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Travels among the antiquities of eastern Anatolia.

HIGH on a hillside, above the derelict remains of Tushpa is a plaque commemorating the Persian king Xerxes who passed that way en route to his failed invasion of Greece in 480 BC. It is written in the wedge-shaped cuneiform script invented here and used throughout the Persian, Assyrian and Babylonian empires. On the hilltop stands a ruined castle originating in the ninth century BC and added to by Ottoman and Armenian architects.

Tushpa, capital of the Urartian Empire, is said to have been one of the most attractive settlements in Anatolia. It was home to some 80,000 Armenians and Kurds until destroyed in the battle for independence (1915-20). Tushpa was never re-built but about a couple of miles away is the modern city of Van, its concrete and grid-plan structure dating from a post-1950s earthquake.

Those paragraphs encapsulate eastern Anatolia. Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, was the birthplace of civilisation and an important route, where power frequently changed hands resulting in destruction and a diverse cultural mix.

A reliable water supply from the rivers enabled agriculture to flourish; the surpluses produced then allowed diversification so some people began developing non-agricultural skills, making town life feasible. This, and the resultant trade, necessitated a system of government and record keeping. Relics of the Urartian Empire indicate that this way of life was well established by the ninth century BC.

A few miles south of Van, at Cavustepe, Urartian irrigation channels are visible from the remains of the royal palace built by King Sardur II between 764 and 735 BC. Here the curator enthusiastically produces ancient barley grains from huge storage jars and translates a plaque whose cuneiform script records the names of the builder and other local people. There is even a Urartian toilet -- the same hole-in-the-ground system as is used today. The skill of Urartian craftspeople is manifest in Van museum exhibits: terracotta figures, ornate bronze belts and some very covetable gold jewellery.

Yet simple irrigation channels were inadequate to support a twentieth century population at a comparable level, so the South Eastern Anatoian Project was inaugurated in 1974. When complete -- some doubt it ever will be -- there will be 22 dams in the Tigris--Euphrates basin, 17 of which will also generate hydro-electricity. The resulting lakes will cover an area the size of Austria. The Ataturk dam, fourth largest in the world, is an impressive sight: 80 m high and 20m wide at the top, broadening to 800 m at the base.

It has already begun to transform the landscape and economy of the region. Irrigation has extended the area formerly under cultivation: pistachio nuts, olives, fruit and cotton are produced on a commercial scale and processed in nearby towns using electricity supplied from the dam.

This has not been without controversy however. An estimated 50,000 farmers were evicted from their small riverside plots as the water rose, engulfing their homes; many migrated to towns to seek low or unskilled work in the new factories. Malaria and dysentery have increased about ten-fold. The habitats of entire populations of animals, birds and plants have been destroyed. Neighbouring Syria and Iraq have been adversely affected by the reduced flow downstream. Archaeologists are aghast at the drowning of important sites.

Major settlements were too great a challenge for even international teams to save in the time available and have been lost for ever. The remains of the Roman city of Zeugma, for instance, (founded c. 300BC) stand forlornly on a promontory waiting to be submerged. Desperate digging against the rising water level managed to salvage a tiny fraction of its priceless mosaics, now displayed in Gaziantep museum.

Zeugma was one of the two easiest crossing places on the Euphrates, where east-west and north-south routes converged, so it became home to wealthy merchants, government and army officials. The routes pre-date the Roman period, though. Among the earliest travellers was Abraham who, around 2000BC, emigrated with his family from Ur of the Chaldees (in present-day Iraq) to Canaan, sojourning for a while in Harran.

The site of Harran is believed to have been continuously occupied for at least 6,000 years and, in Assyrian times, was a prosperous trading centre. Today it is nothing more than a rather shabby collection of stone cottages and beehive-shaped huts under the shadow of a mined eleventh century castle and flanked by the remains of the oldest mosque and university in Anatolia (eighth century AD). Beehive houses are extremely rare; they consist of a square mud base, with a dome above formed by 30-40 rows of stone blocks tapering to a point. Several domes are connected by arches so there is a feeling of spaciousness inside. Each block of three or more domes was home to an extended family. The locals claim they were cool in summer and warm in winter. They nevertheless abandoned them about 20-25 years ago for rectangular mud-brick, thatch-roofed cottages, relegating the beehive houses to storage purposes.

