Castles, Battle grounds, A town near a river, and new friends.

July 2nd, 2011

It was 5:22 am when the sun began to rise on the horizon. After having a great day exploring Hatay, we decided to leave early to enjoy one more day in Gaziantep, where some people were waiting. The people waiting for me in Gaziantep were friends from some Turkish friends I made in Sao Paulo before the first part of the adventure. 

The sun was intense that day. The scenery passing by the car’s window had a similar pallet of brown with glances of blue – from the sky – and green. I put on my earphones and turned on my iPod. The sound of Linking Park came like a wave of conflicted feelings. I relaxed and tried not to focus on the car’s velocity. Probably, we would be higher above the limit, but sometimes we just should ignore it and go. 

The kilometres passed, and suddenly I heard: “Take a picture! Take a picture.” I was looking for what could be so special to deserve that enthusiasm. I realized that Fırat was pointing at a hill. It was possible to see there was something written in white. However, shooting from a car speeding at 140 km/h was not an easy task. I fired the camera, trying to contain my curiosity. The words written on the hill were “Vatan Önce”. I read it in my mind without daring to ask what that meant.  These words or phrases followed by symbols of a country make me uneasy. If I had asked, I probably would hear a lot of patriotic nationalism. Later, when we arrived at the hotel, I accessed the Internet to translate what “Vatan Önce” meant. I was right. It means “homeland first”, Nationalism always gives me chills.

After a few minutes, Fırat began talking about his time in the army. The base where he had served was in the region. While crossing the vast space in the countryside of East Anatolia, he was telling memories while I tried to grasp the rules guiding the country. Hearing the stories were fascinating because they were full of difficulties, and he had faced them with humour or sarcasm. Ultimately, I understood Fırat had genuine love and respect from the army. Later, I understood this love better when I faced his nationalism. 

In the city of Kilis, we stopped to eat. Fırat had spent one of his days off of the army there. He followed through the town, pointing to this and that place with his memory’s eye. I could feel some longing in his voice. He chose an exquisite restaurant, but before eating, I had some urgency to go to the toilet. One of the women from the restaurant showed me where the toilet was. The toilet was in a place somewhat distant from the restaurant. When I went in, I came across one of those typical bathrooms. A hole in the ground. Okay, it had a kind of “pot” of porcelain. I had to squat down and learn to handle clothing, toilet paper, and everything. One more lesson from Turkey.

I returned to the restaurant, and the lunch had been chosen. I was starved, so I ate with pleasure the tasty food. After lunch, Fırat took his traditional smoking time, accompanied by çay, while I observed people crossing us in the pathway. But that day, instead of çay, we had something different. The restaurant staff offered us a drink to accompany the Turkish coffee, ‘menengiç’ or terebinth juice. An odd taste, but one more new experience. It was the first and last I tasted this drink.

When Fırat spoke about the city, Gaziantep always referred to her as Antep. I felt that I knew the name but only later would understand.

Gaziantep is a city of 1,3 million people, making her the sixth largest in Turkey. The city is one of the region’s most developed provinces and one of the oldest. Famous for the production of copper, pistachios, and industrial carpets. Tourism has grown, leading young people to take an interest in learning English. I felt very welcome in the city.

The first stop was at the “Gaziantep Savanması ve Kahramanlık Panoramasi Müzesi” or the famous Gaziantep Castle, nowadays a museum. The path to the castle’s entrance is marked by statues telling the story of the Battle of Antep between the French and Turkish. 

The castle architecture is impressive not for its luxury but forcibly imposing. Inside, everything reminds Antep to struggle to release the judge’s English and French. We are led to the end of World War I and the creation of the Turkish Republic. Walking the halls, we follow the story of heroes, commanders, soldiers, battles, weapons, and the Atatürk figure. The scattered television shows show testimonials of people who fought and lived the fight.

Not just the military are reminded there. Ordinary people, women, and children who helped during fights are represented in panels, statues, and movies.

At the museum’s exit, I read what was written on the statues. One of them caught my attention. It represented seven children trapped and suffering. I read the explanation of the scene: “Martyrdom of 14 children in Dorkucum Mill”. Fırat looked questioningly and said: “During the fighting between French and Turkish, ordinary people, women, senior citizens and children, helped the soldiers as they could, bringing food, water, ammunition and care for the wounded. 14 children handled maintaining the communication and water supply. They were arrested by the French and put in place without water under heat. They suffocated. “

I did not say anything, and I know enough human stupidity to know this was true.

When we left the castle, we continued to explore the city. Around the imponent castle, we could see a lot of small shops selling souvenirs and many copper items. On a busy side street, many restaurants offer typical Turkish food.

Fırat let me know we had to go to a particular place. We walked about 40 km and arrived at the edge of a river. The river’s colour amazed me. The heat was immense. Fırat invited me to drink something cold. We sit on a terrace high above the riverbed. I stood there looking at that blue. “What river is that?” I asked. He smiled and said, “Fırat .” We fell into laughter; I remembered that his name meant the Euphrates. I was seated on the riverbed of his river.

We follow up on the archaeological site of Zeugma. The Hellenistic city was famous and rich in antiquity. Today, much of it is hidden by Belkis village and pistachio fields. Founded in 300 BCE by one of Alexander’s generals, the Great, with the name “Selevkaya Euphrate.” Conquered in 64 BCE by the Romans, it had its name twisted pair to Zeugma, which means “bridge-passage.” Well, that’s what the city was on the silk route linking Anatolia to China. During Roman control, the town thrived, becoming rich and filled with art.

