Of walls and watermelons: The city of Diyarbakır

The south-eastern city of Diyarbakır is renowned throughout Turkey for two things. First — the humble watermelon.

Thirstily sucking up the waters of the mighty Dicle (Tigris), which flows past the city in long, lazy loops, and fertilized with the droppings of countless pigeons, Diyarbakır’s watermelons achieve a prodigious size. Indeed in Ottoman times they were reputed to have reached such girth that a sword was required to slice them. The Reverend Percy Badger, en route to proselytize amongst the Nestorian Christians of Hakkari in the mid-19th century, commented “fruit is abundant, especially melons, which attain so large a size that two sometimes form a mule-load.” Secondly, its monumental medieval walls, claimed in some quarters to be (along with China’s Great Wall) one of only two man-made structures visible from space.

You may be skeptical about the veracity of the above, but Diyarbakır definitely has a vibrant “Middle Eastern” atmosphere — rivaled (in Turkey) only by Şanlıurfa. Situated astride a branch of the ancient silk route, at the highest navigable point of the Tigris, it has a strategic and commercial importance stretching back millennia. The Hurrians, Assyrians, Urartians, Persians and Alexander the Great’s Macedonians were all here, though the origins of today’s city date back to the Roman era. Legionary troops, campaigning on the eastern frontier of their vast empire, built a fort as protection against their arch rivals, the (Persian) Parthians. The classic layout of this fort, with its outer walls punctured by gates to the north, south, east and west and internal grid-plan streets, has been retained to this day — making exploration of the warren of cobbled lanes “within the walls” surprisingly easy.

Diyarbakır

The best place to begin your wanderings is the section of city wall just to the west of the southern entrance to Diyarbakır, the Mardin Gate. From the parapet you can see the brown and sluggish river Tigris below and to the south, wending its way along a green, fertile valley. To the north an entirely different vista unfurls — the dense mass of buildings — houses, markets, shops, mosques and churches that make up old Diyarbakır.

There’s no need to walk the entire five-and-a-half kilometer circumference of the city walls (theoretically possible bar for three short sections), but it is well worth heading west to the western (Urfa) gate. En route you’ll pass the imposing Yedi Kardeş Burcu (Tower of the Seven Brothers) and the Melikşah Burcu, with their flowing Arabic inscriptions, and carved reliefs of eagles and lions. The black basalt walls were originally built in the early Byzantine period, but have been rebuilt many times over the centuries. Most of what remains today dates back to the city’s conquest by the Arabs (Diyarbakır actually means “Place of the tribe of Bakir”) and, later, the Artukid Turcomans and Seljuk Turks.

Diyarbakır

Diyarbakır was once a very cosmopolitan city, with Muslim Turks and Kurds living harmoniously within the security of its somber black walls with Christian Armenians, Syrian Orthodox, Greeks and Nestorians. From the Urfa Gate, a short stroll east leads to the Meryemana Kilisesi (Church of the Virgin Mary). According to the priest, this Syrian Orthodox church is built on the site of a sun-worshippers’ temple. Dressed in somber black robes, he will show you around the recently restored church, with its beautiful brick dome and gilt altars. The church is one of the earliest in Turkey, dating back to the third century, but underwent a major rebuild in the 18th century. Visit on a Sunday morning and join in a service alongside the city’s remaining Syrian Orthodox community. The ritual dates back to the fifth century and the language of the liturgy, Syriac, is a successor to Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus.

A 10 minute walk east brings you to Gazi Caddesi (the kilometer long, straight street bisecting the old town from north to south. Here a new white on brown sign (clear evidence of Diyarbakır’s renewed confidence in its multi-cultural heritage) points to your next destination, the Chaldean Church of St. Peter, down a narrow cobbled alley. A Catholic offshoot of the ancient Nestorian (or, more properly, Assyrian Church of the East), the Chaldean faith clings on in Diyarbakır. The friendly caretaker will proudly show you around the cavernous interior of the church (dating back to the 17th century), with its white-washed walls, exposed-beam ceiling and sturdy arches.

