What’s in a Mound?

Kusadasi, Turkey – I never crossed the Bosporus. Traversing that 800-meter breadth of water—real and symbolic barrier between Europe and Asia—is a benchmark for most of western history’s great eastward journeys. I didn’t do it. If I wanted to dramatize my arrival in Asia (and I do), I would have to say I sneaked in. Rather than march east through Istanbul’s teaming bazaars and spice markets, on a quiet August afternoon I drifted casually into Turkish waters some 650 kilometers south of that city’s great walls. Weeks of island-hopping brought me to the coastal city of Kusadasi, just beyond the arc of travel for most foreigners in Turkey. In one afternoon, I went from stereotypical Greek island to provincial Turkey. It was not how I imagined arriving in this country, but then little about Turkey turned out as I imagined…

If my visit to Turkey began with mediocrity, a much grander trajectory quickly took shape. In the first three weeks I crossed the entire length of the country (Alexander the Great can eat it). I traveled some 2000 kilometers east—well beyond the Anatolian plateau—to just twenty miles short of the Iranian border. Relatively few visitors choose this route, and for the patient traveler it offers huge rewards. In the seaside town of Antalya, I saw grandiose white Ottoman houses overlooking beaches of warm seashell-size stones. I was mesmerized by whirling dervishes in Konya—birthplace of Sufi mysticism and resting place of the great Persian poet and theologian, Rumi. And I hiked Goreme’s awesome Cappadocian moonscape, taking in its fantastic karst formations. At every stop I absorbed the surprise of modern Turkey: bustling towns, efficient infrastructure, air-conditioned buses, and all the signs of a dynamic national economy.

Then there was Urfa. Somewhere between Istanbul and Baghdad you begin to feel that you’ve finally arrived in “The Middle East”—for me, that place was Sanlurfa. One morning I stumbled sleepily off a bus to find knotted roads, a tangle of mud-brick back-allies, and a thronging bazaar of hawkers selling lamb, spices, incense, and strange sweets. Gone are the modern groceries and western franchises. When you locate your hotel (which is family-run) you’re offered a rooftop instead of a room, served cay instead of beer. Breakfast is olives, hummus, cucumber, honey, and a boiled egg. At noon it’s deadly hot, so you hide in a leafy residential courtyard lazing on a couch with a powerful electric fan humming in your face. At dusk, you watch families gather on large blankets in a great leafy park to take dinner as fast ends (it’s Ramadan). From my first arrival I breathed it all in: Turkey I liked, Urfa I loved.

If you’re looking for it, “the Middle East” appears suddenly, as if by slight of hand. Your romantic notions can prevent you from seeing clearly until the modern buildings and easy transportation have been forced off the stage.  And although you didn’t notice it until reaching the less-developed, rural parts, it was there all along.


Photo: Urfa. A view from the citadel takes in the city of half a million and the arid hills beyond.


Photo: The Golbasi area in Urfa. When Nimrod had Abraham burned on a pyre, god turned the fire to water and coals to fish. Now this pool is filled with sacred carp, and the gardens around with people avoiding the heat.


Photo: Some friends I made. And watermelons.


Photo: Me, my couch, and cay.

* * * *

I was only passing through Urfa on my way to a small village two hours north, called Yuvacali (YU-va-JALA). The morning I left Urfa I climbed into a crowded dolmus (a small van that serves as a shared-taxi in lieu of bus service) and we zipped off into the empty plains north of Urfa. After an hour or so we reached a small town and I consulted my only resource for finding my destination: a piece of paper with a phone number scribbled on it. I gave it to the driver who dialed it on his phone (I was traveling without a phone). He chatting briefly with someone on the other end, circled the block, then stopped and shuffled me out the door onto a busy village street. He pointed up the road, smiled, and sped off. Clueless, I walked over to a small market stand where I sat and drank a soda. Five minutes later a stocky Kurdish man with grey hair, a warm smile, and big brown mustache appeared. This was Halil, and he was taking me to Yuvacali.

