I walked north along the road to Elazig for about 400 metres, then followed a street going in a north-easterly direction, which was the way I had to go to find the road leading north to the summit of Makam Dagi, the mountain on which the ruins of Eski Ergani are located. I was soon beyond the commercially active parts of Ergani and in quiet residential streets instead, where, of course, women were far more evident than among the shops, offices, lokantas, tea houses and public buildings of the town’s elongated central business district. With the scenery steadily improving as the urban detritus lay behind me, a car stopped and the driver offered me a lift of about 4 kilometres. We climbed steadily and to the west saw the chimneys of perhaps the town’s largest employer, a vast cement factory beside the road to Elazig.
The man stopped the car under some trees beside the road. He was due to meet some friends to eat lunch in a house up an embankment and across an undulating field with sublime views of the mountain summit I was aiming for. I walked with him to the house to enjoy the views and meet his friends. Although invited to join the meal, I knew that if I did I would never do justice to Eski Ergani.
I returned to where the man had parked his car. A family had stopped to drink tea before completing the descent to Ergani. They kindly gave me something to drink and we talked about the forthcoming election. A conventionally pious Sunni family, the women in particular admired Erdogan and the Justice and Development Party (AKP), but they took my expressions of concern about the president’s increasingly authoritarian, intolerant and power-hungry inclinations in good humour (there are also worries about corrupt practices, if not by the president himself, then by close family members instead). This said, it was telling that the women stayed some distance from where I stood and I knew that any physical contact between them and me would be impossible or cause considerable embarrassment. I was briefly on the Sunni side of the street, as the dress sense of the women betrayed only too obviously.
I walked up the road delighting in the views around me, then a van carrying a large family stopped and the driver kindly drove me all the way to the end of the road, which is beside a mosque with substantial buttresses of rock rising yet higher on either side. A lot of people had driven up to sightsee, walk, eat picnics, relax with relations or friends or engage in chaste but self-conscious courtship rituals. To protect the pasture, the wild flowers and the fragile rock, an extensive network of steps, paths and wooden ramps made it easy for visitors to circulate. Many people wanted to talk with me or show me around, including the young people in the van that had carried me to the summit, and at one point I was befriended by two female second year university students, one of whom wore a headscarf and the other who did not. The latter dressed in such a way that she would have blended in with a typical group of young female British university students devoid of obvious religious affiliation. In the photo I took of them and a young male friend, she held up her left hand to give the V-sign that has emerged as the sign confirming support for the HDP. Her friend with the headscarf was almost certainly a Sunni – she took great care to conceal her hair and ears – but she joined in the banter and had no objection to being photographed. They both had their photos taken standing next to me and I was told that the results would very soon appear on Facebook. In fact, by the end of the trip I was assured that many photos of me doing different things, including dancing with HDP supporters in Diyarbakir, would appear on Facebook. Thankfully I kept my clothes on, unlike many holidaymakers who find it necessary to strip off when they get to notable destinations.
The views from the summit of Makam Dagi are superb. Far below is Ergani, but from a distance it looks little better than a concrete jungle dominated by low-rise buildings. The town stands on the edge of a gently undulating plain, but hills and mountains surround it in the middle distance. To the east, a short way below the summit, are the ruins of a church that was part of an Armenian monastery and, below the ruins and just to the north, a small village stands on a gently inclined shelf (I did wonder if the village possessed some of the houses, albeit substantially rebuilt, that once made up Eski Ergani). Some of the houses have flat roofs made of mud, but others benefit from pitched roofs of corrugated iron (the latter, although not as ascetically pleasing as the flat roofs made of mud, are, due to their light weight, far safer if earthquakes strike). Most houses have only one storey and their ground plan is square or rectangular. South of the village are fields, pasture and patches of trees, but to the north are more hills and mountains. It felt like the ideal place to be on a Sunday afternoon and the friendly people with whom I mixed were delightful company. This said, I suspect I was the only foreigner on the summit.
The Armenian monastery is known locally as Meryem Ana Kilisesi. According to Sinclair it was built in 1433 “by an influential bishop” of Diyarbakir called Mgrditch Naghash. Of the church, only the base and part of the south side survive, but beneath the church is a cistern with a snow reservoir beside it and “elsewhere beneath the ruins associated with the church is another deep, vaulted cistern”.
The mosque mentioned earlier contains the tomb of Dhul Kifl, who, according to Sinclair, is mentioned twice in the Qur’an. Local legend describes Dhul Kifl as someone who solved all sorts of difficulties confronting people, illness included. The structure containing the tomb is said to date from the 16th century. It is now integrated into a rectangular building with a corridor. The corridor leads to the chamber containing the grave of Abdullah, the standard bearer of Dhul Kifl, and Dhul Kifl’s tomb is reached from here by a door only a metre high.
