Southeast Turkey: Planning Your Trip

Deyrul Zafaran, Turkey

When To Go

Southeast Turkey is dry and hot with mild winters and scorching summers. Avoid the summer months (June – August) at all costs. For ideal temperatures, visit in April or October.

Suggested Itineraries

Situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the cradle of Western civilization, the southeast corner of Turkey contains a plethora of ancient cities, each distinguished by its unique cultural, culinary and linguistic heritage. It also boasts extraordinary ruins from the world’s oldest temple, Göbekli Tepe, to the colossal head statues of Nemrut Dagi to the dazzling mosaics of the Roman ruins at Zeugma.

With so many important sites, the region requires time to appreciate. For trips of a week or less, I recommend choosing to make either Mardin or Sanliurfa your base and limiting your travels to the immediate vicinity of each. With two weeks, you will have time to visit all of the important sites in the region.

Below I have outlined two recommended itineraries of five days each.  If you have more than five days, simply select your favorites from each itinerary or combine the two.

Five Days: Mardin, Midyat, Hasankeyf

 

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Day 1: Arrive by plane to Mardin. Stay at Gazi Konagi or Reyhani Kasri. For dinner, go to the rooftop terrace at Seyr-i-Merdin, where you can take in breathtaking views of the Syrian plains below. Order the Kaburga Dolmasi, slow-cooked leg of lamb shredded and served with rice, fried almonds, and spices.

Day 2: Wander the narrow, sloping streets of Mardin, exploring its bazaar, mosques, courtyards and caravanserais. Visit the Sakip Sabanci Mardin City Museum for a fascinating introduction to Mardin’s history and culture. If you have time for excursions beyond the city, arrange for a driver or guide to take you to the extensive Roman ruins at Dara or the former seat of the Syriac Christian Church, Deyrul Zafaran Monastery.

Day 3: Travel by bus or taxi to Midyat, an ancient Syriac city about an hour from Mardin where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken. Stay at the exquisitely remodeled Kasr-i-Newroz, our favorite hotel in all of Southeast Turkey. Discover the city’s Syriac Christian churches and beautifully preserved honey-colored homes.   When you have finished exploring Midyat’s historical center, visit Mor Gabriel Monastery, the oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world, set among the olive groves and rolling green hills beyond the city.

Day 4: Take a 30-minute bus or taxi-ride to Hasankeyf, a bewitching city on the Tigris River that will soon be flooded by the Ilisu Dam.  The only drawback to visiting Hasankeyf is that hotel options are very limited.  If you are not concerned about comfort, stay at the Hasbahce Guesthouse, which offers basic rooms at inflated prices.  Alternatively, you could visit Hasankeyf as a day trip from Midyat, though be warned that if you plan to travel by bus you will miss the late afternoon and early morning light that is ideal for photography.

Once in Hasankeyf, walk to the bazaar and ask for the rug dealer, Arif. He speaks perfect English and can help you find a guide to take you to the expansive cave city and castle above the city, where residents of Hasankeyf lived until the 1960’s. At sunset, stop for tea at one of the many teahouses perched above the Tigris River and enjoy views of the ancient stone bridge, minaret and Zeynel Bey mausoleum beyond. For dinner, eat fresh fish from the Tigris at Ramazan restaurant and chat with the friendly English-speaking owner, Rustem.

 Day 5: Return to Mardin (1.5 hours from Hasankeyf) for your flight home.

Five Days: Sanliurfa, Homestay in Kurdish Village, Nemrut Dagi/Gaziantep

Manici Hotel, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Day 1: Arrive by plane to Sanliurfa. Stay at Manici Hotel or Cevahir Konuk Evi. Walk to Urfa Castle at sunset for stunning views of the Great Mosque and city below.

Day 2: Stroll along the tree-lined canals of Gölbaşı gardens and visit the Balıklı Göl, or Pool of Sacred Fish, where pilgrims flock to pay homage to the site where God intervened to save Abraham from his death. Explore the complex web of shops that comprise Urfa’s ancient bazaar. Within the bazaar, stop for coffee at Gümrük Hani, a courtyard filled with men in purple headscarves smoking from water pipes and playing backgammon. About 30 minutes beyond the city, visit Göbekli Tepe, an archeological site dating back to 9500 BC, which is believed to be the world’s oldest place of worship.

