Still sleepy from a long bus ride that had deposited me at Amasya’s bus station late the previous night, I stumbled upstairs to the breakfast room at my small guesthouse in search of the day’s first cup of coffee. But I hardly needed the caffeine to get me on my way – the view out my window was plenty of a jolt. Just outside the room I was confronted with sheer cliffs towering over a lazy river and dappled with the arched entryways to 2000-year-old rock-cut tombs. It was another world.
Far from Turkey’s popular coastlines, the veins of history run deep through the country’s Anatolian heartland. This is a lesser-visited part of the country, but it makes a fascinating trek nonetheless. My 700-kilometre trip by bus and minibus yielded stunning surprises at every turn, showing once again that Turkey is so rich in landscapes and culture that a traveller can essentially throw a dart at a map of the country and be amply rewarded by what they find along the way.
Gaziantep and Halfeti
My serendipitous adventure began with a one-way plane ticket to Gaziantep, where I was attending a wedding. The southeastern city, famous for its spicy kebabs and flaky, buttery baklava, can reach searing temperatures in the summer. Fortunately, the sprawling markets of the city’s historic centre, in the shadow of its hilltop citadel, are largely covered by canopies to shade shoppers, and there are plenty of coffee houses inside traditional-style homes, whose thick stone walls keep their interiors naturally cool.
There’s no more decadent morning fuel than Gaziantep’s favourite breakfast: katmer, a warm folded square of filo pastry stuffed with clotted cream and finely ground pistachios, the area’s most celebrated agricultural product (they’re distributed worldwide). Waddling through the market with a belly full of katmer, I snapped endless photos of brightly coloured dried aubergines and red peppers, strung garland-like and hanging above equally vivid mounds of dried herbs and spices. I followed the clanking of tools on metal to workshops where craftsmen hammered delicate designs into broad copper plates, and sipped on menengiç kahvesi, a nutty hot drink made from the fruit of what locals call the ‘wild pistachio’ tree, roasted and cooked with the same method used to prepare a cup of Turkish coffee.
For a break from the city, I joined a day-trip tour to Halfeti, where a hired boat took us out onto a vast lake created by the construction of the Birecik Dam on the Euphrates River. Surrounded by a stark and craggy landscape, we motored past Rumkale, an ancient fortress now marooned in the middle of the reservoir, and melancholy abandoned villages where the water lapped up against the foundations of the empty houses and encircled the minaret of a submerged mosque. Spectacularly detailed Roman floor mosaics found in the area and saved from the floodwaters by salvage excavations are now on display in Gaziantep’s Zeugma Mosaic Museum
Relaxing over an evening meal — mushroom kebab, içli köfte (the Turkish version of kibbeh) and yuvarlama, a yoghurty stew studded with chickpeas, bits of tender lamb and tiny balls of bulghur — in one of Gaziantep’s verdant parks, I pondered my next destination. Ready for a change from the mid-summer heat, I traced my finger along some possible routes to more northern climes and higher elevations, then went off to buy a bus ticket to Malatya.
Though the number of regional airports around Turkey has multiplied rapidly in recent years, the country is still crisscrossed by an extensive network of buses, with dozens of local and nationwide companies competing for passengers. Last-minute tickets are generally available, with no surcharge for procrastination, and the long-haul coaches are more comfortable than economy-class flights, with reclining seats, an attendant serving snacks and beverages and periodic breaks at well-equipped rest stops humming with activity. Shorter trips are often made by minibus, either in air-conditioned comfort or bumpy intimacy with one’s fellow riders. Knowing some Turkish certainly helps when planning this kind of travel, but foreign faces are a rare enough sight on intercity buses to typically draw sufficient solicitous assistance to overcome language barriers.
I peered out into Malatya’s quiet, darkened streets as my bus pulled into town, but the streets were bustling the next day. Leafy and prosperous-seeming, Turkey’s apricot-growing capitol packs its central streets with casual eateries, cafes and shops. A security guard at the archaeological museum let out a ‘Maşallah!’ (‘praise be’) when he learned that this blonde visitor spoke Turkish, then brought me a Turkish coffee in a delicate ceramic cup while I browsed the displays of urns and amulets, swords and stone tablets, the museum’s quiet halls all to myself.
