In the winter of 2020 I was looking for a place to go. As it was a hard year to travel, with lockdowns and all, I had a search on Youtube along some travel vloggers. I came across Drew Binsky, who had just been in Diyarbakir. This city, in Southeastern Turkey, is a Kurdish-majority city packed with history. After all, as I was to find out, this place has been inhabited since the Stone Age. The name Mesopotamia must ring a bell, essentially it's this region all the way into Iraq. As Turkey was in full lockdown in this time, it was a rather challenging trip to make. At the time, tourists could enjoy free travel around Turkey, but there was a lockdown in place for the people living there. In particular, there was a weekend lockdown, where only tourists were excempt. I had Istanbul all for myself on the Saturday and Sunday I was there, and it was an apocalyptic feeling to be walking the streets of such a metropolis alone.
A bit about the logistics - I traveled by bus to Istanbul, from Sofia, where I lived at the time. I'd spend a couple of days in Istanbul to relax, and then take a flight with Pegasus Airlines to Diyarbakir. As Istanbul has a main airport and a secondary airport, Sabiha Gökçen International Airport, I recommend checking your connections carefully. Either way, Sabiha Gökçen serves many destinations within Turkey and international airlines with mostly cheaper flights. I got to the airport, had some dinner, and waited for my flight. I was surprised how crowded the airport was, and how many internal destinations were served. I had never flown with Pegasus, but was impressed with both the price of the tickets, the timeliness, the quick boarding, the service, and the new airplane. It felt like taking a bus within the country, and the plane was absolutely packed. It pleasantly surprised me how this airline served a good mobility within Turkey.
As I arrived in Diyarbakir from Istanbul, I was immediately surprised by how big the city actually is, and how modern it feels. Granted, the center is very historical, but around, the city grew significantly. Matter of fact, the metropolitan area is approaching the number of two million residents! I had no reservation for a hotel, so got off the airport bus and walked to the Asuris Butik Hotel. A random shot, and a good one! There was quite the language barrier, but with some Turkish, some English, and some Translate, we made a deal. About five nights for a hundred Euros, or something in that range. Including breakfast. I got a wonderful room with a large double bed. As the restaurants were officially closed for lockdown, for 3 Euros I could get dinner served in my room. It was locally cooked specialties, rich of taste and quite varied of what we'd normally consider Turkish quisine.
Exploring the city
It was an introvert's paradise. Although the lockdown did a big hit on Turkey and its tourism, I didn't mind being sort of 'restricted', it felt as if I could take it easier and not look for a different restaurant each night. I didn't have the feeling I was 'missing out', it made me able to catch my breath a bit more. So I spent the evenings in the hotel, and the days exploring. One day at breakfast, there was loud cracking all around. The lamps started shaking. I thought the noise came from the TV. Before I realized it was an earthquake, it was already over. The staff didn't panick, but made sure nobody was in the elevator. I caught my breath and took the staircase from that point onwards. Earthquakes are quite common in Turkey and have more than once roughed up the country, with disastrous results.
In either case, I spent a few days exploring Diyarbakir. Its Great Mosque is the fifth holiest site in Islam, after the Great Mosque of Damascus. In fact, it is even stylised after the Damascus mosque. Indeed it is a sacred site, which is best admired in complete quiet. The inside is a place of serenity and peace. Outside is the bustling market, where salesmen sell leather belts, excellent haircuts cost just a couple of Euros, and hot tea is served around the clock. But there was no tourist to be seen. A local market, for local people. It must be noted that, unfortunately, large parts of the old town (named Sur) were destroyed by heavy fighting in and around 2015. Much of the old town was wiped off the map, and the visible wounds are still very much visible in modern-day Diyarbakir. It seems the city is recovering slowly, but the world heritage is never to be recovered. Within the city walls, reconstruction is ongoing.
Taking long walks was my favourite pastime in Diyarbakir. One day, I walked outside the city walls, on a long trail by the Tigris river. It was fascinating, as some of the old Mesopotamian techniques for agriculture are still in use, such as constructing terraces on hills to grow crops on steep land. I was invited by a few friendly guys celebrating a birthday, and I was served all the food I could handle. We couldn't understand anything we were saying, but the people were incredibly friendly. I can urge anyone to visit Diyarbakir - keep in mind until now I've only written about the city. I've made several day trips, about which I'll write below. Do not forget to watch the vlogs of this trip, which I also linked up.
The area of Diyarbakir, and the whole of Turkey actually, is packed with history. But in particular the Southeast is well known for its ancient remains. Most people know about Göbekli Tepe, from the neolithic era, or Mount Nemrut, with its large statues of heads. These are impressive places visited by many tourists yearly. But although those places are some of the highlights, there's far more. In general, Diyarbakir is not that popular of a destination. Not only among foreigners. Also Turks don't visit often. Turks from the West of the country, or from let's say the urban areas, would still often frown at you or express surprise if you mention you'll visit Diyarbakir. But if only everyone knew the treasures of the Diyarbakir area, the area would be extremely popular among tourists, historians and archaeologists alike. Perhaps it's better that, for now at least, it remains a secret.
One of those places is Hasankeyf. An area on the Tigris river, which has now been largely overflown with water after the instalment of dams. It is a shame that the historical monuments are now partly underwater. However, a part of those monuments has been replaced to the modern-day Hasankeyf village. Such as the Tomb of Zeynel Bey. Just besides that, is the modern town center of Hasankeyf, where you find some pleasant cafés, restaurants and even a hotel. What remains to be visited is the Hasankeyf Kalesi, the fortress that has been under the rule of about ten empires. From the port, the Hasankeyf Limani, you can take guided tours to the fortress by boat. You'll need to cross the Tigris basin and there's no way you could do this on your own. The guide will explain plenty about the history of the place and the current developments.
In order to get to Hasankeyf from Diyarbakir, you'll most likely pass through Batman. Also for buses, this is the connecting hub. I took a minibus to Batman and just switched buses there. Even if I didn't directly find a connecting bus to Hasankeyf, I asked around and was guided to the right bus, which was parked a bit outside the bus station. It wasn't necessarily clear how to transfer to Hasankeyf, but relying on people to show you the way is easy. They are all very helpful even if you just mention the name of your destination and don't speak any further Turkish.