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Well off Turkey’s tourist trail

Turkey is at last making progress towards membership of the European Union. It seems a natural move in Istanbul, a moneyed maelstrom to rival any other European capital. But 800 miles away in Turkey’s wild southeast lies Sanliurfa, a bustling bazaar town reminiscent of Marrakech or Jerusalem, with its sacred fishponds and gardens, and the remnants of a long, violent and colourful history. Here in ancient Edessa, Turkey’s potential as a cultural bridge between east and west – and the challenge it faces in joining the European club – becomes apparent.

Until five years ago, strife between the Turkish government and the Kurdish separatist PKK put the southeast out of bounds for tourists, but today independent travellers and package tourists are returning, and they can expect to receive a warm welcome. Both Turks and Kurds know that peace, tourism and prosperity go hand in hand for a region with so much to offer.

Travelling long distances within Turkey offers only two choices – plane or bus. Except between Ankara and Istanbul, the trains are ponderously slow. It’s a twenty-hour drive to Sanliurfa from Istanbul, and the bus costs about £20. Expect to be woken at regular intervals as the driver stops for his 1am kebab, 4am shave, and 8am bowel movement; bombarded by the obligatory doses of cologne from the pubescent in-drive stewards; and slowly choked by a combination of excessive air conditioning and all-night cigarette smoke.

For about £40, Fly Air flies direct to Mardin, a few hours drive east of Sanliurfa and well worth a visit in its own right. Turkish Airlines and Onur Air also offer flights from Istanbul to Sanliurfa via Ankara, although they are a little pricier.

Wandering through Sanliurfa’s ancient covered bazaar is one of the city’s highlights. Carpet merchants rub shoulders with nomadic tobacconists carrying their ten-pound sacks of local weed; shoe repairers advertise their quarter with the rich smell of leather, while the metalworkers announce theirs with flying sparks and the melodic sound of hammers on steel. Two caravanserais, ancient Byzantine coaching inns, nestle somewhere in the centre of the market. The ancient lodgings are now cafes, their magnificent courtyards shared between groups of foreign tourists and clubs of elderly Turkish men. Looking up to the second storey of the buildings around the square, a row of tailors sew suits on venerable foot-powered machines. A sense of age permeates the bazaar; you take off the modern world at its cave-like entrances.

Sanliurfa’s bazaar could be anywhere in the Middle East, but the city’s Golbasi district is entirely its own. The beautifully tended rose gardens and leafy groves are centred around two holy pools, and looked over by the historic citadel.

Every frontier town needs a fortress, and Sanliurfa’s is superb. A short climb from the gardens the vast citadel, which in places may date from before Christ, is topped by two broken pillars known as the Throne of Nemrut, after the biblical king who supposedly founded the city.

In the Arabic canon, Nemrut was the supreme example of the tyrant, and his nemesis was the Old Testament’s Abraham. When Nemrut challenged Abraham to a fight, the tyrant brought an army with him. But the wily Abraham had come prepared with a swarm of gnats – one of which flew up the king’s nose and began to chew at his brain.

Perhaps, then, it came as no surprise to Abraham when Nemrut ordered him to be launched from these pillars into a furnace in the valley below. But Abraham’s god intervened, and turned the fire into water and the embers into fish. Anyone eating the holy fish will be punished with blindness, it is said.

Sanliurfa’s history after the birth of Christ is scarcely more prosaic. For several centuries Edessa, as Sanliurfa was known, was the eastern star of the late Roman Empire, an outpost of Christianity on the edge of Persia.

When the armies of Islam arrived in the eleventh century, the evidence is that the invading Turk general, Zangi, wanted to preserve the city intact; according to one source, he even invited a contingent of Edessans to come outside the walls and see how comprehensively his men had packed their foundations with explosives. Looking down from the dizzying ramparts, the fear these explosives must have instilled is still tangible. Wisely, and presumably rather hastily, the Edessans penned a letter of surrender.

But the letter was intercepted and destroyed. With obvious regret, and after four weeks’ delay, Zangi’s sappers touched the fuses and levelled half the citadel.  The general stayed the worst of the looting, however, and many of Edessa’s ancient churches and other buildings would probably still be standing today – had it not been for the crusading knights of Europe. In 1146, a disastrous attempt to reclaim the eastern jewel failed, and the city was left lawless. For the first time in one and a half millennia, Edessa was looted – for an entire year.

The gardens around the pools in Golbasi are now chay bahchesis (tea gardens), where the tinkle of teaspoons in tulip-shaped glasses and the clack of backgammon dice blend with the conversational hum. Tea is the national drink of Turkey, brewed strong and served in small glasses with sugar cubes on the side. Turkey’s tea gardens are oases of respite from the nation’s bustling cities. Stop by for ten minutes and two hours will pass. It’s a wonder anyone gets anything done. The fish are in a swirl all day in the ancient pools, as pilgrims from across the region, here to visit Golbasi’s mosques, throw them food. In the evening they lie still and fat. The pigeons rest too, cooling their feet and having a drink on the ornamental fountain in the centre of the pool.