We drove east out of town in the direction of a big earthen lump that sat on the horizon. In the weeks it took to arrive here from Kusadasi, I had often stared out bus windows at these brown molehills, which offer some spare contour to eastern Turkey’s bleak horizon. The mounds—or tells—mark the sites of prehistoric villages and trace the length of an arc which spans from the Balkans to northern India. Throughout the Neolithic age, when farming first gave rise to settled communities in this part of the world, mud-brick villages were constructed at these locations. The communities were abandoned and resettled over the millennia, and their earthy debris accumulated in layer upon layer of human history that gradually formed large earthen mounds.

Situated between the Tigris and the Euphrates Rivers, Yuvicala is located on one of these “settlement mounds.” The village traces the western base like a crescent, while the stony foundations of an old Armenian village lie on the other side. Yuvacali (known previously by its Kurdish name, Hilun) has a mostly Kurdish population of only several hundred people and very little modern infrastructure. It has no sewer system and piped water arrived only in 2007. More recently, the residents of Yuvacali established a primary school, but the opportunity for education stops there.  Literacy in the village is around 50%. I stumbled on the opportunity to visit the village while on the internet one night in Antalya, I wanted to come here to experience Kurdish life in rural eastern Turkey.


Photo: The settlement mound at Yuvacali, and remnants of an old Armenian village.

* * * *

In Yuvacali I met my host family. Halil had a seventeen-year-old son named Fatih who was to be my english-speaking host during my several days in the village. Upon my arrival, Fatih showed me into his home, introduced me to his younger sister Aylin and charming mother Pero, politely offered me cay, and pointed out the books he was reading (smart kid, btw). Then he left me to rest from my morning of travel.

That afternoon, Fatih walked me to the top of the mound and around its base, explaining its history. We wandered through the ruined Armenian village, waved to the goatherd tending Yuvacali’s communal flock, and crouched on the ground staring at the remarkable remnants of ancient human history. Bits and pieces of ancient statuette and mosaic erupted from the soil like wildflower. So old is the settlement—so thick its history—that the earth here is filled with artifacts that would in another place have great value (out here, there’s little interest in excavating each of the many mounds). These objects tell the history of the location, much like the rings of a tree. Fatih then showed me the dried riverbed where a stream once flowed past the village. It had been a source of water for the village, Fatih explained, but now Yuvacali relies on wells or brings water from the nearby town.

At supper, I sat on the floor of Fatih’s home to dine with him and his family. Fatih unrolled a tablecloth in the center of the room and placed small dishes in front of each person. It was a simple and delicious meal of salad, felafel, fresh yoghurt, eggplant, and pita-like bread that Pero makes fresh every morning. And plenty of cay tea. The family chatted in Kurdish, and I ate slowly until I was full. Afterward we relaxed on the front steps in the comfort of the warm summer night and chatted about Fatih’s books. Later, he showed me to the rooftop where I would sleep. I sat for some time under my mosquito net and journaled by flashlight from my perch overlooking the dark village. If there was electricity in Yuvacali there wasn’t much, which meant the stars shone brightly above the simple, boxy rooftops. Everything was quiet, except for the occasional cough of someone sleeping on another nearby rooftop. I was happy and thought for a long time. Then I slept.

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Photo: My mosquito net on the roof of Fatih’s house, overlooking Yuvacali.


Photo: Pero making bread in the morning.

* * * *

Among the world’s many audial landscapes, there are few topographical features more beautiful than the Muslim call to prayer. First-time visitors to the Muslim world are often startled on their first morning by the call to prayer, which begins before sunrise. I first heard it in Bangkok some years before, and on this trip I had become used to it while traveling through Bosnia some months before. But it’s a whole different story in eastern Turkey when you’re sleeping outdoors. Around 4:30am, a shower of Koranic verse suddenly crackled from speakers on Yuvacali’s small mosque. It couldn’t have been more than a stone’s throw from my bed, and I was immediately wrenched awake. In a situation like this, the visitor suffers through a few minutes of singing (or moaning, depending on the muezzin) and then falls back into an hour of restless sleep, until the early sun wrenches the eyelids open again. If the call to prayer weren’t so immeasurably beautiful, I would loath it.

