Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Rihla (Journey 45): DİYARBAKIR, Turkey – In the Company of Gentlemen, Thieves and Watermelons.

Rihla (The Journey) – was the short title of a 14th Century (1355 CE) book written in Fez by the Islamic legal scholar Ibn Jazayy al-Kalbi of Granada who recorded and then transcribed the dictated travelogue of the Tangerian, Ibn Battuta. The book’s full title was A Gift to Those who Contemplate the Wonders of Cities and the Marvels of Travelling and somehow the title of Ibn Jazayy's book captures the ethos of many of the city and country journeys I have been lucky to take in past years.

This rihla is about the ancient city of Diyarbakır.

There is an exciting exhibition due to commence on the 11th July 2014 in the Chester Beatty Library, in Dublin entitled Chester Beatty’s A to Z: from Amulet to Zodiac. It is a curated exhibition of widely diverse but little known and seldom exhibited items from the huge Chester Beatty collection.

Beatty was a voracious traveller, and by this I mean that wherever he travelled he was on the lookout to add to his diverse but very important collection. One of the planned exhibits is a pamphlet entitled,

A new and large discourse of the travels of sir Anthony Sherley anight, by sea, and over land, to the Persian Empire. Wherein many straunge and wonderfull accidents: and also, the description and conditions of those countries and people he passed by: with his returne into Christendome.

The pamphlet was printed by Valentine Simmes for Felix Norton in London in 1601 and was,

Written by William Parry, Gentleman, who accompanied Sir Anthony in his travels.

Parry was part of Sir Anthony Sherley’s group of Elizabethan adventurers, dispatched by the Earl of Essex in 1598 to help the Duke of Ferrara in a dispute with the Pope only to find on arrival in Italy their services to be redundant due to the fact that the Duke had submitted to the Papal authority. Rather than return to London the adventurers went onwards, having concocted up a plan to establish diplomatic and trade links with the Shah of Persia, and borrowing money and credit along the way to enable this purpose.

On their return to London in 1601 William Parry rushed into print his account of the journey but in an introductory harangue against ‘home-bred vulgars’ who dismissed many travellers accounts as tall-tales wrote,

And as sure I am that many honest and true Travellers, for speaking the truth of their own knowledge (for in the world are many incomprehensible miracles of Nature) yet, because it exceeds the belief of the inexperienced and home-bred vulgars, they are by them concluded liers for their labours.

William Parry was not the only early 17th century traveller to suffer this dismissive fate, and it was to happen to a lesser or greater extent to a far more important ‘gentleman’ traveller, this time from the Ottoman Empire: Evliya Çelebi (1611- c.1685), author of a famous ten-book (five volumes) work, the Seyahatname, The Book of Travels.

Çelebi is the Turkish word for ‘gentleman’ – almost akin in application to hidalgo in Spanish influenced countries or Esquire in Anglo-Saxon usage – and thought to be a derivative of the Greek work kurios or kyrios: master.

Snowdrift clearance on road to Mt. Nemrud

These thoughts came to mind as I waited in my car beside the small ramshackle café-office that controlled the ferry river crossing on the Route 360 between Adiyaman and Siverek in April 2012. I had descended from the peaks of Nemrut Dag where snow-drifts had made access to the mountain-top temple complex impossible to the dry, intense heat of the river valley. 

The Ferry from Hutkoy to Firat Iskelesi across the Euphrates (Firat)

My slight irritation with chaotic queuing evaporated when I took in the scene before me of the lazy snow-fed brown-green waters meandering by. This was the Euphrates, the Akkadian Purattu, the Turkish Firat; one of the great rivers of the world and one of the arteries of western civilisation’s evolution. Kurdish families and tobacco traders with their vans piled high waited rushed to embark, sharing ice cream and excited chatter. 

Looking North along the Euphrates from Firat Iskelesi

I thought of these fellow passengers and the peoples who had crossed and re-crossed the great geographically defining river over the millennia; in pleasure or pursuit, in fear or in harmony: Neanderthal and sapiens, hunter gathers and pastoralists, Hurrians and Akkadians, Assyrians and Hittites, Uratians and Medes, Macedonians and Romans, Achaemenids and Selucids, Sassanids and Pathians, Bedouin and Kurd, Mongols, Tartars and il-Khans, Armenians, Georgians and Turkomen, Byzantine and Seljuk, Ottomans and Safavids, Sunni and Shia, Nestorian and Uniate, Crusader and Jihadist, traveller and trader.

