Back in the 1950s the intrepid British adventurer made a bold journey on horseback through the wild and remote mountain ranges between Hakkari, south of the eastern Turkish city of Van, west to the Tigris (Dicle in Turkish) at the Iraqi/Syrian border town of Cizre, describing her experiences in the excellent “Riding to the Tigris.” Although my series of dolmuş (minibus) rides from the shores of Lake Van to the banks of the Tigris hardly bare comparison with Stark’s exploits, the fact that good titles are hard to find will have to do as justification for my literary theft.
Storks, snow and gravestones
My journey began at Muş airport, a sliver of grey asphalt angled obliquely across a neat, oblong checker-board of fields, their precise geometry bizarrely offset by a cats-cradle of crazily meandering streams heavy with snowmelt from the spring-thawed peaks encircling the plain. The hour-long ride southeast to Tatvan on the handy airport bus was intermittently enjoyable, with buzzards quartering the fields and newly-arrived storks getting their nests in order atop the skeletal frames of a seemingly endless string of electricity pylons. Soon the plain was behind us and rising into the mountains the sunshine reflected brightly from snow-fields still cocooning a landscape hit by the hardest winter in years.
When I unplugged my i-Pod the man sitting next to me finally managed to engage me in conversation. Where was I from? What was I doing here? Where was I going? Over two decades of travelling around Turkey told me that my travelling companion was plain clothes police rather than a naturally inquisitive local. He was wondering, naturally enough, what a (modest) Turkish-speaking foreigner was doing arriving in decidedly non-touristy Muş -- especially in an unseasonably cold April. He seemed happy enough with my replies -- that I lived in Antalya, was writing a guidebook for tourists and was headed for Tatvan, on Lake Van’s western shore. When I bade him farewell on Tatvan’s busy main street he was no doubt relieved. I had done what I said I was going to do and was off his patch.
From Tatvan, a town with a fine lakeside situation and plethora of comfortable hotels, I made an afternoon foray to explore Ahlat, 45 minutes away by dolmuşes, a once-important Medieval settlement set on the northwest shore of the lake. Here I spent a pleasantly warm afternoon strolling amongst the hundreds of beautifully-carved, lichen-encrusted Selçuk Turkish gravestones, some more than two meters high, dating back to between the 12th and 14th centuries.
The town that time forgot
My next destination was Bitlis, half an hour’s dolmuş ride to the southwest. I like Bitlis. The plunging valley in which it is set, the forbidding dark stone from which its traditional buildings are made and the foaming brook dancing through the town center, remind me of the Pennine mill towns in the north of England where my family roots lie. Bitlis, of course, is famous for its five minarets rather than its mill chimneys, and even the most fervent Yorkshire or Lancashire nationalist would hesitate to claim, as Bitlis does, to have had Alexander the Great as a visitor. What Bitlis and a typical Pennine mill town most definitely do share, however, is a sense that time has passed them by.
Once the powerhouses of Britain’s industrial revolution, today most cotton and wool mills are either idle or have been converted into discount shoe or outdoor clothing emporia. Bitlis too has lost its raison d’etre. Strategically located in a narrow valley linking the uplands around Lake Van with the Tigris and Euphrates basin, Bitlis once controlled the major caravan route between Persia and Mesopotamia, growing so fat on passing trade that it was able to become a major center of Islamic learning. The massive El-Aman Kervansarayı a few kilometers northeast of the town has been beautifully restored but is for show only whilst another, well southwest down the valley of the Bitlis River, crumbles into picturesque ruin on its perch on a bluff above the tumbling waters of the river. According to one local I asked, the last major employer in town, a factory producing Bitlis’ famous tobacco, closed down four years ago.
Despite its economic woes, Bitlis deserves far more visitors. In the upper-part of the old town is the recently-restored Ihlasiye Medresesi, reached by a steep flight of steps running up from the main street opposite the Dideban Hotel. Below it the much-rebuilt castle affords splendid views over the minarets and domes of a wealth of other important Islamic buildings, including the Şerefiye Külliyesi, still undergoing restoration, the Ulu Cami and the Alemdar Cami. There are few reminders of the Armenians who once made up half the population. A local who pointed out the rubble that it is all that remains of Bitlis’ sole centrally-located Armenian church said it was deliberately demolished in the surge of “Turkification” following the 1980 military coup.
