Anatolian Express X: The Haunting Euphrates

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The last couple of days have been really busy. On Tuesday I visited Göbeklitepe and Harran, and today I went to Halfeti. All of these places are within a couple of hours of Urfa.

Göbeklitepe is an apparently revolutionary archeological find. It's thought to be a temple of some sort dating back more than eleven thousand years. This is what a National Geographic article from a few years ago had to say about it:

Known as Göbekli Tepe (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.
The site's name--which means 'hill with a belly'--refers to the fact that the site is located on a hill that had a strange 'belly' on top of it. This was because the temple--or whatever it was--was originally situated on top of a hill, and then deliberately buried.

There are actually a few different rings of these enormous slabs of intricately-carved rocks at the site. My pictures hardly do the place justice, especially as they've recently built a cover for the site which protects the stones from the elements but obscures the view of the tourist's camera.

One of the circular rings at Göbeklitepe (not my photo)
After touring Göbeklitepe, I returned to Urfa and took a bus down to a place called Harran. Harran is supposedly one of the oldest continuously-inhabited towns in the world, and apparently is even mentioned in the bible. It's also known for its unique conically-shaped "beehive" houses.

Harran today is a pretty grim, dusty little place, filled with children who run up and beg tourists for money--something that is quite unusual in Turkey. The buildings were interesting, but I didn't find Harran a particularly inviting place to stick around. The bus down to Harran--which is south of Urfa--stops at a large Syrian refugee camp down the road from the town, but the begging children appeared to be locals, rather than refugees fr
om the camp.

Today I visited an attraction of much more contemporary interest—a town called Halfeti. Halfeti is an attraction by virtue of the fact that much of it no longer exists. More than half of the village is now under water, drowned in the Euphrates River thanks to the Southeast Anatolian Project (known as the GAP, or Güneydoğu Anadolu Projesi in Turkish).
The GAP was devised in the 1990s in an effort to irrigate and develop the southeast of the country—which at the time was not only much less developed than the rest of the country (it still is) but also the site of quite a large armed conflict between the Turkish government at the PKK.

People around have differing views of the GAP. Those who haven't been directly affected by the flooding--a majority of the population by far-- seem to love the project. The irrigation that it has brought has apparently had a transformative effect upon the region. Agriculture has, it seems, benefited greatly, and everybody says that the region has developed by leaps and bounds over the past fifteen years.
The Euphrates has swallowed up many villages thanks to the GAP. Here is a minaret from the village of Savaşanköy, up the river from Halfeti
On the other hand, those whose homes have been submerged by the flooding have quite different opinions. They've been given new homes--often cheerless cookie-cutter places--as well as financial assistance from the government, but they're embittered. Apparently, instances of malaria have also increased dramatically since the dams were completed.
The new houses aren't quite as charming as the old village, but at least they're above water.
This past semester I assigned, in the graduate seminar I was teaching, James Scott's Seeing Like a State and Timothy Mitchell's Rule of Experts. Thinking about all of the things that can go wrong when states (and other entities) undertake enormous projects like this, I found myself wondering what the long-term effects of GAP would be on the people living in this region.
To be honest, though, the boat ride from Halfeti up to Savaşanköy was really enjoyable, even if it was also eerie and sad. I joined two really nice older Turkish couples from Izmir, with the men singing the traditional Turkish folk song 'Firat' (Euphrates), which I happened to know because my man Ibrahim Tatlises is famous for singing it. It's a haunting tune, to say the very least. It's about suffering and cruelty and being overwhelmed by a power that is far stronger than you are.
It's a feeling that I think people here, and all over the world, can identify with. Give it a listen...

I got back to Urfa late and have been running around ever since. A quick trip to the dried-fruit and nuts shop turned into a 45-minute chat while the shopkeeper plied me with nuts and other sweets. That's the way things have been here--several people each day asking me loads of questions about my life, while I generally try to swing the conversation back to them in order to learn their stories.

That's the way it's always been, at least since I started speaking Turkish well about 20 years ago. The conversations always start with a question like 'Are you German?' and then people want to know why I speak Turkish, where I live, etc. I tell them the stuff they want to know, but it's much more interesting to hear what's going on in their lives. Whereas I once found the frequent questioning to be rather annoying, it turns out that most of the people I talk to have led pretty fascinating lives, no matter how boring they think they are in comparison to mine.

If you're interested in seeing more shots from Urfa, Göbeklitepe and Halfeti, I've put up photos in the Borderlands Lounge.

Like the Borderlands? You'll love the book! Order your copy now at the OUP website

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