As I left the mosque, I chatted with a group of women aged about eighteen to forty. All Kurds, a minority of the women wore headscarves, but the piety of the few did not stop the conversation flowing. Those without headscarves were more than happy to shake hands and joke about the forthcoming election. It was Sunday, normal routines were suspended, the sexual segregation that prevailed in the town below was briefly forgotten and it was therefore an occasion to relax by resisting the restrictions that so often inhibit discourse between males and females in predominantly Muslim nation states.
In some respects, Eski Ergani’s most interesting survival from the past is Zulkuful Suluklari, a large reservoir about 20 metres in length with four compartments positioned above a cliff. To this day it is protected by a vault on three rib arches. Stairs lead down from each of the two doors and water remains in the bottom of the compartments.
I returned to the road leading to Ergani and, not long after setting off downhill, the driver of the van that had taken me to the summit stopped to give me a lift into town. Not far below the summit, Hikmet, the driver and father of the family, stopped the van so his two sons, aged fifteen and sixteen, could show me what looked like a cave. But the cave turned out to have been artificially enlarged (a wide “column” of rock had been left to help support the roof) and its mouth was the entrance to what looked like a tunnel. Yet more water was in the tunnel. Were we examining another reservoir? A reservoir or not, this feature, the mosque, the turbe, the church, Zulkuful Suluklari and traces of other masonry, the latter perhaps the remains of the castle, suggest that more of Eski Ergani has survived than I had been led to believe. This said, Sinclair refers to the ruins of old houses, but, unless they are in the village near the ruined church and have been rebuilt, they seem to have disappeared altogether.
Hikmet and his wife had two sons and two daughters. When we arrived in the centre of Ergani, Hikmet got out of the driver’s seat, asked his oldest son to drive the van with the other family members home and invited me to drink tea in his favourite tea garden. With nothing more of importance to see that day I could not refuse his kind invitation, so we entered the tea garden where every table was occupied by groups of men varying in size from two to almost a dozen. Many of the men were teachers. Tea, some of it with milk, was the most popular drink, but some customers ordered hot orange. Games of cards, okey and backgammon were popular at almost every table, but this did not stop some of the large group of men at a nearby table coming over to chat with Hikmet and me. All Kurds, in common with most other customers in the tea garden, the men at the next table were secular in outlook, either socialists or, in two cases, communists. One man alleged he was an anarchist and a few admitted to sympathy for the PKK. After confirming I was in sympathy with secularism and the HDP, we gave each other the V-sign and I said, more as a joke than in expectation that this would really be the case, “After the election in three weeks time, let’s say goodbye to Erdogan!” This went down well with more than merely those chatting with Hikmet and me, and it proved a useful thing to say in the days that followed, except in the company of AKP supporters, of course.
Hikmet was a quiet and very dignified man who, predictably, refused my offer to pay for the tea, but I was able to get away after the third glass. I meandered through the surprisingly busy streets of the commercial heart of Ergani, then went to the pansiyon to freshen up and change my clothes. Downstairs I ordered a late lunch of grilled chicken wings, salad (three small bowls of salad arrived with different combinations of things to eat), bread and very frothy but mild ayran for 10TL. I then went for a rest for an hour or so.
About 5.30pm I left to take a few photos of sights that appealed to my sense of the slightly ridiculous, then went for a haircut in one of the barber’s shops still open in the pazar. After a glass of tea and chats with staff and customers that lasted just long enough to see off an unexpected but brief rainstorm, I went to a pastane for a large bowl of ice cream (the three flavours included one of my favourites, lemon). There I engaged in more conversation, but only with males because females were conspicuous by virtue of their absence. I watched a man who, for half an hour, folded flat sheets of brightly coloured cardboard into boxes so they could be filled with orders of baklava. The owner of the pastane came in and, after we had confirmed that all Kurds were good people and the AKP was turning into a disaster for Turkey, I asked for the bill, but was not allowed to pay it. In fact, I could not go until having yet another tea with the owner.
Back outside, the brightly coloured bunting of the different political parties flapped in the wind that had blown away the clouds. It was becoming very apparent to me that the vast majority of Kurds, whether religious or not, intend to vote for the HDP while the vast majority of pious Sunni Turks intend to vote for the AKP. Most secular Turks and Turks belonging to Muslim minorities will split their vote among the secular parties such as the right-wing Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) and the mildly leftist Republican People’s Party (CHP), and most people of Greek, Laz, Jewish, Armenian, Georgian and Arab origin will cast their votes for secular parties that are not aggressively Turkish nationalist. Turkish supporters of the AKP probably distrust the HDP even more than the nominally Kemalist CHP because they fear that the HDP intends to break up the Turkish Republic by creating an independent Kurdistan, and suppporters of the HDP probably hate the MHP even more than the AKP because the MHP is the party that is most uncompromising in its expressions of Turkish nationalism. Demographics suggest that the AKP will emerge as the largest single party following the general election, despite Erdogan’s authoritarian tendencies, allegations of corruption in high places, an economy that is beginning to falter, indications that inflation may soon prove a burden, disquiet about environmental damage caused above all by the construction of yet more reservoirs and the Turkish government’s refusal to aid the Kurds of Syria and Iraq in their war against the Islamic State. But will Erdogan secure the two-thirds majority required to amend the constitution so he can massively enhance the power and authority of the president? This looks impossible, and primarily because the HDP should secure sixty to eighty seats in parliament.
