7 June 2011: Arrival in Istanbul

Our first day in Istanbul we had free time to explore the colourful area around our hotel, the Sirkeci Konak Hotel. We walked around the area as the location offers the Hagia Sophia and the Basilica Cistern within 300 metres, the Blue Mosque 350 metres and the Topkapi 400 metres away. On Wednesday we enjoyed one of the free cultural experiences offered by this charming hotel, a guided walking tour of the Fatih area of Istanbul including a tram ride, a visit to the former Greek quarter and a return ride on the ferry from where walked back to our hotel. What a lovely idea and makes this hotel so distinctive.

9 June 2011: Istanbul / Adana / Antioch

Today was the start of our driving holiday. Our driving party consisted of four people, us and our wonderful Turkish friends who had organised the itinerary. This morning we took an early morning flight to Adana (TK2458 at 08:30). When we arrived we picked up our rental car from AVIS, a very comfortable 4 wheel drive vehicle suitable for 4 people with luggage. And here we started a fantastic driving holiday in eastern Turkey. Some of this followed the route of the Footsteps of St Paul, for example we drove to Tarsus to visit the dwelling which used to be in the courtyard of the house where St. Paul was born. We returned to Adana for a wander in the old city. Then it was on to Antioch an ancient city believed to have been founded in 300BC. In the 7th century it was one of five patriarchal centres of the Christian Church alongside Rome, Alexandra, Jerusalem and Constantinople. In Antioch, now called Hatay, we spent quite some time in the Museum of Archeology also known as the Mosaic Museum. Hatay Museum is the second largest Mosaic Museum in Turkey and the collection of Roman mosaics both floor and wall mosaics is truly breathtaking. We spent the night at Hotel Liwan a cute boutique hotel in a renovated Ottoman building.

10 June 2011: Antioch / Gaziantep

Above the city is a cave known as the Grotto of St Peter or the Church of St Peter and is believed to be the place where the Apostle Peter preached when he visited Antioch, and where the name “Christian” was first used to describe believers. This is a designated place of pilgrimage by the papacy and is a revered Christian site. Then it was back on the road for the long drive to Gaziantep where we spent the night at the Anadolu Evleri Hotel. Gaziantep, the biggest city in southeastern Turkey, and the sixth biggest in Turkey, is one of the first settlements of Anatolia.


11 June 2011: Gaziantep / Adiyaman

Our hotel had great charm as each room has its original ceiling, flooring, wood panels, colored windows and even water wells, and therefore a character of its own. Breakfast takes place in the stone courtyard which links each of the four ‘Anatolian Houses’, each older than 100 years and located in the heart of the Old City After a morning walk through the old city of Gaziantep we set off for the new Zeugma Museum to see the largest and best collection of mosaics in Turkey, mostly saved before flooding due to dam construction. Having been blown away by the mosaics in Hatay already it is hard to imagine an even more impressive collection. However when we got there the brand new museum was closed awaiting an “official opening”. The security guards were deaf to the pleas of a coach load of tourists who have arrived in Gaziantep only to see the museum, but it is definitely a no and we have to make do with buying a book of pictures of the mosaics.

Disappointed at missing what promises to be a most fabulous museum our next stop was at Birecik to see some of 300 “Bald Ibis” birds living in a nature sanctuary there. The Bald Ibis, Kelaynak in Turkish, is a large black bird with a featherless head and neck and a long curved red beak. This a threatened species and these birds are almost extinct. In Turkey for example it can be seen only in the Birecik district of Sanliurfa. In Birecik they are successfully trying to save and populate these birds in captivity. Our next drive is down a winding road to see the enormous Birecik Dam. The road leads to Halfeti, a small farming district on the east bank of the river Euphrates in Sanliurfa Province in Turkey. Most of the villages were submerged in the 1990s by the dam on the Euphrates. The new town is now complete, the old one can be partially seen on a boat trip to discover the village under the water of Euphrates. But first our friend negotiates with one of the boat owners waiting for tourists to take us to a fish restaurant near the submerged former mosque. Sitting on a rocking pontoon in the open our lunch consists of an excellent mezze followed by grilled fish. A sudden downpour forces us to finish our meal under cover but does not detract from our enjoyment. Then onto our little boat covered in Turkish rugs to explore the dam. Finally we retraced our drive along the winding road back to the excellent highway and drove on to Adiyaman to spend the night at the Bozdogan Hotel, an impersonal modest high rise with a pool, which makes an adequate stop for tackling Mt Nemrut the following morning. Our dinner was included and was, as most Turkish meals are, quite delicious.

