South Eastern Türkiye
The best places to go when you visit the South East
In this region there are many things that make this part of the world a traveller’s paradise: a fascinating historical and architectural heritage, a rich past made of overlapping multiple civilizations and empires, a region not yet overrun by mass tourism, and a pleasant climate for most of the year.
It’s difficult to present a complete itinerary in a few lines, but some cities are must-sees, as is the case of Mardin, Midyat and Şanlıurfa, as well as other more remote, but of significant scientific, cultural or historical importance, such as Göbekli Tepe, the oldest temple in the world.
History of Southeast Anatolia
The two rivers in this region – the Euphrates and the Tigris – are at the very heart of our history. Not that of the birth of humankind, but that of early civilizations and first advances, such as the appearance of the first method of writing and the first known religions.
Some of the great civilizations of the History of Humanity grew here or came here. These overlapping levels of cultural, religious and ethnic influence created a complex mosaic with diverse peoples sharing the same region.
Assyrians, Hittites, Sumerians, and Babylonians preceded the Macedonians, Seleucids, and Romans. From the division of the Roman Empire came the Byzantine Empire. The Arabs eventually arrived at these places in the middle of the 7th century. The Crusaders also passed through here. There were invasions and fleeting raids, until the Ottomans conquered the whole region, passing on their heritage to modern Türkiye.
Nowadays the region is divided into nine provinces: Adıyaman, Batman, Diyarbakır, Gaziantep, Kilis, Mardin, Şanlıurfa, Siirt, and Şırnak.
Imagine a desert landscape but where there is lots of colour. The dark yellow of the soils, painted with the green of the grass that sprouts here and there, contrasts with the blue sky. We are in the Harran Valley, about 65 km southeast of Şanlıurfa and it’s here you’ll find the Bazda Caves.
The stones needed to build the ancient city of Harran were extracted from an open-air quarry here, usually filled with water, which created several caves caused by stone removal work.
The interior of the main cave, where there are now cement steps for easy access, is surprising. The geometric cuts that allowed Harran’s raw material to be removed created an almost cubist scene inside the cave. The space is big, more than ten metres high. Somewhere in one of the caves, they found inscriptions confirming what happened to the stones that were taken away by thousands of slaves.
The larger caves have two levels, branching out into an infinity of galleries. In one of the large chambers, there is an opening upwards, allowing you to see the sky with spectacular light effects.
Birecik is located halfway between Şanlıurfa and Gaziantep, 80 km from the first and 60 km from the latter. The city rises on the western bank of the Euphrates River, with some developments on the opposite side of that waterway.
Its name may come from “Birtho”, which means “hill” in Assyrian. There is no trace of such a hill nowadays, but the archaeologists suspect that the fact that only one of the twelve bastions that defended the castle exists could indicate the past existence of an elevation.
Visitors should pass through the old castle, walking along its walls, where the most picturesque part of the city is. Bird lovers come to Birecik to see the colony of the northern bald ibis, known here as Kelaynak. This species is almost extinct, but in Birecik you can easily spot them between February and July. There even used to be a shrine to them here built in 1972 by the Turkish authorities.
The ancient cemetery from the early Bronze Age is also a must-see, which was used for 500 years and where more than 300 tombs were excavated between 1997 and 1998.
Çimdin Castle is located on the outskirts of Viranşehir, which is about 100 km east of Şanlıurfa.
The fortress is almost 2,000 years old, having been occupied continuously by several civilizations, but is now at risk due to its advanced state of degradation.
It’s positioned on top of a hill and was built with blocks of limestone. On its walls, which reach four metres wide, two gates were opened, one to the east and one to the west. The whole castle is surrounded by a moat, five metres deep and five metres wide.
Dara is located 30 km southeast of Mardin, near the small village of Ögüz. Dara was founded in 505 and was an important Byzantine military base in the conflicts against the Sassanids.
