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BİRECİK

The last of the ibises                              Population: 92,000

birec1Market: every day

Birecik is a small, dusty town on the banks of the Euphrates midway between Gaziantep and Şanlıurfa that has a distinctly Middle Eastern feel to it. Many of its occupants speak Arabic as their first language.

The location is absolutely spectacular with the wide river sweeping majestically past a wall of white rock. 

The main resaon most people come here is to visit the captive-breeding station for the northern bald ibis (kelaynak in Turkish), an ugly black fowl with a naked face and red beak that is the Middle East’s most endangered bird. However, the town itself has several medieval buildings worth taking a quick look at, and a string of new tea gardens have been opened south of the road bridge that crosses the river here.

birec2Around town

As you walk into town from the bus stop you will come to an imposing stone gate in the old city walls that has been converted into the Alaburç Cami. Unfortunately it always seems to be locked.

The tower was just one of a line along the city's southern wall. If you look carefullly you will see the remains of at least two more with the recently restored Tekke Cami in between them. As in the Fener-Balat district of İstanbul modern houses have been built right onto the walls. One of them is a very impressive mansion. 

Continuing into town you will pass a fine Armenian-style building with fine carved facades that I was told was once an office for the shipping yard.birec3

A little further up the road you'll come to the austere Ulu Cami that dates back to the 13th century. Finally, you'll come to the castle that climbs up the side of the rocks. Built of a lovely golden stone it is very imposing; in 2014 it was completely restored.

It's also worth wandering into the narrow back streets of old Birecik around the base of the castle where a few fine old houses and traces of old hans are still visible amid the usual sprawl of concrete.

Bald Ibis Reserve

In the early 20th century Birecik was home to at least 500 breeding pairs of birds that migrated every winter to the Horn of Africa. Written accounts describe the villagers turning out open-armed every February to welcome the returning birds, but most of the ibises had been wiped out by the use of pesticides by the 1970s.

birec4In 1989 only three birds reappeared and all of them died, rendering the ibis effectively extinct in the wild.

Now, however, a captive-breeding programme has brought numbers back up to 162 birds (2014), a few of whom are released every year. The rest are prevented from migrating by being lured into a huge aviary in late summer. 

About 1.5km north of town along a partially plane-tree-shaded road beside the river, the sanctuary is obviously doing wonderful work, but unfortunately visitors are kept so far away from the birds that only diehard ornithologists are likely to get much satisfaction from a visit. This would seem an obvious place to install some sort of closed-circuit television system that would make it possible for visitors to see what's happening in more detail without disturbing the birds.

There's a pleasant cafe beneath a nomadic tent at the site should you decide to walk in the heat of high sumer. 

Unfortunately the bald ibises provide a convenient 15-minute stopover for coach tours heading north to Halfeti even though few of those in the buses probably have much interest in birds. birec5

Eating and drinking

The Beyaz Saray seemed to be the most popular restaurant in town although I enjoyed my meal at the Sahil Restaurant.

Don't miss the tea gardens south of the bridge as people come here to socialise and promenade in early evening.

Sleeping

Hotel Acar $$

Mirkelam Motel Birecik's best which isn't saying much but beside petrol station on main road on far side of bridge from town centre. Tel: 0414-652 1178 $$

Otel Doğan Basic backpacker-type hotel with two and three-bed "cell" rooms in town centre. Tel: 0414-652 2220 $

Transport info

There are frequent minubuses from Gaziantep, Şanlıurfa and Nizip to Birecik.

From Birceik you can pick up a minibus to Yeni Halfeti. The driver will probably be prepared to continue on to Eski Halfeti for a fee. 

Day trip destinations

Belkis-Zeugma

Eski Halfeti

Nizip

Rumkale

Read more about the bald ibis: http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=3791

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