A week in Southeastern Anatolia
This itinerary can optionally be lengthened by taking more time in some cities or shortened, although shortening it means rushing around a little. If time is really a constrain, it can be done sectionally, the section from Gaziantep to Mardin, for example, can give a through idea of what Southeastern Anatolia is about. Here, the route is described in an anti-clockwise fashion, although it can also be done in the opposite direction.
Most of the itinerary can be done by public transport, mostly consisting of buses and minibuses (dolmuş) in the region, although having a car in your disposal is obviously a more practical way of following the route. It can also be done completely by hitchhiking, as attracting a ride is pretty easy in the region.
Keeping both Turkish and Kurdish phrasebooks handy is a good idea, as the former is the mother tongue of most locals in places west of Euphrates, while the latter is the main language east of Euphrates. Most of locals east of Euphrates are also bilingual in Turkish, too, but they usually have a very heavy accent in spoken form.
Gaziantep, a big city in the western part of the region, which has fairly good and frequent air and bus connections with the rest of the country, is the most practical point of entry into the itinerary. However, circular nature of the route makes it possible to join it in any point, and Urfa and Diyarbakır, both of which are also fairly big cities having a number of transport options from the rest of Turkey, are other obvious candidates as the starting point.
After starting in Gaziantep, visit Birecik, a town of yellow stone houses on the banks of Euphrates, but more importantly one of the last refugees of critically endangered bald ibises (kelaynak), on the road to Urfa. If especially interested in ibises, check out their sanctuary on the cliffs above the river. You will miss the Roman site of Zeugma near Nizip, between Gaziantep and Birecik, but this should not be pose a problem as much of the site is actually swallowed by a dam lake—a common ill fortune of many sites in this region dominated by two major rivers of Middle East, Euphrates and Tigris—and most of its gems consisting of mosaics are in exhibition of Archaeological Museum of Gaziantep anyway. After Birecik, take a de-tour north to Halfeti, a more pleasant town than Birecik, though unfortunately half of it too is lost to a dam lake, symbolized by a lonely minaret rising from water. Minibuses will take you to what locals call Yenihalfeti (i.e. “New Halfeti”), though, which is a town of concrete boxes where people of inundated half of the historical town moved to, and is short of 7 km to the actually interesting historical part. Here, having no public transport, hitchhiking will come handy. You may also take a boat tour on the dam lake to a citadel across, on the top of a hill.
After returning back to Birecik, take the eastbound route to Urfa.
Get up early and visit Urfa’s major sights, which include a pond full of fish that is deemed holy by locals, the citadel which has a beautiful view of old town, mosques, and bazaars. This will take at least half a day. In the afternoon, you may have a day-trip to nearby Harran to south, an ancient village renowned for its "beehive" adobe houses.
Head to Mardin in the morning, which will take around three hours from Urfa. In Mardin, walk the narrow alleys of the old town among breathtaking stone architecture of the local buildings, visit town’s madrasahs, and possibly a Syriac Orthodox church. In the afternoon, head to the open air cafe near the eastern end of old town’s main street, and have a drink against the stunning view of Mesopotamian plains, which extends beyond the border into Syria.
If having a car or able to afford a taxi, visit Deyrulzafaran Monastery, which was the centre of Syriac Orthodoxy until 1930s, about 15 km South of city. Then head north to Midyat, a town with even more impressive architecture than Mardin, and which was almost completely inhabited by Assyrians until recently—which means there are lots of Syriac churches to see here as well. Walk around the alleys of old town. If still not tired enough for the day, take the de-tour to south, towards Beyazsu/Avaspi waterfalls off the highway to Nusaybin, which may please your eyes after Southeastern Anatolia’s dominant yellow aridity with its greenery.
Take the northbound route to Hasankeyf, a village on the banks of Tigris with much impressive ruins, including a half intact bridge, a citadel overlooking the river, and many cave dwellings which were inhabited as recently as 1950s. Visiting Hasankeyf’s ruins extensively easily takes a full day—but make sure to book a room or ask before starting your tour around the village if the only guesthouse of the village have free rooms if you intend to stay there.
Start very early and head north to Batman, a bleak city which seems to consist of slums, and is the capital of oil producing province and attracts many immigrants from surrounding countryside, but doesn’t have much in the way of sights. From here, take trains or buses heading west to Diyarbakır, the biggest city of Kurdish-speaking part of the country. In the afternoon, visit Diyarbakır’s main sights in its old town surrounded by city walls.
The next day, you can get back to Gaziantep south of Kahta, where you started, to complete the circle (or, more like the elipse) you have drawn in the region. On the way to Gaziantep, you may visit the Atatürk Dam—one of the biggest engineering feats of modern-day Turkey.
The itinerary sticks on the main routes of the region, so is quite safe as long as Turkey-PKK conflict is concerned. You may run into a couple of ID checks at the military checkpoints on the roads, though all you need to do is showing your passport (and the driving license if you are driving yourself).
From Batman, you may take the road to Tatvan on the shore of Lake Van to northeast, instead of taking the westbound route to Diyarbakır, although this would mean skipping Diyarbakır and Mount Nemrut from the itinerary (Mount Nemrut, however, can be done as an overnight side-trip from Gaziantep, too). Heading to Tatvan will make you join a larger itinerary in Turkish East, and visiting Van, Doğubeyazıt, Erzurum, Kars, and their surrounding countrysides onward is possible, and is actually quite popular among those that make it to Eastern Anatolia.