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




Meeting Kurdish women in their homes

Baking bread with Ayten, Gollu Village, Turkey

While walking along the streets of Southeast Turkey, Jorge and I encountered men everywhere. They were our waiters, our hotel clerks and our taxi drivers. They were the denizens of the teahouses, bakeries and kebab shops we frequented. They were the ones who we negotiated with when buying carpets and ceramics.

If we were lost, for even a moment, a man would appear out of nowhere to guide us graciously to our destination. And even if we were not lost, we were constantly chased down by grinning men eager to share with us the one English phrase everyone in Turkey knows (“Hello! Where are you from?”) and then invite us for tea at their shops or houses.

Women, on the other hand, were noticeably more discreet. We rarely saw women and, when we did, they were heavily cloaked and dared not look our way. When I had my camera out, men would gesture to me from afar to indicate they wanted their pictures taken. Women who saw my camera would hold up their hands to conceal their faces.

It was not until we had the opportunity to visit Kurdish families in their homes, which we arranged through a local company called Nomad Tours, that we interacted with women for the first time. To see women in their homes was to see women in the sphere in which they reign. I was stunned to find confident, outspoken women who looked me in the eye and answered for their husbands and brothers.

The first home we visited was in a rural Kurdish village of about twenty families near Sanliurfa. There, we stayed in the home of Ali and Ayten and their five children. Ali and Ayten were both extremely welcoming to us. But whereas Ali generally hung back, smiling sweetly and saying nothing except to tell the occasional joke, Ayten made it clear that she was in charge.

Ali and Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Upon our arrival at the house, we found Ayten crouched on a stool with her purple headscarf milking sheep, while her children stood by ready to follow her orders. Ayten then proudly showed us her garden, where she grows eggplants, tomatoes, almonds, pomegranates and a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables. She told us about the intricacies of bee-keeping and carpet-making, for which she is regarded as an expert by her community. In fact, Ayten is revered by women in her own village and the neighboring villages for her leadership and competence.

Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Over our meals, which we ate while seated cross-legged on carpets, Ayten was the first to speak. She told us about the food (for dinner, bulgur she had dried and ground herself and, for breakfast, cheese, yogurt and bread she had prepared from scratch that day) and about the family’s routine. When we timidly asked about topics that might be sensitive, such as arranged marriages and education for women, Ayten did not hesitate to answer our questions directly. She even boldly tested out her English on us (“Welcome! This is the bathroom”).

Breakfast with Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

The following day, we met a few more women Kurdish women while visiting a camp where nomads live.  We found the camp by driving along a main highway near Siverek and stopping when we saw tents on the side of the road.  Two young women, both strikingly beautiful with large eyes and dazzling smiles, greeted us warmly.  They did not seem in the least perturbed or scared by the fact that we had shown up uninvited.  They were trailed by several chubby, curly-haired toddlers.

Nomad Camp near Siverek, Turkey

The women invited us into one of their tents and laughed merrily as they told us about their lives.  They had come to this region with their families only for the winter to graze their animals.  The rest of the year they live in Erzurum, a city in northeastern Turkey with a much harsher winter climate.  We were shocked to learn their ages—only 12 and 15!  They exhibited the poise and maturity of women at least twice their age.

Kurdish nomads, Siverek, Turkey

When we peppered them with questions about marriage and education, they did not bat an eye.  They had both dropped out of school (presumably due to responsibilities at home), which they now regretted.  They were in no rush to get married and would choose to marry whomever they liked once they were older.  For now, they cooked and cleaned and cared for the children of their older siblings.

Kurdish nomads near Siverek, TurkeyBy meeting Kurdish women in their homes, I discovered that the women of Southeast Turkey are not universally submissive or shy.  The women we met, in fact, were as self-assured as the men who regularly ran up to us on the street.  However, in a society in which men and women occupy distinct social and physical spheres, what you see on the street is only half the story.