Urfa's Dergah

Urfa is a different town by day.

The night before, when we filed though Urfa’s bazar and dergah, it was a cacophony. Buyers and sellers haggled. Families socialized and ate. Hollering, honking, munching, braying and wailing filled the sultry air. Every space was contested. Tanner was wide-eyed. “Welcome to the Middle East,” I had shouted. Dir balak! “Be careful!”

Abraham's Home

I stand in a paved courtyard. Surrounding me is a cluster of dwellings constructed of mudbrick (or adobe). A discovery like this is not unusual in a region where wood is scarce and temperatures are extreme. What is odd is the way in which the overhead space is closed. Bricks are stacked in concentric circles that rise upwardly from thick stub walls. They culminate in a tiara made of stone that crowns a tiny chimney hole. I marvel. These are tepees of mud, sedentary versions of the pastoralist’s tent.

Hot Camel Flies

It is hot. The breeze blowing across the Mesopotamian plain carries no refreshment, only dust.

I do what comes naturally in this part of the world: I recline in the shade of a goat-hair tent and sip hot çay. The tea is served in a tulip glass lacking a handle, so I sip carefully but quickly. I hang on the rim to avoid burning my fingers. My companions do the same. The glasses dance.

Manuel's Labor

We approach the church that Gagik built. Except Gagik didn’t really build it. He commissioned an architect-monk named Manuel to do the hard work. Of the 10th century complex erected on the island of Aghtamar, the only structure that survives is the Church of the Holy Cross. We are fortunate. Manuel’s labor is a triumph of medieval Armenian architecture.

Agh Tamar!

The beautiful princess lifted the light and he swam for it. The island where Tamar stood was distant, but with the light as his guide, the peasant boy had direction. On this night, however, the forbidden relationship was discovered. The beacon was smashed to the ground. Disoriented by the sudden loss of signal, the lad swam on and on in the dark. At last he became exhausted. He began to slip beneath the waves. He cried out her name, “Agh Tamar!” These words, his last, were carried away by the wind.


The ridge abruptly rises near the lake’s edge. It is more than a half mile long and hundreds of feet high. The flat ground extending from its base (undoubtedly a flood plain from more remote times) renders the promontory all the more stunning. Walls and towers cling to the rock like barnacles. I wonder why these man-made constructions were thought necessary. The plunge to the flat is so vertical, so awful, that the ridge ably protects itself. 

The Dead Sea (Turkish Style)

The Dead Sea (Turkish Style)

The air is thick where the Bendimahi meets the Gulf of Ercis. Deprived of energy (and all hope of escape), the mountain stream creeps reluctantly across the floodplain before slipping under the waves of Lake Van. Slender reeds bend to watch the demise. It is not a unique spectacle. Gravity forces every stream in the region to the same end. The basin simply has no exit. Van is an endorheic sea, a marine cul-de-sac. I lean forward, ponder this fact, and look in vain for the terminus. Between the mud, reeds, and island clumps I cannot tell where river ends and sea begins.

Pearl Mullet

About the time of the Apostle Paul, Pliny the Elder carried the eagles of Rome. He mistakenly believed that Lake Van was a part of the Tigris River system. Since he could not locate an exit for the water, he surmised that the lake was drained by a hidden underground cave. A special fish lived here.

Lost Love, Lost Kingdom

The road unwinds outside our vehicle. We do the same on the inside, quietly resting after our experience of Ağrı Dağı. My head bumps against the glass, eyes half closed. This, despite the extraordinary landscape.

The Hammam: An Untold Story that Should Probably Remain Thataway

Just to be clear, it is not my idea. Neither is it the idea of the six. But they go along. All of us go along. This much cannot be denied, although I am certain that some might try to when we get home. Curiosity, more than anything else, is the motivator.