Antep and Urfa
Hilltop marvels and alluring cities in southeast Turkey
To those yet to venture beyond Turkey’s touristic regions – the southwest littoral, Istanbul, Cappadocia – the country’s vast east can appear a daunting proposition. The region’s comparative proximity to war-torn Syria’s Isis fanatics, to Iraq and Iran, the spectre of Kurdish separatism, not to mention the usual presumptions of poor plumbing, bed bugs, long drives and the like may well deter some visitors.
The good news is that one region stands out as the best introduction to eastern Turkey. Neighbouring Antep and Urfa (forget the respective honorary prefixes Gazi and Şanlı) are fascinating small cities which are not only excellent culinary and cultural centres in their own right but also make superbly convenient and comfortable bases for exploring a region exceptionally rich in some of Turkey’s most rewarding sites or attractions. Urfa is not a half-hour drive from the astonishing Neolithic stones at Göbekli Tepe, generally considered the world’s most remarkable current archaeological excavation, while Antep is home to a stunning new museum of world-class mosaics from nearby Roman Zeugma. Other marvels including the mountain-top statue-strewn shrine of Nemrut Dağı, the beehive mud huts at Harran and the sky-worship temple at Sogmatar are all within easy reach of either city.
These two cities of upper Mesopotamia, among the oldest continually inhabited settlements on earth, are rich in an atmosphere resulting from their location at the juncture of the Turkish, Kurdish and Arab worlds. It’s a fusion particularly notable in the celebrated cuisine of Antep, a city famous above all for its pistachio nuts and its sheer number of baklava shops, and in the striking piety on show in Urfa, a place of particular religious significance in all three monotheistic religions. It’s also there in the Arabian flourishes evident in the old-stone architecture of intact city quarters like Antep’s Bey Mahallesi and Yusufpaşa in Urfa. Both cities boast superb markets, with Antep known for its metal work and distinctive leather slippers, while Urfa’s wonderful labyrinthine back alleys throw up such delights as a market for homing pigeons, a hobby that’s obsessively pursued in both cities.
These are cities which tend to compete, with Urfa having recently opened a mosaic museum to rival Antep’s Zeugma Museum. They both have citadels but in this respect the magnificently moated Crusader castle at Urfa edges it, not least for its splendid views over the delightful shaded gardens of Balıklıgöl.
In each case there’s a stand-out place to stay. Antep’s Anadolu Evleri (Anatolian Houses) is a series of wonderfully restored old merchants’ houses arranged around a private courtyard in the old town and just yards from Imam Çağdaş, a justifiably celebrated kebab and baklava diner; Urfa’s Cevahir Konukevi is a restoration of a similarly grand nineteenth-century home that’s just minutes from Urfa’s own atmospheric heart, the shaded lake-side tea gardens at the foot of the city’s grand old citadel.
STOP-PRESS: The BAD news is that the region abuts the ghastly ISIS enclaves in northern Syria; it has also seen heightened tensions between the security forces and Kurdish separatists. The personal risk to western visitors, though statistically small, has caused most British operators to avoid the area though Turkish specialist companies continue to visit.