Planning a Turkish holiday: Southeastern Anatolia

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Now that the clocks have gone forward we can really start to believe that summer is on its way. Over the next few weeks we will be helping you decide where to take this year's holiday. This week: southeastern Anatolia.

For those of an adventurous disposition southeastern Turkey must be the destination of choice. An oblique rectangle with its corners turning on Malatya, Gaziantep, Van and Hakkari, it's a huge area where every day is bound to throw up surprises. Things won't always go as smoothly as you planned, and communication can sometimes be tricky in a region where Turkish is often a second language for native Kurdish or Arabic speakers - the rewards for perseverance will more than make up for any difficulties along the way though. This part of the country is home to many iconic sights from the great Commagene heads on Nemrut Dağı (Mount Nemrut) through the restored Armenian church at Akdamar on Lake Van to the glorious monuments of soon-to-be-drowned-if-a-miracle-doesn't-happen Hasankeyf. Ringed with dramatic mountains, Van Gölü is a spectacular inland lake, while the enormous Atatürk Dam and the associated works of the Southeastern Anatolia Project (GAP) have given rise to a string of man-made lakes stretching from Şanlıurfa to Elazıg. Hundreds of minor sites receive almost no visitors. You may well have glorious Rumkale to
yourself.

Getting there
The great distances mean that it's wise to make use of the airports at Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa, Diyarbakır, Mardin and Van to get to and from the region. Once there you can easily get around in comfortable inter-city buses and minibuses. The timetable of the ferry across Lake Van from Tatvan to Van is a secret known only to its operators. You'll probably have more luck with the one across Lake Atatürk from Siverek to Kahta.

The hits...


Gaziantep (Antep):

Dominated by a castle that is a cut-down version of the one across the border in Aleppo, Antep is a boom town that looks unnervingly modern as you drive into it but then turns out to be hoarding some wonderful old houses and dramatic black-and-white-striped churches. Stay at the lovely Anadolu Evleri hotel to get the feel for life as it would have been lived in the 19th century, then pop into the nearby Çagdaş restaurant and tuck into spicy Adana kebabs with the locals, rounding off your meal with some of the delectable, sticky baklava for which the town is famous.

Şanlıurfa (Urfa):

Not as overtly welcoming as Antep, Urfa is famous as the presumed birthplace of the Prophet İbrahim, which makes it a pilgrimage destination for visitors from around the Middle East. The Gölbaşı area around the cave where he was born is beautifully landscaped and ringed with historic buildings constructed in a lovely golden-brown stone, but make sure you leave time to plunge into one of Turkey's most authentic old bazaars with, at its heart, a glorious courtyard shaded by plane trees where men pass the day playing tavla (backgammon) and sipping tea.

Nemrut Dağı (Mount Nemrut):

Dubbed the eighth wonder of the world by over-enthusiastic travel agencies, Nemrut Dağı is certainly a must for every visitor to the Southeast. The mountaintop here was turned into a gigantic tomb by the megalomaniac King Antiochus I Commagene, who had statues of the gods carved around it. Toppled by a later earthquake, these now stand in picturesque disarray, awaiting visitors who trek up at dawn and dusk to experience the sunrise and sunset. Come in the middle of the day to have the site to yourself, and try and book on a tour that takes in the outlying ruins, too. Sadly, Kahta, the little town at the foot of the mountain, is not much to write home about. Nearby Adıyaman is calmer but big and business-oriented.

Diyarbakır:

Once notorious as the heart of the Kurdish resistance, Diyarbakır is now a much less tense town to visit despite the brooding basalt walls that ring its historic center. A great deal of renovation has taken place, and the once neglected Hasanpaşa Han now makes a great place to hang out and watch the world go by after a visit to the magnificent Selçuk Ulu Cami across the road. It's easy to get lost in the warren of back streets around the mosque, but with luck you'll stumble on some of the old churches and the huge houses that are open to the public as museums. Watch your bag when walking around the remoter stretches of the walls.

Hasankeyf:

It seems quite incredible that a sight as lovely as Hasankeyf, where the Dicle (Tigris) river runs past a wall of rock into which are carved ancient cave-homes, could vanish forever, but unless something stops completion of a planned dam that is indeed what will happen. Visit soon to enjoy a fish lunch while sitting with your feet in the river at one of the inviting small cafes. Accommodation is thin on the ground -- aim to stay in Midyat or Batman.

Mardin and Midyat:

Everyone's favorite southeastern town, Mardin, is a place of honey-gold houses and minarets with huge stone teardrops on their sides. The market is vibrant and colorful -- come here to buy images of the Şahmaran (a fertility figure) created under glass, and huge roundels of olive oil soap. At the nearby Derulzafaran monastery services are still held in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, as they are at Mor Gabriel near Midyat, a less visited and flatter version of Mardin. Mardin has boutique hotels, but they're struggling to keep up with demand. Book ahead to be on the safe side.

Van:

In a great location right on Lake Van, Van itself is an ugly modern town with little to recommend it bar the ruins of Van Kalesi, a Urartian castle on a dramatic plug of rock. The town is famous for its lush breakfasts; tuck into one at Bak Hele Bak near the museum and the experience may live on in your memory longer even than the castle, especially now that that has been partially rebuilt.

Akdamar:

Recently restored to much acclaim, the delightful 10th-century church on Akdamar island on the south side of Lake Van was once the focal point of the capital of a long-lost Armenian kingdom. You'll probably remember the church as much for the beauty of its setting as for the extraordinary carvings of biblical stories on its facade.

The misses...

Although the security situation in the East is much better than in the past, it's possible that it may worsen in the run-up to the June 12 elections. It may be wise to steer clear of the Siirt-Şırnak-Hakkari area until later in the year.

Malatya:

It may be Turkey's apricot capital and one starting point for a trip up Nemrut Dağı but Malatya is mainly a modern town of concrete high-rises. Skip it if time is tight.

Kahramanmaraş (Maraş):

Ditto with Maraş whose historic houses keep a low profile behind the high-rises. Its super-thick ice-cream may be a sensation, but these days you can sample it in branches of Mado countrywide.

Harran:

The beehive houses are remarkable and the ruins of the country's oldest university fascinating, but Harran, due south of Urfa, has always been a hassley village to visit. Hang on and explore the much less hyped beehive houses in Syria instead.

And the hidden treasures...


Rumkale and Halfeti:

At Birecik between Antep and Urfa a road runs north to Halfeti where you can take a boat through a gorge to visit the remains of Rumkale (Greek Castle) high on a rock above the Fırat (Euphrates). The boat also glides past a drowned village whose minaret juts up from the water, a curious and evocative sight.

Savur:

A Mardin in miniature, pretty little Savur receives far fewer visitors even though it's just a short bus ride away. Come here to savor the honey-gold houses in peace and quiet.

Ahlat:

On the north shore of Lake Van, Ahlat is famous for a cemetery of elaborately carved tombstones routinely described as Selçuk although they're probably much more recent. Walk through it and downhill to discover the picturesque ruins of old Ahlat and Cappadocia-style cave dwellings, including one with stalactites carved over its entrance.

Source: Todays Zaman
 
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