I was reminded of Diyarbakır today when I remembered a story from the New York Times in March about a Banksy mural protesting the imprisonment of Zehra Doğan, a Turkish artist. Zehra Dogan was jailed after painting Turkish flags over ruined buildings after the bombardment and partial destruction of the town of Nusaybin in 2015. It reminded me of a very friendly young man from Nusaybin whom I had met very briefly in Diyarbakır who had tried to convince me and some other travellers to come visit his hometown. I hope his family was not affected.
I did not plan to visit Diyarbakır when I came to Turkey in the summer of 2012. Armed with funding from the economics department at my undergraduate university, I had gone to Turkey to conduct research for my senior thesis, and the plan was to go to İstanbul, Ankara, Konya, Kayseri, and Malatya. In Malatya, I had decided to take an overnight trip to watch sunrise on Nemrut Dağı, and there, I met an Italian couple from Milan who convinced me to come to Diyarbakır with them. Since I had another week before my flight out of Istanbul, I agreed.
Diyarbakir, the centre of Kurdish culture in Turkey, is often the centre for conflict between the Kurdish insurgency and the Turkish government and was often considered off-limits for travellers (it is again considered off-limits today); I was lucky enough to have been there during the relative peace of the ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government. However, the city dates back to Assyrian times and boasts impressive historical monuments.
I remember looking out of the window of my bus and seeing a river flowing by the road. I looked over to the man sitting next to me and asked “O nehrin adı nedir?” (what is the name of that river?). The man answered, “Fırat”. Fırat. Euphrates. The city of Diyarbakir itself lies on the bank of the Tigris. I was entering Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of human civilisation.
Diyarbakır’s giant city walls are the most immediately noticeable feature of the city. The first walls were constructed during the Roman era, and today, they encircle the historic centre. with only one gap at the Dağ Kapı Meydanı (Mountain Gate Square). Inside the walls, the old city has a layout reminiscent many walled cities in Europe, with a tangle of narrow lanes cut through by several major streets. After I found a room, it was already late afternoon, and I wandered out to the market nearby just as the sun was starting to set. The vendors were closing their stalls, and I remember seeing a young man rush past me pulling a handcart laden with watermelons as the sound of the muezzin echoed from the 11th-century black-and-white banded Ulu Camii. It was then that I truly understood that I was in a different Turkey, a world away from the cafes and plazas of the Mediterranean coast.
The alleys of Diyarbakir conceal surprises at every turn, with dozens of mosques and churches of numerous denominations. Guidebooks will tell you that exploring the warren of alleys alone may be dangerous, and you may have issues with children along the way. Fortunately, I had the opposite experience – a group of children on their summer break took it upon themselves to lead me around several of the sights while even occasionally chasing away children who wanted money. Perhaps they found my accent in Turkish amusing. Before I could thank my little heroes for their help with some candy, however, they had already disappeared off to their next great adventure.
Thanks to the children, I managed to visit quite a few historical sights, testaments to the city’s historical diversity. A friendly imam took me up to the dome of his mosque. Churches peppered the landscape, many of which were in disrepair – I remember one was being used by a group of women as a place to do their weaving. Others still had congregations of varying sizes. The churches bear testament to the changes that have happened in Southeastern Turkey over the last one hundred years – almost all the Armenian churches in the city, for example, no longer have active congregations, while the docent at the Syriac Orthodox Church of St Mary (completed in the 3rd century) told me that the other Syriac churches in the city have all closed, and only a few families remain in his congregation.
The alleys of Diyarbakir also conceals other surprises. I remember walking down an alley and peering into a courtyard that turned out to be a cultural centre. The group of people were there to watch a performance of dengbêj, a form of Kurdish song that is used for storytelling and has no musical instrument accompaniment. I joined a circle around the performers and listened as they sang and improvised. I do not understand Kurdish, but the passion that the singers had for their art was palpable. Afterwards, I went with a Kurdish family who had moved to Denmark to visit a Kurdish music shop, hidden up on the third storey of a shopping centre. It’s also then that I realised that despite the city’s being majority Kurdish, I did not see a single sign in the Kurdish language in the streets.
Other moments from my time there still make me smile. When I headed towards the city walls, a man, seeing my camera, insisted that I take a picture of his friend who was napping on his tractor in the shade. The exquisite stonework on the black-and-white bands stone bands in some of the old houses in the city, a style which I have been told is also found in Syria. The friendly waiter in the restaurant in the old caravanserai insisting that I try the local specialties. Even six years later, the memories of Diyarbakır still feel fresh. The hospitality and incredible resilience of the people continue to linger in my mind, especially as the conflict in Syria and south-eastern Turkey drags on. I hope that one day Diyarbakir will again find peace.