On most of our trips, our goal is to see places and hope for experiences with people and culture along the way. While we’re pretty good at meeting people and making connections, it’s much harder to plan a meeting with a person than it is to plan visiting a site. A mosque will (almost always) be where it’s supposed to be, and you don’t have to wait for a ruin to invite you in for tea. While buildings are easy to find and can be fascinating, its really people and culture that interest me most, with ruins and historic cities serving as a backdrop in which people live their lives.
Diyarbakır, is one of those amazing places where there are so many cultural experiences to be had and interesting people to meet that Fred and I decided to do a spur-of-the-moment trip to see what we could find. It’s a unique city, with its mosques, churches, and walls built of the same black basalt masonry. The old city is surrounded by a massive ring of walls and towers, marked with Kufic inscriptions and the symbols of rulers. While winter rains had begun, making it almost impossible to capture the historic sights of the city the way we would have liked, we knew that the city’s craftsmen and artists would be working come rain or shine.
When Fred and I arrived, the weather was still fair and so we began by wandering the city to get our bearings and hopefully find some of the craftsmen we were here to find, stopping in at old mosques and churches along the way. While many of the buildings in the old city are not that old, the streets certainly feel ancient. Their course was winding and chaotic, and I could easily touch the walls on either side.
Abruptly, the crowded chaos of the old city gave way to wide open spaces. We were in Diyarbakır to experience culture and we had wandered into one of those aspects of culture that we usually try to avoid:
As a rule, ancient walled cities do not have wide open spaces of unused land, yet here in Diyarbakır the crowded bustle came to a sharp end, opening up onto fields of grass, broken up by clusters of new buildings clad in tiles of black basalt. While the dark stone was the same, you would never mistake these new buildings for anything authentic.
In 2015 a war raged in the streets of old Diyarbakır between Kurdish separatists and the government, displacing thousands, and resulting in the destruction of the majority of the south-east part of the city. Some of the neighbourhoods that survived still bear bullet holes and pock marks in the walls despite a widespread campaign of plastering. Locals blamed the government for the destruction while newspapers put the blame on the insurgents.
While an empty quarter of the city is perhaps the most obvious sign of Diyarbakır’s political issues, politics run deep through every aspect of the city. From its museums to its musicians to the architecture itself, politics constantly crept in to be discussed in hushed tones and implicit terms.
At one point, while wandering though the inner city, I met a family that invited me in for coffee. We walked through the narrow streets and entered a coffee house in a historic building of black stone and timbers. While his wife and two-year-old daughter were walking a little ahead of us he told me how it was just a few short years ago that he, as a soldier, was fighting in these same streets. Now he was out for a walk with his family.
Down a side street in the heart of the city we found one of the cultural experiences I had been hoping to find. A classic house of stone and timber had been converted into the city’s Dengbej Evi, a a place to preserve and showcase the tradition of the Dengbej. A Dengbej is a story teller, someone who recites love stories, war stories, or histories in Kurdish. The stories are sung in a unique style without instruments and a wandering melody and the songs they sing can be new or sometimes over a century old.
Walking in I sat down in an almost empty room, not really knowing what to expect or what was expected of me. At the far end of the room there was a cluster of old men, dressed in suit jackets with shalwar pants, and prayer beads in hand, one of whom was already singing. His hands were raised up on either side of his face, sometimes covering his ears, sometimes against his cheeks, and occasionally gesturing, emphasising something in the story that I couldnt understand. Occasionally one of the other older men would interject with a theatrical “vay vay vay” of exclamation or “agh” of sadness, and every now and again a genuine chuckle.
As time went on the room slowly filled till there were no more spaces left on the benches that lined the room and others sat outside listening. As one Denbej finished his recitation, another would begin his own, their style being surprisingly unique. Many of the songs would have a brief pause in which the other Dengbejs would sing a low droning note for a second or two before the song would suddenly pick up again.
It was interesting to see the difference in mood between the visitors and the initiates. The older men were relaxed, even casual, walking in and out or answering the phone before leaving the room. While the visitors sat in the still silence of ignorance and respect, unsure of the subject or mood of the song but always as quiet and respectful as possible.
It’s believed that the Dengbej is rooted in a court-bard type tradition where oral storytellers and historians performed for lords and at events. The tradition became especially important in more recent times as the printing of books in Kurdish was illegal in Turkey and even singing in Kurdish could land someone in jail. The songs became a way of remembering a history that couldn’t be written, but as the dengbej could not perform, a new generation could not learn the songs and the stories were in danger of being lost. As of 2002, laws regarding the Kurdish language began to relax and the Dengbej were again able to sing. The Diyarbakır Dengbej House was founded to keep this tradition from fading. As with the keepers of many traditions, the Dengbej are mostly poor.