Armenian church of St. Gregory
Armenian church of St. Gregory / Diyarbakır / Turkey

A little further along the same alley is the Armenian church of St. Gregory. Currently locked up, the authorities are pondering what to do with this now abandoned, roofless 19th century church. With its unusual transverse nave and soaring black basalt arches (relieved by some fine white limestone inlay work) it is worthy of restoration. The friendly family whose house backs onto the church is happy to show sightseers around.

Diyarbakır’s Islamic heritage is even more impressive than its Christian. En route back to the main street, pause to admire the Dört Ayaklı Minare (Four legged Minaret), raised above street level on four man-high columns (the “feet”). The 16th century mosque with which it is associated (the Kasım Paşa Camii) is a classic “dome over rectangle” Ottoman mosque. Local lore has it that if you walk seven times around the minaret your wishes will be granted — but be warned. You’ll have to endure the incredulous stares of the industrious, grease-stained metalworkers shaping security grills in the workshops opposite!

Diyarbakır

Back on Gazi Paşa Caddesi, turn right for the Ulu Camii, Diyarbakır’s largest mosque, which holds a special place in Turkish history. Built in 1091-2, it is the earliest Seljuk mosque in Anatolia. Its design, though, owes more to the Arabs, and is based on the great Umayyad mosque in Damascus. Many of the columns and delicately carved capitals and friezes used in the construction of the courtyard walls were taken from earlier, late-Roman buildings. The massive interior, with row after row of white-painted stone arches, is perfectly proportioned and austerely beautiful. Further up the same street, the Nebi Camii (Mosque of the Prophet) was built in the 16th century, when Diyarbakır was controlled by the Turcoman Akkoyunlu dynasty. Its attractiveness derives from the contrasting bands of white limestone and black basalt used in its construction.

More than any individual site, Diyarbakır’s real attraction lies in its general atmosphere. The narrow cobbled alleys, doors open onto the courtyards of inward looking, “Arab” type stone-built houses. Peppers and eggplants, drying “village-style” on lengths of string draped across south-facing walls. Vendors on street corners with buckets of live fish recently hauled out of the Tigris, the swathes of plaited ogru and slices of dil (tongue) cheeses laid-out in the bustling cheese bazaar. The pigeons are tumbling and swifts wheeling above the imposing silhouette of the city walls against the pink sunset sky. The tranquility is to be found in the venerable courtyards of the city’s mosques and churches. These are the things which will entice you, time after time, to wander through Diyarbakır’s labyrinthine alleys.

Diyarbakır

Diyarbakır has not earned its sobriquet “the black” for nothing. Its frontier position has meant it has changed hands, often bloodily, many times in its history. The black basalt from which the old buildings and walls are constructed can be forbidding — especially on a miserable winter’s day. In more recent times, the city has acquired notoriety as the fulcrum of Turkey’s “southeastern problem.” But all this is changing — fast. The slum areas around the city walls have been cleared and replaced with parkland, once dilapidated historical buildings are being restored to their former glory and its political problems being openly discussed. There is a buzz, a vibrancy, a new-found optimism to Diyarbakır which you can only appreciate by coming and walking down its ancient streets.

You don’t have to “rough it” to visit Diyarbakır. There are five star hotels, a “boutique” hotel in a beautifully converted han and several friendly and comfortable two and three-star options around the Harput Gate. Even better, the city has one of the country’s most unusual (and best) restaurants. Selim Amca’s (Uncle Selim’s) is a Diyarbakır institution, with a 50-year pedigree. There’s little choice on the menu, but the local specialty of kaburga (succulent lamb ribs stuffed with delicately spiced rice) is so delicious you don’t need a menu. Equally mouth-watering are the içli köfte (meatballs in bulgur wheat). Usually fried, here they are boiled to tender perfection. The dessert, ırmık tatlısı, often a bland mound of semolina, is a buttery, melt in your mouth delight.

Diyarbakır

September and October are (along with mid-April to mid-June) the best months to head out east to this bustling city on the Tigris. Nearby Mardin, now a well-established tourist destination, is being gentrified to the point of primness — so visit Diyarbakır soon — before it loses the rawness and vitality which make it the place it is right now.

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