It was my third day in Yuvicali, and it was Bayram. This is the Turkish word for festival or holiday, which occasions the end of Ramadan. I was lucky to be there because this meant there would be some festivities. But in Yuvacali this doesn’t mean a parade, party, or grand celebration. In the morning we sat in front of the TV and watched scenes of Turkish soldiers parading in some distant city in western Turkey. Giant images of Ataturk (Turkey’s George Washington) fluttered across the screen. Jets and tanks roared—truly this was a country whose military had played an important role in its recent history. Around noon people started to mill about outside, and several small children showed up at the door—they were invited in and given treats or coins.

I spent the remainder of the day walking around the village with Halil, stopping at the homes of friends and family. At each home we welcomed me in, provided a place to sit, and then plied with Turkish delights, hand oils, and glass after glass of hot cay tea. Men and women sat in separate company, and so I visited with the men. At the first home we sat in a large open carpeted room. Heavy curtains shuttered the windows from the hot sun, and a dozen or more middle-aged men sat in a circle on the room’s perimeter sipping cay, chatting quietly, or toying with their cell phones. The next house was the same, only I was offered a soda. And more sweets and hand oils and cay. House after house we were generously welcomed in and presented with the same treats. The day went on like this, and I was fortunate to meet and shake hands with so many welcoming people in Yuvacali. I was a complete and total stranger, but I was kindly made a simple guest. DSC_0444copy

Photo: Fatih hands out treats during Bayram.

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Photo: Halil (center-right) and I visited with neighbors.

* * * *

In the evening we had a special dinner and I finally met Alison, who arranged my visit in Yuvacali. An Englishwomen who had lived in Turkey for more than a decade, Alison married a handsome Kurdish fellow named Omer and moved with him to his hometown, Yuvacali. In order to give back to the community, Alison and Omer created Nomad Tours Turkey to offer homestays and fieldtrips for people hoping to learn about the region’s history and Kurdish culture. Revenues from the project have helped provide new services to the community.

It was my last night and Alison had just returned from England where she had given birth to her second child, and everybody was eager to see her and the newborn. A big, special dinner was served (delicious, deep-fried balls of meat) and afterward everyone sat outside on the porch, talking and ogling the newest member of the family.  Alison was a kind host and generously included me in what was an important family occasion. The mood was light and good. We sipped cay and I sat for a long time talking politics with Omer.

Before the night ended I made a point of asking Alison about Lalish. It was a place I badly wanted to go, 100 kilometers across the border in Iraq. I’d read about travelers going there—even during the Iraq War (which was still on at this time, in August 2011)—but hadn’t personally met one person coming or going that way. I was worried because I’d been told to arrive in Iraq with U.S. dollars, of which I had none at all. And I could not get any in eastern Turkey during Bayram. If I crossed into Iraq, did I have enough Turkish lira, and would I be able to change it for Iraqi dinar? I had no idea. Plus, I was alone.

* * * *

That night, I once more lay under my mosquito net on the roof of Fatih’s home, staring at the stars and thinking contentedly about my trip—where I had been, and where I was going. Yuvacali’s perfect simplicity (romanticizing, again) made everything else feel so, so far away. I traced my course backward: from little Yuvacali to the dusty city of Urfa, backward all the way to Turkey’s Agean coast, then across the great scattering of Greek islands to bustling Athens, and back still through Bucharest, Belgrade, Sarajevo and Vienna, and finally to Paris. There the trail went cold as I realized there was yet an ocean between me and home. I was indeed very far from home, but I hadn’t gone far enough yet.

And so I decided to go to Iraq. In the morning I packed my back and caught a dolmus to Urfa, where I once more began heading east on the road to Kurdish Iraq.

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