- 1 Batman — a bland oil-drilling town; might serve as a hub for visiting Hasankeyf
- 2 Cizre — a border town near the main crossing to Iraq
- 3 Birecik — a town on the Euphrates with a sanctuary for the critically endangered bald ibises
- 4 Diyarbakir — the largest city of the region with an old town surrounded by city walls, which are the second longest in the world after the Great Wall of China
- 5 Eğil — a town on the Tigris with an ancient castle and rock-cut tombs
- 6 Ergani — home to Çayönü, an 8000-year-old ancient city
- 7 Gaziantep — another large city of the region; this is arguably the last "Europeanized" city when heading east and is often dubbed the gastronomy capital of Turkey
- 8 Halfeti — a historic town on the Euphrates, unfortunately half of which is swallowed by a dam lake, though this presents the unique experience of taking a boat tour to a hilltop citadel in what is essentially semi-desert lands
- 9 Harran — an ancient village south of Urfa renowned for its "beehive" adobe houses topped by a dome
- 10 Hasankeyf — a village on the banks of the Tigris with an impressive medieval heritage, some of which is lost under a dam lake
- 11 Hilvan — ancient burial mounds yet to be excavated and vineyards surround the town
- 12 Kahramanmaras — squarely off the tourists' radar, this fairly large city is home to a bazaar and is nationally known for its ice-cream, thickened by orchid roots
- 13 Kahta — the base town for exploring Mount Nemrut
- 14 Karkamış — the site of Carchemish and the Biblical battle of the same name
- 15 Kilis — a town on the Syrian border with a historic core; hosts more refugees than its native population
- 16 Mardin — a hilltop historic city with exquisite stonework architecture and Syriac churches
- 17 Nizip — a roadside town between Gaziantep and Urfa, near ancient Zeugma
- 18 Nusaybin — a border town with an ancient Syriac Orthodox church and the intriguing desert ruins of Dara
- 19 Urfa (officially Şanlıurfa) — a wonderful city featuring arched Middle East architecture, Abraham's birthplace, Göbeklitepe and a gigantic archaeological museum
- 20 Siirt — near Botan Valley National Park
- 1 Nemrut Dağı (Mt. Nimrod) — a UNESCO World Heritage site with majestic ancient statues on its summit, and plenty of immense, striking views
The southern half of the region is fairly shadeless plains (in part sprawling uniformly flat into the distance); this area is dominated by steppes that are bright yellow in summer. The northern half is relatively rugged, but is nevertheless mostly barren.
The two major rivers of the Middle East, the Euphrates (Turkish: Fırat) and the Tigris (Turkish: Dicle), begin from the snowy mountains of Eastern Anatolia, and flow through the region before crossing Turkey's southern border into Syria and Iraq. Many Southeastern Anatolian cities and sites are on or near the banks of either.
While you may occasionally come across a tout in relatively touristy parts (e.g., Urfa) or kids asking for money — which seems to be pretty much the full extent of their English vocabulary, apart from the ubiquitous hello — the local people are extremely hospitable and friendly (often to a fault) and are willing to help you in any way they can. They are just proud that, after so many years of armed conflict and political instability, travellers from faraway places are now making the effort to see their hometowns.
Outsiders often assume Southeastern Anatolia is inhabited by the Kurds entirely, but on a closer look, you will find a diverse array of religions and ethnicities in the region, although not up to the levels once found during the Ottoman period.
The western quarter of the region, more precisely west of the Euphrates River, is mostly populated by the Turks, with villages populated by the Kurds scattered around. On the other hand, the majority of the population east of the Euphrates is Kurdish.
The ancient Tur Abdin region in the southeast, centred around Mardin and including the western half of Şırnak Province, is a place unto itself, historically dominated by the Oriental Orthodox Syriacs (Süryaniler), whose population was decimated in what many consider a genocide attempt during the turmoil of World War I, and much of the remaining rural population relocated to the cities or abroad during the bloody episodes of the PKK conflict from the 1980s. Amongst the inhabitants of this area are the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking people with a fairly unique belief system. Combining influences from Sufi Islam and ancient Mesopotamian and Persian religions, Yazidism highly reveres Melek Taus, a central figure of the religion symbolized by a peacock and seen as the source of light and the representative of God on Earth; however many non-Yazidi locals often compare Melek Taus to the "satan" figure of Abrahamic religions (a comparison Yazidis find highly offensive), and derogate the Yazidi religion as "heathenism" or "original Satanism". The daily Yazidi prayers, during which the participants face the Sun, are conducted on hilltops twice, at sunrise and sunset. Most Yazidis emigrated from their ancestral region, and those that didn't, keep a low profile and live in fairly remote villages, as a result of centuries of repression as well as religious commands to stay away from non-Yazidis.
