Archeological finds are putting northeast Turkey on the tourist map
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