Its construction was somewhat rash: Emperor Anastasius I took advantage of a distraction of the Persians, who were concentrating on the problems in their frontiers to the East, to erect the fortress, in a short time. As they say, “haste is the enemy of perfection,” and it didn’t take long until the poor quality of the initial construction revealed itself. Justinian ordered a profound work of renovation, which included the reconstruction of the walls, the reinforcement, and raising of the towers and the creation of a defensive moat. The fortified city was then called Iustiniana Nova.
Until the middle of the 7th century the city changed hands several times It was finally captured by the Arabs and gradually lost importance until it was eventually abandoned.
Nowadays it is in ruins, but some of the remains are well worth seeing such as: the huge water cistern, the theatre, the Agora, a church, and a bridge. In 1986 an archaeological excavation began, which lasted until recently, and which, among other things, uncovered a necropolis from the late 6th century.
To visit the ruins, you’ll need to arrange for private transport in Mardin, a good base for exploring this area.
Diyarbakır is a city with about one million inhabitants and with a long history.
The old town has most of the attractions for visitors. This area of the city stands out for its impressive black walls, built with basalt stone, with four main gates, one for each cardinal point.
There is plenty to see in this city: the Archaeology Museum, housed in a former prison, the Diyarbakır Grand Mosque, built in the 11th century, the oldest in Türkiye, the Armenian church of St. George, originally from the sixteenth century and recently restored, are just a few examples.
If you have the opportunity, especially if you know someone locally, go to Dengbêj Evi, the house where the ancient art of storytelling is preserved and where even today the elders gather to drink tea, sing and … tell stories.
The walled area of Diyarbakır has been listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO since 2015.
The village of Savaşan Köyü, as well as other villages in the district of Halfeti, was partially submerged by the waters of the Euphrates River in 1990. Not by a flood or any other natural phenomenon but due to the construction of the Birecik dam.
The village is now practically abandoned and has become famous for the iconic image of the minaret of the old mosque that rises from the dark waters of the river. The Euphrates now covers most of the houses, and you can walk through the few alleys that have remained above water level, seeing the houses, looking at the beautiful stone carvings that you can still see there.
The Euphrates River, as well as the neighbouring Tigris River, played an essential role in the development of the civilizations that started in Mesopotamia and marked the beginning of history.
Sumer, Assyria, Babylon gave way to Persia and to the different dynasties that ruled there. Probably none of this would have been possible without the fertilization of those lands that was caused (and still is) by these rivers.
With a length of 2800 km, the Euphrates is the longest river in Western Asia, crossing Iraq, Syria, and Türkiye, but its river basin extends to other countries, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.
On its banks are some of the oldest cities of the region and a traveller will surely come across its winding waters several times.
The river collects most of its water from rainfall and the defrost that happens at the end of each winter, reaching maximum flow in April and May. It rises in two places, both in Eastern Anatolia, and ends at the Persian Gulf in Shatt al-Arab, Iraq, after having merged with the Tigris.
With about one and a half million inhabitants, Gaziantep is a considerably sized city with a lot to see for travellers.
There are traces of human presence in the Gaziantep area that go back to 4000 BCE but the foundation of the city is linked to the kingdom of Yahmad, later controlled by the Hittites. Byzantium controlled Gaziantep for some time and the citadel and fortress of the city were restored by that time. Then came the Arabs, later came the Crusaders, then the Armenians and in 1516 it was conquered by the Ottomans.
One of the city’s greatest attractions is the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, which displays fabulous panels that were removed from that archaeological site before being flooded by the Birecik dam.
Bakırçılar Çarşısı (Bazaar) is another must-see, as is the 12th-century castle on top of a hill and the city’s many historic mosques.
If you have a sweet tooth, don’t miss the pistachio sweets. It’s true that you can find them all over Türkiye, but here the pistachio baklava alone is worth the trip.
Göbekli Tepe is a place of extraordinary scientific and cultural significance. Why? Because, apparently, it is the oldest temple built by humankind. Although it was referenced in 1963, it was only in 1994 that its real importance was revealed when the German archaeologist Klaus Schmidt began studying the site.