Legend says that Abraham was born in nearby Sanliurfa and, despite a complete lack of authenticity, pilgrims continue to make their way to the cave where he is alleged to have spent the first ten years of his life hiding from Assyrian king Nimrod who had ordered all new-born children to be killed. When Abraham emerged he angered Nimrod by going on an idol-smashing campaign in the temple. Nimrod ordered him to be thrown off the citadel wall into a fire far below. However the Lord intervened, turning the fire into a lake and the logs into carp. Abraham survived again.

There is a lake -- full of carp -- beside the cave. Sitting in the peaceful shady garden by this lake a week after the destruction of New York's World Trade Center Towers, I gazed up at the citadel, the ruins of which owe their existence to the Crusades: Count Baldwin of Boulogne fortified the site during the First Crusade (1098) and its capture by the Seljuk Turks in 1144 so infuriated the Pope that he initiated the Second Crusade. Although Turkey was quick to condemn the September 11th destruction, I reflected that the common ancestry of Jew, Christian and Muslim seems to have done little to inhibit conflict through the ages (see Contemporary Review, October 2001). Indeed differences of belief have often been the cause of conflict.

Abraham became the father of the Jewish people and Christ was a Jew. Muslims trace their faith -- via the prophet Mohammed -- from Ishmael, Abraham's son by the slave girl Hagar. But it goes back even further: Abraham is said to have been descended from Noah's son Shem, and Ararat, legendary resting place of Noah's ark, is also in eastern Anatolia. After much diligent searching the American marine salvage expert, David Fasold, claimed to have found this in the late 1980s on another mountain some 17 miles south of Ararat -- which is in any case thought to be a corruption of Urartian; that site is sealed off.

Legend or not, the twin snow-capped volcanic peaks of Mount Ararat (16,946 ft.) rising above their mist-enfolded lower slopes is a splendid sight. The best time for a clear view is early morning, but that involves camping, not permitted at present due to the proximity of the Iranian border. Frequent road-blocks and check-points on the road are a forcible reminder of international tension and the fragility of man-made boundaries.

It has always been so. Anatolia was the frontier zone between the Persian and Roman Empires; Armenians established a kingdom here after the decline of Urartian power; Seijuk Turks (eleventh century) and Mongols (late thirteenth century) came from the east and Arabs (seventh century) from the south. Crusaders flooded through from Europe intent on saving Christendom from the Muslim onslaught. The French marched through as part of the post-World War I break up the Ottoman Empire. Georgians have lived in the valleys north of Erzerum since the Bronze Age. Russia backed the Armenians in their struggle for independence (1912-17) and Greece tried to re-establish its ancient empire in the 1920s.

Ethnic unrest did not cease with the declaration of the republic of Turkey in 1923. Up to a million Armenians were deported and, in 1978, the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) was founded to exert pressure on the government for the creation of an independent Kurdistan. As late as the 1990s reports of violation of human rights, forcible depopulation of known rural rebel areas and torture were common as the government tried to eradicate the movement. In retaliation, and to draw world attention to the situation of the Turkish Kurds, the PKK carried out a series of kidnappings of foreign tourists.

The most visible aspects today of this turbulent history are the plethora of castles, the changing function of religious buildings and derelict sites. Virtually all towns and cities have strong walls, and a citadel -- in various states of dilapidation. All have a long history, with each change of ownership imposing its own architectural style. Some castles are inaccessible and all involve a steep climb, but the panoramic views repay the effort.

