Yippee! The great thing about having visited the giant heads on Nemrut Dağı last night is that we don’t have to get up at an ungodly hour this morning and can instead enjoy a leisurely breakfast while soaking up the mountain view and the blissful peace and quiet of Karadut. Eventually though we pile back into the van that took us up the mountain yesterday for the second part of the Nemrut experience.

First there’s a minor irritant which is that we have to pay again to go into the national park although we could have visited all the sites on the same day for the one entrance fee. It’s something I really wish Turkey would get to grips with, the idea of all-in tickets or other incentives to go out and visit everything. For Turks, of course, there is the Müzekart (Museumcard), a further source of irritation since those of us with residency permits are not allowed to buy one. So even after thirteen years of living in Turkey and twenty years of promoting the country I still have to pay to visit every single site at the same sometimes inflated price as a tourist. Here, however, I’m making a fuss about nothing since 7TL is, frankly, a bargain for visiting the heads, let alone all the other minor sites too.

Anyway, it’s hard to stay miffed as we start the drive to Arsemeia along a twisting mountain road that opens onto ever more and more spectacular views. We’ve come at the perfect time, too, for the wildflowers which means that everywhere we look there is a haze of purple and blue, flashes of bright red, streaks of canary yellow. Eventually we arrive at Arsemeia, once the summer capital of the Kommagenes. A path tiptoes up the mountainside, dropping down to a battered stela which depicts either Mithras or Apollo the sun god with rays radiating from the rear of his cap like a dog’s hackles standing on end.

The path winds on past a rocky overhang beneath which a few more damaged carvings are gathered and which protects a staircase down to a man-made cave that could possibly have served as a temple to Mithras. But all these extras are merely the starters before the main course which is a virtually undamaged stela showing King Mithridates Kallinikos shaking hands with a very naked Hercules who has the skin of the Nemean lion casually draped over his arm. I can hardly believe that it has survived for all these centuries without anyone either spraypainting their name on it or hacking off Hercules’ genitalia and it hurts to think that not so long ago no such thought would have crossed my mind. These days, however, there’s hardly a minor monument left in the country which has not been given an ugly coat of tagging – and this is no minor monument.

The stela is remarkable but the inscription running around the entrance to a second flight of stairs down into the ground is probably of even more historic importance. The longest inscription in Greek to have been found in Turkey, it describes the significance of Arsemeia and explains that the shrine on the hillside above it was set up by the same Antiochus I who was responsible for the main Nemrut shrine in honour of his father, Mithridates Kallinikos. The guidebook tells us that there are scant remains of Arsemeia further up the hill but the sun is hot and we’re tired and the next thing I know we’re sitting down in the teashop by the entrance watching as the owner pours hot water into a seemingly blank black mug which magically turns into a mug adorned with pictures of Nemrut.

After that show of feebleness we return to the van and continue down the mountain where we stop beside a restored Selçuk bridge to gaze down at the Kahta Çayı flowing through a stretch of dramatic gorge dotted with bright pink oleanders. There’s better waiting just round the corner when we divert towards the hamlet of Eski Kahta and pause to chat with a shepherd and his elderly mother while their flock nibble their way across a daisy-splattered meadow. High above them stand the ruins of the Yeni Kale (New Castle), built towards the end of the 13th century by the Mamluks which makes it old, not to say ancient, by almost anyone but a Turk’s standards. This is a truly magnificent ruin and I’m astounding that I don’t remember it. Parts of the outer wall collapsed in the not so distant past which means that visitors are no longer allowed inside. In any case it’s the drama of the walls and towers and ramparts rising direct from the rock that impress so much.

Across the road from the castle I spot a lovely mud-faced house, two-storied with a verandah like a miniature version of the imam’s house in Karadut. Just as I’m heading towards it a man emerges from the nearby Cafe Rome and invites us in for menengiç coffee. The cafe is at the end of a path lined with pink rosebushes and is shaded by a vine. It’s the perfect place to relax and gaze at the castle, and when I discover that there’s also a dormitory here I half-wish we had a spare night up our sleeves. The man tells us that he’d spent some years living in Europe but suffered health problems and decided to return to the village where his brothers had financed the building of a pension.

“In an old village house?” I ask hopefully but that would have been too much to expect. I ask about the pretty house down the road. “It belonged to a German but he died. Now no one comes there,” I was told. It would make the perfect pension. If only the Turks were not so in thrall to concrete…

The coffee is thick and strong and comes with copious grounds. Eventually we drag ourselves away from the cafe and head on towards the Çendere bridge, a miraculous survivor from Roman times until a tanker drove across it in 1997 and shattered it. Since then it’s been patched together again and is still an impressive sight, far more graceful than the modern bridge that now carries the traffic safely across the river. Today that river is more of a trickle nestled inside a mudflat which leaves us free to concentrate on the surviving inscriptions and the story behind the three remaining pillars of the bridge that commemorate its builder, the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus (193-211), his second wife, and their son Caracalla; the fourth was taken down after Caracalla murdered his brother, Geta.

