Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)

Riding the Silk Road, 2002-2009)
Where it all began: Xian, May 2002

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Across the Euphrates

Click here for a Google map of the 2009 leg of the bike trip

Gaziantep, Saturday October 24
17,125 km from Xian

Today I passed a few important milestones. I crossed the Euphrates River and so entered the Mediterranean core of the ancient Roman and Byzantine empires. I left behind Turkish Kurdistan and its unfriendly inhabitants. And I got to within a week of the end of my Silk Road ride. After more than 8 months of riding, over 17,000 kilometres, innumerable hills and mountain passes, and 11 countries, the end is firmly in sight!

I last posted from Midyat. It has taken me 6 days of sometimes eventful riding, past lots of ancient history, to get here, across the northern part of ancient Mesopotamia, across trade routes even more ancient than the transcontinental Silk Road. The first day (Monday, October 19) took me down to the Mesopotamian plain, through a canyon carved into the limestone plateau by a rushing river, beside which dozens of tea gardens and fish restaurants had been erected in the irrigated oasis at the bottom of the valley. I eventually emerged from the canyon onto the baking Mesopotamian plain, so close to the Syrian border that I could easily have tossed rocks into Syria. The road curved around the base of the limestone plateau to Dara, an old Byzantine town founded on irrigation. Half the modern village is constructed at least partly of re-used limestone blocks from the ancient temples, aqueducts and bridges. The ruins were nothing spectacular, but did have two unusual features: a vast underground water cistern, and a series of Byzantine burial chambers carved into an old limestone quarry.

I sweated my way further around and back uphill onto the plateau, finding a campsite atop a hill just outside Mardin. I was on land being reforested, and the forestry department came to check out my intentions before deciding I was mostly harmless. I had a wonderful quiet, dark, warm night, perfect for stargazing and guitar playing. The next morning, I made my way around the hill to the Syriac Orthodox church and monastery Deir ul Zafaran, formerly the world headquarters of the religion. It was an attractive building, but had been pretty heavily restored, obscuring much of the fine ancient stonework. I also had to take a guided tour with a large group of elderly, talkative Turks from Istanbul which detracted from the historic atmosphere.

I spent a few hours wandering around Mardin. It's a UNESCO World Heritage site, full of old stone-built houses, churches and mosques, but it was very difficult to take any decent photographs. It was also full to overflowing with busloads of Turkish tourists, and after visiting a highly disappointing museum, I beat a hasty retreat back downhill and out onto the plain. I had entered a vast area being irrigated under the enormous GAP (Southeast Anatolia Project) plan, and the stony, arid plain suddenly turned into Iowa, or perhaps Mississippi, covered in huge fields of corn and cotton. This made it difficult to find a decent campsite, and I ended up behind the back wall of a gas station, hidden from casual view but not from constant traffic noise.

The third day out of Midyat was a long, hot grind, trundling along the busy truck route across the plain (called by the Turks the Ipek Yolu, or Silk Road). All those trucks I had seen queued up at the Iraqi border follow this route from western Turkey, as do a lot of the trucks headed to Iran and Central Asia. The only good part to this tidal wave of trucks is the dense distribution of truck stops, all providing water coolers and cookies for thirsty, hungry cyclists. The road was torn up for a huge resurfacing and widening project, and I was glad to get off onto a tiny road to the south after lunch. I didn't see this road on my woeful map, so I had to ask a lot of directions to find my way across an unirrigated range of limestone hills to my destination, Sogmatar. The villages I passed were tiny (most fewer than 100 inhabitants) and seemed to come from a bygone century. There was essentially no motorized transport, and little sign of life. Eventually I got to Sogmatar and had my faith in humanity (especially its youthful part) restored by a young boy of 12, Zahid. When I showed up in his hamlet, he very politely asked if I wanted to see the ancient carvings. He showed me around, gravely serious, conversing in Turkish but always quick to use sign language or simpler words if he saw I didn't understand. I checked out the ancient temple to the moon goddess Sin, the underground chamber full of Assyrian relief carvings and the hilltop statues of the moon goddess and sun god. The village was (of course) full of children but they ignored my presence, continuing with their schooling or their games. I was mystified, until I found out that the village was not Kurdish, but Arab. I camped just outside town on another hilltop, quiet and isolated beneath thousands of stars.

The next day was long, hot and painful. I continued along my tiny road to Suayb, another small village built on the site of a former sizeable Byzantine town. The village is full of ruined buildings, and lots of subterranean burial chambers that are now, a bit morbidly, used as houses by the modern villagers. I continued through the stony desert hills to Han al Barur, an old caravansarai. Since it might be the last of many caravansarais that have marked my route, I was keen to have a look around, but was foiled by a Turkish TV crew that had arrogated the site to themselves and wouldn't let me in. I sneaked around the back to have a peek anyway, and returned to find them moving my bike to get it out of their next shot. I smiled as I told them what I thought of them barring my entry (luckily, none of them spoke English) and rode off, past old limestone quarries and more burial chambers, and out onto the Mesopotamian plain and its irrigation again. Suddenly there were people everywhere, all picking the cotton crop, as I rode into the town of Harran.