Day 3: Arrange to spend a night with a Kurdish family in a rural village outside of Sanliurfa through a local tour company called Nomad Tours. The family will spoil you with their gracious hospitality and fabulous home-cooked meals and you will acquire a first-hand look at life in a Kurdish village.

Day 4: Continue your cultural tour of the region with Nomad Tours by requesting the Sunset and Nomads tour. This tour includes a visit to an animal market in Siverek, tea with nomads, a boat trip across the Euphrates and finally a sunset hike to the head statues at Nemrut Dagi.

Day 4 Option 2: From the Kurdish village, travel about two hours by bus or taxi to Gaziantep, the largest city in the region. The main attraction here is the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, which recreates the ancient Roman city of Zeugma and showcases its exquisite mosaics. Gaziantep is also celebrated for its cuisine, especially its baklava which is considered the best in Turkey.

 Day 5: Fly home from either Sanliurfa or Gazientep.

Nemrut Dagi, Turkey

 

 

 

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

I was not prepared for the allure of Hasankeyf. My guidebook had called it a “heartbreaker” and I had seen the photos of its famed minaret and stone bridge. Yet, I had not expected much from this village strewn with rubble from a forgotten civilization—a story so commonplace in Turkey that it loses its wonder after a while. I reserved only an afternoon of our two-week trip through Southeast Turkey to visit the ruins of this ancient city.

Jorge and I arrived at 1:00 p.m. and, from the moment we stepped off the bus, I was taken by the tranquility of Hasankeyf. The main street of the village consists of a collection of teahouses and kebab shops perched precariously on a cliff overlooking the Tigris River, the site of the stone bridge I had seen from the photos. I peeked through one teahouse and felt a rush of cool breeze. Around me, old men on low wooden stools sat sipping their tea, their faces glowing from the warm light that emanated from the waters below.

We wandered beyond the main street and bazaar and reached the perimeter of the village. There, we discovered two steep cliffs with caves carved into the sides and large boulders littered between them. The cliffs narrowed into a gorge, which we followed along stairs and ladders built into the rock. Out of nowhere, a young man from the village ran up to us and offered to show us the way to the top of the mountain. We followed him and, as we ascended the gorge, verdant mountains spiraled around us.

At the summit, we beheld the most spectacular sight: a vast city of caves, complete with a mosque and castle, spread across the top of the mountain that faced us. Our guide told us that this was the old city of Hasankeyf, where 5,000 people had lived in caves until the 1960’s when the government forced them to relocate to a new village by the river. This old city remained perfectly intact, tantalizing in its proximity.  Officially, it was closed to the public, but our guide told us it would have been possible to visit if we only had more time.

Our bus was scheduled to leave at 6:00 p.m. Realizing we had less than two hours left in Hasankeyf, we rushed down the mountain, still bewitched by what we had seen. At the foot of the mountain, we entered an open air café, facing the castle of Old Hasankeyf, where men sat cross-legged on large flat cushions drinking coffee and smoking. There, we met an an American journalist and learned about the construction of the dam scheduled for 2015 that will flood Hasankeyf and force its residents to resettle once again. This time, the ancient city will vanish.

We had heard about the dam before coming to Hasankeyf, but had not understood the scale of the tragedy that was about to unfold until we had seen the city for ourselves. We left on the 6:00 p.m. bus, as planned, but were so captivated by Hasankeyf that we changed our itinerary and returned the following day. Even after a second day of exploring this city and talking to its residents, we felt we had barely scratched the surface of this fascinating place. Hasankeyf is one ancient city in Turkey you must visit while you still have the chance.  Though the construction of the dam is currently scheduled for 2015, residents told us it likely won’t be built for a few years, which means you still have a few years to see this city before it disappears.

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

Hasankeyf, Turkey

 

Hasankeyf, Turkey