- 1 Adiyaman
- 2 Batman — hub for visiting Hasankeyf, not much else to visit
- 3 Cizre — Border town
- Birecik — town on the Euphrates with a sanctuary on the cliffs overlooking the river for critically endangered bald ibises native to the area
- 4 Diyarbakir — the biggest city of the region with an old town surrounded by city walls
- 5 Gaziantep — another big city of the region, arguably the last "Europeanized" city when travelling east from here
- 6 Halfeti — historical town north of Birecik on the Euphrates, unfortunately half of which is swallowed by a dam lake, though this presents the unique experience of taking a boat tour to the citadel on the hill in what is essentially surrounded by otherwise semi-desert lands
- Harran — ancient village south of Urfa renowned for its "beehive" adobe houses topped by a dome
- 7 Hilvan
- 8 Kahramanmaras — squarely off the tourists' radar, this fairly large city is home to a bazaar and is nationally known for its ice-cream, thickened by orchid roots
- 9 Kahta — nearest village to Mount Nemrut, making it a convenient base to explore there
- 10 Mardin — a hilltop historical city with exquisite stonework architecture and Syriac churches
- 11 Urfa (officially Şanlıurfa) — wonderful city featuring arched Middle East architecture, Abraham's birthplace, Gobeklitepe and a gigantic archaeological museum
- 12 Siirt
- 13 Şırnak
The southern half of the region is fairly shadeless plains (sometimes totally flat as far as eye can see) dominated by steppes that are bright yellow in summer. The northern half is hillier, but still mostly devoid of trees nonetheless.
Two major rivers of Middle East, namely Euphrates (Turkish: Fırat) and Tigris (Turkish: Dicle), after originating from the snowy mountains of Eastern Anatolia, flow through the region with many of region's cities and sites either directly on or near either one's banks, and then cross Turkey's southern border into Syria and Iraq.
While you may occasionally come across a tout in more touristy parts (e.g., Urfa) or kids asking for money — which is pretty much the full extent of their English vocabulary, apart from the ubiquitous hello — normally, the local people are extremely hospitable and friendly (sometimes to a fault) and are willing to help you in any way they can. They are just proud that, after so many years of armed conflict and political instability, travellers from faraway places are now making the effort to see their home towns.
Looking from outside, Southeastern Anatolia may seem to be inhabited by Kurds only, but when projected closer, you will find a diverse array of religions and ethnicities in the region, although not up to the levels once found during the Ottoman period.
The western quarter of the region, west of the Euphrates River to be more precise, are mostly populated by Turks, with villages populated by Kurds here and there. The majority of population east of the Euphrates, on the other hand, is Kurdish.
Ancient Tur Abdin region in the southeast, centred around Mardin and the western half of Şırnak Province, and historically dominated by Orthodox Christians Syriacs ("Suryaniler"), is an altogether different story. Amongst the inhabitants of this region are Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking people with a fairly unique belief system which leads to them being derogatorily called "heathens" or "original Satanists" by other locals and non-locals alike. The Yazidi belief system combines influences from Sufi Islam and ancient Mesopotamian and Persian religions, in which Melek Taus, symbolized by a peacock and usually compared to the "satan" figure of Abrahamic religions—a comparison that Yazidis find highly offensive—is a highly revered entity, and seen as the source of light and representative of God on Earth. The major rites of Yazidis, in which the participants face the Sun, are conducted on hilltops twice daily, during sunrise and sunset. Nowadays, Yazidis, most of whom emigrated from the region, keep a low profile and live in fairly off the beaten path villages, as a result of centuries of repression as well as religious commands to stay away from non-Yazidis.
There was also a sizable Armenian population in Southeastern Anatolia, but the events of 1915 hit the community hard. Nowadays, there is a handful of mostly elderly Armenians in the region, mainly in Diyarbakır.
In addition to these sedentary peoples, there are also nomadic Kurds, who pass the winter in the relatively warmer region and move on to cooler plateaus of Eastern Anatolia with their herds in summer, in search of pasture.
