It took some convincing to get Yolanda to travel to Turkey’s southeast. Kurdish terrorists have been active there for decades. Plus, we would be within sight of the Syrian border.
For only $50 round-trip from Istanbul, I found flights to Sanliurfa, Turkey’s most pious city and birthplace of Abraham, patriarch of monotheism.
Sanliurfa’s history goes back 11,000 years. Around 1800 BCE, tradition tells of Abraham living in a cave below King Nemrod’s fortress, now across the park from our hotel balcony.
Walking the park’s tree-lined paths, which wind among thousands of rose bushes and carp-filled lakes, we are struck by the colorful dress of the women. We’ve seen nothing this colorful elsewhere. Women with identical, purple headscarves wear brilliant dresses of sequined fabrics that dazzle the eye.
Men wear traditional baggy trousers called alvars along with black and white checkered headscarves.
Meandering aimlessly through the park, we are stopped many times by families, kids and groups of school girls, smiling and eager to be photographed.
We visit the Risvaniye Madressa, a Koranic school from 1736 CE, where we meet a teacher, Mehmet Polat. In excellent English, he spends a half hour warmly sharing his world view.
Then it happens. We meet Izzet Torunlar, who invites us to share tea and ends up showing us around for the next several hours. He was born a Kurdish bedouin. His winters were spent around Urfa and in spring he migrated 350 miles northeast to the slopes of Mount Ararat. At 54 he taught himself English and has graduated from selling underwear on the street to owning a B&B in town.
The next day, a three hour bus ride takes us to Mardin, a buff-colored, ancient, Silk Road city whose narrow, cobbled lanes zig-zag up a steep mountain-side. We are fortunate to find a room looking down on the emerald green, Mesopotamian plain, which disappears into the vastness of Syria only 10 miles away.
Yet again, we find a city unique to our experience. Architecture is 13th century Seljuk. Restoration is bringing its past glory back to life. Lovely mosques, old madresses, elaborate administration buildings and venerable hamams — the iconic, communal Turkish baths — are scattered up and down the mountainside.
For centuries, houses were built in terraces, never less than 8 feet below the uphill neighbor so everyone has unobstructed views.
Our hotel is on the one commercial, single-lane street with shops, restaurants, barbers and bars lining both sides. The entrance to the bazaar is a block away. Steep, slippery steps lined with cheese and vegetable shops lead down into the gloom.
Narrow alleys twist and turn ending in blind corners and pleasant surprises. We happen upon the Ulu Mosque, dating back to 1176 CE, where Yolanda meets five Kurdish professionals from Van. These friends are fresh from the enormous gathering of Kurds in Diyarbakir, 100 miles north.
The day before, on Nevruz, their national holiday, the imprisoned leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party, Abdullah Ocalan, issued a historic declaration ending decades of hostility between the PKK and the Turkish government. Over 40,000 people have died in this conflict.
They invite us for coffee, telling us of their homes, their lives, a bit about politics and then read our fortunes from the coffee grounds in our cups.
We say goodbye and return to the main street. A man invites us through a large portal into his restaurant. Entering the courtyard, I realize this was a caravansarai from Silk Road days. We peruse the menu and meet the chef who entices us to return for traditional Kurdish music and dancing that night.
The next morning I’m up before dawn. The 4:15 a.m. call to prayer woke me, and I’m eager to shoot the city from the rooftop terrace as the sun rises over the eastern hills. It is a glorious sunrise. I’m disappointed only that it doesn’t last longer.
With only a week left in our journey, we make the most of our last hours before the bus whisks us along the Silk Road, through the Cradle of Civilization to the baklava capitol of the world.
Dennis Jones is a local professional photographer and writer. He and Yolanda Marshall are traveling in the eastern Mediterranean. To see more photos, visit his blog at www.dreamcatcherimaging.com.