Fine, yellow dust has turned the world to sepia. It was blowing in from northern Syria, one of the frequent storms that blanket the rubble of Harran, once a magnificent university and famous Islamic palace. Now only crumbling walls remain as Harran, a town mentioned as far back as the Old Testament, loses its battle with time.
Here in the land between the legendary Euphrates and Tigris rivers, modern civilization was born in a region known as Mesopotamia. It is in this region, together with Iraq, and parts of Syria and Iran, where the great biblical empires were born, ruled and conquered. I see a flat, dry terrain baking in the 40 C summer heat as my plane descends into the Anatolian town of Adiyaman. On the tarmac, the wind feels like a nuclear-powered hair dryer blowing down my neck.
In town, men sit on low, wooden stools in open courtyards, sipping small glasses of sweetened tea. Their thick mustaches, flat berets and traditional grey loose pants have changed little in centuries. Kurds sell nuts and fruits from their carts, and everywhere I walk people ask, “Hello, where you from?” with the sincere hospitality famous throughout Turkey. Television sets and the mouse ears of white satellite dishes attached to concrete apartments bring one back to the present. The call to prayer echoes under the shadow of a 14th-century minaret. It will be an early night for tomorrow I depart at 2 a.m. to join the gods for sunrise.
Discovered by a German geologist in 1881, the statues that face the sunrise and sunset atop Mount Nemrut are a little-known historical wonder. After a two-hour early morning drive, I arrive at the parking lot of Nemrut eager for a short 500-metre hike up to the Eastern Terrace. A refreshingly cool wind blows, the dark night sky slowly brightening into the violet of dawn. For domestic tourists, witnessing the sunrise atop Mount Nemrut is marketed and enjoyed as an emotional experience in itself. Turks are used to seeing wonderful historical ruins. For the rest of us, it’s goosebumps on goosebumps.
I stroll up the stone path beneath the early morning stars, slipping silently under the cover of light. Above me is a 55-metre pyramid of crushed limestone, painstakingly assembled by soldiers and slaves to honour and entomb King Antiochus I, a Commagene ruler in the century before Christ was born. To join the gods of his faith – Zeus, Apollo, Fortuna, Hercules – Antiochus had giant statues built on either side of the pyramid, adding a statue of himself. Not only would he be an equal, but the sun would forever rise and set beneath their feet. Today, scarred and cracked by age, these statues remain, the heads knocked off but still positioned to face the sunrise. The first golden ray strikes Zeus, and the king of Greek gods sparkles in the light, as he has done for millennia. Within 15 minutes, the Turks, having enjoyed their sunrise, had departed for breakfast. I am the sole tourist left to enjoy the history.
After a quick breakfast, gazing upon the mountains of northern Syria in the distance, I walk around the tumult of limestone to the Western Terrace, where the pantheon of gods have been replicated, although heads here have weathered better over the ages. In eight hours, they’ll watch the sunset beneath their feet. I hike up a nearby rock and take it all in. Empires, wars, earthquakes and tourists – they come and go, but the heads of Olympus will always follow the sun.
From Adiyaman, I drive to our next stop of Diyarbakir. A black-basalt, five-and-a-half-kilometre city wall surrounds the old town, dating back to the Byzantines. It is the longest ancient wall after the Great Wall of China. In the distance, the river Tigris flows, a fertile patch of crops forming a crescent of green against the rocky, sandy desert. Diyarbakir is a Kurdish city, and there is a sense of control here as authorities keep a check on the PKK Kurdish underground movement. But Kurds and Turks for the most part are peaceful neighbours, demonstrated affably by our Turkish guide Sherif, and our Kurdish driver Orhan.
After spending a night in Mardin, with its narrow alleys plush with spice and natural soaps, I drive onto Sanilurfa, also known as the historical city of Urfa, the City of Prophets. In Urfa, Muslims believe Abraham, the founding father of monotheism, was born in a cave. Womena dn men enter this holy birthplace from separate entrances, removing their shoes, lining up to enter and drink from a sacred well. Considering Abraham is reputed to have lived to 175 years old, there might be something to the legendary health benefits of this water. The cave itself is small and damp, a sheet of glass blocking its inner sanctum. A lone cheap plastic cup sits above two taps (with motion sensor controls). I think about how many people must have taken a sip from this cup, and then I think about living to 175. I swallow the waters.
Outside, people are feeding fat carp swimming in Baliklagol, or the Lake of Sacred Fish. It’s a holy destination for Turks, and it’s illegal to harm the fish in any way. I buy a bag of crumbs and join in the frenzy, the fish thrashing near a 13th-century mosque. Later, replenishing myself on sweet Turkish tea, I gaze into the layers of Urfa’s history, recognizing empires the way geologists might recognize eras in sedimentary rock. Up above, the remains of a 1st-century AD castle, with two pillars dating back even further. A 6th-century church tower to the right, a 13th-century mosque on the left, and another 17th-century mosque closer to the front courtesy the Ottomans. And the cave, of course, where the prophet was supposedly born more than 4,000 years ago. A giant Turkish flag rolls with the wind in the middle, just the latest empire to dominate this region.
A 40-km drive away, dusty Harran is now famous for its scattered straw and mud beehive dwellings, once among the most famous towns in the civilized world. This is where Rebecca drew water from the well for Jacob, where Roman armies were squashed in battle, where a pagan people known as the Sabians existed until the 11th century. Although the beehive houses are repaired every year, they date back over 250 years.
I pick up a chunk of rock and am surprised to see a blue colour on the other side. Rinsed with water, it is clearly ceramic. The shard of an ancient pot? While archaeological teams continue their investigations behind fenced off areas, in eastern Turkey, it is still possible to literally tread upon relics of the past.