The day is racing by now but there’s still one last Kommagene site to visit and that’s the Karaküs monument, a stone column at the base of a tumulus that is surmounted not by a blackbird, which is what the Turkish means, but by an imperial eagle. We climb to the top of the tumulus which offers a breath-taking view out towards the Atatürk Lake and towards Nemrut Dağı. Then we circle it like pilgrims to see the remains of the other columns that once surrounded it and that’s it for our Nemrut explorations.

Kahta looks even grimmer now that we’re coming back to it from so much spectacular scenery but at least I know now that there was once an Eski Kahta, albeit some way away. Like Doğubayazıt, Kahta is a new town, built to create a fresh start, but just as with the new towns of the UK the price of modernity has been the loss of the historic soul. 

At Kahta otogar people have gathered to see some of their sons off to the army and there’s much banging of drums and general merriment. There’s just time for a slap-up and very late lunch in a surprisingly attractive restaurant, then we hop into the dolmuş to Siverek and hurtle back the way we’d come to catch the ferry across the Lake.

By now we’re travelling with a German who we’d met at the Karadut pension and he has a guidebook that describes the ferry as little more than a rust-bucket refugee transporter. This comes as something of a surprise since I took this ferry years ago when the troubles were still at their height and even then it was a wonderful way to short-circuit the long drive round the south side of the lake to Diyarbakır. There’s a mixed bag of would-be passengers waiting to make the crossing but none of them look much like refugees from anything other than the heat and the traffic. One young woman quickly approaches for a chat. She’s from Mardin, unheadscarfed and clutching a bowl inside which sit two terrapins. She’s travelling home with them from a trip to İstanbul and spends much of the crossing fussing over them like a mother with a newborn baby.

The ferry terminal is nothing more than a patch of mud at the waterside with a teashop waiting for customers. But oh, the view. Across the water the mountains soar on either side of an inlet and I can’t help but think of Jason, Odysseus and the other classical heroes who would no doubt have sailed through to be assailed on either side by harpies, sirens or demons. We, however, are sailing in the easterly, more open direction, a wonderful short voyage free of any fantastical hazards that brings us fresh and rested to the other side.

Siverek itself I remembered as a prosaic little town, distinguished only by a market selling miniature baby’s cradles made from gilt-painted metal. Then I’d had an hour to waste before the ferry sailed. Today another dolmuş is waiting to whisk us straight on to Diyarbakır. Its driver is a music lover and it’s a bit like travelling in a crowded mobile jukebox. Unexpectedly, it comes with Kurdish rap music in which the only recognisable word is the oft-repeated “Kurdistan”.

Before setting off on this trip I’d received a mildly unsettling email from a friend who lives near Hilvan suggesting that in the run-up to the election I’d be better off steering clear of Diyarbakır, Kızıltepe, Midyat, even Hasankeyf since the atmosphere in all of them was tense. It was just the sort of message one doesn’t want to receive, especially when travelling with somebody else who has never been to the area before. The strategy I’d finally come up with was this. Take the ferry to Siverek as planned, then head on down to Diyarbakır otogar and weigh up what it felt like. If it felt tense I’d hop straight on the next bus out again. If all seemed fine I’d head on to Kıbrıs Caddesi and the hotels. Again I’d stick a metaphorical finger in the air. If it felt OK I’d check in and repeat on waking. If it didn’t, well, back I’d go to the otogar and that next bus out.

Of course none of this scheming turned out to be necessary. The dolmuş drops us at the local bus station, we swap to another one and in next to no time we’re checking into the Grand Güler Hotel where all is as I remembered it from eighteen months earlier right down to the stern-faced alpha male patron and the slightly camp receptionist. Only the prices are higher.

Later we venture into the town centre, heading for the Haşan Paşa Han. I’d rediscovered this on the previous visit and had been astounded at its transformation. Across the road from the Ulu Cami, the black-and-white-striped han was always one of the town’s most obvious tourist attractions and I’d first visited it in 1992. At that time there had been a couple of half-hearted carpet shops in the courtyard. Returning some years later I found the shops gone. When I asked about them I was told that the two owners had quarrelled and shot each other. By 2010 all that was past history and the restored han positively hummed with activity, its courtyard filled with enthusiastic locals sipping çay and reading their papers while the upstairs balconies were filled with all-day breakfast cafes that attracted a lively young clientele.

Mounting the steps to the balcony we turn left – and bump into a mutual friend from İstanbul, a surefire sign that things are looking up in Diyarbakır.

Written: 23 May 2011













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