November 26, 2018
My mom’s best friend was hunched over the concrete floor. Her hands were holding the loops of a dirty plastic bag while my mom carefully scooped dark dirt — the color of dried blood — into the bag. She then took the sapling rose and placed it in the middle of this mess.
We were in the departures lobby of Urfa Airport. Our plane back to İstanbul was waiting just across security check, where guards stood by. These were the same guards that a moment ago said that certainly, no, you cannot bring a potted plant like that onto the plane; please package it inside your carry-on. This was why my mother and her friend, Binnur, were fussing over the rose.
We bought the rose midway in our trip through the southeastern region of Turkey. It blooms black, or rather a very deep purple, and my mother purchased it off the back of a docked boat in Halfeti. It reminded her of a soap opera she watched a few years back, which was also called by the same name Karagül. “Your grandmother can plant it in her garden back in İstanbul,” she told me.
Never mind that the rose receives its color from the soil and not from anything inherit in its DNA. The southeastern region of Turkey, populated by the cities Mardin, Şanlıurfa, Gaziantep, Midyat, and more, has been home to many flowering roses of civilization: neolithic, Babylonian, Assyrian, Hittite, Ottoman, Persian, Greek, Roman, Armenian, Byzantine, Kurdish, Turkish, and others.
Each has taken to the soil in a vibrant parade of diverse foods, cultures, and practices. Though often overlooked by travelers because of a tumultuous past, Southeastern Turkey is now becoming internationally known. We had four days to explore this region with my mother, her two friends, and myself.
My mother’s friend’s daughter-in-law’s mother — Kumru — picked us up from the airport and whisked us away to breakfast. The flight was short from İstanbul to Urfa, but we had left early in the morning, and our stomachs were sorry for it. Kumru missed the breakfast spot a few times before we finally found it. After settling in, the table was covered with local specialties. Traditional breakfasts in the region often start with liver, though we forwent that dish.
Our table creaked under the weight of all the food. No matter where in Turkey, breakfast is a large meal. All of the food was spiced. Spice is inescapable in this region: and there is no reason why you would want to escape from it. The spices here provide heat without burn. They snuck themselves into the cheeses, breads, meats, vegetables, and olives on our table.
Our itinerary for the next few days was full, Kumru explained. My mother and her friend, Binnur, nodded as they broke off another piece from the loaf of flatbread. We would be exploring Şanlıurfa first. Known in the past as Edessa, the city is renowned for its religious attractions as well as being near one of the oldest known human settlements in the world, Göbekli Tepe. Then, Kumru continued, onward to Gaziantep, Mardin, Midyat, Halfeti, and smaller sites along the roads to each city.
I gave an incredulous glance to my mother, but a quick search on our phones left us even more lost. The sun was getting low. It was time to admit defeat for this excursion.
We finished breakfast and left to explore Şanlıurfa. The plan for this day was to visit the prehistoric site of Göbeklitepe, which was a fifteen minute drive outside the city center. Kumru began driving: left, right, two lefts, merge, change lanes, stop for directions, reverse, restart phone navigation, shout road names, veer into dirt path, repeat “this must be the right way” for the third time, and finally stop and ask for directions from a group of working men: “The museum and archaeological site are closed today,” one of the workers said. We did not believe him becuse his friend immediately said it was open. A little more back and forth between the pair left us thoroughly befuddled. I gave an incredulous glance to my mother, but a quick search on our phones left us even more lost. The sun was getting low. It was time to admit defeat for this excursion. We would do more research and go another day.
In the remaining hours of daylight during winter, we decided to explore the historic city center or Urfa instead.
Once inside old Urfa, I didn’t lose much time in picking up dusty pieces of tarnished and beaten copper. These would need to be re-tinned and cleaned “red” to expose the natural copper underneath the dust and history. My mother didn’t lose anytime buying bolts and bolts of jaunty velvets and breezy chiffons. We all bought scarves made from the local fabric kutnu, which is a silk-cotton blend woven into jewel-toned ikat-like weaves.