There was also a sizable Armenian population in Southeastern Anatolia, but the mass deportations, massacres, and the genocide in 1915 hit the community hard. As of the early 2020s, there is a handful of mostly elderly Armenians in the region, mainly in Diyarbakır.
In addition to the mentioned ethnicities, all sedentary, there are also nomadic Kurds, who pass the winter in the relatively warmer region and move on to the cooler plateaus of Eastern Anatolia with their herds in summer, in search of pasture.
The climate is subcontinental Medtiterranean, with indisputably scorching, rainless summers - average daytime temperatures are ever so slightly below 40°C during July and August - warm springs and chilly, rainy winters. Northern parts of the region may see sporadic snow in winter.
In Southeastern Anatolia, the Euphrates forms some sort of linguistic boundary: the west of the river is mostly Turkish-speaking with a Kurdish-speaking minority while the mother tongue for most of the locals east of the Euphrates is Kurdish.
Arabic might be useful as it is the native language of many in the southern and eastern parts of the region, especially in and around Urfa, Hasankeyf, and Siirt, although the local dialect may not be intelligible for the speakers of the Middle Eastern varieties south of the border. Syriac, also known as Assyrian, a direct descendant of Jesus Christ's mother tongue, Aramaic, can also be heard spoken by small communities in and around Mardin, Midyat, and Şırnak.
Regardless of their native language, most locals are fluent in Turkish, although heavily accented in most cases.
Many Arabic and Farsi expressions have made their way into the local vernacular.
While traveling in Southeastern Anatolia, it is important to be conscious of whom you are speaking with. At military checkpoints, Turkish and English will suffice (most Turkish officers speak some English, usually due to previous training in the United States); it is critical not to test your smattering of Kurdish words with the Turkish military. When amongst Kurdish friends, the Kurdish language is appropriate, but be sure not to place your hosts in an uncomfortable situation by speaking in Kurdish while other Turks are present.
While not on the same level as the buses in western Anatolia, the bus service into and throughout Southeastern Anatolia is decent enough. You'll find buses running from and between most major destinations daily (oftentimes more than once daily). In the very deep southeast around Şırnak, Beytüşşebap and Hakkari, dolmuş (shared van-taxis) and minibuses are far more common but do not run as frequently or on as tight a schedule.
Bus and minibus service is generally robust, although schedules are not closely adhered to and you may find yourself waiting an extra hour or two for that minibus that everyone has been promising will arrive soon. Private vehicles often serve as taxis but for fees that are higher than one would expect. Be ready to haggle. Hitchhiking is far easier than anywhere else in Turkey, with lift offers generally coming from the first vehicle passing by. It's pretty much safe, too, as long as you stick on the main roads at least. In the past, however, it's known that PKK have raided private traffic on roads in deeper southeastern Anatolia.
Many roads in the region are full of potholes and locals drive somewhat recklessly, even more so than the rest of the country, so be extra careful if you are the one who is driving actually.
The most likely entrance into the region, Gaziantep, for the most part a modern and large city, is home to a castle, a couple of Armenian churches, which were converted into mosques after the 1915 genocide, and perhaps most importantly, the extensive collection of the Mosaic Museum, which hosts stunning mosaics excavated at the nearby site of Zeugma (we will get to that).
In the remote countryside near the Syrian border southwest of Gaziantep is the Yesemek sculpture workshop, an evocative hillside full of half-finished sculptures dating back to the Hittites, who formed the earliest kingdom in Anatolia in the Bronze Age. This was where many of the sculptures embellishing their kingdom, which once extended from almost the Black Sea coast to well into Syria, came from; with the collapse of the kingdom, the quarry was abandoned as were the sculptures, before they got a chance to be completed and moved to their final locations.
Roughly half-way between Gaziantep and Urfa and slightly off the modern highway is Zeugma, which was known for its pontoon bridge crossing the Silk Road over the Euphrates in the Roman era. While much of the site has been drowned under the waters of the Birecik Dam, and most of the heritage removed to the Mosaic Museum of Gaziantep, the excavations are still going on, and it may be worthwhile to check out the site itself.
On the opposite rim of the dam lake lies the pretty old town of Halfeti, which is half submerged like its western neighbour, Zeugma — the lonely minaret rising from the water, with the adjoining mosque inundated, can be considered an icon of the common ill fortune of many sites in the region, dominated by two major rivers. The picturesque town is notable for its historic buildings made of yellow stones common in the region, and boat tours to an outlying hilltop fortress over the dam lake are available.
East from there, Urfa is associated with Abrahamic myths, and its fully preserved old town has plenty of stone buildings, mosques, and a pond full of fish considered holy by the locals, all overlooked by a Roman-era castle.
