From Diyarbakır to Konya

[Turkey through a traveler’s eyes] From Diyarbakır to Konya with Gertrude Bell in 1909, the journey continues


Harput Castle in Elazig’s old center (Photo: Today’s Zaman)

January 29, 2013, Tuesday/ 16:27:00/ TERRY RICHARDSON

Traveler, historian, amateur archeologist, alpine climber and advisor to the British government on all matters Middle Eastern, the indomitable Gertrude Bell reached Diyarbakır, the black-walled city on the Tigris, in the spring of 1909. Her journey, which had begun in Aleppo, had taken her east to the cities of Kerbela, Baghdad, Mosul and Zakho, then north to Cizre. From Cizre she rode west across the Tur Abdin plateau around Mardin and Midyat, where she spent time researching the region’s Syrian Orthodox monasteries, before she finally headed northwest to Diyarbakır.

In the black walled-city

Today, Bell’s journey would take you through three different states, Syria, Iraq and Turkey — the first two, much troubled. Then, however, this region was part of the Ottoman Empire, which in theory should have made Bell’s trip easier than it would be now. But with the Ottoman Empire in sharp decline this was unsettled territory, making Bell’s expedition even more remarkable. Whilst in Diyarbakır she wrote of the unease between the city’s Muslim and Christian populations, “Warring faiths struggle together as fiercely as rival empires, and the conflict is embittered by race hatreds … if there had been any further sign of disturbance at Constantinople, the streets of Diyarbakır would have run with blood.”

In spite of the uneasy atmosphere in the city, Bell still found time to explore, writing, “I spent a day among ancient churches, and a day upon the walls, which are as fine an example of medieval fortifications as any that exists.” Diyarbakır’s six-kilometer circuit of black basalt walls are perhaps the city’s biggest attraction today, though the austerely beautiful, 11th-century Ulu Camii, undergoing major restoration work at the moment, rivals them. Bell too was impressed by the city’s most important mosque, talking about its “famous courtyard,” though she lamented the fact that the “fanaticism of the Mohammadan population” meant that she was unable to measure and draw plans of the building for her records.

A welcome downpour

From Diyarbakır, Bell and her party trekked northwest, through today’s Ergani, to Maden, now an undistinguished settlement known only for its copper mines. Bell remarked on the mine back in 1909, noting, “On a shelf of the opposite hillside the smoke drifted perpetually from the smelting furnaces of the richest copper mines in Turkey.” She was more interested in finding a suitable camping spot for the night, however, as the “valley of the Maden’chai … is so narrow that it offers no camping-ground.” Eventually, her party lodged in “a charming khan above the village by the water’s edge — but for the fact that it was innocent of furniture I could have fancied myself in an English country inn by the side of a rushing trout stream.”

The next day, as they headed for Harput, near Elazığ, Bell reveled in a change from the hot, dry weather. “We rode for the greater part of the next day through an alternate drizzle and downpour, and were unable to determine which we enjoyed the most.” En route, Bell bade farewell to the Tigris, which she describes as “a rippling brook” that “wandered from willow clump to willow clump.” Soon the party “reached the crest of a slope … and saw below us the rich and smiling plain of Kharput bounded by mountains.”

Bell describes Harput castle pretty much as it is today, i.e., “for all its frowning walls and bastions, is nothing but a heap of ruins within.” An abandoned ghost town today, Harput was then still partially inhabited by Kurds, Armenians and Turks, and despite the bad news filtering in of pogroms in Adana, Bell describes how a severe drought hereabouts brought the local Muslim and Christian populations together. “The leading mullah of Mezreh called upon the people to assemble … that they might raise a common supplication for rain. The population answered his call to a man, Christian and Moslem” and they “stood side by side and listened to the sermon.” Not only did the three-day speech reduce the crowd to tears, it also did the trick and the rains came.

Across the Euphrates to Malatya

Bell exited the land between the rivers, Mesopotamia, when she crossed the Euphrates near Kömür Khan, and wrote, “The next day’s ride took us over hill and dale to Malatiyah.” The adventurous English woman would scarcely recognize the concrete, urban landscape of booming Malatya today, with its population of over three quarters of a million, grown rich (certainly by the standards of southeast Turkey) from its famous apricots and other agricultural products. She describes approaching the town thus: “As we rode down the hillside the houses were scarcely to be seen through their screen of fruit trees. Even upon a nearer view the walnuts and mulberries are far more striking than the buildings of Malatiyah, which are constructed … out of exactly the same material as that with which the swallows make their nest.”