A village outing
I’d seen Bitlis’ historic Islamic buildings many times in the past. In search of something new I set out in the car of a friendly local businessman to the village of Por (Değirmenaltı) in a side valley 7 kilometers northeast of the town. “The Armenians were clever,” he said, “to have situated their village in such a place.” For formerly-Armenian Por is set at the head of a valley at the confluence of four streams, its soil rich and fertile. Today its inhabitants are, like those of Bitlis, ethnically-Kurdish. With a gaggle of boisterous village kids in tow, we set off across snowmelt sodden fields to a church that dates back to the seventh century. An elegant, single-nave structure, lacking the drum and conical dome so stereotypical of later Armenian church architecture, it is in surprisingly good condition.
The owner turned up as we examined the gloomy interior, proud he’d just got the tapu (land-registration deed) for the property, which now served as a barn. Still, at least it was being used, and it was now even more in the villagers’ interest to keep it watertight. The church and the beautiful setting of the village make the trip worthwhile in themselves, but there’s more. For to one side of the church are five superbly carved khackars, stone memorial markers, decorated with elaborately-wrought crosses. One of them must be three meters or more high, though unfortunately a recent extension to the nearby flat-roofed village house means it’s only possible to view the front-face of the two tallest khachkars by squeezing into a gap of less than a meter.
Back in Bitlis another local bemoaned Bitlis’ current economic plight. “If only the Armenians hadn’t gone, who knows?” he shrugged despondently, acknowledging the role they had played as tillers of the soil, artisans and merchants prior to their expulsion during World War 1, their departure leaving their neighbors, mainly pastoralist Kurds, with too much of a gap to fill. I left Bitlis for Tatvan, pondering on the fate of a fascinating town bypassed in more ways than one by the modern-era -- for a recently completed 4 kilometer-long tunnel on the main Diyarbakir-Van highway has left once traffic-choked Bitlis a quieter but more isolated place than it has ever been.
Love birds in Şırnak
The next day I boarded a dolmuş to Siirt. The first few kilometers were entertaining, with four of us squeezed onto a front seat designed for two, but after dropping a few villagers off I was able to relax and enjoy the dramatic scenery. Streams and waterfalls cascaded down the steep valley-sides from the snowy peaks above, quaint villages perched on ridge-tops and elegant hump-backed stone bridges spanning the surging waters of the Bitlis River marked the course of the old caravan road.
At Siirt I changed dolmuşes and continued southeast to Şirnak. The landscape was spectacularly beautiful, with deep gorges rending a confused mass of towering peaks. Small villages of honey-colored stone houses clustered atop isolated rocky outcrops and undulating lines of goats traced their way across mountainsides pared back to their rocky ribs. When one of the passengers realized that I spoke reasonable Turkish, he kindly invited me to stay with him and his roommates in Şirnak. So it was that I found myself in this remote mountain town, overlooking a broad valley to the supposed resting place of Noah’s Ark, Mt. Cudi.
Few tourists come to Şirnak. Clashes still take place in the mountains running down to the Iraq border, between the Turkish security forces and the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party). Mt. Cudi is empty. The domestic tourist industry, which has recently taken off in a big way further west in Mardin and its environs has yet to reach Şirnak which, although it lacks any historical sites, is set amidst stunning mountain scenery. Yet life goes on here as normal, no one questioned my presence, and the most violent thing I saw was a pair of caged lovebirds in the lobby of a hotel I was checking out. “Usually I let them fly free here but look,” exclaimed the manager, gesturing at a plastic orange tree, many of its leaves stripped by the razor-sharp bills of the birds. In disgrace, the pretty birds were currently confined to barracks.
My hosts were students of theology at Şirnak University, theirs bachelor pad of austere but admirable tidiness and cleanliness. They chopped a mass of tomatoes, peppers, onion and chicken breast into a large tray, which they then took up to the local bakers to have cooked. We ate it companionably, with deliciously fresh pide bread, sitting cross-legged on the floor of their living room, discussing the various schisms within the Christian and Muslim faiths -- and football. Later one of them took me to a local Internet café where we watched Beşiktaş lose to Galatasaray, much to the chagrin of my Beşiktaş supporting imam-to-be. I could not have been treated more kindly by my gracious hosts and was sad to say goodbye the next morning when they went off to their studies and I took the dolmuş southwest to Cizre.
At a military control point in Kasrik, a village set in a spectacular gorge en-route to Cizre, a young conscript logged my details into his book. Whether he was more surprised that I’d arrived from little-visited Şirnak or that I spoke Turkish I’m not sure, but he sent me on my way with a friendly wave. Soon after the dolmuş rounded a bend and a broad swathe of turbid water came into view -- I’d reached the Tigris. Cizre lay just ahead.
Next up: Cizre to Diyarbakir