Ibrahim, setting down our tea and setting up the backgammon pieces, wanted to know if we had tea gardens in Britain. An unwelcome picture of the saloon bar of the Duke of York in Greenford flashed into my head. “Nothing like this,” I replied.

Ibrahim threw a six and a five – shesh besh, the best first throw, after which the game is named in Turkey. His hands moved automatically. He used to play 40 or 50 games at a sitting before he moved from his mountain village to Sanliurfa, “and cards – stupid, no-brain games.”

Ibrahim is a Kurd. He has faded tattoos on the backs of his hands evoking Kurdistan, the theoretical state that Kurds dream of, that would unite Iraqi, Syrian and Turkish Kurds in independence. He looks every one of his 55 years.

“I can tell if a man is Kurdish by his face, even just by the way he walks. Turks walk differently,” he said, giving some idea of the profound distances that remain between the two factions in the southeast. “I think Mr Blair wants to help the Kurds, he wants to give northern Iraq to the Kurds.” He said those countries which assisted Turkish membership were enemies of Kurdistan. He was unaware that Britain was one of Turkey’s main supporters in joining Europe.

Earlier, in the bazaar, Ibrahim took me to a DVD shop. From under the counter, the vendor took out a box of Kurdish separatist films and slotted one into the machine.

“She is singing, ‘Our children will die for Kurdistan, our fathers will die for Kurdistan’,” Ibrahim hollered over the deafening soundtrack. Pictures of scrubby hillsides and fields where a line of men wearing the green, red and yellow of Kurdistan danced with guns accompanied the music. I looked nervously around the market, but no one seemed to mind.

When Ibrahim was a young man, he was tied horizontally to a stake by his hands and feet, and beaten with sticks by the Turkish police. Now he lives in Sanliurfa with his wife; his children are scattered from here to Istanbul. “We will stay in Sanliurfa now,” he said. “It is a safe place. Things are getting better.”

Fortunately the Turks generally don’t play Shesh Besh for money. An hour and three teas later I was seven-one down, and turned in my dice. Besides, there’s more to do in Turkey than drink tea.

Modern Sanliurfa is a mix of the old and the new. Many of its Byzantine churches have been lost; the Shrine of St Thomas was used as a stable under early Turkish rule. Many more have been graced with minarets and turned into mosques, and very fine mosques they are. But the finest mosque in the southeast is to be found through a hundred miles of dust and broken rocks to the east, in the town of Mardin.

Mardin suffered in the fighting between the Kurdish separatists and the government in the nineties, and there is still a strong police presence. But like Sanliufra it is moving on, and today seems a relaxed, friendly town, and less inured of the burka than its neighbour.

Like Sanliurfa, Mardin was a Christian town from the fifth century until the arrival of Islam, and there are a number of small churches hiding down its pretty side streets of sand-coloured old houses. The troubles of the nineties have led many of the town’s Syrian Christians to emigrate; less than a thousand remain. At the heart of their community is the lovely Church of the Forty Martyrs. I was lucky enough to visit at the same time as a party of Christians from Istanbul, and with a fortifying glass of tea inside me I joined a tour of the church by its caretaker, with one of the party translating for me.

The forty martyrs were Christians rounded up by the Roman authorities in the fifth century AD in an empire-wide crackdown on the new religion. They were offered a choice – to recant their religion, or be driven into a freezing lake in the hills above Mardin. There are two vivid, much later prints of the martyrs shivering naked in the lake while the dragon-like Roman emperor and his men look on. Only one recanted, and it would have been the Church of the Thirty Nine Martyrs had not a Roman centurians, unable to contain his conscience, declared his Christianity, and joined his co-religionists in the lake.

At the other end of town is Sultan Isak Medressa, Mardin’s outstanding mosque. An attractive complex of cavernous rooms and dainty gardens built in the fourteenth century, it’s the divine view from the roof that makes this a rival for any of the sights of Istanbul. Mardin stands at four thousand feet on a rocky hill, facing south across brown and yellow fields dotted with minarets, to the plains of Syria and the heart of the Muslim world. From the roof of the Sultan Isak Medressa you can see for what must be fifty miles, undisturbed even by the occasional awe-struck family of Turkish tourists, their eerily well-behaved children perhaps stunned into silence. It is difficult to imagine a place closer to God.

Mardin also offers a fine municipal garden with the same great views, where I retired on my last day in the southeast to read about the region’s future. Sanliurfa is earmarked to be one of Turkey’s largest cities. The Southeast Anatolia Project, known as the GAP project, will change the region forever. It is difficult to criticise the epic plan of dam building and irrigation – it will provide millions of jobs in agriculture in this presently arid region, and the leaflets say it will double the average income in Turkey’s most impoverished area. However, it will also flood some valuable sites, such as nearby Hasankeyf, where a community of at least 10,000 once lived in caves cut into the living rock. Welcome as development is to this region, it is also the case that Sanliurfa and Mardin, like all of Turkey, are changing fast. The time to visit is now.

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