By evening we collapsed into the courtyard of the old city bazaar. Surrounded on all sides by stone arches, the server took our order for coffee. He asked us if we’d be interested in the local specialty, menengiç (in the local dialect) or menevis (in standard Turkish), and we ordered a cup for each of us. Kumru said her husband plans to grow pistachio trees soon in the nearby countryside, and we would all be party to the bounty. Pistachios are abundant in this region. The trees they grow on remind me of the almond trees in California, yet pistachio tree branches are more distorted, writhing toward the sun. They are used in almost every dish in the region. Our coffee would also have it sprinkled on top, the server informed us.
The coffee is made from crushed “wild” pistachios from the turpentine tree. These pistachios are then dried and roasted. The preparation and presentation are nearly identical to Turkish coffee but the flavor is more mellow and herbal with the lingering taste of resin. We took to the drink immediately: every day we would enjoy a cup for the remainder of our trip.
We ended our first day with a traditional feast with music called a “sir gece.” We sat on low cushions of a large stone hall on the top floor of an historic mansion set in the heart of the city of Urfa. Musicians lined up on one side: darbuka, kanun, voice, bağlama, violin, and davul. Dish after dish was brought to our table. The only issue was that the place was empty for most of the evening. In winter, tourism drops, Kumru explained. An unsold event became a private show for us. The emptiness made it easy for the loquacious lips of my travel companions to spill gallons of gossip between bites of çiğ köfte and swigs of powerful rakı.
In the 1990s, the Turkish government began an ambitious plan to re-irrigate this region of Turkey. Historically, the “fertile crescent” encompassed a ring of civilizations with rich cities and abundant agriculture. But over centuries sands and rivers shifted and much of Southeastern Turkey was no longer arable. This project of building damns and new infrastructure is still ongoing and has brought much economic growth to the area.
It has also sunken countless historic treasures and ancient cities under the banner of progress. As many tour guides in the area lament: “we’ve sunken ten-thousand years of history for a few decades of progress.”
The city of Halfeti was one such place. It is most famous for a single minaret that pokes from above the waterline; below the water line is the mosque itself and the village it served. As the boat glided across the calm reservoir formed from the irrigation project, the captain would mumble anecdotes over the sound of Euro-pop hits and Turkish children’s march music. “That’s the İzmir march,” my mother said. The captain was a Kemalist.
We’ve sunken ten-thousand years of history for a few decades of progress.
The cliffs are parti-colored along Halfeti and very steep. I wonder how easy it could have been to inhabit that area: an Armenian cemetery clung like heavy snowfall on a steep roof and a Roman castle that once overlooked the area weeped piece by piece into the water below. Most of these structures are made from a porous sandstone that will dissolve once under water. Then the tour boats will move onto something else to entice visitors.
The road leading out of Halfeti is poorly maintained and winding. Kumru drives confidently through the fog, and our car whirls past the moss clinging to the shoulders of the road.
My mother and her friend buy a kara (“black”) rose to take back to my grandmother’s garden in İstanbul. A soap opera bore the same name and ever since Halfeti has had brisk trade in rose saplings that we eagerly take back to the cities. My mother realizes that the iron in the soil gives the rose its color, but buys it anyways. One always has hope even when evidence clearly indicates otherwise.
Seeing Halfeti was bittersweet. The flooding of the region spurred major efforts by archeologies to rescue what they could. The end result is an impressive collection museums, archaeological sites, and cultural monuments that outshine most of what is found elsewhere in the world. On the other hand, whatever was not found has been lost underneath the waters of the damn-reservoirs. The Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep, where we were headed next, contains hundreds of these works of Greco-Roman art.
We stopped at Kebapçı Halil Usta, a well-visited restaurant buzzing with locals and tourists. This place made a name for itself for it’s grilled meats, which come out one after the other served with “wet” salad — a speciality of the region — and freshly baked bread. But their baklava outshines it all: an outlandish amount of pistachios that spill out of buttered, infinitely stacked, paper thin sheets of dough. I asked the pastry chef to prepare a box for this evening, a box for my grandmother, and a few pieces for immediate consumption.
