“While past and on-going conflicts may at times cast a shadow over southeast Anatolia, a second look will reveal it for what it is: a region home to a fascinating history, a rich culture still firmly rooted in tradition and remarkably kind people.”
The hot, arid Syrian plain stretches northwards to Turkey to an area known as Anatolia. Here, between the Euphrates and the Tigris, lays Mesopotamia, an ancient land inhabited and crossed by a myriad of people who have lived, died, conquered and surrendered here since times dating back to 7000 B.C.E.
Today, southeast Anatolia stands in stark contrast to the rest of Turkey. The livelihoods of rural residents are largely dependent on agriculture, and the tents of those who still live semi-nomadic lifestyles are peppered across the countryside. The impoverishment of the region is apparent. The southeast receives less social spending and investment from the government, and consequently is the poorest and least developed area of Turkey. Unemployment in the area is rampant, estimated to be as high as 60%.
Southeast Anatolia is predominantly inhabited by ethnic Kurds, who are the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East after Arabs, Persians and Turks. They live in an area which spans the borders of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. Turkey is home to the largest population of Kurds, estimated at 15 million and making up about 20% of Turkey’s total population.
The Kurds have long harbored desires for equal rights and autonomy which have been met with a harsh response from the Turkish government. The Kurdish issue has gone unresolved for decades and Kurds have endured a number of hardships: cultural repression, restrictions on social, political and economic rights and destruction of property are some of the measures taken against them. During the 1990s, a forced migration policy borne of the conflict saw the displacement of more than 378,000 people from over 3,000 villages, and the fighting between the Turkish army and Kurdish rebels left an estimated 40,000 dead. This past year saw an escalation in violence worse than it has been in over a decade, but despite their difficult history Kurds are kind and hospitable people, immensely proud of their history and culture.
Winters here are cold and wet, the summers are long, hot and dry. Southeast Anatolia is one of the oldest farming areas in the world and though the land is arid, it becomes rich and fertile with irrigation. In the presence of water, crops of wheat, lentils and barley flourish, and trees brim with olives, pistachios and grapes. Tobacco and cotton crops are also vital to the agricultural economy of the southeast.
To reap the benefits of this potential and stimulate the local economy, the Turkish government launched the southeast Anatolia project (GAP). GAP is a massive regional development project to increase the fertility of the land through irrigation by building a series of dams and hydroelectric plants which will utilize the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates. Though the project has finally delivered and results can now be measured in terms of increased crop production and electricity supplies, these gains have not come without controversy and cost.
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The dams threaten to submerge villages and towns throughout the river basins, and residents are unhappily being forced to relocate. Of all the communities at risk, the most famous is Hasankeyf. A quiet village on the banks of the Tigris, Hasankeyf contains a wealth of historical sites dating back to the 12thand 13thcenturies which will all go under water, along with the homes of its residents, if the Turkish government moves forward with its plans.
Southeast Anatolia’s cities of antiquity each offer a different glimpse into the region’s rich and colourful history. Şanlıurfa, deeply devout and fragrant with spices, is the reputed birthplace of Abraham, the biblical prophet of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The proximity of Şanlıurfa to Syria makes it likely that you will hear Arabic spoken on the streets, and subsequently it is here that you feel you have arrived in the Middle East. During Maghreb prayer at Gölbaşı Park, the pious ambiance is bewitching.
Honey-colored Mardin, from its hilltop perch, provides a sweeping view over the Mesopotamian plain while minarets and kites flown by children below compete for your attention. Inhabited continuously for over 5,000 years, Mardin is a mosaic of cultures: Kurdish, Turkish, Syrian and Yazidi. In nearby Syriac monasteries, Aramaic - the language Jesus spoke – is still chanted during services.
Further east, along the Tigris River, lays Diyarbakır, whose ancient basalt old city walls and wealth of important historical sites illuminates its medieval past. As the center of the Kurdish resistance movement, Diyarbakır has seen a great deal of strife over the years.
While past and on-going conflicts may at times cast a shadow over southeast Anatolia, a second look will reveal it for what it is: a region home to a fascinating history, a rich culture still firmly rooted in tradition and remarkably kind people.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of Your Middle East.