While it is hot in absolute terms with temperature frequently above 40°C, rainless summers in Southeastern Anatolia tend to be more comfortable, at least in shade, than Mediterranean Turkey which lies on the same latitude, thanks to the low humidity of this arid, non-coastal climate. Snowfall is occasional in winter and generally happens in relatively hillier eastern and northern parts of the region (i.e. around Mardin, Batman, and Diyarbakır).
In Southeastern Anatolia, the Euphrates River (Fırat) forms some sort of linguistic boundary: west of the Euphrates is mostly Turkish-speaking with a Kurdish-speaking minority while the mother tongue of most of the locals living east of the Euphrates is Kurdish. However, most locals in the region are also bilingual in Turkish, although heavily accented in most cases.
While traveling in southeastern Anatolia, it is important to be conscious of whom you are speaking with. At military checkpoints, Turkish and English will suffice (most Turkish officers speak some English, usually due to previous training in the United States); it is critical not to test your smattering of Kurdish words with the Turkish military. When amongst Kurdish friends, the Kurdish language is appropriate, but be sure not to place your hosts in an uncomfortable situation by speaking in Kurdish while other Turks are present.
Arabic might also be useful as it is the mother tongue of many people living in the southern and eastern parts of the region, especially in and around Sanliurfa, Hasankeyf, and Siirt, although the local dialect may not be intelligible for the speakers of the Middle Eastern varieties south of the border. Syriac, also known as Assyrian, a direct descendant of Jesus Christ's mother tongue, Aramaic, can also be heard spoken by small communities in and around Mardin, Midyat, and Şırnak.
Many Arabic and Farsi expressions have made their way into the local vernacular.
While not on the same level as the buses in western Anatolia, bus service into and throughout southeastern Anatolia is decent enough with services from major centres throughout the country. You'll find buses running between most major destinations daily (oftentimes more than once daily). In the very deep southeast around Sirnak, Beytussebap and Hakkari, dolmuş (shared van-taxis) and minibuses are far more common but do not run as frequently or on as tight a schedule.
Bus and minibus service is generally robust, although schedules are not closely adhered to and you may find yourself waiting an extra hour or two for that minibus that everyone has been promising will arrive soon. Private vehicles often serve as taxis but for fees that are higher than one would expect. Be ready to haggle. Hitchhiking is far easier than anywhere else in Turkey, with lift offers generally coming from the first vehicle passing by. It's pretty much safe, too, as long as you stick on the main roads at least. In the past, however, it's known that PKK have raided private traffic on roads in deeper southeastern Anatolia.
Many roads in the region is full of potholes and locals drive somewhat recklessly, even more so than the rest of the country, so be extra careful if you are the one who is driving actually.
The most likely entrance into the region, Gaziantep, for the most part a modern and large city, is home to a castle, a couple of (converted) Armenian cathedrals, and perhaps most importantly, the extensive collection of the Mosaic Museum, which hosts stunning mosaics excavated at the nearby site of Zeugma (we will get to that).
In the remote countryside near the Syrian border southwest of Gaziantep is the Yesemek sculpture workshop, an evocative hillside full of half-finished sculptures dating back to the Hittites, who formed the earliest kingdom in Anatolia in the Bronze Age. This was where many of the sculptures embellishing their kingdom, which once extended from almost the Black Sea coast to well into Syria, came from; with the collapse of the kingdom, the quarry was abandoned as were the sculptures, before they got a chance to be completed and moved to their final locations.
Roughly half-way between Gaziantep and Urfa and slightly off the modern highway is Zeugma, which was known for its pontoon bridge having the Silk Road cross the Euphrates in the Roman era. While much of the site has been drowned under the waters of the Birecik Dam, and most of the heritage removed to the Mosaic Museum of Gaziantep, the excavations are still going on, and it may be worthwhile to check out the site itself.
On the opposite rim of the dam lake lies the pretty old town of Halfeti, which is half submerged like its western neighbour, Zeugma — the lonely minaret rising from the water, with the adjoining mosque inundated, can be considered a symbol of the common ill fortune of many sites in the region, dominated by two of the major rivers of the Middle East. The picturesque town is notable for its historic buildings made of yellow stones common in the region, and boat tours to an outlying hilltop fortress over the dam lake are available.
