance of approximately 3,400 kilometres over a two week period, this gives some idea of the overall geographical expanse of this country. Hopefully this travelogue may encourage you to append Eastern Turkey onto your “must see” list of future destinations.