The huge stones laid out there, the earliest megaliths known to date, are about 11,000 years old, 6,000 years older than Stonehenge. The people who put them on that hill didn’t have any metal tools, nor had they even discovered pottery. Schmidt’s discoveries and subsequent study overshadow what was once the landmark that marked the beginning of human religion.
Göbekli Tepe, or “Potbelly Hill,” is about 10 km from Şanlıurfa. It was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2018.
Halfeti, founded in 855 BCE by King Assyrian Shalmanaser II, is located 102 km east of Gaziantep and was one of the villages affected by the Birecik dam and its reservoir. Unlike others, it was not submerged by the waters of the Euphrates, but part of the village didn’t escape submersion.
You can see the mosque on the edge of the new lake. If you look at the surface of the water, you will see the outlines of the houses that were submerged, an almost surreal sight.
Although these changes have transformed the area into a tourist attraction, there aren’t many accommodation options in Halfeti, mostly because the village is part of the “Cittaslow” movement that advocates a relaxed and leisurely urban culture.
Next to Halfeti there is a fortress – Rumkale – originally built by the Assyrians, and an abandoned, also semi-submerged village, Savaşan Köyü.
You can take a boat trip from Halfeti to Rumkale, where there is an interesting fortress on top of a hill, and up to Savaş.
To get to Halfeti from Gaziantep or Şanlıurfa, you’ll first have to take a shuttle to Birecik and then, from the market, another one to Halfeti.
Han el Ba’rur Caravanserai
This old Caravanserai – a historical complex that provided accommodation to merchants and travellers – is located about 70 km from Sanlurfa and can be visited on a combined tour to Harran. You’ll need a car to get there.
It is thought that this caravanserai was built here – on the road to Baghdad – in 1219 and was destroyed shortly after when the Mongols invaded and looted these places. It was later used as a stable by the locals, and never rebuilt.
The entrance was restored later, but the building’s rooms remain the same. Unlike other complexes of the same kind in Central Anatolia, it’s somewhat austere, with the arches of the windows being the only aesthetic highlight, which are thought by some to resemble Gothic architecture.
On the opposite side of the road, there are supplementary structures, namely a well and a cistern.
Harran has a population of just 10,000 people but, located on the road between Nineveh and Carchemish, it was an important city of Ancient times, being referenced in the Bible several times as being the place where Abraham and his tribe stayed for several years.
Nowadays its main attraction is the traditional houses, shaped like honeycombs, built according to techniques that date back 3,000 years. They’re made of adobe or clay bricks, offering excellent thermal insulation, keeping the house warm in winter and cool in the summer. They have a conical shape, with an opening at the top, designed to let out hot air when temperatures are high. In addition to that, they can withstand earthquakes, strong winds, and intense rains. And they are easily extended, functioning as units, in case the family grows.
But there are more must-see things in Harran. There are some old walls, and in its surroundings, there is a castle where three polygonal towers still exist. You can also see the ruins of a mosque destroyed by the Arabs when they arrived here.
Harran is located about 40 km south of Şanlıurfa.
The city of Mardin, capital of the province with the same name, is located near the border with Syria. It is divided into two parts: old Mardin, on top of a hill, and new Mardin, in the valley, resembling an urban suburb.
Its historical heritage is massive, being considered one of the oldest cities in the world in terms of buildings that have survived the ravishes of time. The streets of Mardin and especially its alleys are lined with mediaeval buildings that have retained their original form.
There are 22 mosques in total, most notably the Great Mosque, which stands on one of the highest points. It is possible to get to an altitude above the mosque for spectacular views of the minarets and domes. In the background is the plain that extends all the way to Syria.
There are also three beautiful madrasahs (a madrasah is an Islamic place of instruction or school) and you must at least visit the Zinciriye madrasah. The markets are another must-see in the city. Here you’ll experience a feast for the senses, with colourful vegetables and fruits on display, engulfed by the smell of fresh bread baked from the bakeries hiding in the arcades.
