Mon­u­men­tal change

Arche­o­log­i­cal finds are putting north­east Turkey on the tourist map

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holidays For Seniors -

ONa dusty Me­sopotamian hill­top, site of the world’s most spec­tac­u­lar dig, arche­ol­o­gists are scur­ry­ing about with cam­eras, sketch­books and trow­els. I’m among a small crowd of on­look­ers, pinch­ing my­self at the phe­nom­e­non that is Gobekli Tepe. That th­ese com­pellingly beau­ti­ful stone obelisks have been dated to 9000BC — more than twice the age, then, of the pyra­mids or Stone­henge — ex­plains why we vis­i­tors should have ex­pected some­thing in the way of tick­ets and queues.

Ex­cept that south­east Turkey has long strug­gled to po­si­tion it­self in the tourism main­stream. And so we in­stead find our­selves at leisure to wan­der the wooden walk­ways that have been raised across this par­tially ex­ca­vated pit and to marvel at the cir­cu­lar ar­range­ments of huge T-shaped stones exquisitely carved with foxes, birds, boars and snakes, or with highly stylised hu­man at­tributes, in­clud­ing belts, loin­cloths and limbs.

We’re even able to quiz the ap­proach­able arche­ol­o­gists on th­ese mys­te­ri­ous struc­tures. ‘‘This se­ries of sanc­tu­ar­ies is the old­est known mon­u­men­tal ar­chi­tec­ture,’’ ex­ca­va­tion leader Klaus Sch­midt tells me. The con­clu­sion that the hunter-gath­er­ers of Up­per Me­sopotamia — Turkey be­tween the Euphrates and Ti­gris rivers — were build­ing mon­u­ments such as Gobekli Tepe be­fore even gath­er­ing in the ear­li­est per­ma­nent set­tle­ments has done noth­ing less than rewrite hu­man pre­his­tory.

It’s an ex­cep­tional cul­tural ad­di­tion to a re­gion that un­til re­cently boasted a sole stand-out at­trac­tion in the form, as it hap­pens, of an­other spec­tac­u­lar hill­top mon­u­ment — the vast stone heads in hon­our of Ro­man-era King An­ti­ochus on nearby Nem­rut Dagi.

Per­cep­tions of sep­a­ratist un­rest and a dearth of fa­cil­i­ties meant the cities of Gaziantep and San­li­urfa barely fea­tured on travel itin­er­ar­ies. Just two years ago, the arche­ol­o­gists at Gobekli Tepe tell us, days would pass with­out a sin­gle vis­i­tor. Now that word is out, how­ever, the cul­tur­ally cu­ri­ous are build­ing en­tire Turk­ish itin­er­ar­ies around a visit to th­ese ‘‘game-chang­ing’’ stones.

With foun­da­tions al­ready in place for a pro­tec­tive canopy, a nearby vis­i­tor cen­tre and ticket of­fice, it can’t be long be­fore Gobekli Tepe is con­sid­ered as un­miss­able as those come-lately mon­u­ments in Egypt’s Nile Val­ley and on Eng­land’s Sal­is­bury Plain.

Nor is this a re­gion solely about spec­tac­u­lar hill­tops. In re­cent years, its ap­peal has been fur­ther boosted by other ma­jor dis­cov­er­ies, such as the mo­saics at Ro­man Zeugma, rescued from the ris­ing wa­ters of the dammed Euphrates be­fore be­ing in­stalled in the mag­nif­i­cent new mu­seum at Antep (lo­cals don’t bother with the Gazi pre­fix) in 2011.

With the open­ing of a num­ber of de­light­ful bou­tique ho­tels in both Antep and Urfa (again, no pre­fix), plus the at­mo­spheric and culi­nary de­lights of their an­cient quar­ters, it’s per­haps no sur­prise the re­gion’s prox­im­ity both to Turkey’s febrile bor­der with war-torn Syria and to ad­ja­cent ar­eas of Kur­dish un­rest is do­ing lit­tle to dampen in­ter­est among in­trepid trav­ellers.

Cer­tainly, the car bomb that ex­ploded in Antep in Au­gust 2012 has not de­terred many vis­i­tors to this be­guil­ing city. West­ern tourists, rare in much of east­ern Turkey, prove plen­ti­ful in the fa­mous restau­rants and pas­try shops of Ana­to­lia’s gourmet cap­i­tal, and in the high-walled al­leys of old quar­ters such as Bey Ma­hallesi, where squat ma­trons busily hull piles of red pep­pers be­neath door­ways with Ara­bic-lan­guage plaques boast­ing of own­ers that have made the pil­grim­age to Mecca.

In grimy ate­liers, cop­per work­ers ham­mer pat­terns into dec­o­ra­tive plat­ters and sparks fly from the spin­ning stones of the knife sharp­en­ers. Across the city, ma­sons are at work restor­ing the city’s rich her­itage of his­toric hans (ar­ti­san ar­cades) and mosques.

But it is a brand-new com­plex on the edge of town that con­firms the ex­tent of Antep’s am­bi­tions. The Zeugma Mu­seum, a world-class col­lec­tion of Ro­man mo­saics, is a stun­ningly de­signed en­sem­ble of light and space. Zeugma’s sec­ond-cen­tury mo­saics, both floor pieces and the beds of in­door pools, are spec­tac­u­larly rich in geo­met­ric pat­tern and mytho­log­i­cal de­tail. They may be viewed from a range of per­spec­tives, in­clud­ing raised walk­ways and mez­za­nines, and are dis­played among other ob­jects re­trieved from the nearby site such as fres­coes, foun­tains, col­umns and stat­ues.

It’s a col­lec­tion fur­ther en­hanced by a ready ac­knowl­edge­ment of the se­rial thefts suf­fered at Zeugma, with pro­jected im­ages fill­ing in for the mo­saic sec­tions il­lic­itly lifted dur­ing ex­ca­va­tion. A low-lit labyrinthine cor­ri­dor leads to the sig­na­ture mo­saic, the so-called Gypsy Girl, whom ex­perts have more ac­cu­rately iden­ti­fied as a Dionysian Mae­nad — a party an­i­mal, in mod­ern par­lance.

Next morn­ing I get to see where all the devel­op­ment money is coming from. Bekir, my guide, drives me east through rolling pis­ta­chio or­chards to­wards the Euphrates. A se­ries of ir­ri­ga­tion canals carry the wa­ters of the dammed river to the plain, trans­form­ing th­ese arid dust­lands into fer­tile fields of maize and cot­ton. We pass through Kur­dish up­lands to the half-drowned town of Halfeti where the few towns­folk who re­main now of­fer nos­tal­gia-tinged boat trips over their sub­merged homes

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