Bell’s party camped in poppy fields before exploring what remain today the two major historic attractions of Malatya, Aslantepe and Eski (Old) Malatya. Aslantepe, which has been excavated over several decades, today boasts some excellent interpretative signboards which enable the visitor to appreciate the millennia of history of a settlement mound site dating back as early as the fourth millennium B.C. She described it as “the big mound of Arslan Tepeh surrounded by gardens and poppy fields” and wrote, “Excavation might prove it to be the mother city of the townships.”

She then rode onto Old Malatya, today easily accessible (as is Aslantepe) by municipal bus from the modern city center. Visit today and you’ll find many of Old Malatya’s Islamic buildings beautifully restored, including the Ulu Camii, of which Bell wrote “is still used for prayer, but its door was locked and the key was not to be procured. I climbed by its carved and half-ruined gateway onto the roof, and peering through the windows of the dome, saw the interior was beautifully decorated with tiles and inscriptions.” The mosque is locked outside of prayer times even today, and still sports those wonderful tiles.

Through wild mountains to Kayseri

Bell, led by her multi-lingual Armenian Catholic dragoman Fattuh, continued through the beautiful mountains west of Malatya, seldom visited by tourists even now, with Bell noting: “Our path would have done credit to the most sensational of journeys. It led us over wild and rocky hills and down into gorges incredibly deep and narrow.” The party camped at Darende, a natural beauty spot at the foot of a gorge best known by locals today for its trout restaurants. The party continued west through Gürun and up to a watershed at an altitude of some 2,000 meters. Here, entranced by the glorious scenery, she wrote, “The lonely beauty of these alpine pastures, where nature spreads out her finest bounty … fell upon us like a benison, and once again I offered up all praise to the mountains.” Riding west again she “rounded a spur” to see Central Anatolia’s greatest peak, 3,916-meter-high Mount Erciyes, in the distance.

She eventually reached Kayseri, in the shadow of Mount Erciyes, then as it is now a prosperous trading city set on a major branch of the old Silk Road. The people of Kayseri today are often admired and reviled in equal measure for their business acumen. It was the same in Bell’s day, with the “zaptieh” (a kind of policeman) who was guarding the party saying, “They can outwit the devil himself” and Fattuh adding, “If a serpent bites a man of Kaysariyeh, the serpent dies.” Bell sold her horses in Kayseri and continued south by carriage to Niğde, on the southern fringes of Cappadocia, opposite the magnificent Ala Dağlar range. From Niğde, Bell proceeded, via Bor, to Bulgurluk. This small settlement, east of Ereğli on the north side of the Toros Mountains, was then the terminus of the railway being forged across Anatolia, which was eventually hoped to link Berlin with Baghdad, a grandiose scheme cooked-up by Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany to further that country’s imperial ambitions.

A thousand and one churches and journey’s end

Bell disembarked from the train at Karaman, a town she was very familiar with as it was the gateway to Karadağ (Black Mountain), where in 1907 she had researched the region’s Byzantine monasteries and churches, along with archeologist William Ramsay. For old times’ sake she rode out to Karadağ, with “every mile a delightful reminiscence.” She was in her element now, amidst uplands generously sprinkled with ancient remains, writing, “The yellow roses dropped their petals in familiar fashion over the mountain path, mullein and borage spread their annual carpet of blue and gold between the ruins, and the peak of Mahalech, on which I found a Hittite inscription and a Christian monastery, stood guardian as of old, over the green cup wherein had lain the ancient city.”

Bell rejoined the railway north of Karadağ and headed north to Konya, the final stop on her travels. A complex character, Bell was to return to England and join, bizarrely for such an independent woman, a movement opposed to the Suffragettes. She could not get the Middle East out of her blood, however, and traveled to the Arabian Peninsula, where she met Lawrence of Arabia, and encouraged the Arabs in their revolt against Ottoman rule. Having helped redraw the borders of the Middle East following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, she committed suicide in 1926 and is buried in Baghdad.


Part one of Bell’s travels in Turkey is viewable on Today’s Zaman website; alternatively, you can read the whole of Gertrude Bell’s account of her journey, published as “Amurath to Amurath” in 1911, at


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