The massive black basalt walls of Diyarbakir are said to rival the Great Wall of China. The city has existed for at least 5,000 years and saw successive periods of Urartian, Assyrian and Persian rule before succumbing to Alexander the Great. The Romans built the first substantial walls in AD207 and laid out the town on their standard grid plan with four gates. Most of the present walls date from the fourth, fifth and eleventh centuries and, although broken in places, it is still possible to walk their four-mile length. This walk gives a near aerial view of life in the maze of narrow alleys in-filling the Roman grid, though it is not an expedition for the vertiginous.

The Diyarbakir area has been a hot-bed of separatist activity since the 1920s when hundreds of rebels were hanged and thousands more lives taken in reprisals. It remains a Kurdish stronghold with most people speaking Kurdish as their first language. Armenians have also lived in this area for around 1,200 years and, before 1915, made up about a quarter of the city's population. When thousands were deported they left behind a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century church far too large for the few remaining families to maintain; in 1992 the roof fell in. But the size of the building, its carvings and the gold-painted woodwork of the altar indicate a wealthy community. About 50 families currently worship in a converted house nearby, keeping a low profile.

Some 450 miles north-east, in Kars, Armenian Christians slaughtered Muslim Turks and Kurds. Kars was established as the Armenian capital in the early tenth century, though in 961 King Ashot III moved his centre of government 27 miles south-east, to Ani. The name Ani is thought to be derived from Anahit, the Persian water goddess, suggesting an even earlier occupation of the site. Ani was on the main east-west trade route -- the Silk Road -- and more easily defended than Kars. Despite Byzantine attacks Ani survived until Tamerlaine's Mongol hordes over-ran it in 1239. An earthquake in 1319 completed the destruction.

The derelict city is, however, among the most evocative sites of eastern Turkey. The approach sets the scene: a triangular plateau edged with turreted walls. Passing through the sole remaining gate the visitor realises that the walls are double, with off-set gates. Through the arch of the inner gateway mined buildings are visible, scattered across a grassy plateau with the citadel on higher ground at the far end. Walking round the site -- with few other visitors to disturb the peace -- on paths which follow the former main streets it is not difficult to imagine the size and magnificence of the medieval city. Although no ordinary houses or workshops have survived, any visitor who has previously seen the medieval houses under the shadow of Erzerum's castle will have little difficulty in re-creating the scene.

At one time Ani had a population of over 100,000, rivalling Baghdad and Constantinople. The Armenians were master-sculptors, artists and architects and even the ruins display their talent. A cathedral, five churches and a mosque survive, though the dome of the cathedral fell down centuries ago and the Church of the Redeemer lost half its shell when struck by lightening in 1957. Three of the other churches are dedicated to St. Gregory, who brought Christianity to Armenia at the beginning of the fourth century. The best preserved is that built by a prosperous merchant nobleman, Tigran Honents, in 1215. This contains a veritable outpouring of medieval art; frescoes cover most of the interior walls and porch. Some show episodes from Armenian Christian history, others the lives of ordinary people and others yet depict Bible stories. These are not static icons but very realistic with a wealth of detail.

From the citadel the impregnability of Ani's site is even more striking: on a peninsula at the confluence of two rivers, only one side of the city was accessible by land. The River Arpa today forms the Turkish-Armenian border, so photography within the site is forbidden. However, an enterprising local professional hawks a comprehensive range of excellent prints.

It is thought that the cathedral alternated as a mosque, depending on whether Armenians or Muslims were in power. This practice seems to have been fairly common. From the outside the Ortahasir Mosque in Trabzon has all the characteristics of a Christian church. The interior is therefore a shock: instead of Byzantine frescoes, an ornate altar at the west end and a mosaic floor, there is empty space. The frescoes have been whitewashed over, concrete and carpet cover the floor and the altar has gone. The whole orientation has been changed to conform to the Muslim practices of facing Mecca (in this case south) to pray and of not portraying any living creature. What was built as the Christian church of Panayia Krisokephalos (the 'Golden Headed', referring to the dome which was plated with gold -- long since gone -- on the outside) has been re-dedicated to the worship of Allah.

