From Halfeti to Hasankeyf

A journey filled with history, nature, water and legend in the rushing waters of the Euphrates and the Tigris’s quieter flow...

“ The Euphrates is our son, the Tigris our daughter. The Euphrates is temperamental and wild. The Tigris subdued, gently flowing. The Euphrates’ turmoil stems from his love for the Tigris. He first catches sight of her in the distance, from on high at Elazığ. It’s love at first sight; he’s smitten.

Hoping to see her again, he flows ardently kilometer after kilometer though lush valleys. Near the township of Karkamış in Gaziantep he crosses the border. Leaving Turkey he flows through Iraq and Syria, until he meets the Tigris again at the Shatt-ul Arab near the Gulf of Basra. And together they slip into its waters...” As I view my surroundings from the window of the bus that is setting off on a rapid whirl through the Southeastern Anatolian provinces, our guide tells us the story of the love of the Tigris and the Euphrates. A story as beautiful and real as every fleeting image that flashes by outside the window. As I listen I lose myself in the flow of the two rivers; I want them to be reunited as soon as possible. But the story is not going to be over so quickly. Starting from Gaziantep, our journey will stop at points along the Silk Road, at the most ancient cities, and at today’s modern towns, engendered by the two rivers. From Halfeti to Rumkale, from there to Birecik and Urfa and Harran; and from Mardin to Midyat until we end up at Hasankeyf.

We leave Istanbul while the city is still asleep and an hour and a half later are in a completely different landscape. A person cannot anticipate how it will feel to be caught up in the lands where history was actually made. But as the colors change, and the array of food becomes richer, and you begin hearing more and more astonishing tales, it’s the big cities you live in about which you now begin to have doubts.

We arrive in Gaziantep and immediately lose ourselves in the inviting back streets and the khans and spice-redolent bazaars of this very old city. More than an Anatolian town, Antep is like an industrial city shouldering the burden of the GAP region. GAP is short for the Southeast Anatolia Project, a series of dams that are expected to transform the region agriculturally. One place where you will certainly make a stop in this city is the Gaziantep Mosaic Museum. As you carefully examine every piece, You’ll make a game out of trying to envision them in situ in villas on the edge of Zeugma. As I listen to the story of each one, I record their images in my memory. Tomorrow when we go to the Zeugma excavation, I’ll try to picture them in their original locations.

We head now for Nizip. When we reach Zeugma on the shores of the Birecik Dam reservoir, it’s obvious from the looks on everyone’s faces that they were expecting a much bigger and more imposing Roman city. Our guide explains that the excavations are continuing and that most of the city is still under the ground. “Zeugma,” he goes on, “was one of the four largest cities of the Commagene Kingdom. All along the Euphrates, there are only two places that afforded a crossing; one of them Zeugma, the other Samsat in the province of Adıyaman.” This explains why the city, whose other name was Belkıs, was also known as Zeugma, meaning ‘bridge’ or ‘crossing'.

We continue on our way, the Euphrates always at our side. When we reach Birecik we make the acquaintance of the Birecik kelaynak, or Thermit Ibis, which has been taken under protection by the Şanlıurfa Department of Forestry and Environment. So-called because they turn bald ('kel’ means bald in Turkish) after a certain age, these birds like to feed on agricultural pests, a trait for which they have earned the undying love of the region’s inhabitants. The last remaining 107 Birecik kelaynak are being carefully protected to preserve the species from extinction.

When we reach Halfeti, it’s as if we’re in a coastal town on the Mediterranean. The boat waiting on the bank to take us on our Euphrates cruise rocks gently as if to confirm that notion. The boat leaves Halfeti and we set out for Rumkale. On our right, the Halfeti houses in the winding streets form part of the landscape. Generally two, sometimes three-storey, all of these houses built of white cut stone are adorned with elaborate stencil work. Keeping one eye on them as he guides us, our captain explains: “The houses of Halfeti have bird’s nests on their roofs. Each one has a view of the Euphrates, and no house obstructs the view of the others. Each one has a garden where in the old days the black roses unique to this part of the world were grown. To cool off in the hot weather, wooden platforms known as ‘taht’ were brought up to the balconies and people spent the night under the stars...”

Some half an hour later Rumkale looms into view at the highest point among the steep rock cliffs. Founded by the Assyrian king Salmaneser III in 885 B.C., following its Greek, Assyrian, Arab, Byzantine, Sassanid, Umayyad and Abbasid period, in Ottoman times it was known in the 16th century as the Kale-i Zerrin or Golden Fortress.

As our boat plies the waters, the river too widens, as if to make way for the orange-yellow rock cliffs on either bank.  Our last stop in this direction is the village of Beresul (Savaşan), submerged under the waters of the Birecik Dam reservoir. We notice some people greeting us from  a few of the otherwise abandoned houses. The captain explains that a few families still persist in living here. On our return, I can’t resist dipping my hand into the Euphrates, even though I know it’s only the waters of a large dam reservoir...

After Halfeti we come to Şanlıurfa. We arrive just as the sun is about to set, one of the best times for strolling around the lake known as the Balıklı Göl. The banks are crowded with people, some tossing food to the fish, eager Urfa kids vying to tell you the history, Muslim worshipers, tourists, and people simply out for a stroll...

Very early the next morning we hit the road again, headed this time for Harran. I’m very excited at the prospect of seeing Harran because those houses with their conical roofs are finally going to be more than just an image in a photograph for me. On the road, cotton fields flow by framed by the window.

And we are in Harran
- a vast expanse with its signature conical roofs that break the flatness of the plain. As she surveys the ruins of the university that trained the greatest mathematicians, astronomers and philosophers of its time, a person can’t help but compare Battani, who correctly calculated the distance from the earth to the moon, and Jabir ibn Hayyan, who discovered the atom, and the age they lived in with our 21st century. Through the streets of Midyat, we stroll past shops selling filigree and on upwards. Built of pale yellow limestone carved like lace and carefully situated so as not to overshadow one another, the houses, churches and mosques of Midyat, and the vast ochre expanse, are all part of the view as seen from the terrace of a stately Midyat mansion.

Leaving Midyat we continue on to the Tigris. We are at one of its most tranquil points, at Hasankeyf, capital of the Cave Age, and an Artukid, Ayyubid city that saw the Mongol times. Owing to its strategic position it was a stop on the major caravan trade routes, and it had approximately four thousand caves where its inhabitants once lived. What else? One of those places about which more is unknown than is known, Hasankeyf seems to wait silently. An enigmatic city which will soon be inundated by the waters of the Ilısu Dam project.

I’m on the plane now, returning to Istanbul, thinking that one needs to spend a lot more time at each stop we made. To walk more in its streets, to take more photographs, to get more recipes for Southeastern Anatolian dishes, to learn more customs... Or simply to go back, again and again and again...