There are cities that we think about when we think of Turkey: Istanbul, Ankara (the capital), and Cappadoccia (famous for its unique landscape and hundreds of hot air balloons) are three that come to mind quite easily. Sanliurfa and Mardin are cities that you have likely never heard of. That’s exactly why you need to go there — now.
In May, we were lucky enough to be invited to Turkish Airlines’ first US Blogger Summit (see disclosure statement here). With 30 other travel bloggers, we explored both famous and hidden areas of Turkey on possibly the most amazing sponsored trip I’ve ever been on. We sampled Turkish Airlines’ in-flight cuisine in a room designed to look like an airplane, took imaginary trips to Cairo in a flight simulator, were slathered in bubbles in a Turkish bath and tried 16th century Ottoman cuisine at Asitane in Istanbul.
Yet one of the highlights of the trip was when real white rabbits revealed our secret destinations to us — small-group excursions to different areas of Turkey that we hadn’t known before. I was selected to travel to Sanliurfa and Mardin, two historic towns on the southeastern border. The towns raised eyebrows among some bloggers, known for their proximity to Syria.
I was crazy excited.
Visiting these two towns was like nothing I had ever experienced. We had entered holy land, a geographic area of significant religious importance in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. Even walking through the streets, you could feel how truly special of a place it was.
If you are lucky enough to find yourself in Turkey’s southeast, here are a few things you’ll need to do:
Cruise down the Euphrates River to the sunken town of Halfeti.
Halfeti is a partially submerged fortified town on the banks of the Euphrates. It was besieged by the Mameluks in 1280, who destroyed the surrounding Christian villages but were unable to break through to the fortress. Ten years later, they finally succeeded, and renamed the town Kal’at-ul Muslimin.
People lived in this ancient town for hundreds of years, growing peanuts and black roses on the riverbanks. The town was flooded in 1999 in order to widen the river and the remains of the town still stand today. You can cruise right up to them, the most chilling aspect being the tall minaret jutting out of the water as if in defiance of the flooding that tried to stifle it.
Riverboats are available for rental that you can take down the Euphrates. You will see some of the most beautiful blue water you’ve ever seen. You also will be quieted by the centuries of history that have passed before you. The river itself is sacred, and many believe that the first pages of the Bible were written in this place.
Frolic through a field of poppies.
There is one thing you will find while driving through the quiet highways of southeastern Turkey that you likely haven’t seen in many places: fields and fields of bright red poppies.
A fellow blogger was smart to spot them while we drove from one town to another. He begged our driver to stop and we owe him for the precious memory. In the middle of the day, with a full agenda and a long ride ahead, we stopped to dance and play in fields and fields of poppies. And yes, of course I couldn’t help myself from squealing “poppppies, poppppppies!!” in my most “witchly” voice possible.
If you find yourself in a situation like this, don’t pass it up. It’s one of the most beautiful things you will ever see in your life.
Feed fish at Balikli Gol (the Fish Pool).
Balikli Gol, located in the center of Sanliurfa, has a fascinating history. The pool was believed to be a place where Nimrod threw Abraham (known as Ibrahim in Islam) into a pile of fire. Yet the moment Ibrahim landed, Allah turned the fire into water and the logs into fish.
Now the space is a popular pilgrimage site for Muslims and Christians alike. It is also next to a beautiful and popular town garden where neighbors meet up for Turkish coffee and old men sit on benches to feed their baby goats (not joking). You can also purchase fish food to feed the fish, which is fantastic.
Dance the night away at a Sira Gecesi (Sira Night) at Türkmen Konağı Hotel.
One of the most special events that you can attend in Sanliurfa is a Sira night. These are large gatherings of people that come together for special occasions to eat and make music together with traditional instruments. There is lots of laughter, and incredibly loud singing and dancing.
