In the path of the sun From Silifke to Ermenek

A surprise-filled journey from Silifke, heart of year-round sun-warmed Cilicia, to Ermenek, Mediterranean gateway to the Anatolian steppe.

Taşeli Peninsula pokes out into the Mediterranean from the foothills of the Taurus like a nosey parker craning his neck. Permeated with eight millennia of culture, it promises a surprise-filled journey at every step. Narlıkuyu, nextdoor neighbor of the Virgin’s Castle, which graces the Mediterranean blue like a white swan, is a perfect choice for those who want to take the culinary route. Taking its name from an old water well on the shore, Narlıkuyu is famous for its fish restaurants that line the tiny cove. Fish and seafood are in plentiful supply at these restaurants, where customers receive a warm welcome. First on the table is the traditional grilled onion shoot drenched in sour pomegranate juice, followed by ‘mountain-top’ salad, assorted homemade pickles, olives crushed with cumin, grilled peppers and coarse village bread. The mixed salad made of fresh mint, parsley, rocket and mountain herbs and topped with a garlic and olive oil dressing is worthy of the most discriminating palates. And the crowning glory of the meal, a true feast, is a cup of Turkish coffee and a hot slab of sesame-flavored ‘helva'.

Discovering the striking monumental graves in the most unexpected places among the arid rocks southeast of Silifke is actually as easy as pie. A monumental Roman grave at the village of Canbazlı is two-storied just like the double grave at Demircili, another village in the vicinity. Another monumental grave in the area is the one shaped like a miniature temple and known as the Mezgit (Whiting) Castle near the village of Paslı. Among the mountain villages in the environs, Uzuncaburç is home to the ruins of the 2000-year-old city of Diokaisareia. Located 8 kilometers from the coast, Silifke greets visitors with a giant reddish statue of a partridge, symbol of the township. The settlement on either side of the tree-lined valley of the Göksu River is bordered by a 105-km coastal strip consisting mostly of sand beaches.

A sleepy backwater until about 1980s, Silifke today is one of Mersin’s most populous townships due to its fertile farmlands. With traces of habitation going back some four thousand years, Silifke was founded at the behest of Alexander the Great in the 3rd century B.C. In the Byzantine period it rose to prominence as a Crusader capital. Built in that period on a 185-meter high promontory, Silifke Castle is the ideal spot for a bird’s-eye view of the township. Besides its famous yoghurt, which is even celebrated in folk songs, grilled crab is another regional favorite. Silifke Museum, the historic Stone Bridge, the Roman Temple, the Byzantine Water Cistern, the Seljuk Alaaddin   Mosque, Ataturk House where the great founder stayed four times, Culture House, symbol of traditional Turkish architecture, and the authentic Taşhan Covered Market are some of the must-see’s on a Silifke tour.

Founded on a large natural harbor 8 kilometers from Silifke, Taşucu is a tiny coastal town with its face turned to the Mediterranean. Known as the port of Silifke over the ages, it is Turkey’s major sea route to Cyprus today. And one of Turkey’s most fascinating museums is located on İskele Meydan (Port Square), which is lined with fish restaurants, shops, hotels and pensions. Exhibited in the museum, which is housed in a 200-year-old restored fish warehouse, are 185 amphora fragments unearthed from the depths of the Mediterranean and dating back to between the 18th A.C. and the 8th centuries B.C., and over 400 other artifacts, the oldest of which is five thousand years old.

The Göksu Delta is the last stop after the Mylai ruins, a drawing point for history buffs. The delta was formed by the sands deposited by the Göksu over thousands of years. The two large lagoons on its shores are stocked with fish and crab. Some 330 of the 450 bird species that live in Turkey can be observed on the delta, one of the Mediterranean’s most important natural areas. Not only that but 441 plant species have also been identified in the region, which is also a habitat for species such as the Caretta caretta sea turtle, Mediterranean seal, crested pelican, ruddy duck, royal eagle, lesser kestrel, and purple swamphen.

Following the Göksu, the Silifke-Mut highway rises and falls like a roller coaster, offering a new view at every turn. Sawtooth slopes, rock-cut tombs carved with the precision of a master sculptor, deep canyons, sharp peaks, and rock as far as the eye can see. Mersin’s township farthest from the sea, Mut is situated in the foothills of Mt. Kızıldağ, a 2,260-meter high peak and one of the highest in the eastern Central Taurus. Taşucu has been Silifke’s port and Mut its summer home in the highlands for centuries. First settled by the Hittites, the township is also known as the land of Turkey’s famous 17th century folk poet Karacaoğlan. As the homeland of the Isaurians, a barbaric tribe, in the Byzantine period, the mountains of Mut fell under the rule first of the Seljuk, then the Karamanid and, finally, the Ottoman state. Mut Castle, the La’al Paşa Mosque, and Davut Paşa caravanserai are the legacy of the Karamanid Principality in the township, which is surrounded on all sides by steep mountains. The two-story brick houses in the city center with their wooden cornices and inner courtyards date to the early 19th century. The Monumental Karacaoğlan and Karacakız Graves and the Karaekşi Picnic Ground are some of the local tourist attractions.

But the real treasure of Mut is Alahan Monastery. Reminiscent of an eyrie, the monastery, located on the Mut-Karaman highway, looks out over the valley of the Göksu from a height of a thousand meters. Carved into the steep mountain slope in the 5th century, it is a religious complex consisting of various buildings. Lined up side by side, the hermit’s caves, basilica, baptismal chapel, rock graves and vaulted church are connected by a colonnaded ceremonial way. Discovered only in the 1960’s due to its remote location, the monastery exhibits the rich stone workmanship characteristic of the early Byzantine period.

After Mut the road twists and curves as if to thumb its nose at the precipices. Past mountain villages, apple orchards, abandoned mansions and forgotten ancient cities, it winds it way high up into the Taurus. Rising by almost 10 meters per kilometer, we finally come to Ermenek at the 87th. In the middle of the Taşeli Plateau between Antalya and Mersin, Ermenek is Karaman’s southernmost township. Situated on a slope known as Yumrutepe, once used as a natural fortress, it is reminiscent of the Anatolian towns where our grandmothers lived as girls with its three-story brick houses wedged between the rocks. Due to its rugged terrain, it was known until 40 years ago as ‘the place where wheels don’t turn', and many houses in the township perch on the rocks with the help of wooden posts.

It comes as a surprise to see four-wheel-drive land vehicles, motorcycles with sidecars and old-fashioned American jeeps from the 50’s and 60’s in this township which has been thoroughly asphalted and opened up to automobile traffic today. But the steep, narrow streets where women chat in doorways, children chase balls and the local grocer still sells hard candy remain steeped in nostalgia. What’s more, Ermenek is the ancient capital of the Karamanid  Principality, the first state to adopt Turkish as its official language.

You can start your tour by visiting the Rüstem Paşa, Sipas and Great Mosques, the Tol Medrese, Görmel Bridge and the türbe of Karamanoğlu Mehmet Bey in this township which boasts the finest Karamanid monuments. After that, what would you say to a stroll through Ermenek’s famous vineyards? You might even be invited into one of the 100-year-old vineyard houses, or witness the cooking of grape helva and ‘bandırma’ in the giant cauldrons. Numerous caves where the earliest Christians took refuge are also waiting to be discovered in this township with a past going back five thousand years. Do your own thing, but don’t leave without taking a long hike through Tekeçatı Valley, a virtual emerald-green oasis in the heart of the mountains, or following the endless valleys of Taşeli Plateau down from Yumruktepe, or watching as the setting sun stains Ermenek’s mountain crags deep red.