We are in Gaziantep, or Antep, now. During the battles that established the Turkish republic, many of the cities in this region received honorifics for their bravery. Urfa became Şanlıurfa. Maraş became Kahramanmaraş. Antep became Gaziantep. Cities like Halfeti were never renamed. Perhaps the inhabitants were cowards or the language ran out of words to express courage. We can now call it Batanhalfeti, or Sunken-Halfeti, to honor the progressive march of redevelopment.
I was glad to finally be out of the museum and in the old quarter of Antep: here the market was still buzzing and the din of copper being beaten was ringing nearby. We ordered pounds and pounds of pistachio: crushed, shelled, raw, roasted, whole, and salted. Our path wound around the shops that clung themselves closely to the main fortress of the city. My ears perked when I heard it was an excellent spot for buying old antiques.
The sun was setting low and it was time for a cigarette break for some of us. Almost at the end of the bazaar, we spotted a dingy old building. The air was beginning to bite outside and once the cigarettes were finished, we walked inside. Inside we were dazzled: old oil lamps retrofitted with bulbs filled the space in golden light. This was a coffee-shop dating from the seventeenth century, or 1638 as the shop sign proclaimed. The site burned twice during the 1900s and was rebuilt. The shop was called “Tahmis,” which is a word for the place where coffee is ground. We ordered another round of menegiç and it was served with a medley of local roasted seeds. As we sat surrounded by uneven walls and delicious conversation, we began to settle into our new habits. Only a day-and-a-half into this trip, and my mother and friends felt like dowager queens of the countryside reclining on divans.
I saw a copper bowl earlier in the day that I couldn’t shake from my head. I said my goodbyes and left the coffee shop in a sudden hurry to make it back to the shop before it closed. The man was still there, and my mother, Kumru, and Binnur arrived in a fashion. It was time to haggle. My feeble attempts went to pot, but Kumru grabbed the items, slamming them on the table, nearly walking out with them, and insisted that we strike a midnight deal. Deal made. I managed to leave with a partial bounty, leaving the rest for another time.
Our second day ended and nightfall spread over Antep. We drove back to Urfa and put ourselves to bed.
Today we journeyed to Mardin, an historic city and absolute jewel in the crown of Southeastern Turkey. Before we departed for Mardin, we squeezed in a drive to Göbekli Tepe, the archeological site that has historians rethinking the development of civilization. The structures date from as early as 12,000 years ago, pre-dating almost, if not, all other known human settlements.
Near Kumru’s house was a lahmacun restaurant, Çulcuoğlu. Once we visited, we turned delirious desiring their food at all hours. Lahmacun is a paper thin pita dough that is spread on top with a thin paste of minced meat, tomato, onion, and spices. It’s a speciality from the Armenians of Eastern Anatolia, but has become popular in Turkey as a kind of pizza: a go-to item people from coast-to-coast eat as comfort food. Kumru promises we will eat here at some point.
We could not outpace the descent of the winter sun today: by the time we arrive in Mardin, it is dark. The outlines of the city are historic: jagged, uneven, but natural, and condensed. City planing was done by the breadth of a person and the pace of the foot. Our eyes light up as we see the variety of shops closing: künefe dessert, almond soap, pistachios (naturally), Jordan almonds, dusty copper, and so much more. “Tomorrow,” we tell ourselves.
To arrive in a new place by night is to see a place first as a dream and later as a reality when the sun rises. We’re tired, and we drop ourselves in our hotel room on the main thoroughfare. The view from the room is marvelous: I can’t tell what is out there because of the darkness. They say Mardin is a coastal city on account of the dark “sea” of farmland that surround it. At night, it looks like an inky ocean. Individual homes look like boats at sea.
This is our last full day in Southeastern Turkey, and I manage by sheer will, to wake up and watch the sun flood the city of Mardin. The view turns from blue to pink to white as the sun mixes in with a thick cover of clouds. The city is built mostly of one type of stone, locally quarried. The land blends right into the buildings themselves since they are made of the same material. A light rain brightens the masonry, like spit hitting precious pebbles to bring out their color.