Ergani has little to commend it other than the pazar, the busy streets of its commercial heart, views of Makam Dagi, a small park with a very unusual water feature made to look like a waterfall, a roundabout with statues in the middle and, of course, the very friendly people, but I like the town, partly for the interesting places to visit nearby, and partly for its unpretentious character. But that evening, as the light began to fade and I stood on a footbridge crossing the road to Diyarbakir with shabby concrete buildings around me and a magnificent view of Makam Dagi to the north, the streets quickly emptied of females, who were already vastly outnumbered by males. The almost complete absence of females in the public domain compelled me to qualify my positive assessment of the town. Moroever, I knew instinctively that if unknown males and females engaged in conversation in Ergani’s town centre as had occurred earlier in the day at Eski Ergani, such an affront to acceptable interpersonal conduct would have attracted looks of disapproval and worse from the many pious males who appoint themselves as arbiters of what is right and wrong in terms of relations between the sexes.
I returned to the pansiyon about 8.00pm and noticed that quite a lot of new plastic doors and windows had recently been installed. Because the windows were double-glazed, when shut they kept the heat in and the noise out. A very fine mesh covered the windows so that, when open, mosquitoes and other insects could not enter. This was very impressive in many ways, but most of the frames of the doors and windows still had on them strips of protective plastic telling everyone that they were products of the “polimer kapi ve pencere sistemleri”. But those same strips of protective plastic told people in Turkish, English, Arabic and Russian that the protective plastic should be removed once the doors and windows had been installed!
A recently completed mosque designed in a simplified Ottoman style stood only 30 metres or so from my bedroom windows and, every so often, I was disturbed by the adhan. Until recently I have had great admiration for the adhan and never felt it was a sound I would tire of or object to. However, in recent years Muslims in many parts of the world have taken to screaming “Allahu akbar”, the opening words of the adhan which are repeated three times, whenever they engage in, or witness, acts of violence that lead to human death or the destruction of buildings. Those opening words of the adhan are now a constant reminder that many people who subscribe to Islam do not value human life and do not respect the products of human endeavour. They prefer burn, burn to build, build and have made life in the contemporary world more dangerous and demanding than we could ever have thought possible. And the adhan? I now find it oppresses my spirit because I associate “Allahu akbar” with the unnecessary and unjust taking of human life and the needless destruction of human resources. I also find it oppresses my spirit because it is never heard delivered by a female voice. I thought longingly of Muslim friends in the UK, male and female, seeking to overturn the ludicrous tradition that only male voices deliver the adhan. This tradition is as ludicrous as the tradition within the Roman Catholic and other Christian denominations that only males can be priests. And we all know where that tradition of male-only priests has led, don’t we? Yes, to the sexual and physical abuse of thousands, perhaps even millions, of young people, male and female.
Ergani, in common with most other places so far seen or passed through, had a lot of police, soldiers or jandarma, but for most of the time these guarantors of law and order remained in their highly fortified camps and compounds, most of which had signs prominently displayed warning that photography is forbidden. In the larger towns such as Cermik and Ergani, armoured vehicles patrolled the streets or positioned themselves at major road intersections, but the presence of police and others was far more apparent in Diyarbakir, still known throughout Turkey as the epicentre of the wild east. This said, in the centre of Ergani a large army camp had been abandoned. The barracks, the stores, the shelters for motorised vehicles, the officers’ apartments and the sentry posts, the latter protected by many sandbags, had a forlorn air about them. Wind-blown litter snagged on the razor wire that crowned the fencing cemented into the walls.
Back home, internet articles suggested the following about Ergani and Eski Ergani. Some of the oldest references to Eski Ergani, then known variously as Arkni, Argni, Argani, Arghni or Arghana, are in Armenian archives and, in the 19th century, the town had ten mosques, three Armenian churches (one of which belonged to the monastery, presumably) and a “Protestant chapel”. Modern Ergani’s population is described as 45% Kurdish, 45% Zaza and 10% Turkish. This must mean that 45% of the population speaks Kurmanji, 45% Zazaki and 10% Turkish.