Winter isn’t exactly the best time to travel in Turkey. A bit over a month ago I visited a friend in Malatya and we travelled around to meet some of his musician friends. It rained just about the whole time which pretty much killed any sort of sightseeing opportunities but I did get to listen to lots of great local folk music.
So this time with weather in mind I planned a trip to visit a place that is known for hot dry weather and not on the list of normal tourist destinations to see what we could find! The province we spent most of our time in was Osmaniye, a recently formed and rather small province between Adana and Gaziantep on the eastern end of Turkey’s hottest region: the Çukurova Plain. Osmaniye also sits along a narrow point along the ancient road connecting the Mediterranean region with the northern end of Mesopotamia, making it a frequently fought over area for thousands of years! Today the clearest sign of Osmaniye’s historic importance is in its numerous castles, some dating back over 4000 years!
On our way to Osmaniye from the airport in Adana, Fred and I drove past a couple of castles (we tried getting to them but the roads we tried were actually tractor trails full of mud) before finally stopping at Anavarza, a ruined Greco-Roman city with a massive castle towering over it. Anavarza was STUNNING! It was far larger and more exciting than I could have guessed from what I had seen online. According to the archaeologist we spoke to the city was inhabited through numerous historical eras, becoming the capital of Roman Cilicia during which time it grew massively. She even said that the total land area the city covered was twice that of Ephesus!
After our tour of the site, which involved a lot more hiking than expected, we got to chat with the guy in charge of guarding the ruins and keeping vandals and treasure hunters out. Over tea he explained the story of why one of the highest towers in the castle was known as The Maidens Tower (not to be confused with the dozens of other towers known by that name in Turkey). Apparently, the king of Yılan Castle and the king of Kozan Castle each had a son and both kings wanted their son to marry the daughter of the powerful king of Anavarza. To win the right to the hand of the princess the prince had to devise a way bring water into the city of Anavarza. The princess however, knowing that there would be war no matter who she married, decided to spare the people and instead threw herself from the top of the tower. It seems most Maidens Tower legends involve the maiden dying.
After the grandness of Anavarza our next stop was rather underwhelming. Hemite Castle, along the banks Ceyhan River is rather small though picturesque castle with origins dating back around 2800 years ago. Apparently there’s even a Hittite era inscription nearby but we didn’t know about it until too late.
We spent that evening in the town of Kadirli, where we noticed an incredible amount of Halka Tatlısı shops. Halka tatlısı is a ring-shaped churro soaked in sugar syrup, and while you see them around Istanbul, Kadirli was absolutely full of halka tatlısı shops and there was a constant stream of people grabbing them as they walked by. So much syrup had been dripped on the ground in front of these shops that you could feel your shoes stick to the sidewalk as you walked by! I also learned that kerhane tatlısı is another name for them which means brothel sweets. Don’t ask me why!
The next morning started with a drive past Hemite Castle on the way to Osmaniye’s most well known sight: the ruined city and castle of Kastabala, which historically was known as Hieropolis. In ancient times there were four cities by this name and this may very well be the least famous. Apparently there had been some issues with treasure hunters in the area because, instead of the usual bored looking guy in a shack waiting for visitors there was a rather intimidating, well armed soldier. Kastabala is currently being excavated and so much of the site is tarped over and, at least according to the hundreds of signs, going anywhere is not allowed. We talked with the guard and easily got permission to go anywhere other than right into the actual dig sites.
Taking a break from castles we went to visit a national park. The park is a large forested tract of land set on the shores of a lake with the remains of a late-hittite fortified city tucked among the pine forest. The park was beautiful in its own right but, this being Turkey, every good park will have some ruins hidden away somewhere.
That night we stayed in the town of Düziçi where I hoped to find an old-style soap workshop where thousands of soap bricks are stacked in tall rings to dry. The pictures I’ve seen of these places are absolutely amazing; the bright coloured soap and the odd, ring-shaped stacks make for fantastic pictures. Once in Düziçi I started asking around and immediately realized we had a problem: they don’t make soap in Düziçi! Turnips yes, soap not so much.
