The Kurdish village of Egil, Turkey

Moreen and I consider ourselves fortunate to have visited the Middle East often. Friends say perhaps we have tempted fate, though we disagree. We don’t speak Arabic, Turkish or other languages in this Muslim and Arab world, but we do respect carefully its many cultures. We believe personal travel articles, similar to those presented in ITN, permit readers to see behind national media reports. This preface leads us into this month’s travel for the adventuresome.


Shortly before Abdullah Ocalan, the insurgent Kurdish leader of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), was captured by Turkey in February 1999, we spent two nights in Diyarbakir with a wonderful travel company that has since retired.

Diyarbakir, in southeast Turkey, is one of the major centers of the country’s 14 million Kurds. Kurds do not have a separate country but comprise an ethnic group living basically within the boundaries of Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

Following Ocalan’s capture and trial (ending in imprisonment), his 5,000-member rebel army called off its fight with Turkey, retreated into Iraq and renounced violence, saying they would settle for cultural autonomy. There have been a few subsequent clashes between Turks and Kurds but certainly not in the numbers of the near past.

Its ironic that Diyarbakir, with a population of 250,000, would be a Kurdish center, as Kurds are mostly seminomadic or live in small villages. This perception is often enhanced by recent photos of Kurdish camps in northern Iraq.

Diyarbakir has a medieval appearance due to its surrounding 5.5-kilometer black basalt walls, considered by many the best preserved and largest outside of China. The walls were likely built by Romans during the Byzantine era as protection for this caravan stop on the Tigris River. This is a city for walkers, with these walls its highlight. Allow four to six hours to enjoy its sights and culture.


The morning following our arrival in Diyarbakir, we drove to the nearby village of Egil, built high on a plateau above the Tigris River. The purpose of our trip was to view an Assyrian fortress believed built during the reign of Sargon II (721-705 B.C.), a famous Assyrian king.

Having received prior permission from the military to enter Egil, our tour bus was greeted by a Turkish armored personnel carrier several miles from this village. Henceforth, we were escorted while walking and driving. The Turkish army was ensuring our safety, yet there was no uneasiness within our tour group, only the excitement of visiting a unique site under such security precautions.

Kurdish villagers studied us closely, neither smiling nor waving, as we were likely the first tourists to enter their village in many, many years.

From the center of Egil we walked several blocks on a narrow dirt path to the Assyrian fortress, with each of us guarded by a Turkish soldier carrying an automatic weapon. Several other soldiers were stationed on high points overlooking our route. These young soldiers seemed to enjoy this experience as much as we were enjoying ours — for them, an escape from boring training exercises.

Their captain, walking with us, explained that most of the past fighting in the Egil area had been between rival Kurdish factions and had not involved his men.

Little remains of the fortress itself. There is a faint relief carving on the sheer rock wall dating from Sargon II’s reign, plus circular Assyrian tombs with turrets and passageways leading from this great castle approximately 1,000 feet down to the Tigris River. Farms and houses along the Tigris River will one day be flooded due to a planned downstream dam. Turkey seeks to increase its hydroelectric power and to control the Tigris River.

Before departing, our tour group met with the area’s governor and photographed him, the captain and his soldiers. We then walked with the captain, without his troops, among 50 to 75 Kurd villagers for our last photos. There appeared to be mutual respect between the captain and the Kurdish elders when he identified several by name. I can only assume these Egil villagers were tired of the infighting between factions and with Turks.

People, memories

Moreen and I often reflect upon our experiences with Middle Easterners, especially following the events of 9/11 and Iraq.

In Egil, we’ll remember a Kurdish elder and a career Turkish officer discussing how best to repair the elder’s school using soldiers; a young Kurdish girl smiling impishly while being photographed, and a 20-year-old Turkish soldier picking and then politely giving Moreen a wildflower.

These but a few encounters have permitted us to better understand the complex cultures of the Middle East.


• My thanks to Charles Ross of the (now retired) tour company International Gallery for obtaining permission from the Turkish military for our Egil visit.

• In Diyarbakir we stayed at the very nice Grand (Buyuk) Kervansaray Hotel, also known by the name Deliller Han, a converted, 500-year-old caravanserai (caravan stop). Our clean room with twin beds and a Western toilet had only one drawback: doorways were less than 5'6" high, and the second-floor rooms were not disability-friendly. The Internet currently lists these rooms at between $100 and $150 including breakfast and VAT.

• “Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds” by Stephen Kinzer (2002, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ISBN 0374528667 — $15 paperback) is an excellent book describing problems Turkey faces today.

• There are several excellent webpages re Assyrians and Sargon II (763-705 B.C.).

• In 2004, tourism in the Middle East increased by 20% as compared with 2003. Granted, this increase was not due to Americans.

• Though currently there is no travel advisory for Turkey, readers should always use caution, especially in these times, when visiting countries discussed in this column.

Coming up

Syria has been in the news a lot lately. Let me give you some background on its city of Palmyra and the third-century Queen Zenobia.