The Great Southeast Anatolia Express
In November I finally went on a proper trip again – to Southeast Anatolia. This year had been difficult to far, but with some of the issues resolved and some health scare resolved, there was no reason NOT to go on a trip to faraway countries (well, relatively) again.
Please bear with me if this site appears stuttery or slightly borked from time to time. As work has turned incredibly busy again, I am far behind with blogging here and even more with any technical issues outside the realm of the standard WordPress Control Panel. My host contacted me to tell me to upgrade my PHP version or pay a monthly, fee, then the current theme did not work with the latest version, I did not like the replacement theme… anyway, two hours of faffing, and I am back with a not-so-up-to date but okay PHP version and hope that my free theme takes the next version. Well, not what I had in mind when I sat down to a nice Sunday afternoon of blogging. But being the total cheapskate here, just paying for the cheapest hosting package and free everything else, running this blog as a hobby, I just grapple with the technicalities as they come along.
I had actually booked the flight to Southeast Anatolia in June, not expecting to be able to go. But, as I excitedly waited in Berlin Airport for six hours, got to Istanbul at 1am, got engulfed in Pegasus Airlines Chaos and had my credit card swallowed by an ATM, I was ready to go home and under my duvet.
Some time the next morning, I made it to Antakya, the first stop of my trip. Unable to speak Turkish, knackered and still cashless, I convinced the taxi driver to take me to my hotel with my emergency Euros, ate a piece of fruit from the brunch buffet and fell into a deep sleep that lasted most of the day, only to wake up in the late afternoon, disoriented, hungry and a bit worried.
Antakya – not strictly Southeast Anatolia but a great place to start
Anyway, let’s start with Antakya. The ancient Antioch, one of the minor stations of the Silk Road. It is located in Hatay Province, west of Southeast Anatolia. Not the best start to explore Antakya, arriving after a sleepless night with no local currency. But as I walked the cobbled lanes of the pedestrianized centre, the city grew on me.
For years I wanted to visit the Hatay Archaeological Museum and antique Antioch, historic domain of the Apostles Peter and Paul. My guidebook described it as a small pleasant city, and a flight was much cheaper than to anywhere else in the region, so I made this the first stop of my trip.
I would have thought two days are plenty for Antakya. Weekends can be busy, as many domestic tourists have discovered its quaint charms. My small hotel, built into a cute traditional courtyard house, buzzed like Soho House when I arrived at Sunday lunchtime. When I blinked out into the sun Sunday afternoon, cafes and restaurants were busy, and a lot of the tourist-oriented shops open. Still bothered with trying to get some Turkish Liras, I walked to a beautiful old hotel, where the receptionist kindly changed 50 Euros for me. Then, having tried my backup card for a purchase, I dared to withdraw cash in a bank ATM, after phoning my husband to verify the code, then slumped into at the bar stools of a nearby juice bar with relief.
I was just so happy that I would not have to continue my trip on an ultra slim budget of my emergency cash. So I didn’t do much. Wandered through the dead bazaar to find the fabled “Cinaralti Kunefe Yusuf Usta”. Basically it’s a tiny outlet in a courtyard in the bazaar, where a handful of cafes look after hot drinks, shisha and service, while a tiny bakery churns out huge pans of Kunefe from a charcoal grill. And yes, this was pretty much one of the best ones I have tried. And I tried a few.
The next morning, I spent a couple of hours at the excellent Hatay Archaeological Museum. All finds are from Hatay province, which must have been a super rich hunting ground for antiques, given Antioch was once worlds third-largest city. Hatay province, following the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, was under French Mandate like Syria and Lebanon, then for a short period a qausi independent republic, to finally be made part of the Republic of Turkey in 1939.
In the 1920s, the French and Syrian Antiquity Service and the University of Princeton began collaborating on multiple campaigns through the 1930s, when the majority of Hatay’s Roman mosaics were excavated and, as Hatay joined Turkey, remained in the province. Just a couple of years ago, a massive modern museum was built in the suburbs of Hatay to display the local finds from Stone Age through to Hittite artefacts, then to the core of the museums collection, the amazingly large and detailed Hellenic and Roman mosaics.
My next station, the Church of St. Peter, perhaps one of the worlds oldest churches remaining, was a big disappointment. For any Christian there may be the significance in Christian history, but the church itself, hewn into the rock, is bare and somewhat devoid of ambiance.
Where I stayed in Antakya
I stayed at the KavInn Butik Otel, a small owner-run lovely old town courtyard house turned guesthouse. Its small, very friendly, and serves a lovely breakfast. Their bed linen is made from local linen which is superb. Slight drawbacks are that rooms are dark, can be noisy, and the owners don’t speak much English, but none of that bothered me, and if it would not bother you, I highly recommend it.