We were lucky to attend a special Sira night at the Türkmen Konağı hotel. The hotel owner, a joyous man with kind eyes, invited us into his special restaurant. The restaurant is a cavernous space underground that used to house camels. Inside, you sit on the floor on pillows. The idea is that you sit close to the table for dinner, and when you are finished you sit back and relax on the pillows to digest.
For dinner, we feasted on kebab, delicious yogurt soup, and a spicy gazpacho-like tomato soup. Afterward, we were delighted with a pistachio and honey dessert that melted straight down our throats.
One thing we didn’t have is wine. As Sanliurfa (lovingly referred to as “Urfa”) is a holy town with a heavy Muslim population, alcohol of any kind is forbidden there. Yet the lack of wine that evening almost made the experience even more special — it made us all sharply aware of the truly unique religious history we had been invited to witness.
Later in the evening, a chef came by to show us a very special dish, an incredibly spicy ground lamb dish called köfte. The chef takes a large steel bowl and kneads handfuls of ground lamb over and over. He adds plates full of spices and vegetables, and kneads the lamb for nearly half an hour.
The lamb is said to cook with the combined heat of the spices and his hands. He sweats profusely as he cooks, and the hotel owner laughs and wipes his forehead. A few of us are invited to help knead the meat, but our hands must be covered, as it is believed that the chef’s skin helps add his own unique flavor to the meat.
The spicy meat burned our throats, but it was delicious, and we sang and danced the night away.
Gaze at 12,000 years of history at Göbekli Tepe.
If you haven’t been amazed by hand-cooked meat, river cruises down the Euphrates, frolicks through fields of poppies and fires turned to pools of water, you will certainly be astounded by Göbekli Tepe.
Göbekli Tepe, on the way from Sanliurfa and Mardin, is a recently discovered archaeological site on top of a mountain ridge. The site is understood to be from 12,000 years ago, created in 10,000 BC (11,600 BC to be exact). If this is the case, it will be one of the oldest sites ever discovered.
The site itself is magnificent. It is still being uncovered, and slowly. Yet if you look closely, you can see the most brilliant carvings — of ducks, boars, even people’s faces. It is believed that the area may have been a religious site and speaks volumes to the physical abilities of our ancestors — not only in creating art, but in hauling stones the length of houses in order to create a structure of religious importance (this site is thousands – thousands! – of years older than Stonehenge).
In southeastern Turkey, religion is truly everywhere.
Walk through the ancient streets of Mardin.
Mardin is a town known for its coppersmith bazaar and excellent silver studios. In a free moment, we were left to wander through the town and marvel at its beauty.
The town, constructed on a mountainside, was full of poetry — tiny ancient doors, old walkways with stray animals, scarved women sweeping their floors, children kicking soccer balls in open expanses of earth. When we felt quiet, we went to a local outdoor cafe and ordered cups of strong Turkish tea and watched as people chatted the afternoon away.
It’s easy to overlook towns like Sanliurfa and Mardin when Turkey has so many other more famous areas to visit. Yet there was little that felt more special than getting a real taste of Turkish culture outside of the crowds of tourists. Here, we were part of regular Turkish life, and woven into the patchwork of thousands of years of history.
Being able to add ourselves to the story was more than a press trip. It was sacred.
I truly love your piece but the part on alcohol being “strictly forbidden” in Sanliurfa isn’t true and unfairly adds to the idea among Westerners that Turkey is a backward, intolerant nation of angry ‘Muslims’ who want to impose their beliefs even on tourists. Mardin (one of my favorite places in the world) is furthermore actually famous for its wine, lovingly prepared by its Assyrian population for as long as anyone can remember. Sanliurfa definitely is the most conservative place in Turkey and most authentic non-Western restaurants won’t serve alcohol but I promise there are bars there like Cafe Antik with live music and tasteful Jimmy Hendrix posters everywhere!
Many places in Urfa and Mardin serve alcohol. We visited last fall (2018) and, while we were not there to drink–and seldom do–we saw wine on quite a few menus.