Twilight in Diyarbakır

walls-mardin-kapi So they pushed the clocks forward an hour, marking the end of summer, the changing of the season. In Diyarbakır darkness descends early now, and abruptly. We are some 1000km southeast of İstanbul, as the crow flies, but still in the same time zone. By five o’clock the gloaming (such an apt word, promising so much, somewhere between ‘glow’ and ‘looming’) is all but passed and the street lights flicker on.

It strikes me that at twilight you can see cities at their most candid. Not that the cities of southeastern Anatolia maintain any pretensions or artifice. But in the failing light, as people close up shops, or make their way home, or farewell workmates, or make a last dash to pick up necessities for the evening meal, life is revealed in all of its gritty, mundane, workaday magnificence. Shadows loom, cries seem to hover in the air. If you look up at the right time, a swallow zips overhead.

Clockwise as in a Buddhist pilgrimage, I continue a vague circuit within Diyarbakır’s city walls, an on-again off-again ramble, over several days, that has succumbed to diversions, zigzags, backtracks and unplanned stops. These are the second-longest land walls on earth, after the Chinese Wall. Mighty, in ominous black basalt, they bear the imprints and flourishes of dynasties, empires, fly-by-night warlords who have rumbled through this frontier territory where spheres of Persian, Arab and Turkish influence overlap like a Venn diagram. A litany of dynasties to fire the imagination, if you are given to such things: Seljuk, Ayyubid, Safavid, Artuklu, Karakoyunlu, Akkoyunlu. Seems everybody but the Ottomans.

pondering-mesopotamiaClimbing the steps to Keçi Burcu, a robust tower near the southernmost point of the walls. Inevitably, on the parapet, there is an open-air tea salon. Wooden banquettes against stone walls, and tables with knee-high stools. Locals gather for çay, for countless infernal cigarettes, to chatter and take selfies, while ignoring the view as darkness descends. One young guy sits cross-legged on the battlements, as if he is sentinel over all of Mesopotamia. Below, the Tigris snakes southward.

I descend again, passing Mardin Kapısı, the southern-facing of the city’s four main gates. Further on there is a large fissure in the walls. Outside are sprawling suburbs of cheap, concrete apartment blocks and gecekondu houses. Overhead power lines, rubble-strewn, dusty kerbs. Voices carry on the breeze, snatches of song, a radio broadcast, a dog barks. Even these neighbourhoods, under an eye-shadow-blue swirl of sky and cloud, stippled with pools of orange street light, seem somehow homely, welcome, beckoning at this hour. (Perhaps I’ve been away too long.)

As I reach Urfa Kapısı, the western-facing gate, above a roadside watermelon stall a sickle moon rises, the most perfect of clichés, as if someone has sunk a fingernail into the velvet expanse of sky to let in a crescent of yellow light.

Back inside the walls, passing traffic raises dust and puffs of exhaust, and throws beams of light across shopfronts, trees, the city walls, like search lights perennially seeking out some elusive target. At the centre of town where the east-west and north-south routes cross, dolmuşes gather passengers, everyone headed home, burdened with packages, plastic bags, tubs of produce. And as each vehicle roars off I experience that fleeting shudder of exhilaration that I used to feel as a backpacker. An understated euphoria, a butterfly in the stomach, at the beginning of each new journey, at the anticipation, the what-comes-next that each departure promises.

meryemana-syriacAnother evening, at the Meryemana Church, a Syrian Orthodox church that has stood here, in various incarnations, for nigh-on 1800 years. A flight of pigeons swoops above the belfry. (Shouldn’t that be bats?) By chance, I am here in time for evening prayers, Vespers (another redolent word). I am invited to stay. ‘You can sit,’ the priest, a man who somehow embodies resilience, with a black beard and white prayer cap, tells me.

It’s a small congregation, just the priest, his two children, his wife, a single older parishioner. And me, observing. Prayer is informal, slightly chaotic, not unlike Islamic ritual in its casual aspect. The priest’s genuflections and prostrations resemble nothing so much as Islamic salat, but for the fact that he crosses himself as he rises from each prostration. He then pulls back a curtain to reveal the altar, a sumptuous recess of velvet, electric candles, gilt and almost-baroque ornamentation, all topped with muqarna that would not look out of place in the Alhambra in Granada.