Speaking with some of the Dengbejs and some locals afterwards they told me about the role the songs play beyond just remembering. Many of these songs are songs of sorrow, one of which was a song adressed to those who allowed their people to be led away and wrongfully executed. Simply writing these stories down does not lift the burden of the past, whereas singing is as much a form of remembering as it is mourning. They talked about the weight of the sins of the land – the sins commited by ancenstors, the sins commited against them – as an exhausting burden and the source of many people going grey at a young age.
We visited a pair of Armenian Orthodox churches in the midst of of old Diyarbakır, both similar and yet incredibly different. One restored in the city’s “new” district, and the other a ruin in the part of the city that wasn’t destroyed in the fallout of 2015’s upheaval. The Church of Surp Giragos was restored in 2011 after decades of abandonment had led to the collapse of its roof. Four short years later and the district that the church stood in was rocked violence and destruction though the church managed to avoid any serious damage beyond some looting. The restoration is one of the most authentic I’ve seen in all of Turkey. While there is no priest locally, one visits from Antioch from time to time and the few remaining Armenian believers worship in what is the largest Armenian church in the Middle East.
Not far away, the church of Surp Sarkis, built in the same style though smaller, is in ruins. The roof has long since disappeared and looters have dug a massive pit in one of the apses. Lacking the millions of dollars required for an authentic restoration, Surp Sarkis will likely look like this for some time.
What I love about cities like Diyarbakır is that traditional jobs are still being carried out in workshops that have existed for centuries. The city’s blacksmiths work in shops darkened by decades of soot in a building that dates back over 300 years. Similarly, the carpenter’s street is built onto the back of the nearly 500-year-old Hasan Paşa Han. There’s a rootedness in cities like this that carries on through generations despite the changes and upheaval.
Just outside the coppersmith’s market we found a shop making donkey saddles out of old rugs and reeds (his come from Bitlis, not from our friends at Eber Lake). He is the last saddle maker in the city but only a generation ago there were many of them. The saddle maker’s uncle, from whom he had learned the trade, was also in the shop when we were there. He told us how when he was young, demand for these saddles was still quite high. But, he also remembers travelling by donkey and wagon all the way to Mardin and Erzurum back then before average people had started buying cars.
Between the leather makers, saddle makers, blacksmiths, and various other characters I met while in Diyarbakır, one that was particularly interesting to me was Yunus Bey, the last erbane drum maker of Diyarbakır.
His shop was difficult to find, hidden off of a passageway at the end of a narrow alley near the carpenter’s district. His shop was small, dimly lit (not ideal for photos), and full of wooden hoops. He invited me in, and we chatted for a while about music and the craft of erbane making. The erbane is a wide flat drum with chains pinned to the inside made to chime like a tambourine or rattle like a snare.
Seeing I was genuinely interested, Yunus Bey grabbed one of the walnut hoops and demonstrated how he prepared it for a skin, working it with a rasp and sandpaper. On an anvil-like stand he began attaching chains, hammering in delicate pins and bending them into loops. He pulled out various skins, some of machined leather, others hand made, as well as some of plastic for cheaper models.
While today nearly all drums are made with nails and staples, he said that every now and again he has a customer who is a real purist. Yunus Bey pulls a strange looking clump of orange roots down from off the wall and tells me how every spring he goes into the mountains and collects asphodel roots which he dries, powders, then mixes with water to make a natural glue. He says the glue hardens as hard as bone and holds the skin better than modern glue and staples.
As only one of a number of traditional drums, the demand for erbane is small and so he’s also started making tambourines and various other wooden drums. As seems to be the case with just about every traditional craftsman I’ve met, he is not rich, and making a living has required him to expand his scope.
Knowing there was little money in the trade I asked my host if he enjoyed his work. He gave the rather unusual reply “Of course! This is my father’s trade” and took me to another room where he showed me an old cloth poster of his father who was an “Aşık” or traditional musician similar to a minstral as well as an erbane maker. While Yunus Bey’s passion for his craft is something easy to understand, the notion of carrying on our fathers’ trade isn’t something that carries the same importance in the West.
There are many ways to visit a city. While we usually prioritize the sights and food, there’s something special about sitting down with locals and hearing their stories and getting a glimpse of how they view themselves, their city and their past. There are always more layers beneath waiting to be experienced if you know where to look. And maybe that’s the issue with travelling for culture; you’ll never really be able to see it all.