12 June 2011: Adiyaman / Nemrut / Urfa

We left Adiyaman at 3.30am for the drive to Mt Nemrut and dawn was breaking when we arrived at the parking lot for the climb. Before the actual sunrise we walked in the biting cold and wind for about 30 minutes slowed down by the altitude and cold. When we arrive at the summit we saw revealed the breathtaking statues of the gods of the Commagene civilization. King Antiochus I built this tomb sanctuary on the peak in 62 BC, and surrounded it with 24- to 30-foot statues of animals and Greek gods. The heads, now detached thanks to earthquakes and possible defacement, appear to be sentinels guarding the king’s tomb which has never been excavated. An enterprising local is selling hot tea on top of the mountain which we consume gratefully while the rising sun appears turning the mountain top and its statues a deep gold. Although very remote this experience is definitely a highlight of the tour in eastern Turkey with the statues as impressive as anything we have seen in Egypt. At about 8.00am we left – fortunately the path down the mountain was a little easier and the drive back to the hotel took about an hour once we reached the main road. After breakfast and a rest we departed in the late morning for the drive to Urfa, also known as Sanliurfa. It has had many names through the centuries including the former name Edessa as it was called prior to Turkish rule. Along the way to Urfa we had great views of the mighty Ataturk Dam. The old town is romantic and pretty with pleasant gardens filled with mosques venerating the alleged birthplace of Abraham in a cave by the lake, and the pools of holy carp. There is a bazaar with a middle eastern character and traditionally dressed Turks and Kurds and people of Arab descent. In the late afternoon we drove down a peaceful agricultural road from Urfa to Harran known for its mud-brick “beehive” like dwellings. First as were so close we drove to the Syrian border crossing, however despite daily news reports about fleeing Syrian refugees we could see nothing. The beehives closely resemble the “trulli” found in Puglia in Italy. After an amazing day we spent a night at El Ruha Hotel in Urfa.


13 June 2011: Urfa / Mardin

Our first stop this morning was to drive to Gobeklitepe (pronounced Go-beckly Tepp-ay) about 15 kilometres (6 miles) from Urfa believed by some to be the most important archeological site in the world. The site of Gobekli Tepe is simple consisting of oblong stones, or T-shaped megaliths arising from the sand carved with animal figures including lions, birds and snakes. Imagine carved and slender versions of the stones of Avebury or Stonehenge. The site, which is now regarded as the oldest temple or man made place of worship in the world, has caused great excitement, and National Geographic comments that “We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization.” The site is variously dated as anything from 10,000 to 11,600 years old.

From here we took the long straight road to Mardin, known for its golden stone houses as well as the Monastery of Darulzafeyran and Medresa of Kasimiye. The road in some parts ran directly alongside the Syrian border yet the peaceful agricultural landscape on the Turkish side gave no hint as to the horrors being carried out on the other side of the border. We spent the night at the Artuklu Kervansarayi Hotel which was quite pleasant in another restored Ottoman house. Mardin has a rambling bazaar which we had a wander through but most people come to visit the Saffron Monastery (Deyrul Zafaran), 6 km (4 miles) to the east. This was a holy place even in pre-Christian times. The monastery has been here since 495 AD and some of its existing floor mosaics are 1500 years old. This was a beautiful and tranquil place where were escorted by a young guide who gave explanations in English. Deyrul Zafaran was once the seat of the Assyrian patriarch (who now resides in Damascus. Church services are still chanted in Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke.

14 June 2011: Mardin / Hasankeyf / Diyarbakir

Mardin is perched at the edge of a plateau in southeastern Turkey overlooking the Mesopotamian plain 95 km (59 miles) south of Diyarbakir.However we did not take the direct route on on D950 but the long circle route via Midyat and Hasankeyf. Midyat is a small town in southeastern Turkey, just an hour’s drive from better-known Mardin. The steeples of nine Syrian Orthodox churches peep up above the houses, although services are no longer held in most of them. 20 km (12.5 miles) to the east is Mor Gabriel the oldest surviving Syrian Orthodox monastery in the world where church services are still held in Aramaic, the language of Jesus. The monastery was founded in 397 AD. Continuing our road trip we push on to Hasankeyf an ancient city by the Tigris River which will be completely lost beneath the water of the new dam planned for this site. This dam is quite controversial and has been the centre of international campaigns to stop construction. Climb up the hill to see the caves where people lived until recently. We covered a lot of territory on this day, 59 kilometres from Mardin to Midyat, then 39 kilometres to Hasankeyf, and another 117 kilometres to Diyabakir. Quite tired by the end of the day we spent the night at the Dedeman Hotel, one of the Dedeman chain in Turkey.

15, 16, 17 June 2011: Diyarbakir / Antalya

This morning we returned our car and took a taxi to the airport. We flew to Istanbul and then to Antalya but this proved to have been unnecessary as there were direct flights from Diyarbakir to Antalya. Then it was off to Antalya for three nights of leisure staying in the old town (the Kaleici) in a gorgeous renovated Ottoman house called Tuvana Hotel. With a divine fine dining restaurant located in the romantic courtyard (we ate there twice) and beautifully decorated albeit small rooms we had a wonderful time in Antalya exploring the bazaar, the splendid museum and the local trams. We also enjoyed the small pool at the Tuvana although not the beach which was very uninspiring by Australian standards.

After one night at the end we left Istanbul full of overwhelming impressions of Turkey. How much cleaner and more prosperous everything is looking than when we first visited many years ago. Above all we were impressed by the huge investment in infrastructure which has clearly taken place. The roads overall were excellent with many fine highways taking the strain out of driving and where they were not excellent almost all the roads were in the process of being upgraded. A fabulous experience.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

The author of this article is the Managing Director and Owner of www.webcarhire.com, one of the largest independent car hire brokers on the web offering car hire in 4000 locations across 52 countries.