A Turkish Delight Known as Diyarbakir

NOVEMBER 18, 2012

Wahyuni Kamah

Traveling to remote, unknown parts of the world can be an eye-opening experience. There are many places across the globe that would give even experienced travelers pause. But while some think twice about venturing into potentially dangerous regions of the world, others wholeheartedly embrace the idea as an adventure.

The city of Diyarbakir, located along the Tigris river in southeast Turkey, is one of those places that might make some travelers rethink their vacation plans. Internet postings and travel agents will warn you of the poor security and safety for foreigners. The city is located about 120 kilometers from the Syrian border, and is also close to Iran. It is also home to one of the largest gathering of Kurds in the world.

If there was ever a sense of protection to be offered in the area, it vanished years ago when Princlik Air Base, a US military radar site located a few kilometers from the city, closed for good.

Locals will warn you to stay away but the real adventurer will figure it’s worth a visit — and not regret the decision.

The moment you land in Diyarbakir, you instantly know that you’re not in one of the country’s popular Westernized cities.

The city center bustles with crowds, as testimony to the population of 1.5 million people. Children dart down the narrow side roads, bordered on both sides by shops. It’s not the most tidy of cities, but it could be considered one of the more relaxed. It’s also one of the friendliest.

People are willing to help, despite obvious language barriers. Kerem Deniz, a local student takes the time to point out and direct visitors to the city’s highlights, of which there are plenty. He doesn’t speak English but that doesn’t deter him. Like most other Turks, he’ll find a way to communicate with you, even if you don’t speak Turkish or Kurdish.

In order to absorb as much of the city as you can, it is probably best to find a hotel in the center of Diyarbakir’s old city, with ancient mosques and churches just a short walk away. Several budget hotels, restaurants and shops are in the general vicinity, but not a lot of tourists.

Staying in the heart of Diyarbakir, you can experience the authentic life of the Kurdish community.

Kurdish people can be very hospitable and accommodating. It is not uncommon for hotel staff to step in and make your stay an enjoyable one. That could include accompanying you to see some of the local sites.

The Ula Cami Mosque, one of the oldest mosques in the Anatolia region, is one such location. Because of your guide’s connection with the locals, you might be able to enter and see the interior of the mosque. What was once a Martoma church was converted into a mosque during the reign of Umar in 639.

The highlight of Diyarbakir is certainly the city wall, which was constructed when Anatolia (about 4 BC) was under the rule of the Roman Empire, and restored in the 1200s. You can walk alongside parts of the wall, or on top of it. Just be sure to bring water, especially during the summer, as the heat is very strong.

Urban areas of the great city feature narrow cobblestone alleys which children use as playgrounds. It is off the city’s beaten track that’s enjoyed the most.

Visiting the local markets is also a good experience, since it is a great place to find traditional Kurdish souvenirs.

Diyarbakir’s ancient buildings are a highlight for the city’s tourists. Some are from old dynasties of Islam, like Seljuk mosques where the architecture resembles that of the Umayyad Dynasty found in Syria.

Despite its majority Muslim population, Diyarbakir has a Syrian Orthodox Christian community.

Another site, the Syrian Virgin Mary Church in the old city, is still an active church for Christians. The church even contains a Bible in Aramaic language.

Diyarbakir might not be as lively as other Turkish tourist cities, but chances are that it is one of the most impressive. If anything, it’ll teach you that facing your fears produces great rewards.