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




Zeugma Mosaic Museum

Zeugma Mosaic Museum

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the construction of the Ilisu dam that is scheduled to flood the ancient city of Hasankeyf. The dam will bring electricity and water to the region, but will destroy the city’s extraordinary ruins, including a medieval bridge, Roman fortress and an extensive network of caves where local residents lived until the 1960’s. The controversy over the dam raises a tricky question. In a region that has long suffered from unemployment and poverty, which is more important: economic development or preservation of cultural heritage?

Since the 1980’s, when the Southeastern Anatolia Project (also known by its Turkish acronym “GAP”) was implemented with the aim of raising income levels and living standards in Southeast Turkey, this exact controversy has played out repeatedly throughout the region.

The GAP project initiated the construction of dams, power plants and irrigation schemes in nine provinces located in the basins of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The same provinces are home to some of the first settlements in Mesopotamia and contain hundreds of sites of archeological importance. Since the project began, many of these ancient sites have been flooded. Still others, like Hasankeyf, are slated to vanish soon.

Many locals feel they have benefited from the GAP project. When I stayed with a family of shepherds in a rural village outside of Sanliurfa, I marveled at the modern conveniences the family could afford, including a car, washing machine and indoor bathroom. Our Canadian guide and translator, Mary, told us many of the rural families she worked with in the area attributed their rise in living standards to the GAP project.

There is no question the goals of the GAP project are laudable. But can they be achieved without destroying the region’s enormously significant archeological sites? In the case of Zeugma– an ancient Roman city on the banks of the Euphrates famed for its magnificent mosaics — the answer was yes.

Zeugma Mosaic Museum

With the completion of the Birecek dam in 2000, the ruins at Zeugma were deluged. Archeologists banded with the Gaziantep Museum to salvage hundreds of square meters of mosaics, columns, fountains and small artifacts that were now under water. Later, they succeeded in building a museum to house the rescued artifacts and preserve the memory of Zeugma. The Zeugma Mosaic Museum, which opened in Gazientep in 2011, recreates the architecture, streets and fountains of Zeugma and exhibits its 1700 square meters of mosaics, making it the largest mosaic museum in the world.

Zeugma Mosaic Museum

Walking around the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, I was amazed by the hauntingly beautiful mosaics and the richness of the city’s history. I felt grateful that the city’s relics had been rescued despite the fact the actual site had been submerged. At the same time, I thought sadly of all of those nameless cities that have disappeared without a trace due to flooding by the dams.

Zeugma Mosaic Museum

I then remembered Hasankeyf. There is still a chance for Hasankeyf to go the route of Zeugma rather than vanish like so many other sites. If construction of the dam cannot be avoided, then a compromise should be reached.  A restaurant owner I met in Hasankeyf told me that the city’s monuments could be saved by simply lowering the level of water in the dam. If this is the case, there is no excuse for allowing Hasankeyf to disappear.

Gypsy Girl, Zeugma Mosaic Museum