In the northern outskirts of the city, the ongoing archaeological excavations at the hilltop temple of Göbeklitepe reveal numerous surprising findings about the religious history of humankind. Dated to 9000 BCE, this is the earliest temple known to the date, and it was the nomads who built the place — its construction predates sedentarization of any human group. The reliefs all over the pillars arranged in a circular fashion might be the archetypes of the motifs of the succeeding belief systems all over the world, making here the source of the idea of "religion".
Harran lies south of Urfa. It was first established by the Assyrian Empire as a trade post, and had been a major centre of early Islamic learning; the ruins of a university dating back to that era still exists. Nowadays, it is rather a small village, and is known for its unique "beehive houses".
The desert lands east of Harran feature some amazing and truly off-the-beaten path attractions. The open-air temple of Soğmatar/Sumatar is in the village of Yağmurlu, dedicated to the Mesopotamian moon god Sin, which had a wide following in the region until the 4th century CE, when his cult gave way for solar worship. Further on is the impressive ruins of Şuayip Şehri, an ancient Roman city, associated by the locals with Shuaib (Jethro in the Judeo-Christian tradition); he is believed to had spent time in a local underground cave.
Then comes beautiful Mardin, its twisting alleys lined by houses, mosques, and churches with highly elaborate stonework cascading from a mountainside with a breathtaking view of the endless Mesopotamian plains below, which extend beyond the border into Syria.
Not far from the town in the east is the Deyrulzafaran Monastery, which had been the seat of the Syriac Orthodox Church for centuries. The monastery is active and is open for visits. The ruins of Dara which started as a Byzantine garrison town against the Persians are out in the desert further along.
North from Mardin, Midyat is another town with stunning stone architecture and is just as beautiful, if not more, although without Mardin's superb location on the side of a mountain.
Further north, Hasankeyf was on a splendid setting on the Tigris, with its citadel high over the river. Once the capital of the Artukids, a medieval Turkish dynasty who founded a local kingdom in the region, Hasankeyf was considered to be one of the few of its type in Turkey, being a preserved medieval town. Sadly, most of it has been lost under the waters of the Ilısu Dam lake, although the citadel is on a sufficiently elevated ground to be spared (with boat tours taking travellers there from New Hasankeyf), and some of the heritage was relocated to the new site of the town some distance away.
To the northwest, past the magnificent Malabadi Bridge also built by the Artukids, you will arrive at the city walls of Diyarbakır. The enclosed old city inside, although a little run down, is full of mosques, churches, coffehouses, and caravanserais made of local black basalt rocks.
West from Diyarbakır comes Mount Nemrut, with its lofty summit adorned by an almost uncountable number of colossal statues of ancient deities, and affording a great view of the surrounding mountains.
Kahramanmaraş west of Mt Nemrut is mostly a modern city, although its historic core features a bazaar where traditional artisanship is still valued.
Half-way between Gaziantep and Urfa, the cliffs over the Euphrates in Birecik are one of the few refugees of the critically endangered northern bald ibis (Geronticus eremita, Turkish: kelaynak), the range of which extended over much of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East in the previous centuries. Due to numerous reasons (hunting, loss of habitat, and pesticide pollution being the major culprits), less and less pairs returned from their annual migration down to Ethiopia through Arabia in the latter half of the 20th century (only a single pair managed back in 1990), so the colony in Birecik has since 1992 been kept in a semi-wild fashion, lest it go fully extinct — the birds are free for most of the year, but taken into captivity after the breeding season to prevent migration. Due to its conservation status, the species has served as one of the icons for the Turkish environmental movement since its early years.
The hilly steppelands northeast of Ceylanpınar (Turkish for "gazelle's spring") are home to about 700 Arabian sand gazelles (Gazella marica), a vulnerable species with a worldwide population of likely less than 3,000 in wild, found in pockets of its original range covering much of Southern and Southeastern Anatolia, and Syrian and Arabian deserts. In 1978, the local state farm, which has a guesthouse on site, started an ongoing breeding programme for the species.
The volcanic Mt. Karacadağ, between Diyarbakır and Urfa, is the only notable summit in the fairly flat plateau of Southeastern Anatolia. Its foothills are usually thought to be the site of domestication of wheat, the main staple of much of the world's population. In springs, the wild wheats still grow their ears there, which is also a popular wintering ground for the nomadic Kurds.
The Beyazsu (Turkish)/Avaspi (Kurdish, both meaning "white water") area, with its creek through a ravine lined by wooden balconies on stilts, a couple rapids and much greenery between Midyat and Nusaybin, is a weekend favourite of the locals for picnicking.
Lush cedar forests cover the high meadows over the Taurus Mountains surrounding Kahramanmaraş.
After all, the deeply bright yellow steppe of the Southeastern Anatolian plateau is a sight in itself, even if it is watched just as a blurry image on the other side of the windowpane when passing through.