Midyat is located in the province of Mardin and has a population of about 60,000 people and a history that gets lost in the depths of time. It’s mentioned in Assyrian inscriptions in the 9th century BCE under the name Matiate and since that time was part of several empires and kingdoms having been ruled by Assyrians, Armenians, Medes, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and Ottomans.
Its historic centre seems like something out of the tales of the Arabian Nights. A world made up of alleys lined with old houses adorned with carved stone, fabulous bazaars and Muslim and Christian temples that you’ll come across at the most unexpected spots.
If you can, visit the monastery of Mor Abrahom Hobel, near the historic centre, but be aware that it may be closed.
Mount Nemrut has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987. It’s famous for the sculptures found at its summit, created by the Kingdom of Commagene, a political unit that was built on the fallen empire of Alexander the Great.
This kingdom lasted only for 200 years and was later incorporated into the Roman Empire. But for as long as it existed, it was well-known for its necropolis and tombs. It’s actually the final resting place of King Antiochus I and it’s his memorial that we find at the top of Nemrut Dağı.
The statues are between eight and nine metres tall, and there are representations of the monarch, lions, eagles, and various Greek, Armenian and Median deities. Originally the statues were in a seated position, but at one point in time they were vandalized, their heads were removed and left scattered in the places where see them today.
There are also bas-reliefs and, of course, the mausoleum that some suppose must be the tomb of the king decorated in the same style of the sculptures. But not all archaeologists are convinced that we have yet found the king’s tomb.
This city of 80,000 people is located in the province of Mardin. There are traces of human presence here that date back to 3000 BCE, but the first historical reference to the area dates from 901 BCE.
Multiple civilizations controlled the city over time, often changing hands continuously, as was the case of the time when Romans and Parthians fought for the control of the region.
If you travel here, look for the church of St. Jacob, dedicated to the beatified bishop of Nusaybin who died there in 350.
Not far from Nusaybin is the monastery of Der Mor Evgin, built before 363 and showing similarities with the monastery of Sumela. The Syriacs call it “the second Jerusalem,” and it was the first complex of its kind in the region.
Rumkale is the name of an ancient fortress, built on top of a hill above where the Euphrates River meets its Merzimem tributary, 50 km west of Şanlıurfa.
The place has biblical associations, and it may have been here that the apostle John lived and wrote the holy book of the Christians.
The fortress shows influences of Greek and Roman military architecture, with later mediaeval additions. In addition to the military structures, you can see a mosque, the church of S. Nerses and the monastery of Barşavma, all well-preserved.
Rumkale was closed to tourists for some time, apparently for renovation and restoration work, and has just recently reopened. There are plans serious investment, including incentives for private funding, to make it a serious tourism attraction.
Şanlıurfa is one of the great cities of this Turkish region with about two million people. It’s common for people to refer to it as just Urfa. The first part of the name means “glorious” and was given in 1984 to honour the city’s resistance to the invading forces during the so-called War of Independence, which followed the First World War.
Because of its rich heritage and the numerous points of interest in the region you must visit, it’s best to stay in Urfa for at least four days.
One of its most iconic sites is the “Pool of Abraham,” where according to the legend Nimrod had Abraham burned in a fire, but God turned the fire into water and the coals into fishes, which now live as sacred symbols in the lake.
The Dergah complex is a must-see: it’s a landscaped space which includes the impressive and clearly Ottoman Mevlid-i Halil mosque, and the Hasan Padişah mosque, as well as a cave where, according to local tradition, Abraham was born. Further up is the castle of the city.
The Urfa Museum is recent, having opened in 2016, it was designed with the most modern principles and techniques of museology. It’s a space dedicated to the history and ethnography of the region, with a beautiful collection of archaeological artefacts and a series of fascinating life-size dioramas.
If you visited Mardin and liked it, you should come to Savur. Imagine a Mardin smaller in scale and without the tourist crowds.
Most of Savur’s houses date back to the 19th century, and just as in Mardin, at the top of the hill around which the village grew, stands a fortress. The best way to visit is to simply get lost and wander off the main street and into the alleys. It won’t be difficult to return to the centre of Savur whenever you want.
