Notes from the East: Diyarbakır, Mardin, Contrast
We wake each morning knowing not what the day will bring, though the familiarity of routine and the security of our surroundings mean many days pass without novelty or discovery.
And then we travel.
When we embark on a journey to faraway, unfamiliar places, we open the gates to a flood of possibilities. Relinquishing the security of our daily routine, the comfort of our surroundings, and the faces and places we know, we dive into living. We make ourselves vulnerable to the new world around us, adjusting to a temporary life of spontaneity. We re-tune our intuition, we absorb and we learn. Each time we travel changes us a little. We store away memories to be recalled with a sparkle of fondness in our eyes, when our lives cross paths with others who have roamed the same streets. To those we connect with in that new world, we remain etched on their memory as the wide-eyed strangers who, for a fleeting moment, brought novelty to the day by gazing with intrigue at surroundings that to them are so familiar they have lost all their magic.
Our wide-eyed wonder begins less than one hour from home as our bus climbs the mountains between Fethiye and Antalya, from where we will fly to Diyarbakır. I’ve always believed that the best trips start with a bus journey. A calm and steady approach to that, which after months of anticipation, awaits us. Compared to flying, bus travel is relatively stress-free. Embarking is easy, rules are minimal, the air isn’t pressurised, and the windows are huge. Watching the world pass by is akin to watching a cinema screen of real life. As our bus reaches higher altitudes, the window ‘footage’ is mesmerising. The snow lies thick. Glistening. Velvet-like. Its dense pile embroidered with tyre and bird tracks, printed with linear shadows of electric cables. A panorama of monochrome beauty. Five months from now the ground beneath will be battered by relentlessly harsh summer days, though for now it can relax and replenish.
The past two years have been snow-covered for most of us. We have been trapped beneath a heavy blanket of abnormality, uncertainty and worry. Like frozen earth, I have accepted it as time to relax and replenish, although the snow is melting now, and with a rested mind and a thirst for discovery, it’s time to emerge and return to living.
Plump clouds roll over the mountain peaks in the distance as our bus traverses the plateau before dropping down to Antalya.
Diyarbakır is the second-largest city in southeastern Turkey, sitting 675 metres above sea level on the banks of the Tigris river.
We arrive at our hotel two hours before the hammam on floor -1 closes. I have never ended a full day of travel with a visit to a hammam, and I promptly add this to my mental list of things I am glad to have experienced before death! I lie on the steaming hot, marble göbek taşı (belly stone), gazing up at a constellation of tiny twinkling LED lights on the domed ceiling, reflecting on the contrasts the day has delivered. From snow to steam, West to East, the familiar to the unfamiliar, from motion to stillness.
The next morning we find ourselves almost crawling up an incredibly steep and dark mediaeval stone staircase to eat a breakfast of thirty dishes at the famous Hasan Paşı Hanı. We then spend most of the day meandering through the city centre until we reach the monumental remains of the city walls at the Goat Tower (Keçi Burcu). The ancient black basalt walls, which were first constructed by the Romans when the city was known as ‘Amida’, and then expanded and fortified by the Byzantines, measure almost 6km and are purported to be the world’s second longest walls following the Great Wall of China.
‘Amida’ became ‘Diyarbakır’ in the 7th Century; diyar (district) of the Banu Bakr tribe (the Arab tribe that conquered the city ending centuries of rule by Byzantines). The Turkish word for copper ‘bakır’ is derived from ‘Diyarbakır’, reflecting the abundance of copper in the area. The city has seen numerous invasions and become home to many ethnicities. Nowadays, the majority of the city’s residents are Kurds, with Turks, Arabs, Assyrians, Armenians and Jews completing the demographic mix. Occasional bouts of tension and hostility remind us that time cannot change the fact that Diyarbakır sits in an area which remains a complex melting pot of ethnic diversity.
For now there is peace in the city, and this cloudy winter’s day in Diyarbakır has given me the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the traveller within me. I had forgotten how much I love getting sucked into narrow back streets, gazing at washing drying on balconies, watching kids walk hand-in-hand, imagining the sights seen through an old man’s eyes, imagining how many times he’s held hands with another, finding pimapen (UPVC) window frames in centuries-old stone walls, spotting intricate window grills, spying through gaps in curtains, noticing how the dialect varies, how the ezan (call-to-prayer) sounds different, getting acquainted with the local fresh produce and delicacies, and being stared at for looking a bit foreign. For simply spending a day lapping up the sensory delights of unfamiliar surroundings.