- See also: Middle Eastern cuisine
The region, Gaziantep in particular, is nationally renowned for its culinary offerings. Many of the restaurants elsewhere in the country are established and run by people from the area, supplying versions of the local meals, often retrofitted and tamed to the taste of non-locals.
Drawing on the Middle Eastern to a great extent, the local cuisine is heavily dependent on meaty fare; Gaziantep and Urfa particularly are famous for their local varieties of kebabs and lahmacuns. Çiğ köfte is another local specialty that can nowadays be found at joints nationwide. Despite the name ("raw meatball"), the modern recipe no longer includes meat (uncooked, originally) to avoid raised eyebrows from the health authorities, and is mostly a mushy mixture of bulgur wheat, and a series of fresh vegetables and spices. Speaking of which, the locals love to use many different spices on their meal, you've been warned. Vegetarians will have a tough time in the region and should prepare themselves for spending a lot of time between supermarket shelves looking for canned food and eating lots of boring pastry.
A major agricultural product is pistachio, grown in the countryside surrounding Gaziantep and Siirt, in the southwest and northeast of the region respectively. While its standard Turkish name is Antep fıstığı ("the nut of Gaziantep"), the people of Siirt vehemently object to this association, and instead prefer to call it Siirt fıstığı ("the nut of Siirt") or bıttım, a local name mostly unknown in the rest of the country. The Gaziantep variety is smaller and tastier (sssh, don't mention that while in Siirt), but both are worth a try.
Pistachios make their way into numerous desserts, including baklava — ask any Turk where the best baklava is, and they will invariably reply Gaziantep (even those from Siirt).
Tea (çay): it's everywhere. Be sure to add copious amounts of sugar to blend in with the local population. Anything less than three cubes just won't do.
Menengiç coffee or Kurdish coffee is a caffeine-free hot beverage made from roasted wild pistachios.
Boğazkere is a local grape cultivar grown in the Tigris valley near Diyarbakır. It is processed into a red wine with high tannic levels, and a strong body. The Syriac population of Mardin also has a winemaking tradition; the product is marketed under the name Süryani şarabı ("Syriac wine").
Stay abreast of the news in northern Iraq and southeastern Turkey before and during your visit to the region. The politics of the region is very fluid with the Turkish government threatening military intervention into northern Iraq and the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) making raids on military outposts as well as attacking civilian targets like minibuses. The Turkish military will sometimes declare security zones in the area, making civilian travel to the region impossible. It is often best to talk to fellow travelers in Istanbul, Ankara or, even better, Diyarbakir before making your way into the deep southeast. Don't trust the Istanbulites who will suggest that you won't live through any visit east of Ankara. A vast majority of them have never left Istanbul. A trip to southeastern Anatolia is very much feasible and, for the most part, safe. The deep southeast should be done with more caution, but it too is possible for the hardy traveler.
On some non-major routes, you may run into a few military checkpoints, though all you need to do is showing your passport (therefore keep it handy during rides, not buried deep in your backpack). Keeping a short list of cities on your itinerary in mind may save time in case of further questioning at checkpoints.
The arid climate in Southeastern Anatolia can quickly dry your skin, particularly your hands, and especially if you have a sensitive skin and/or are living in a humid, coastal climate. So don't forget to pack along some kind of moisturizer if you intend to stay more than a few days in the region.
Being not accustomed to heavily spicy/hot food, in addition to the fact that some food is prepared in less than perfectly hygienic ways, may lead to stomach trouble in some travellers whilst in the region.
Don't: It's far too beautiful.
But if the travel bug keeps you from settling in a place for a prolonged period, heading west from Southeastern Anatolia, if you have not already arrived from that direction, will make you meet warm waters of the Mediterranean, a totally different world. But if you rather prefer to chill than to sunbathe, then head north and east into the mountainous realm of Eastern Anatolia.
Iraqi Kurdistan and Syria are also nearby, but not advisable to visit because of ongoing wars. For the record, though, the border of Iraqi Kurdistan can be crossed via the Habur border gate near Silopi, southeast of Mardin and the Syrian border, which is to the south, can be crossed via a number of border gates south of Gaziantep, Urfa, and Mardin. As of September 2019, all border crossings with Syria are closed.
The "Deep Southeast"
- Getting off the beathen path in the deep southeast — If militant activity is quiet, take the highway from Şırnak to Hakkari, with a detour north to Beytüşşebap. The highway skirts along the Habur River, the border between Turkey and Iraq, and affords spectacular views of the Kandil Mountains. A few minibuses run daily from Şırnak to Beytüşşebap. A morning dolmuş (shared van-taxi) runs daily from Beytüşşebap to Hakkari, where you can catch proper coaches for northern destinations.