After confirming with a number of locals that there was no soap factory in the area, we headed to the local castle just on the outskirts of town as the sun began to set. While most of the castles we saw this week were built on top of high outcroppings in the midst of the Çukurova Plain, Harun Reşit Castle was built way up the side of the mountains with a stunning view of the whole region below.
That night, as crowds of men filled the streets waving banners, lit bonfires, and made speeches for the upcoming election (is there ever not an election in Turkey?), I went to the barber to get my beard cut back to a normal size. The shop was filled with guys whose Turkish was incredibly confusing. I still haven’t figured out what language they were speaking or what people group they were. All I know is that they play music at weddings, are WAY darker than any other Turks, and are not gypsies. Going to the barber turned out to be rather dangerous though. Listening to Fred attempt to make conversation with these guys with their strange accent and blend of languages was hilarious and trying not to laugh while there was a razor on my throat was incredibly challenging! I’d get a break every now and again as the barber would double over with laughter at the completely nonsensical conversation happening behind us!
Early the next morning we left Düziçi to visit a couple of neo-Hittite sites in western Gaziantep. While there’s a handful of city-mounds scattered in the long green valley that continues into northern Syria the main attraction to this area is the truly one of a kind site of Yesemek. On the slopes just above the small village, is a 3300 year old Hittite statue workshop where hundreds of pieces have been found amid the rubble. Lichen has begun to hide the details of the statues and engravings, though it’s still a rather odd and interesting site.
After seeing the main sights of Tilmen mound (where an archaeologist friend of mine had done her doctorate) and Yesemek, we went to the nearest town centre to look for some breakfast. Usually, if I need to be on the road early I’ll stop in at the nearest shop selling börek (think plain lasagna noodles with feta cheese in between ) in order to save time. We tried that every morning on this trip and not once did we manage to find one. At one point, while in the city centre I asked a guy on the street where I could find a börek shop, he paused solemnly, then just said no. Weirdly this food that’s a staple in much of the country cannot be found in this region. And so, considering börek was not an option and the fact that we were in Gaziantep, the land of the pistachio, we decided that a generous serving of baklava would have to do for breakfast. Honestly, it can’t be worse for you than Froot Loops!
After the main sites we attempted to find a couple of other Hittite city mounds and an old stone bridge that was rumoured to be in the area. We drove for a few kilometres through drizzling rain and hilly pasturelands until we came across a shepherd. We were fortunate to find one who was a local and spoke Turkish as more and more of the shepherding jobs are given to Afghan and Syrian refugees with little to no Turkish. He said the only things in the area were only accessible by hiking cross country for a few kilometres to the south and as we were already in the rather suspicious looking position of being a couple of foreigner guys in the rough hills just a few kilometres away from the Syrian border, we figured we’d give up our search there rather than risk the wrath of our moms and the Turkish Army.
That evening we went into the city centre to spend the night. I ended up in bed with a migraine so I just went to bed in the first hotel I could find. It was a pretty terrible hotel (not as terrible as the one we walked away from just a couple nights before though) but, at that point I wasn’t going to look around for something better. I figured I’d deal with the skin diseases later.
The next morning, after a breakfast of grilled cheese sandwiches (no börek again) and an early morning trip to the final castle on my list, we set out to see the city centre. The city of Osmaniye is rather unique in Turkey. The city isn’t actually very old and doesn’t really have much to do for visitors. There’s a couple run of the mill museums that show life in the area 100 years ago. It was basically the same as any old person’s house in a small town today only with mannequins posed awkwardly here and there. What Osmaniye does have though is the most inviting and talkative locals that I’ve experienced!
We were invited in for tea with some fish sellers, a green grocer, a carpenter, a baker, three liquor stores and some guys at a dried foods shop. Really though, this friendliness was everywhere we went in Osmaniye. People often refused to let us pay for things and instead regularly gave us our food for free! In Düziçi we had the owner of the restaurant track down the manager of the local teacher’s housing to make sure we got a good place for a good price then walked us to our room! (As I write this back home in Istanbul, I’m actually arranging to meet with him again when he comes here.) I know I’ve said this in basically every other blog post but if the people are good any trip will be good, and in this case the people of Osmaniye were great to us.