We hired a driver today to take us around the region. His Kurdish family has been living in the area for a long time, and he’s been giving tours to help bring attention to the beauties of this often overlooked destination within Turkey. The past few years of conflict have deterred most tourists, but the region has calmed down with increased tourism helping bring attention to the diversity of the region.
Our first stop is Kasımiye Medresesi. It was a crisp fifty degrees, and a crowd of people were just leaving the historic site. Like so many of the locals in the city, the workers who keep the medrese clean know as much about the history as our tour guide. Since most places are empty in the winter off-season, him and his friends took us around the building for a short tour, and indulged us with many, many photographs.
From there we were bound for the monasteries in the area. First, Deyrülzafaran Monastary, which lies very close to Mardin and was the seat of the Syriac patriarch for over six-hundred years until the Turkish Republic banned such things. It is still a functioning monastery though in diminished capacity. Tours start promptly here and move briskly. I had the feeling there was no desire to really invite people to tour the building: we’re a noisy distraction to the otherwise remote and tranquil beauty of this holy site. The members of the monastery create a special black tea spiced with an added herb called zafaran, which they grow on the property. Though what was shown to us was hardly enough to make even a few bags, and so they produce the tea mostly elsewhere in the region. It’s a strong black Assam as its base, much like regular Turkish tea, however the added spice gives it an aroma akin to cinnamon (it contains bits of cinnamon bark). Tea drinkers would be disappointed in it, but travelers, like myself, fell quite in love. A pound of it now sits on my shelf at home.
We then visit the ancient city of Dara. Excavations began in 1986 and continue to this day. It was crowded for a winter weekday. A group of school students from the area were just leaving. Once the students left, Dara was deserted and it was only the four of us and our tour guide. The Romans, Byzantines, Seljuks, Arab caliphates, Artuqids, and Sassanids fought over ownership of this city for centuries. The city was finally destroyed by the thirteenth century and to this day is a small settlement.
And yet, the ruins contain a magnificent underground cistern from the Roman period, extensive tombs, and various stone buildings. It was a strategic and important area for a long period of time.
We continue driving to a place called Beyazsuyu. This is a river of no particular interest. The gushing, tumbling stream that people visit during the summer is popular for picnics. The ramshackle overgrowth of shoddily built pavilions and merchant stalls along the water’s edge makes it an altogether unenjoyable spot when winter empties it of its crowds.
Poplar trees lined the road from Mardin to Hasankeyf as we drove north. The city of Hasankeyf will be completely flooded and submerged in the next year or so as Turkey finishes a major damn project. Hasankeyf contains hundreds of cliff-side tombs from antiquity, and we had only a little time to visit the city. We stop for photos and to use the bathrooms.
Between all the cities we visit are wide soft landscapes of farmland. Short, crumbling walls of rocks demarcate property. The soil itself seems oddly rocky. Farming in this area seems rather difficult.
Mor Gabriel emerges around a turn. Mor is the Syriac word for saint. As we stand by waiting for the tour to begin, I wander to the edge of the property. An Orthodox priest walks by in black garb and a conical hat with a flat top. Monasteries are built from the local rock which is sandy in color and soft. It takes well to carving. Vine motifs of grape clusters are on many of the surfaces but I am not sure if vineyards still exist as industry in the area. There are architectural styles from many different cultures that somehow fuse together in a rather muted style as no surface is painted or colored.
We left the monastery and continued to Hasankeyf. This is another city besieged and owned by numerous empires. It lies on the Tigris river. It was odd visiting this city because in less than a few years the entire area will be submerged underwater. The Turkish government is finishing a damn project that will flood and cover thousands of years of history and displace an entire historic center. The city is overgrown: residents do not bother to upkeep something that will soon be gone. Monuments are either being left or relocated uphill. Peddlers are selling photo books of the city and lamenting the impending flood. My companions buy a few copies. I sit in the car after walking along one of the promenades. The chicken nearby is unaware of the distress. People are resigned to some fate that weighs down the air. I do not want to spend much more time here.
We ended our day in Midyat, another fortified citadel built upon a hill, much like Mardin. Unlike Mardin, though, the city has seen worse times and has not been able to take advantage of tourism as has Mardin. A famous soap opera in Turkey was filmed here — although when my mother and her friend explain any Turkish television series they always make it sound famous, as if they do not watch any other kind. The soap opera was filmed here, but it takes place in Mardin.