This town is claimed to be the oldest continuously-inhabited town on earth (I don't buy this; Jericho, Damascus and Aleppo make the same claim and seem more credible). It's also famous as a place where Abraham, patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, spent a few years. Its distinctive beehive-shaped houses are its current claim to fame, as villagers made use of the vast amounts of ancient mud brick lying around the town to build high domed roofs against the heat. It also has the oldest mosque in modern Turkey, a seventh-century Abbasid creation that now lies in ruins except for its distinctive tall, square minaret, completely unlike just about every other minaret in the country. The centre of town is a huge archaeological zone, and the main mound is under active excavation, exposing levels of occupation dating back to the Neolithic Age. Standing atop the mound and looking south, I could see a number of other mounds, many unexcavated, each the location of a prehistoric settlement on the plain that had crumbled and dissolved into a tell-tale hill. Somewhere out there, in 53 BC, a Roman army led by the rich but unsoldierly triumvir Crassus was annihilated by a Parthian army waving silk flags and employing the Parthian volley, a flurry of arrows fired on horseback while apparently retreating. Luce Boulnois starts the excellent book The Silk Road with an account of this battle, said to be the first time Romans had seen the distinctive new fabric making its way west from China. On the other side of town a castle, most recently rebuilt by the Crusaders during the time of Baldwin, count of Edessa, loomed picturesquely.

Surfeited with history, I rolled out of town towards Sanliurfa, ancient Edessa. A few kilometres outside Harran, I was attacked by a dog. Unlike most dogs I've encountered here, this one did not warn me of his approach by barking. The first I knew of his existence was when his open jaws bounced off my rear pannier as he snapped at my calf. I immediately swung at him with my Kurd-beater stick, but missed. This violent swing unbalanced the bike and sent me into the soft shoulder of the road, where I promptly and painfully crashed, twisting my sore back in the process. The dog trotted back to his yard, and I got up off the ground and rode in pursuit, pelting it with rocks. The owners of the dog, a Kurdish family (naturally!) saw nothing wrong with their dog attacking passers-by and were quite put out that I pursued it around their yard, hurling curses and rocks at it. Eventually, to appease me, the mother dropped a rock on the dog's skull to its great surprise. I rode off cursing all things Kurdish: dogs, dog owners, children and parents.

I was in some pain and also quite dehydrated when I got to Urfa, so I didn't really do justice to this ancient city. I checked into a hotel, ate, did internet, and the next morning visited the small museum and the pilgrimage site to Abraham. Islamic tradition holds that Abraham was born here, rather than in Ur as Jews and Christians believe. They also believe that Job spent his seven years of hardship in Urfa (at least they believe that it was Satan, and not a cruel and capricious God, who inflicted his sufferings on him). I fixed a flat tire (only my sixth in 7000 km) and rode off, back up onto the limestone plateau, in the midday heat. I passed through a howling wilderness, and then suddenly found myself on a huge downhill to the mighty Euphrates River, where I gave my back a break by sleeping in a surprisingly good, cheap motel in the riverside town of Birecik.

This morning I woke up refreshed and went off to the outskirts of town, where the extremely rare and endangered eastern bald ibis is being bred back from the brink of extinction. The wild breeding pairs have migrated away for the winter, but a number of juveniles are being raised in captivity, and I spent some time watching them and trying to take pictures through the wire fence (sorry about the quality of the photo!). Then it was a surprisingly easy 60 km into Gaziantep, another big modern city with a sizeable historic core. The more important features of the town, however, are baklava and the truly amazing Roman mosaic collection at the museum, rescued from the important Roman town of Zeugma when the Euphrates was dammed in the 1990s. The mosaics are very skilfully executed and are a great primer on Greek mythology, and their sheer number is astounding; I have only seen one other collection of comparable size, in the Tunis museum.

I rode into town through extensive pistachio plantations, and these go into the town's famous baklava pastry. I was skeptical that Antep baklava would be any different from the stuff I've been munching all the way through Turkey, but it really is substantially superior. I sampled the output of several different pastry shops, and was in tastebud heaven by the end.

So, now that I'm in the old Roman Empire, the end of my journey can't be far off. I should be in Antakya, ancient Antioch, where the early Silk Road trade between Han Dynasty China and the Roman Empire would have had its western terminus. Then I will turn north to its medieval endpoint, the old Cilician Armenian port of Ayas (now known as Yumurtalik) near Adana. A week of cycling and my seven-year obsession with the Silk Road will have its end!

Peace and Baklava

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7610/216864.4114.94878557:0916.150.3outside Sogmatar

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