Terrain of the route from Mt. Nemrud to Diyarbakir

Road Route from Mt Nemrud to Diyarbakir

Leaving this Irish traveller for one moment I want to return to Evliya Çelebi:

“Let it be known to you all, that the bearer of this present letter 
from our humble self, Evliya Çelebi by name, is an honourable, 
and a man of peace. He has the desire and inclination to 
be a world-traveller and to investigate places, cities, and the 
races of men, having no evil intention in his heart to do injury 
to or harm anyone.”

Letter of introduction from the Oecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul 
for the traveller Evliya Çelebi, circ.1667
Evliya Çelebi, was born in Istanbul in 1611. Known initially as Mehmed Zilli he was the son of the chief Ottoman court goldsmith and a relative of the later Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire, Melek Ahmed Pasha. Educated in the Palace schools he became an accomplished linguist, musician, a reciter of the Koran from memory, and acknowledged wit and raconteur. In his early 20s he was ensnared by the desire to travel, to observe and to describe the places and peoples of his world. Most of the journeys had some official function either for the army or as a diplomat but all involved diversions to try and satisfy his insatiable curiosity. Finally retiring from those travels in 1672 after a pilgrimage to Mecca and an exploration of the upper Nile he settled in Cairo and began to write his enormous description of those travels.

After his death Çelebi’s Seyahatname remained in the private library of Ozbek Bey, the Emir ul-Hac for Egypt until sent as a present in 1742 to the great bibliophile, Kizlar Agasi Haci Besir Aga, the ruler in all but name of the Ottoman Empire under Sultan Mahmud I between 1730 and 1746. Early translations of small parts of the entire work and its very unconventional style seemed to confirm the ‘home-bred vulgar’ suspicion that the Seyahatname was an entertaining fairy-tale, due in part to some of Çelebi’s ‘artistic’ exaggerations, but analysis by succeeding generations of scholars highlighting the amount of detail recorded and transmitted in regard to folk-memory, languages, buildings, administrative practices, and peoples has proven the Seyahatname to be the supreme source for Ottoman historical research.

Between April and May 1655 Evliya Çelebi stopped off in Diyarbakır, while journeying with his relative Melek Ahmed to Van, where Ahmed had been appointed governor and that was where I was also heading, 357 years later, once safely across the Euphrates.

Arriving from the Siverek road I booked into my hotel located near the northern gate, Dag Kapi (Mountain Gate) of the old city. In a scene reminiscent of Belfast in the early 80s I then had to dodge around police cordons and huge water cannon mounted armoured trucks to pass between the bastions of Dag Kapi before turning left to enter the old sixteen bastioned, four entrance gated citadel on the north-east corner.

Ruins of Roman building NE corner of Diyarbakir Citadel, overlooking the 
Secret Gate, Ogrun Kapi from Citadel to River Tigris below.

In the small tourist office I met by chance the very friendly manager of the restoration team. In my ignorance I cannot remember his name but he was a true gentleman so I will remember him as Çelebi, or Çel for short. Çel personally conducted me on a tour of the site, dodging the goats, including the beautifully restored St George’s Church, the old jail and the Artukanian palace in our perambulation. Afterwards he organised for tea to be brought and warned me in my travels in Diyarbakır not to wander too late into the Hasirli quarter of the city: ‘thieves live there’, he said. I burst out laughing, and Çel wondered why.

I told him that on the plane to Konya where I had started this particular journey to Diyarbakır I had told my next seat passenger, an off-duty Turkish Airlines pilot accompanying his elderly mother home from a visit to the city for medical treatment, that I was heading east. He said I should avoid the east because of the ‘Kurdish problem.’ Too many ‘thieves and scoundrels live there,’ he emphasised. Later still on the trip, while wandering around the ancient site of Harran with a local schoolteacher I also told him that I was heading further east. He told I should go wherever I want but to avoid Diyarbakır. ‘Too many thieves live there,’ he had grunted. I then said to Çel that now I finally made it to Diyarbakır he was now saying to me, like the pilot and the schoolteacher before, that the city was entirely safe except for the Hasrili quarter because of ‘thieves’. I’d bet, I said to him, that if I did wander deep into the Hasrili quarter some helpful local would then tell me the quarter is entirely safe…. except for one street or one particular house because ‘thieves’ lived there. Çel smiled and nodded, yet shrugged his shoulders in a resigned fashion before heading back to his office.