If you had limited time in this region, you could skip Midyat, though that recommendation may be precisely why the city is under-developed. The historic center is left in more decay while modernity has crept ungraciously onto buildings as satellite dishes, generic street lamps, and gaudily painted trash cans compete with the history left behind. In between this, you can still see the faint gasps of the restrained, warm stone architecture of older buildings.
Midyat is a center for silver in the region, though that reputation is a bit tarnished.
“All the silversmiths have left and gone to İstanbul,” the shop keeper tells us. The best ones are in the covered bazaars of İstanbul. This self-deprecating honesty is the speciality of merchants in Turkey. If you give the customer a sliver of vulnerability, you nurture friendship. Luckily Kumru is not gullible to such gimmicks. She has been my official bargainer. Where my American-gait immediately flags me, her aggressive bargaining saves the day. The three of them all buy matching silver jewelry as a memento of the trip. I sadly leave empty-handed. My luggage is already laden with copper.
It has been a long day and we were happy to be back in Mardin for dinner. The food in Southeastern Turkey is without a doubt some of the best in all of the country. Meals consist of a variety of small dips and preserves served at the start. These are mostly cold appetizers. Then there is soup and salad followed by the main course. We have been eating lamb and beef cooked until it falls off the bone.
It’s been raining in Mardin all week long: in the narrow alleys the water floods the ground, and at the top of buildings the wind blows the umbrella out of my hand. I’m wrapped in cotton-silk “kutnu” scarves from local looms dyed in brilliant emerald, plum, and cream. When it’s the winter season, the weather may not be cooperative, but I feel like I have the city to myself.
In the few hours before our flight leaves, we walk between more side streets. My travel companions are tired of seeing dirty, old copper, so I have no one to accompany me to those shops. I need to keep in mind that finding eccentric travel companions is a must. We skip shopping then and instead visit wonderfully restored historic buildings. Mosques, churches, homes, and imperial buildings are still in use today. Mardin is a working historic city. There is the central Ulu Mosque, which we visit first. We then stop into a twelfth-century mosque, Latifiye, and I take off my shoes to enter the prayer hall. It is empty inside, and I can hear the rain outside. Two gentleman are sitting in the library across the courtyard and wave for me to say hello. Across from the mosque is a Protestant church. It is not as prominent as the mosque, and was only recently re-opened. The congregation is small but is growing. My mother and the church keeper argue over religion with the phrase “with all due respect” passing between them repeatedly. Their arguments are as stubborn as the stones holding the church and mosque together. Much to both their surprises, the answers to religion have not been solved by either of them.
Mardin is well-known for almond soap, and we cannot leave without some of that. We buy more Jordan almonds. The sugared-almonds in Mardin are also well-known for a unique blue dye derived from what is called the Lahore tree, but I am unsure what that is in English. All I have written down in scratches in my notebook are the words “imlebbes — iodine? — lahor ağacından kök boya.” It dyes the sugar a pale periwinkle blue that borders on grey. The other coating is cinnamon. Both are delicious and we buy pounds of each.
We buy more tea and coffee, of course, and stop in the Covered Bazaar (Kayseriyye Bedesteni) for a few small trifles. We are at this point performing critical calculations on baggage allowances for our flight, divided by the carrying capacity of our backs and arms, multiplied by the cash we have left in our hands. The results are promising: buy more.
The winter weather has given Mardin a monotone color but the region itself is anything but monotone. I lost count of the civilizations that have inhabited, traded, fought, and co-existed in this region.
The rose is safely packed inside the carry-on. My mother and Binnur continue through security as I follow behind them.
I returned to İstanbul; my back cracked under the weight of dusty treasure. Every bag we brought back from our trip was full of delicious things. And shiny things. And old things. And unfamiliar things all ready to be wrapped and sent back home, much life myself. My mother planted the black rose in my grandmother's garden.
We had hardly settled back in when her friend called: anyone interested in visiting the hamams of Bursa?