Diyarbakır is kelle paça (sheep’s head) and other offal being weighed in a dark alleyway, it’s hessian sacks of sumak, sesame and roasted pumpkin seeds lining the streets, it’s mountains of soap and mounds of blue sugared almonds waiting to be weighed, packed, and taken home. It’s strings of dried peppers, aubergine and okra hanging in the crisp winter air. It’s heaps of fresh tobacco ready to be smoked. It’s elderly men in extra-baggy şalvar, and carefree teenagers running along ancient city walls twenty metres high. It’s tubs of fresh cheese in brine sitting beneath hand painted signage from decades passed. It’s oranges, apples and pink turnips sold from rudimentary wooden carts. It’s lanes of copper sellers bartering with customers. It’s yellow tespi (prayer beads) hanging like drops of sunshine in gloomy stores. It’s children drawing on the street walls. It’s mosques and arches, hans and hammams, Kurds and Turks, modern and ancient, formidable-yet welcoming, and for one day only it is our new world.
Onwards to Mardin before sunset.
The bus journey between Diyarbakır and Mardin is entirely forgettable. Flat plains painted in tones of brown stretch out in every direction. I give up hope of spying something interesting and decide to spend the 1.5 hour journey sorting through photos of the day on my camera.
It’s the last day of January. The sun is setting and the winter’s snow is yet to finish melting away by the time we reach Old Mardin. We pass the minibus driver an extra 20 lira each to take us up the hill from the new to the old city, where we get our first view of the ancient Roman citadel, constructed when Mardin was ‘Marida’, sitting on the hilltop above the town. Wheeled traffic moves slower than foot traffic along the main road as we approach our destination, and we take in our first impressions as both dwindling dusk light and electricity illuminate the street. Most of the shops have closed for the day, but the rhythm of the passing windows dictates the shopping we will be cramming into our backpacks in two night’s time. Dibek coffee, sugared almonds, dried spices, defne (laurel) soap, wine and copper. It feels as though Mardin has been slashed with a blade dipped in consumerism, yet trade has happened in different guises along this street for more than a millenia.
Trade has been driving cultural exchange since 3000 BC, when the first cross-country route was established between the Sumerians in Mesopotamia and the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. Mardin soon became an important centre of commerce, sitting on one of the main routes between Syria and Iraq. The Silk Road, a system of interconnected routes between the Far East and West, was used to transport exotic goods such as fabric, spices, porcelain and gems from 200 BC to 900 AD, and further allowed ethnicity, religion and culture to migrate across borders and permeate foreign lands. Along with Diyarbakır, the past 5000 years have seen Assyrians, Romans, Ottomans, Armenians, Kurds and Arabs settle in, pass through, and battle over Mardin. In recent years, the city has taken in thousands of displaced Syrian families, many of whom inhabit rundown buildings at the base of the hill. A morning visit to Mardin’s main museum gives a concise and well-presented overview of the shaping of current-day Mardin, a shining example of (mostly) peaceful multi-ethnicity.
The following two days are decorated with carved stone arches, intriguing doorways, and many fascinating mosques, churches and medreses. Cascading down from the hilltop citadel is an array of truly beautiful architecture, with lemon-squeezer domed roofs and delicate minarets punctuating the view to the flat plains below, which stretch to the Syrian and Iraqi borders on the horizon. The tourist season is at least two months away and there is an eerie calmness in the air, in fact, there are moments when we feel like we are the only people in town, and we could be trudging these cobbles in any of the past few centuries. We climb a lot of steps and negotiate mysterious tunnels and laneways, some almost totally blocked with heaps of dirty snow. In the weeks leading up to my trip, I’d had romantic notions of Mardn being dusted with pristine white snow, in reality, a few months of coal dust and donkey poo, left by the city’s four-legged waste collectors and load shifters, has made the remaining piles of snow far from photograph-worthy.
Once again my thoughts focus on contrast. Diyarbakır is grim, fortified and formidable. Old Mardin sits exposed, proud-yet-vulnerable. A glowing, warm-hued mound of juxtaposition bursting out of the Mesapotanian plains, where many ethnicities have lived together for thousands of years, and now tourists share the pavements with refugees. It is this final contrast that seems to be the most profound. The fact that the term ‘travel’ encompases those who roam wanderlust and those forced to flee. Those for whom a return home is noted in the diary, and those who don’t know if, nor when, they will ever return ‘home’.
During my five days away I have come to realise that when we seek adventure in new places we are constantly assessing contrast, how this new corner of the world is different from our own. I guess it is the essence of why we push ourselves into the desirable discomfort of travel. Viewing our life from afar gives us a chance to put into perspective our priorities, values and blessings. For those of us privileged enough to be able to electively roam to faraway lands, it is our upcoming plans to add contrast to our days which give meaning to the mundane daily routine which mostly defines our existence. It’s the looking forward in life that keeps us plodding on.
For those less fortunate, the contrast is profound. When your reason to leave home is to transit from war to peace, from danger to safety, from dying to surviving, travel isn’t optional, it’s necessary, and the destination will most likely not be the comfort of a warm hotel with a hamam in the basement and a breakfast of thirty dishes.