East from there, Urfa is associated with Abrahamic myths, and its fully preserved old town has plenty of stone buildings, mosques, and a pond full of fish considered holy by the locals, all overlooked by a Roman-era castle.
In the northern outskirts of the city, the ongoing archaeological excavations at the hilltop temple of Göbeklitepe reveal numerous surprising findings about the religious history of the humankind. Dated to 9000 BCE, this is the earliest temple known to the date, and it was the nomads who built the place — its construction predates sedentarization of any human group. The reliefs all over the pillars arranged in a circular fashion might be the archetypes of the motifs of the succeeding belief systems all over the world, making here the source of the idea of "religion".
Harran lies south of Urfa. It was first established by the Assyrian Empire as a trade post, and had been a major centre of early Islamic learning; the ruins of a university dating back to that era still exists. Nowadays, it is rather a small village, and is known for its unique "beehive houses".
The desert lands east of Harran feature some amazing and truly off-the-beaten path attractions. The open-air temple of Soğmatar/Sumatar is in the village of Yağmurlu, dedicated to the Mesopotamian moon god Sin, who had a wide following in the region until the 4th century CE, when his cult gave way for the solar worship. Further on is the impressive ruins of Şuayip Şehri, an ancient Roman city, associated by the locals with Shuaib (Jethro in the Judeo-Christian tradition); he is believed to had spent time in a local underground cave.
Then comes beautiful Mardin, its twisting alleys lined by houses, mosques, and churches with highly elaborate stonework cascading from a mountainside with a breathtaking view of the endless Mesopotamian plains below, which extend beyond the border into Syria.
Not far from the town in the east is the Deyrulzafaran Monastery, which had been the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Church for centuries. The monastery is active and is open for visits.
North from Mardin, Midyat is another town with stunning stone architecture and is just as beautiful, if not more, although without Mardin's superb location on the side of a mountain.
Further north, Hasankeyf lies on a splendid setting on the Tigris, with its citadel high over the river. Once the capital of the Artukids, a medieval Turkish dynasty who founded a local kingdom in the region, Hasankeyf is considered to be the only one of its type in Turkey, being a preserved medieval town. Sadly, most of it will be lost under the waters of a dam lake soon, and some of its historic buildings have already been relocated to the new site of the town some distance away.
To the northwest, past the magnificent Malabadi Bridge also built by the Artukids, you will arrive at the city walls of Diyarbakır. The enclosed old city inside, although a little run down, is full of mosques, churches, coffehouses, and caravanserais made of local black basalt rocks.
West from Diyarbakır comes the Mount Nemrut, with its summit adorned by an almost uncountable number of colossal statues of ancient deities.
Kahramanmaraş west of the Mt Nemrut is mostly a modern city, although its historic core features a bazaar where traditional artisanship is still valued.
Half-way between Gaziantep and Urfa, the cliffs over the Euphrates in Birecik are one of the few refugees of the critically endangered northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita, Turkish: kelaynak), the range of which extended over much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in the previous centuries. Due to numerous reasons (hunting, loss of habitat, and pesticide pollution being the major culprits), less and less pairs returned from their annual migration down to Ethiopia through Arabia in the latter half of the 20th century (only a single pair managed back in 1990), so the colony in Birecik has since 1992 been kept in a semi-wild fashion, lest it go fully extinct — the birds are free for most of the year, but taken into captivity after the breeding season to prevent migration. Due to its conservation status, the species has served as one of the icons for the Turkish environmental movement since its early years.
The volcanic Mt. Karacadağ, between Diyarbakır and Urfa, is the only notable summit in the fairly flat plateau of Southeastern Anatolia. Its foothills are usually thought to be the site of domestication of wheat, the main staple of much of the world's population. In springs, the wild wheats still grow their ears there, which is also a popular wintering ground for the nomadic Kurds.