After a five-hour coach trip and two thorough roadside police checks, apparently the norm here, I arrived in Gaziantep Otogar not long before midnight. That wasn’t planned! But leaving Antakya without a hitch would have been to smooth running, so I turned up at the wrong bus station, and the bus picked up literally everywhere. Blog post on transportation details to follow…
To be honest, this was the city I would have skipped if short of time, but a trip from Antakya to Sanliurfa seemed a bit of a push, so Gaziantep made a convenient stop. Skipping would have been a mistake. Okay, after Antakya I was served well with Roman mosaics, but there were many more at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, another modern monstrosity in the outskirts of the city centre with some great displays of mosaics rescued from the nearby Roman city of Zeugma.
More Mosaics and some fine shopping in Gaziantep
After a taxi ride circling the city fortress a few time, I paid, got off, and headed off by myself to find my hotel, an inn in the old town. Thankfully, walking on one’s own in Turkey at night was never a problem – I have always felt really safe. After a lovely sleep, I woke up early the next morning and ingested a nice breakfast of what seemed leftovers from dinner the night before, bread, and lots and lots of tea, and walked to the Zeugma Mosaic Museum. The museum is in a rather, well, developing part of town, so walking there was no fun, and the absence of any tea houses didn’t make the walk too pleasant.
Once there, admiring another grandiose but somewhat witless modern building, I soon walked among giant mosaics of Zeugma-Belkis. It is incredibly sad to think that those mosaics were nearly lost to flooding through a dam. Early mosaics were excavated by foreign teams since the 19th Century, and landed in respective foreign museums, and when the dam plans became finite in the 1980s, several foreign archaeological organisations and donors, among them French and Americans, organised rescue excavations, but the finds all remained in a local museum in Gaziantep, until the opening of the 2011 Belkis-Zeugma Museum.
Whereas the Hatay Museum gives an introduction to local history, the Zeugma Mosaic Museum is Greco-Roman-period mosaics only, but plenty of them. It is a calm, darkened museum, with multilingual displays, where you can easily spend 2-3 hours. It was not busy at all.
After a thorough education on mosaics, I took a taxi and asked the driver to drop me off at the Tahmis Coffee House.
Here, after a restorative coffee in a calm environment, I set off to shop, which, in Gaziantep is a delight: pistachios and dried goods in the Elmaci Pazari, great copper cookware in the Bakırcılar Çarşısı, souvenirs in the Zincirli Bedesten, and in between handmade slippers, soaps, shiny silk fabrics… all at prices so reasonable and usually fixed, which made shopping great fun.
Laden with gifts, I tried my “oooh, Iam vegetarian, is there anything on the menu I can eat” in the traditional “Imam Cagdas” Kebab restaurant and promptly got two dishes with the meat left out. I wish I could have stayed a bit longer and marvelled at the shops, visit the Hamam Museum and the Culinary Museum, but my next hotel had been booked, and a taxi whizzed me away to the bus station, from where it was a two hour smooth ride to SAnliurfa.
Where I stayed in Gaziantep
I stayed at the Sirvani Konagi Butik Otel. With small and humble rooms in walking distance to pretty everything of touristic interest, this friendly guesthouse served one of the best breakfasts. The owner spoke excellent English and was really helpful with tips and onward transport. I had an extremely cheap room, so the lack of decor was reflected in the price, but rooms are clean, everything works, and the property with its rooftop and courtyard is really lovely. Gaziantep is a large city, so you can find the usual international hotel chains here, but most are outside the city centre.
Arriving in Sanliurfa by coach was effortless, my taxi then gliding through pleasant modern suburbs, the boulevards fronted with cafes and restaurants.
I could again say ” well, a convenient stop on the way to Mardin, but in all honesty, I have wanted to go there for years, but was a little bit scared because of the political situation, the closeness to Syria, the fact that it is considered a very conservative city. But after a day in this beautiful relaxed city, I walked any lane no matter what time of the day, feeling safer than in my hometown, chatting to shopkeepers and fellow Germans visiting their homeland, and really loving my old traders inn accommodations, which were again so wonderful and not expensive at all.
Visiting Balikli Gol and other Pilgrimage sites
After arriving in Sanliurfa in the evening, I strolled round my neighbourhood of courtyard houses, tiled mausoleums and sweet shops, before having an early night. The next morning I walked to the Dergah Plateau, where Balikli Gol and the majority of Sanliurfa’s pilgrimage sites are loacated. Spending an awful long time along Balikli Gol, where everyone visited happy and smiling, and after taking a look at Abraham’s Cave, I sat and listened to the prayer call from the Mevlid Halil Mosque, which started life as a synagogue and subsequently became a Byzantine Church, then a Mosque.