It was destroyed in 256 CE when it was invaded by King Sassanid Sapur I. His recovery has become almost impossible because an earthquake shook the region in the same period. Thus, the city never returned to flourish as before.

Zeugma passed by the Byzantines, Arabs, and Abbasids until the small village of Belkis was finally created there. The ruins of the city were found in 1987, and many of the pieces: mosaics, statues, and papyri, are in the Gaziantep Museum and scattered museums in the world.

Entering the cover that protected the site, I felt I was going through a time portal. I had never visited a place so well organized. Even though most mosaics and statues were not on the site but at a museum, what was left, impressed us and gave us a good idea of how the city was. 

We photographed and then went out to the heat. I watched the Euphrates and thought in my geography lessons. How could all be so different from the images, videos, and descriptions he had seen? The Euphrates River was magnificent, and that beautiful sunny day looked like a blue sea. Grace to him and his Tiger brother and fertility that provided the plains of Mesopotamia had been and still was a place that housed many civilizations.

When we were leaving the site, we found the pistachio trees. These trees reach a maximum height of 10 m, and I had never seen one with fruits grown in bunches. I discovered that pistachio is not a nut in the botanical sense but a seed. Fırat took one to try; he hated the bitter taste. He was used to enjoying pistachio when they were ripe, crisp, and salty.

It was getting late. The heat helps to increase the feeling of tiredness. Time to move back to Antep and look for a hotel to stay in.

The following day, Fırat left me to sleep a little more. We had called our contact in the city, Bayram Bey, and arranged to meet him around 13h. Thus, we had time.

First, we decided to visit a mall. Fırat needed to do some personal shopping. We took the opportunity to take a picture in front of the store of the local team: Gaziantepspor. Fırat and I cheered for Fenerbahçe, but that does not mean we cannot honour other groups.

The shopping finished; we went to visit the city zoo. Considered one of the largest in Turkey, his specialities are birds and an aquarium. However, what made me curious was the number of people who were in the park opposite the zoo. I found that there was a play area for the local population. We could see thousands of people and families doing the picnic, barbecues and enjoying themselves.

The zoo was crowded, and I was surprised to see the same attractions as other zoos I have visited worldwide. We did not stay long; the heat was stifling, and I found that the temperature was 40°C that day.

We returned to the car and headed to the Castle area. Fırat wanted some pictures of where the children were martyred. 

Finally, it was time for us to meet with Bayram Bey.

Bayram Bey is a lovely man. Soon I felt at ease with him. Our first stop was one of the schools, or better, activity centres that the Hizmet (Gülen) Movement supported in the region. I was still grasping what this movement would represent, and this visit would be an excellent opportunity to meet the people working on it.

The school reminded the one I had seen in Brazil. The Brazilian school was more luxurious than the one we visit now. After all, it was a private school. The school in Gaziantep was free; it was a centre for supporting disadvantaged students. You could study for the examinations in the Turkish educational system and learn about computers, behaviour, and relationships with others, especially how to live with differences.

The school is concerned with the student as a whole, including the family. They begin contacting children who could have become marginal without intervention. Some are now working as teachers at the school, helping others find their way.

Integrating Kurdish and Turkish children was one of the works they developed there. There is nothing better than to educate and show that the differences are only apparent, so conflicts lose strength and begin to decline.

The local director said he was Kurdish and worked in harmony with Turkish and other ethnic groups. I was delighted with the meaning of the place.

From there, we followed Bayram Bey to a Private University maintained by the group. Zirve Universitesi impressed much. First, the campus size, then the quality of the facilities. It was an ambitious project that, in 8 years, will offer the best bilingual education in the city. Gaziantep’s need for high qualification and educated workers is growing, as well as Turkey’s.

From the University, we headed to a TV station. The curiosity is that it was a Kurdish TV station, i.e., the primary language of the broadcast was Kurdish. Dunya TV was the way to tell Kurdish people they had a place and voice in the country and that those lands and flags could be shared without rancour and prejudices. It was funny watching the broadcasts and all equipment. One more lesson learned.

From there, we went to a restaurant. It was dinner time (even though I imagine that it was lunchtime for Bayram Bey). The Antep cuisine is fantastic; we eat lahmacun and the famous baklava. I appreciated how the ayran was served in a kind of bowl with a spoon. Of course, I felt ashamed because I could not eat half of what was offered. The restaurant owner came to ask if I had not liked the food. I blushed.

Exhausted, I went to the hotel over the road waiting for us the next day.

I need to add some present information. In 2016, a faction within the Turkish armed Forces, organized as the Peace at Home Council, attempted a coup d’état, against state institutions, including the government and president Recep Tayyip Erdogan

During the attempt, 300 people were killed, and more than 2100 were injured. Many governments building, including the Turkish Parliament and the presidential palace, were bombed. 

The consequence was mass arresting, with at least 40000 detained, including 10000 soldiers. For a reason that remains unclear, 2745 judges and 16000 education staff were suspended, and the license of 21000 teachers working in private institutions was revoked after the government stated they were loyal to Gülen. More than 77000 people were arrested, and over 160000 were fired from their job on reports of connections to Gülen. (source: Wikipedia)

The 2016 events led to the closing of all Gülen educational centres in Turkey, as they were in prison or fired. All teachers who worked in those schools. That included many of those I met in Brazil and Turkey. Those living in Brazil took Brazilian nationality, but even then, Erdogan asked the Brazilian government for their deportation. 

The Zirve University was closed, and the buildings were transferred to Gaziantep University.

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