The children chant from the Bible (in Aramaic, the ‘language of Jesus’, as I am later told), as the priest struggles to light a taper with an oven lighter, repeatedly firing the trigger until a shot of blue flame emerges. He then lights a censer, which his son takes and approaches the altar, while continuing his chanting, proceeding to swing it and send clouds of fragrant incense heavenward.

Observing all of this, I can see the seductiveness of faith, the comfort and reliability of ritual as a crutch in the every day, although it must be said that the chanting had an air of going-through-the-motions. At prayer’s end the priest teaches me my first word of Aramaic: ‘towdi’. Thankyou. And I depart into the evening.

Later, in a backstreet, in the darkness, a woman in baggy şalvar and headscarf fans a fire in a cobbled alley, placing torn pieces of cardboard on to her fire, over which she is roasting narrow purple aubergines.

The next afternoon, to see Yeni Kapı, the eastern-facing gate, the only one I haven’t visited. This is a poor part of town. I am warned by a local about thieves, as I have been repeatedly all over town. I never encounter anyone who appears even slightly inclined towards theft. Here the stuccoed walls of humble homes are painted burgundy, puce, pastels in unlikely, exuberant combination, in contrast to the dour black granite of the city walls and the grand konaks, stately homes with  alternating black and white striped door and window arches. From Yeni Kapı I look out over the Hevsel gardens, green plots on the flood plain of the Tigris.

mar-petyunIn Mar Petyun, Chaldean Catholic Church of St Anthony. I had visited here in 1992. Then it was sombre and dilapidated. Now the lights are ablaze, all appears refurbished. An air of rejuvenation. A sign says photography is not allowed, but some locals come in and immediately take selfies, so I too pull out my camera, which I hadn’t done at Meryemana.

On my last night in town, a Kurdish wedding. Hearing, rather than finding it. Drum kit, saz and davul. Amps on 11. Feedback roaring. The drumbeat is so loud I can feel it in the pulse in my throat. On a concrete floor, under a tin roof decorated with coloured fairy lights, this isn’t steam punk. Perhaps dust punk.

The saz rages in wiry, sinuous lines and trills, climbing and crescendoing, occasionally plummeting to sound a fat whoomp. The saz, drum kit and davul, move in different rhythms and sequences, but coming together to mark the end of each stanza with a clattering, clamorous full stop. Boom ka-ka ka-boom!

I can detect no sign of a bride or groom. Seated along the walls are older men, sipping tea. On another side, on knee-high stools, women wearing coloured headscarves are massed, watching. Like coloured birds roosting.

wedding4The centre of attention is the young men, dancing, arms linked, in line. Slim youths, sweaty and raucous, in jeans and long-sleeved shirts. A red tinsel tassel is handed around, giving the bearer permission to break from the line and free form. Each takes their turn in a flurry of jaggedy movements, all bending knees and pointy elbows, shoulders swaying and skittish feet stamping.

The scene strikes me as an outpouring of joy. Of communality. Of shared intent. Some sort of release. I can’t say if it’s appropriate or symbolic, or if it’s just plain poetic. But I am ending my time in Diyarbakır in a blaze of music, light, adrenaline.

Ka-ka ka-BOOM.

wedding2 wedding1





Hope for Hasankeyf

HASANKEYF is a study in contrasts. Here in this remote southeastern corner of Anatolia, the blinding brightness of midday gives way to the pastel shades of evening, hills assume a lavender tint and the horizon fades to smoky indefinition. History is everywhere but it is swamped by the tackiness of modernity: electrical wires cut across a skyline punctuated with minarets; cheap plastic seats and tables are arranged against aged limestone walls; mosque facades are embellished with the most intricate stonework, the tracery of Kufic calligraphy , and in front will be set up a promotional umbrella of a soft drink company or a groaning refrigerated, glass-topped cabinet with ice creams for sale. In these juxtapositions and contradictions it is like so many towns in Turkey’s southeast. Ramshackle, chaotic, these towns are unsightly in parts, but buzzing with an undeniable vitality.

artuklu-gravesHasankeyf’s most significant contradiction is that it boasts a wealth of architectural and archaeological treasures, legacy of a history that dates back millennia, yet it apparently has no place in the Turkish present. On the banks of the Tigris, Hasankeyf may once have been an important regional hub, seat of Byzantine bishops, Ayyubid emirs, Artuklu and Akkoyunlu beys, but it is slated to disappear under the waters of the Ilısu dam project.

