As Middle Eastern events continue to appall us and ISIS creeps even closer to a country many of us know (Turkey), I’ve been looking more closely at the map. Kobane, the latest town to be targeted by those sinister, deadly forces, sits right on the border of Syria and Turkey, only about 40km from the burgeoning town of Sanliurfa (originally Urfa) and some extraordinary archaeological wonders.
This is on the edge of Turkey’s Kurdish territory, wedged between the mighty Euphrates river (above) and Iran, much further to the east. Six years ago I travelled along that entire border area, knocked out by the rich and vast breadth of history – from ancient Hittites to the Romans, who suddenly seemed quite contemporary in relative terms. The Turkish government had recently finished damming the Euphrates, in the process flooding precious Roman villas (though some mosaics were saved by archaeologists in extremis) and thus controlling the water flow into Syria and Iraq. One positive factor was that it helped irrigate Kurdish land – keep them quiet? more control?
Here I am, surveying the Euphrates, and below that is a flooded village, with minaret still visible, though no muezzin.
Even then, in 2008, it was a huge source of contention as although the Euphrates starts in Turkey’s Taurus mountains, international conventions maintain that the water should be shared with the neighbouring countries through which it flows. Logical enough. Northern Syria, encompassing Aleppo which I wrote about here, is in Raqqa province – currently under ISIS control. Any Euphrates water shortage obviously has a huge impact on the local population – already suffering and dieing at the hands of ISIS and of Syrian government forces. You wonder how the knot will ever unravel. More millions of refugees?
Rewind to Turkey, the point of this blog post being to underline the fantastic historical and cultural value of this little known region – as well as the persecution of the impoverished Kurdish population (villages wiped out, massacres which we never hear about). For decades their separatist movement, the PKK, literally gunned for recognition and independence, finally laying down arms in 2000, only to resume the conflict in 2004.
With Iraqi and Iranian Kurds also involved, clashes escalated, bringing fatalities on both sides. Another ceasefire, more insurgency, accusations of chemical weapons (at the hands of Erdogan’s Turkish government), assassinations .… it seems endless. In fact today the whole region is one gigantic can of political and ethnic worms. And Turkey’s reluctance to defend its border could easily be put down to its uneasy relationship with the Kurds.
So, what might we be losing? Well apart from untold misery for the local population, there is the beauty of the Euphrates and its fertile plain, said to be where settled agriculture first began. It is also home to the magnificent town of Urfa, where half a million inhabitants have a tangible history zooming back to the 4th c BC – even longer in places like Harran, a short drive away, with its incredible tapestry of Assyrian, Babylonian and, much later, Ayyubid history. Above are the ruins of its 12th c university, once a centre of learning which played a major role in the Islamic empire from Asia to Spain.
Some say that Urfa is the birthplace of the prophet Abraham, and I visited the gloomy cave where he is said to have bawled his way into this world (behind the arches above), while Armenians believe their alphabet was invented there. Anyway, the main sight today is Abraham’s pool of sacred fish inside the courtyard of a 13th century mosque (below). Rather touchingly, local schoolkids on a school trip were dressing up as their ancestors complete with keffiyehs – I hope they’re safe today.
A few kilometres outside town I explored a neolithic site said to be of the world’s oldest temple – Gobekli Tepe – dating from the 10th millennium BCE. Yes! Quite a stretch in time, although with today’s barbary going on just to the south, it’s as if nothing has advanced. History is accelerating – frighteningly.
Read my more light-hearted 2008 blog about the regional food here