Sanliurfa might be a dry city, but the have the atom shake – and after a glass full of vitamins and calories I floated through the covered bazaar – pleasant, but cannot compare to those of Istanbul, Izmir or Gaziantep. But it wouldn’t be a proper bazaar if I weren’t to find something – in this case, pounds of chili pepper, henna powder and turpentine coffee, topped off with a bag of sesame cookies fresh from the oven.
I spent the early evening lying in my beautiful hotel, listening to the prayer call admiring the architecture and tiptoeing onto the roof terrace every now and then, before meeting a fellow traveller for dinner in an ancient hamam. And yes, I admit to a big omission here. I did not make it to Gobekli Tepe. Especially after watching “The Gift” after my return, I now kind of wish, but you know what that means – a good reason for a return journey!
Where I stayed in Sanliurfa
I spent one night at the Sark Ciragan Konak Butik Otel. When I decided to extend one night, I stayed at the Narli Ev Butik Otel for a further night. Both hotels were great. Sark Ciragan Konak was approximately 1km from the bazaar area and Balikli Gol in a traditional old neighbourhood with very narrow roads, located in an old stone building around a courtyard garden, with huge simply decorated rooms in a two-storey stone building. The Narli Ev was even grander and in shouting distance to the Dergah Plateau with its wonderful pilgrimage sites.
Or: saving the best of deep in Southeast Anatolia to last?
A case of “save the best for last”, I dreamed of visiting this old city, tucked into a hillside far down in Mesopotamia, ever since first seeing a picture on the internet, about seven years ago. “What is this magical place”? I would wonder, but the civil war in Syria then stopped me from exploring further. Now, having finally had the guts to travel to Southeastern Anatolia, Mardin in deepest in Southeast Anatoliawas the to be the crowning glory of my short solo trip .
Climbing round Mardin
On my first day, arriving by bus around lunchtime, I took a taxi from the pleasant but relatively featureless “New Town” to the Old Town up on the hill and did not leave until it was time to catch my flight back to Istanbul. At first, I was a little shocked how commercial and touristy Mardin was – that is, on pretty much the only street in MArdin where car traffic is possible, Cumhuriyet Caddesi, there is shop after shop, and the side walks were busy with visitors.
However, even as I climbed down to the bazaar after dropping off my bad, I noticed the pedestrian traffic thinning quite considerably. Or any traffic. The number of actual sights in Mardin you can probably count on one hand, but Mardin is a great place for wandering – and getting fit, as it is very steep!
On my wanderings in town, nicely spaced between tea and juice breaks, I took in the Ulu Cami (Grand Mosque), the Zincirye Medresa (where quite a dramatic final scene of “The Gift” was filmed!), and the Syriac Mor Behnam Kırklar Kilisesi which I was lucky to find open and welcoming visitors.
Also, I spent a considerable amount of time sniffing soaps. Yes, along with Antakya, the region is quite the centre for soap making, not surprising giving its proximity to their famous Syrian neighbour, Aleppo. There were also so many jewellery shops in Cumhuriyet Caddesi, needless to say, I visited a few and admired some the local designs, which feature filigree, wire braiding and a lot of Shameran and Assyrian “evil eye” charms.
Where I stayed in Mardin
In terms of location and ambiance, the Zinciriye Hotel was the very best! My 35Euro room was one of the cheaper ones, hence with minimal daylight, but the hotel has such nice communal areas and terraces, I did not care. If budget is open end, I am sure you will find palatial accommodations, but in the low to moderate price bracket, this was excellent. Also, staff were so friendly, advising me on getting to the airport, booking shuttles, and even accompanying travellers to the shuttle stop. Highly recommended.
I planned a buffer day in Istanbul should my return form the depths of Southeast Anatolia get delayed. There isn’t too much time for grand plans in an afternoon in Istanbul, so I booked a hotel in walking distance from the airport bus at Taksim Square, walked down Istiklal Caddesi and over the Galata Bridge to the Misir Carsi (Spice Bazaar) , to finally find Rustem Pasha Mosque, a gem of elegance and Iznik tiles, built by Osman Empires most notable and prolific architect, Minar Sinan.
Finished my Southeast Anatolia trip with a very relaxing and very cheap (of the more touristy ones) Turkish bath at Aga Hamami, a haircut and a dinner near the bustling Flower Passage in Beyoglu. I was out so much, I hardly got to enjoy the fusty retro charm of the Grand Hotel de Londres, one of the “Grand Tour” hotels of the late 19th Century
The Small Print
I planned and paid for the entire trip to Southeast Anatolia, only discounts I received were through my Genius Programme on Booking.com. This post contains affiliate links to Booking.com, meaning if you book through those links, I may receive a small commission. Don’t mind if you don’t – I work full time and run this blog as a hobby. Always total transparency here.