This practice has, however, preserved many former Christian buildings, though one may well regret the destruction of the art within them. Others have become museums; the Aya Sofja with its outstanding Byzantine frescoes, in Trabzon, for example and -- when restoration is complete -- the Sumela monastery some 40 miles south of the city.

The approach to Sumela is breathtaking. At first sight it seems to be clinging to a sheer rock face above a ravine, exactly the sort of site which appealed to Greek Orthodox monks. So it is not surprising to learn that it was founded by a Greek monk (Barnabas) who arrived in 385 as a result of a vision. He brought with him an icon -- the Virgin of the Black Rock -- said to have been painted by St. Luke. The shell of the buildings and frescoes there today date from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Sumela continued as a monastery until 1923 when, in common with other Greek Orthodox foundations, it was evacuated following the War of Independence. Six years later it was ravaged by fire and, when one monk returned in 1931 to rescue treasures which had been hastily buried, many precious illuminated manuscripts had disintegrated. The icon, however, was preserved and is now in an Athens museum. Work is in progress to restore the frescoes -- removing graffiti in the process -- and rebuild the monks' cells and chapels to their former plan. The monks' view from their cell windows was heart-stopping: a sheer drop down the precipitous wooded ravine sides to the valley floor 1,000 ft. below.

The Armenian monastery at Kaymakh is even more dilapidated and suffered a worse fate than Sumela. The church has been used as a barn for some years. The farmer and our taxi drivers obligingly moved some of the corn bales to reveal amazing frescoes of the Dormition and the Entry into Jerusalem, the paint having been unwittingly preserved by the bales.

The Armenian stone-masons' skill is most impressive, though, in the church of the Holy Cross, part of the royal court complex on the tiny island of Akdamar in Lake Van. This dates from the early tenth century. Though the palace and monastery have disappeared and the inside of the church has been gutted, the exterior walls are still in good condition and decorated with recognisable and realistic reliefs. Many are delightful illustrations of Bible stories (a set of three of Jonah and the whale; Adam and Eve, complete with tree and serpent; David and Goliath), another set shows the rewards of faith and one has the builder-king presenting a model of the church to the monks. All are linked by a vine leaf trellis and some very Celtic-looking scroll work and interlacing.

After all these ruins it was somewhat of a relief to find a location which had been in continuous relatively peaceful occupation for centuries. About four miles outside Mardin is the Saffron Monastery -- so-called because of the golden stone and/or the saffron crocuses used in the mortar. Founded by Syrian Orthodox monks in the third century, there were 800-900 living here at one time, a self-contained community. Now one of the remaining two shows visitors the many treasures and recounts the history.

Father Gabriel, with twinkling eyes, a great sanse of humour and a far better command of English than he would admit, took us to what is believed to have been the original sanctuary: an underground chamber whose ceiling is self-supporting stone blocks with no mortar and which is alleged to have been used by sun worshippers for nearly 2,000 years before the monks arrived. In a small chapel is a stone font said to be the original, around 1,600 years old. Huge 300 year-old carved walnut doors lead to a mausoleum where lie the 53 patriarchs and over a hundred metropolitans (bishops) who have served here. The present church dates from the late nineteenth century but contains a Bible some 200 years older with an elaborately embossed silver cover. The language of the services is Aramaic, as spoken by Christ and His disciples. The sense of history is palpable.

Father Gabriel also assured us that Abraham had passed by, a reminder that not all travellers in Anatolia were power-seekers or marauders. Most would have been traders. The narrow valleys, high steep mountains and barren plateaus of eastern Turkey exerted a profound influence on routeways. For centuries the Silk Road was the main artery between Asia and Europe; as late as the nineteenth century it was recorded that 40,000 laden camels passed through Erzerum every year on their way to the Black Sea port of Trabzon. The latter, formerly Trebizond, has intrigued travellers from Marco Polo to Rose Macaulay. The stories of gilded roofs and exotic customs have been replaced, though, by an unremarkable modem city with a reputation for a red-light district servicing visitors from across the nearby Georgian border.