But if you’d rather have some points of reference look for the Ancient Mosque. In fact it is a converted Syrian church, and climb up to the fortress from there for an overview of the city. And if you want to spend the night in Savur, look for Hacı Abdullah Bey Konağı house. You will be accommodated in style whilst feeling like that you have travelled back in time to the Ottoman era.
Be sure to visit Dereiçi, 7 km to the east. This village, inhabited by Christian Syrians, has two restored churches that are worth a visit.
Sumatar Harbesi is now an abandoned settlement, located about 60 km southwest of Şanlıurfa. Shepherds began settling here to collect water.
There are a series of ruins and tombs, as well as an artificial hill some 50 metres high, around which seven temples were built, with underground entrances. These temples are dedicated to the gods of the Moon and the Sun and five other planets, Saturn (Anu), Jupiter (Enlil), Mars, Venus (Ianna / Ishtar) and Mercury. Syriac inscriptions dating to the 2nd and 3rd centuries were found here, which refer to the God of the Gods, which is understood as a reference to the divinity Sin, the god of the Moon. The scientific community believes that Sumatar, in addition to being a necropolis, was also an astronomical observatory.
Since 2012 there’s been an archaeological excavation on site, which discovered 120 tombs, dating from the beginning of the Bronze Age, that is, 5,000 years ago. Excavations are continuing, with some recently discovered tombs and something amazing: artefacts that are clearly toys for children, something that wasn’t believed to have existed at the time.
Some of the structural remains of Sumatar seem to correspond to a fortification, and there’s an underground temple called the Pognon’s cave, with inscriptions in Syriac and various bas-reliefs on the walls.
Not far from Harran, in the province of Şanlıurfa, lies the ancient city of Şuayip, an archaeological site dating back to Roman times, composed of a series of ruined structures known as the Ephesus of the Southwest.
In fact, there’s not much left of the old Roman city: some structures, walls, arches. In the centre of the city, there’s a high number of tombs, carved into the rock.
Yesemek Quarry and Sculpture Workshop
This place is like an open-air museum and, located in the province of Gaziantep, and it used to be a Hittite quarry. With its 100,000 square metres, it’s the largest area of extraction and stonework known from Ancient Times in the Middle East.
The site was discovered by the Austrian archaeologist Felix von Luschan when in 1890 he was excavating at Zincirli. In the late 1960s, a team of Turkish archaeologists resumed work, which uncovered 200 sculptures.
There was, in fact, a sculpture workshop, established by the Hittite king Suppiluliuma I, who ruled between 1344 and 1322 BCE. With the fall of the Hittite Empire, the works stopped, to be resumed later, in the same place, in the Aramaic era. With the arrival of the Assyrians, it stopped again, this time forever.
Several types of sculpture were found, the most frequent in the form of a sphinx, with the figures presenting a woman’s head and lion’s body. There are also statues of divinities and bas-reliefs depicting various scenes. All these are carved from basalt.
The Yesemek Quarry and Sculpture Workshop are on the tentative list to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Zeugma was founded in 300 BCE by Seleucus I Nicator, one of the generals of Alexander the Great. Its named after a bridge that connected the two banks of the Euphrates and Zeugma means “bridge” or “passage” in ancient Greek.
In 256 BCE Zeugma was conquered by the Romans, and the transition to the Kingdom of Byzantium was natural. In 256 the king Sassanid Shapur I destroyed the city, which for a long time did not recover from the damages suffered and indeed never returned to the level of prosperity that it had had previously.
The attacks of the Arabs led to the abandonment of the city. The site was later inhabited, but in a disconnected way from the old Zeugma.
Like several other places of historical importance located in the region, Zeugma was partially submerged due to the creation of a dam and its reservoir. It’s estimated that 25% of the area of the city is currently under the waters of the Euphrates.
The magnificent Mosaic Museum of Zeugma, in the city of Gaziantep, was created with elements removed from the site before it was underwater.
Anyway, there’s still much to explore and to be excavated by archaeologists who continue to work on Zeugma.