William Parry, the so-called "Gentleman" who had travelled in this part of the world in 1601 wrote with stereotypical ethnic ridicule,

“…we had six days’ journey to pass (ere we should enter the confines of Persia) through the Courdes’ (Kurds) country, which is by interpretation the thieves country. The people whereof are altogether addicted to thieving, not much unlike the wild Irish…”

I knew the Kurds and the ‘wild’ Irish would have a real affinity! However despite a real inclination to meet the mythical Ali Baba and his henchmen who had spawned such rumours that permeated across the centuries and the country I never did wander deep into the warren of high walled but very narrow streets that made up the Hasrili quarter. Only to say it is the only quarter in the city where the surrounding and enclosing basalt medieval walls have been torn down and not repaired!
On Gözlü bridge (c.1065) over the Tigris (Dicle)

Around the time that Evliya left Diyarbakır, another previous ‘gentleman’ resident of that city, the far more formal historian and geographer Kâtip Çelebi, known also as Mustafa ibn ‘Abd Allah or Hajii Kalfa(1605-1657) died in Istanbul. An accounting officer with the army he was as obsessed with collecting reference books and recorded knowledge as Evliya was with collecting stories. Also multilingual he spent the winter of 1626 and 1633 in Diyarbakır studying with the various religious authorities. His best-known book in the West is called The Balance of Truth, but from historical and geographical perspective his Tuhfat al-kibar fi asfar al-bihar (Gift to the Great ones on Naval Campaigns) and Jihannuma (Showing of the Whole World) are works of outstanding scholarship.

I am not sure if Evliya and Kâtip ever met in Istanbul or elsewhere, but they did have one teacher in common and Kâtip Çelebi was the accounting officer for the sipahis cavalry to which Evliya was attached. As Evliya had not yet committed his travel diaries and observations to an integrated whole when Kâtip died and Kâtip the scholar would not have been aware of the incalculable social and vocal history, that Evliya had recorded, albeit that of everyday life rather than the permutations of states.

Four-legged minaret of Seyh Mutahhar Mosque

As I wandered through the old town of Diyarbakır, I stopped to examine the famous detached ‘four-legged’ minaret of the Seyh Mutahhar Camii, built in 1512 at the request of Kasim Han. Locals believe that if one passes through the supporting columns seven times then their wishes will come through.

Decorative interior of Seyh Mutahhar Mosque

Stopping to have a strong coffee in a nearby café I and tried to imagine Kâtip and Evliya sitting there four hundred years previously arguing over the coffee the price of a good book or a watermelon. 

Diyarbakır is the watermelon capital of Turkey, if not the world, and the varieties have many names such as: pembe, surme, ferikpasa, yafa, kara, alaca and Melek Emir.

It is certain however that Evliya would always have been good company if somewhat too scurrilous for the bookish Kâtip. For example in Evliya and Kâtip’s writings they both always referred to the military campaigns that they had participated in as the “little Jihad” but thereafter they differed. Evliya, tongue in cheek given the fact he remained a bachelor, called the “greater Jihad” making love to one’s wife whereas Kâtip referred to the “greater Jihad” as his endless quest to acquire knowledge. Despite these differences in approach they both made enormous contributions to Ottoman history and social geography and the streets of Diyarbakır still resonate with that contribution.

Diyarbakır (the Land of Copper) or as Evliya punned Diyar-ı Bakir  (The Land of Virgins) [bakır is the Turkish word for copper and bakir for virgin! the I is pronounced e as in open, whereas i is pronounced ee as in feet. Atatürk changed its name from the former commonly used name Diyâr-ı Bekr (Land of the Bekr Tribe) in 1937, after expressing concern about the etymology of the name] still has its medieval black basalt walls. The blackness of the stone resonates with the long shadows of politics and fate that Diyarbakır has suffered, and continues to suffer as the ‘capital’ of the Kurdish area in Turkey. It is also a city struggling from a recent and enormous expansion with a current estimated population of 1.5 million souls it cannot cater for.

It is interesting to note from newswire reports in the past few days of Turkey’s willingness to recognise formally a Kurdish State, Kurdistan in Northern Iraq to thwart the ISIS (ISIL) fanatical new Caliphate Islamic State expansion, a willingness that is in complete contrast to sustained efforts by the Turkish state over the years to supress any notion of Kurdish nationhood.

Restored Interior of Surp Giragos Armenian Church (first built 1376)

Diyarbakır is also the only city in Turkey to have officially acknowledged and publically commemorated the Armenian Genocide of 1915. There is a memorial plaque near an old historic fountain in Anzele Park in the North-West corner of the old city which states in six languages,

We shared the pains so that they are not suffered again.

The newly-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate with their policy of Mongol-like barbarous terror and murder – previously visited on a previous Caliphate by Hidalgu and Tamerlane – of fellow Muslims have ignored this plea. I have a real concern that Diyarbakır will soon become the staging point for an all out war between the Kurds and ISIS.


Adapted Mirhab to Christian Prayer Niche in Mar Petyun
Chaldean Church, Diyarbakır

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