All this traffic encouraged the development of the equivalent of motels and service stations. Called kervanseri, these were two-storey buildings set round a courtyard; animals were quartered on the ground floor and humans occupied the upper. Some kervanseri have been turned into their twenty-first century counterparts. The Buyuk Kervanseray in Diyarbakir is now a hotel. A magnificent arch in the characteristic local black basalt and white limestone leads from the street to the courtyard which now serves as the bar and al fresco breakfast area and around which are set the small rooms on two floors, the upper accessed by a gallery. The former camel stable has been converted into a restaurant and a rear courtyard contains a swimming pool.

The refurbished kervansaray in Erzerum illustrates a different aspect of its former character: a bazaar, full of tiny jewellers' shops and workshops. Most sell prayer beads made from the local black 'amber', a shiny obsidian-like rock which flakes so sharply it can inflict a deep cut on unwary fingers.

The presence of basalt and obsidian is a sign of volcanic activity and the instability of the earth's crust in this area. Eastern Turkey is in an earthquake zone, there are hot springs in several places and the extraordinary contortions of exposed strata in the Karacay valley north of Erzerum indicate violent geologically-recent earth movements. This is a beautiful area, with neo-Alpine villages. For about six miles the road runs along a narrow ledge above a half-mile wide lake formed by a landslide some 300 years ago. This natural dam was consolidated and a power station installed in more recent times.

The most extraordinary site -- and sight -- on my Turkish travels, though, was the mausoleum on top of Nemrut Dag, a monument to one man's megalomania. The Kingdom of Commagene was a small breakaway territory from the Seleucid Empire based at Antioch and known to few before 1881 when a German archaeologist found a collection of huge statues on this mountain top. But they slipped into obscurity again until an American team arrived on the scene in 1953.

Antiochus I Epiphanes (64-38BC) was the son of the founder of the Commagene Kingdom. He prided himself on being descended from Darius the Great on his father's side and Alexander the Great on his mother's. His vanity even led to a claim to be equal to the gods. He chose the highest mountain around (7,167 ft.) to build a temple and mausoleum. Two ledges were cut to take figures of the gods and himself, and the 180 ft. heap of crushed rock between them is thought to cover the bodies of Antiochus and three female relatives.

After a 15-20 minute climb up a cobbled track I was confronted by an astonishing sight: on the eastern terrace platform is a line of six huge thrones made of massive stone blocks on which sit decapitated figures, their heads lying strewn around below. Those heads are around six feet high. Here sat Antiochus with Apollo, Fortuna (symbol of the Commagenes) and Zeus on his right and Hercules and an unidentified figure on his left. An equally massive stone eagle (messenger of the gods) and lion (protector of the country) were the temple guardians. Greek inscriptions covering the backs of the thrones command Antiochus' people to process up the mountain on the anniversaries of his birth and coronation to make sacrificial offerings on the altar in front of him. The altar is large enough to serve as a helipad.

A ceremonial way leads round the north face of the mountain to the western terrace where there are more of the massive stone heads, figures and reliefs -- three of the latter show Antiochus shaking hands with, respectively, Hercules, Apollo and Zeus. Although the Nemrut Dag heads have become one of the best publicised images of eastern Turkey we had the place to ourselves.

Nowadays eastern Anatolia is a road less well travelled and luxury hotels are conspicuous by their absence. But whereas some of the magical attraction of these romantic-sounding places has vanished -- if indeed it ever actually existed outside the imagination -- there is a timeless quality about life here. Veiled women, hamami (Turkish baths) and the muezzin's call to prayer are as much a part of everyday life as they have ever been. Nor is conflict far away.

Irene Waters is a freelance researcher and writer who visits parts of the world regarded as off the beaten track. On this occasion she travelled with British Museum Tours, 46 Bloomsbury Street, London, WC1B 3QQ.
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Author:Waters, Irene
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:7TURK
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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