Some historic ruins are scattered around nearby Battalgazi, also known as Eski (Old) Malatya, but the few foreign travellers who venture to this part of Turkey generally come for one reason – to visit the Unesco-listed summit of Nemrut Dağı, which is topped by ancient statues and a 5-metre funerary mound.
The road out of Malatya winds steeply up into the mountains. Their bare, arid slopes are scattered with clusters of trees and tiny villages – a few homes, and perhaps a little mosque. Our small tour group stopped for lunch at a village with a humble roadside restaurant that was serving up a couple of pre-prepared stews and a vat of fresh ayran (a salty yoghurt drink) infused, unusually, with hot green pepper. Most tours visit Nemrut Dağı for the sunset or sunrise, but I’d chosen an overnight trip that included simple accommodations near the top and the opportunity to see the mountain’s mysterious monuments in both the early-evening and dawn light.
Most of our group decided to walk the remaining half-hour up rocky paths from the hotel after our late-afternoon arrival. Even this short hike made it stunning to contemplate the astounding effort it must have taken to erect the ancient wonders found at the summit. They were created in the first century BC upon orders of the Hellenistic king Antiochus (who reigned over a kingdom north of Syria and the Euphrates called ‘Commagene’), and a long-ago earthquake is thought to have toppled the statue’s massive heads from their seated bodies. This allows visitors the unique experience of to gaze into their stone visages as they stand atop the mountain’s wind-whipped summit.
After descending back to Malatya the next day with the tour group, I headed off on my own to the bus station, where I was told that the bus I’d planned to take to the city of Sivas was totally full. But the man at the ticket office called around to the other bus companies until he found one with space to spare, gesturing emphatically as he bellowed into the phone, ‘There’s a foreigner here who needs a seat!’
While transiting in Sivas, a municipal bus driver brushed off my attempts to pay in cash when I boarded without a local transit card, letting me ride for free. I then got ushered into the front seat of the minibus to Divriği for the three-hour ride to my second remote Unesco site of this trip. The grand stone doorways of Divriği’s Ulu Cami and Darüşşifası, a 13th-century mosque and mental hospital complex, are so intricately carved you could stare at them for hours, tracing the web of calligraphy, flowers, stars and other geometric patterns.
The mosque’s muezzin invited me to sit and have tea and simit (a sesame-seed-coated bread ring that’s a popular snack all over Turkey), then showed me where water was made to flow through the interior of the hospital so its gentle sound could help soothe troubled minds.
The ride to Sivas and on to Amasya was a long one, but well worth it for that glorious view that greeted me over breakfast. Built along two sides of a river below the tomb-filled cliff face, Amasya has an outsized number of historic attractions for a small town. Inside the 15th-century Sultan Beyazıt II Cami, a university student explained in fluent English how the pillars near the mosque’s mihrab can be rotated to see if the building is still structurally stable after an earthquake. If they don’t spin smoothly, something is out of alignment.)
After lingering for a little while in the mosque complex’s tree-filled courtyard, I headed up into the hills on the south side of town in search of a panoramic view, which I found on the deck of a small white mosque clinging to the hillside, where the energetic imam pointed out some of the town’s sights. Amasya’s small museum boasts some gorgeously carved wooden doors (as well as an eerie collection of mummies). The white-walled, red-roofed Ottoman houses dangling over the north banks of the Yeşilırmak River make a picturesque backdrop for the walk up to the tombs of the Pontic kings. It was hard to tear away from the stunning views from the steep paths connecting the tombs, but I had a bus to catch back to Istanbul.
As I drifted in and out of sleep in my seat, I imagined all the buses on all the roads around the country. All full of slumbering travellers, all bound for the big city after their holidays in the countryside, the luggage holds full of boxes of Amasya apples and Malatya apricots and Gaziantep pistachios for a lingering taste of their families’ heartland homes.