The Ilısu is part of a decades-old GAP project aimed at developing the southeast, bringing water and hydroelectric power to these troubled largely Kurdish-populated provinces. The GAP project is well advanced; other treasures have been submerged by other dams in various southeastern provinces. The Ilısu has been held up largely due to controversy over Hasankeyf. In 2009 European creditors withdrew funding due to concerns raised about the impending destruction of the town’s important cultural heritage as well as lack of adequate compensation or planning for the significant numbers of locals who would be forced to move should the dam go ahead. The Turkish government has since secured alternative funding and forged on with Ilısu, and until recently it appeared that Hasankeyf’s days were numbered. Progress on the dam project had gathered such momentum that at the end of last year, a group of international sculptors agreed to create marble sculptures in Hasankeyf that would be inundated as the flood waters rose to claim the town.

cardaks-tigrisHasankeyf squarely qualifies as being within the Mesopotamia of old, that is ‘between the rivers’. To the west is the Euphrates, while the town itself sits on a stretch of the Tigris which trundles eastward for a while then plummets south towards Syria and Iraq. The Tigris in Hasankeyf sluices past in a leisurely fashion. In its shallows, local women wade fully clothed and kids scamper, splash and wrestle. Enterprising locals have set up çardaks on the river’s edge. These are raised platforms, some in elaborate carved wood,  furnished with low cushions and tables and shaded with brushwood greenery, where diners can enjoy kebabs or grilled river fish while dangling their feet in the cool waters and tossing scraps to strutting geese. In my experience, local lads are wont to throw their empty soft drink cans into the river as well.

The town itself is a patchwork of historical treasures (nicely offset by some modern tack… as I mentioned earlier). The ruined arches and columns of a bridge built by the Artuklu Turks (12th century) straddle the river. The minaret of the Rizk mosque punctuates the skyline. This was built by the  Ayyubids, descendants of perhaps the world’s best known Kurd, Saladin. On the left bank of the river is the tomb of Zeynel Bey, son of a Akkoyunlu bey. On the opposite shore, and lording it over the town, is the citadel, doubtless a stronghold for a millennium, and longer.

rizk-minaretAll this is set to be submerged. In the name of development. The lust for economic growth outweighs any shortcomings that the loss of the cultural heritage would involve, even though the benefits of the Ilısu are far from certain, and even though there is considerable local opposition to the project. The implications of the dam extend beyond the immediate region as well: if it goes ahead there will be significant impacts stemming from the loss of water flow downstream in Iraq. From an official viewpoint, development must be allowed to unfurl, growth is the only and eternal panacea, and consequences be dammed… (forgive the appalling pun!)

However, in a recent development, the Turkish State Council ruled in favour of a case brought by the Chamber of Architects and Engineers claiming that the project did not have the requisite environmental clearances. For now, it appears that the Ilısu is stalled, however, bearing in mind similar halts to the project in the past, locals remain relatively unmoved by the ruling and fearful that any immediate celebration may be misplaced.

zeynel-bey-turbesiThe plight of Hasankeyf is all the more puzzling bearing in mind a recent announcement of a project to rebuild the Ottoman-era Manisa Palace. Here, in the Aegean hinterland, is a building of which only a single element, the Fatih Sultan Mehmet tower, remains yet which is seemingly important enough to rebuild from scratch. In the southeastern marches, meanwhile, an array of existing treasures are deemed expendable.

That Hasankeyf could be lost forever is mind boggling to me. To lose it would be an unspeakable tragedy. The wholly admirable website Hasankeyf Matters brings together an array of information about the town, its people, its architectural and cultural riches. The website is also aimed at raising the profile of Hasankeyf and its plight. If you’re Turkish (or Kurdish, or Syriac, or Turkmen, or anything…), if you live in Turkey, have travelled to Turkey, or if you  just would hate to see such an important place lost, then visit Hasankeyf Matters and please, please, please sign the petition at the right-hand margin that is addressed to the UNESCO World Heritage committee.