Journey to the Centre of the Onion

A Vırtue of Necessity

We were half way across Lake Van when we saw Mount Ararat looming out of the mist… but wait, I’m getting ahead of myself. For two summers my son and I had wanted to go home to Canada to see our friends and family and particularly my ailing mother. Unfortunately, due to the strict travel restrictions imposed by the Canadian government in response to the Covid 19 pandemic, we decided to make virtue out of necessity by spending our previous summer holiday and the current one exploring the ancient wonders of Turkey. Highlights of 2020 had included visiting the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus in Bodrum and the Lycian rock tombs of Dalyan and Fethiye, paragliding off Baba Dağ in Ölüdeniz, and wrapping up our trip in the amazingly well preserved ampitheatre of Aspendos near Antalya. This year we set out to the east of Turkey, ancient Mesopaotamia in the north of the Fertile Crescent, to complete our fabulous bucket list of places we most wanted to see in this vast and fascinating country. I had visited Israel and Egypt in my youth and presumed then that I had reached the core of the onion, the place where it had all begun. Little did I realize that the story of civilization had begun much earlier, right here in Turkey where I’ve spent the last 27 years of my life.

Our Itinerary

Our aim was to tour the highlights of Mesopotamian Civilization in Eastern Turkey. First though, we wanted to go to Trabzon on the North-Eastern shore of the Black Sea to visit Sumela Monastery (36 AD), an imposing structure carved high on a sheer cliffside of Karadağ, (Black Mountain). Then it was an 11-hour bus ride to the city of Van to climb the almost 3000-yr-old fortress originally constructed by the Urartian Empire and visit the 1700-yr-old Cathedral of the Holy Cross on Aghtamr Island in Lake Van.   How can I describe the spiritual impact of staring across the lake to Mount Ararat? Yes, the famed mountain from the bible, where Noah’s Arc was supposed to have come to rest after the flood. Next it was a further 6-hour ride to Diyarbakır to visit the city’s historic centre, it’s Grand Mosque (Ulu Cami), and to climb the famed city wall, which is the second longest (and most well-preserved ancient wall) after the Great Wall of China. After that the rides got shorter: a mere hour and a half to get to Mardin and a further 3 hours to get to Şanlıurfa. Mardin is known for the architecture of its famed antique city perched upon the area’s highest hilltop and carved out of the limestone so common to the area. From there we took a tour around the region, visiting ancient monasteries and madrassas, the ruins of Dara (505 AD) and the city of Midyat, whose buildings were similar in style to those of the more famous Mardin. After a long day of travel, what a delight it was to plunge into the cool waters of Beyazsu, a small river that serves as a virtual oasis for the dry mountainous area. It emerges from an underground source and stretches all the way to Syria, about 40 km away.

Saving the Best for Last

We had planned our trip so that we would visit Şanlıurfa last and use it as a base to visit the ancient sites of Göbeklitepe and Mount Nemrut. Şanlıurfa itself was a real surprise though, with several beautiful parks, an enormous 2nd century BCE castle overlooking the old town, and one of the most impressive museums of antiquity in Turkey. The devout are attracted to Balıklıgöl, where King Nimrod is believed to have had the Prophet Abraham cast into a fire. According to legend, Abraham was raptured up to heaven and the fire became the long rectangular pool, while the logs became the large and hungry carp which fill it. It’s a pleasant and aesthetically designed site which attracts tens of thousands of devout and regular tourists each year.

The Highlights of Our Trip

When I began planning this trip, there were two sites that were at the top of my list of places to see: Göbeklitepe and Mt. Nemrut. Göbeklitepe has become justifiably famous over the past several years for the fact that it has provided evidence which has overturned historical orthodoxy concerning the development of civilization. It had previously been believed that humans didn’t develop religions until after plants and animals had been domesticated and settled communities had been established. However, at 11,500-yrs-old, the monuments at Göbeklitepe were carved during the Pre-¹Neolithic Age when humans were still nomadic hunter gatherers. In other words, first came religion and then came cities. I was overwhelmed by the fact that the earliest humans were concerned with the same existential questions that mystify us today: Why am I here? What does it all mean? Where are we heading? Mind blown? Oh yeah!

And Mt. Nemrut? Who hasn’t heard of those monumental heads with their impassive faces, staring out from the highest peak in the Eastern Taurus mountain range over a barren rocky moonscape? We had to get up at 2:30 AM to join a tour that delivered us to the base of the final ascent to the mountain top. From there we climbed a steep path for about 20 minutes to reach the summit in order to watch the sunrise. Then we explored the antique stone carvings depicting King Antiochis (circa 62 BCE) surrounded by the gods Hercules, Zeus, and Apollo, as well as various ancestors, 2 lions and 2 eagles. It certainly was worth the wait and made me marvel at all the empires that have risen and fallen since the first humans clambered out of their caves and began the long climb to civilization.  I wonder now if our own modern world will survive much longer and whether some day in the distant future, our cockroach-evolved descendants won’t be turning over the detritus of our cities, wondering who we were and why we perished.


Michael Wray

Hi, My name's Michael. I'm a writer/illustrator working as a primary ESL teacher in Istanbul. I love art, music, literature, and traveling.

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