The Beyazsu (Turkish)/Avaspi (Kurdish, both meaning "white water") area, with its creek through a ravine lined by wooden balconies on stilts, a couple rapids and much greenery between Midyat and Nusaybin, is a weekend favourite of the locals for picnicking.
Lush cedar forests cover the high meadows over the Taurus Mountains surrounding Kahramanmaraş.
After all, the deeply bright yellow steppe of the Southeastern Anatolian plateau is a sight in itself, even if it is watched just as a blurry image on the other side of the windowpane when passing through.
Local cuisine is heavily dependent on meaty fare, with Gaziantep and Urfa being renowned nationwide for their local varieties of kebabs and be prepared to spices. Local poeple love to use many different spices on their meal.Vegetarians will have a tough time in the region and should prepare themselves for ransacking supermarkets for canned vegetable meals and eating lots of unsavory and unexciting pastry.
A local product not to be missed is pistachio, grown in the countryside surrounding Gaziantep and Siirt, in the southwest and northeast of the region respectively. While it is known as Antep fıstığı (i.e. "pistachio of Gaziantep") in Turkish, people of Siirt vehemently object to this name, and preferring to call it instead as Siirt fıstığı ("pistachio of Siirt") or with the local name bıttım, mostly unknown in the rest of the country. Gaziantep variety is smaller and tastier, but both are worth a try.
Tea ("chay"): it's everywhere. Be sure to add copious amounts of sugar to blend in with the local population. Anything less than three cubes just won't do.
Stay abreast of the news in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey before and during your visit to the region. The politics of the region is very fluid with the Turkish government threatening military intervention into northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) making raids on military outposts as well as attacking civilian targets like minibuses—though the situation is getting better and safer day by day. The Turkish military will sometimes declare security zones in the area, making civilian travel to the region impossible. It is often best to talk to fellow travelers in Istanbul, Ankara or, even better, Diyarbakir before making your way into the deep southeast. Don't trust the Istanbulites who will suggest that you won't live through any visit east of Ankara. A vast majority of them have never left Istanbul. A trip to southeastern Anatolia is very much feasible and, for the most part, safe. The deep southeast should be done with more caution, but it too is possible for the hardy traveler.
On some non-major routes, you may run into a few military checkpoints, though all you need to do is showing your passport (therefore keep it handy during rides, not buried deep in your backpack). Keeping a short list of cities on your itinerary in mind may save time in case of further questioning at checkpoints.
The arid climate in Southeastern Anatolia can quickly dry your skin, especially your hands, and especially if you have a sensitive skin and/or are normally living in a humid, coastal climate. So don't forget to pack along some kind of moisturizer if you intend to stay more than a few days in the region.
Being not accustomed to heavily spicy/hot food, in addition to the fact that some food are prepared in less than perfectly hygienic ways, may lead to stomach trouble in some travellers whilst in the region.
Don't: It's far too beautiful.
But if the travel bug keeps you from settling in a place for a prolonged period, heading west from Southeastern Anatolia, if you have not already arrived from that direction, will make you meet warm waters of Mediterranean, a totally different world. But if you rather prefer to chill than to sunbathe, then head north and east into the mountainous realm of Eastern Anatolia.
Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria are also nearby, but not advisable to visit because of ongoing wars. For the record, though, the border of Iraqi Kurdistan can be crossed via the Habur border gate near Silopi, southeast of Mardin and the Syrian border, which is to the south, can be crossed via a number of border gates south of Gaziantep, Urfa, and Mardin. As of September 2019, all border crossings with Syria are closed.
The "Deep Southeast"Edit
- Getting off the beathen path in the deep southeast — If militant activity is quiet, take the highway from Şırnak to Hakkari, with a detour north to Beytüşşebap. The highway skirts along the Habur River, the border between Turkey and Iraq, and affords spectacular views of the Kandil Mountains. A few minibuses run daily from Şırnak to Beytüşşebap. A morning dolmuş (shared van-taxi) runs daily from Beytüşşebap to Hakkari, where you can catch proper coaches for northern destinations.