The sun was already over the horizon when the clock struck 8 am. We had been up until the early morning hours, so this was a rare occasion where I allowed myself to sleep in. By 8:15, Fırat knocked on my door and ate breakfast on the hotel terrace. We had a lavish breakfast full of bread and olives, eggs (boiled or fried), tomatoes, cucumbers, sausages, soup, bread, pastries, pastries, and fruits.
As usual in East Turkey, except for myself, the terrace was crowded with men in business suits. Fırat and I sat together in silence, enjoying the view of the city through the floor-to-ceiling windows. I took that moment to observe each man going to the buffet to put on their plate whilesipping my çay. My companion, on the other hand, seemed content not to say a word. After two months by his side, I now understood that it was best to have a silent breakfast if I wanted him to be in good spirits for the rest of the day.
We left the hotel with anticipation, not before making one last stop. We went to the riverbank, where the glistening sun illuminated the scenery for a perfect photo opportunity.
Our next destination was Bingöl, a province known for its abundance of lakes and mountain peaks reaching over 3,000 meters. I knew this would be an ideal place for me.
As we drove around a bend in the mountain, I noticed Turkish flags fluttering in the breeze. Fıratstopped the car to read a sign that said “33 Şehit Anıtı”. I understood that we had stumbled upon a monument dedicated to those who had given their lives in service of their country, but I couldn’t conceive why this was the chosen place for the memorial. To begin with, let’s examine the name of this monument: “33 Şehit Anıtı,” which translates to “Memorial to the 33 Martyrs.” This title refersto something in May 1993 when 33 military personnel were killed in an ambush at this location. These men ranged from teenagers to those in their forties, and many were beginning their service with a training mission.
Fırat ‘s reaction to this place astounded me. He rarely showed emotion, but he walked up and down and read each headstone. He even dropped to his knees and prayed when he saw a reference to his province, Manisa. This would be the first of many memorials we’d visit during our journey and the first time I felt Fırat wasn’t someone who had fear to show emotions in front of a woman.
Once again, I am not here to judge or take sides. But death is still pointless no matter where the war is happening or who is fighting it. It always comes down to one thing: money and power, and people are dying for something they may not even understand.
I did not have the opportunity to see more of the city of Bingöl, but I found a curiosity about the town: Yuzenada Islands or moving Islands. They are located in the Hazarsah Solhan village, they are small islands in the middle of a lake that have no connection with the ground, so they move randomly in the centre of the lake. I was curious. I also discovered that the region has a famous ski resort: the Bingol Ski Center, located in Yalactı, and there are castles, mosques, and thermal spas that I could not see. I thought, “I will come back here in winter.”
The next town is Elazığ. Again the city is the capital of the province of the same name. Its population is 332,000 inhabitants (2010 census data). The town arose in ancient times and remained in the region until 2000 BC. Like any town in Anatolia, Elazığ saw the flowering and ostracism of different civilisations. The construction of the Keban Dam boosted the city’s economy. Industry and agriculture are also strong allies for the development of the region.
Crossing the expansive valley on Route 216 with its flatness broken only by camels plodding through it in the distance, mountains we soon will reach. We stopped in a service area where truckers and travellers rested and had their çay. It was an exciting moment. I first expected people to notice I wasn’t Turkish, but that did not happen. Again, his countryman sees me as someone native to that land.
At that moment, in a small place on the roadside, I finally understood why Fırat asked to make that not to schedule a visit to those cities. The Turkish television and media were full of stories that had been disturbing. There were reports of curfews, military blockades, and an undercurrent of tension in the eastern province of Turkey. Fırat had set out on this road trip to see for himself what was happening.
One of the most striking things about eastern Anatolia that got him was how normal everything felt. The people Fırat passed on the road seemed ordinary, like those he died in Istanbul daily. The city, one of the region’s most significant cities, wandered around the winding alleys of the old quarter. They were packed with lanes, shops, tea houses, and people. I asked Fırat if anything stood out about the visit that didn’t appear in the media reports. Did he see anything or hear anything that made him think differently about what he had read? He said yes; it was like other places in Turkey, with people doing business. It sounded like it affected him more than he expected. People were kind and hospitable; there were very few incidents; the cities were full of life and activity. Fırat ‘s trip demonstrated that daily life in eastern Anatolia is similar to anywhere else in Turkey. It could be better, but it’s far from war-torn and dangerous, as many media reports would have us believe.
We began the journey to Arslantepe. Fırat had to stop to use the restroom. Before he went, he made an unending stream of instructions and warnings; “do not leave, don’t talk to anyone, be careful,” etc. He always worried so much.
We arrived at a seemingly desolate archaeological site a couple of hours late. My heart sank —until Fırat returned with news that the place was open and a guide would show us around. The man spoke only Turkish, though; Fırat suggested I let him translate later to understand what he was seeing.
This unique place has been inhabited for over 6000 years; Ishuwa’s homeland during the Bronze Age, then conquered by Hittites and fortified as a fortress in the 14th century. Malatya derives its name from the Hittite ‘melid’ or ‘military’, which means ‘honey’. The site’s rich history was palpable- I could almost taste it.
The ancient city of Malatya was once home to the mighty Hittite Empire, and their history is written into the palace walls that stand resolutely within the city’s walls. Statues, frescoes and other artwork adorn the palace, testifying to the grandeur of this once-mighty civilisation.
The city then came under Assyrian rule before being taken by the Romans. The Byzantines later claimed it as their own, transforming it into the capital of Third Armenia. Though this rule was briefly interrupted by the Abbasid conquest, the Byzantines reclaimed it in 934 AD and forced all its Muslim inhabitants to convert to Christianity.
The Seljuks seized the city in the 12th century and passed it to the Mamluks in the late 13th century. In 1515, Malatya finally fell to Ottoman rule and has been well-protected throughout its history.
Descending into its depths is like uncovering a buried mystery as one takes in its grandiose walls decorated with scenes of animals. One mural depicts a wagon being pulled by two oxen and driven by a man, while another house has some of the oldest swords ever found. To witness such mysteries up close is an incomparable experience.
The searing heat radiated around us while the tv group rushed to film their archaeological program. Our host proudly strutted in his Indiana Jones attire, and despite my hatred for stereotypes, I couldn’t help but be amused.
Fırat was suddenly compelled to photograph a moment where he attempted to mimic the local workers. After I had taken his photograph, he insisted I did the same pose, and I had to master all my courage to pretend I was working at an archaeological site. I am a shy person.
Our journey continued through the road crossing Malatya. Suddenly, a vibrant apricot plantation beckoned us to stop and admire its beauty, and despite my shyness, I felt an overwhelming fascination for the sun-soaked orchard. I would enjoy tasting those succulent fruits at our next stop.