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Amed: Castle of the Kurds
Making a road trip through the heartland of Upper Mesopotamia was on my travel wish list for quite some time, especially because of its historic and cultural significance. And not just for Kurds, but for all of humanity, for here is ” Ground Zero of History”.
My first destination was Amed, officially known as Diyarbakir. Amed is an ancient city and traces of habitation date back to at least 3,000 BC. Amed is of great cultural significance for Kurds: if Kurdistan were to become an independent country, this city would be its capital. And for good reason.
Amed first gained significance during the reign of the Hurrians, an ancient people whom are among the ancestors of the Kurds. The city has been ruled by many different nations and dynasties, but Kurdish and proto-Kurdish ones, such as the Medes (678 BC), Parthians (247 BC – 224 AD), Marwanids (983-1085 AD) and Ayyubids (12th & 13th century), have been constantly recurring. Today, the city is at least 95% Kurdish; small Armenian and Syriac minorities remain.
The city’s incredibly rich history is reflected in its many monuments. The most striking are its immense black, basalt stone city walls. Amed’s city walls are only second to the Great Wall of China in terms of length and preservation.
The city walls can be divided into two sections, namely the outer walls, which encircles the Old Town (Sur), and the inner walls, which encircles the citadel. The total length of the outer walls is 5.8 kilometers; the length of the inner walls is 600 meters, totaling over 6.4 kilometers.
There used to be a second outer wall, but this wall was demolished during the city’s Kurdish Ayyubid-era. The stones from this demolition were used to strengthen the current outer wall. Of the original 100 towers, 83 remain today. The towers take different shapes and forms. Most are circular, but there are some Roman-era square towers left. Most towers have between two and four floors. Each tower used to house a small garrison, ready at all times to defend the “black rose on the Tigris”.
The city has an extensive network of tunnels and dungeons, but they are not easily accessible. There are four main gates into the Old Town and one gate into the Citadel. Amed truly upholds the title of “Keleha Kurdan” (Castle of the Kurds).
Amed’s city walls and Hevsel Gardens are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. To this day, the Hevsel Gardens continues to provide crops. People flock to the 11th century Pira Dehderî (Dicle Bridge) during sultry summer evenings. The bridge provides a great view of the rising city walls and Hevsel Gardens. Crossing the bridge is crossing the Tigris River; the only thing that is not ancient for something that has always been has no age. As it roared before our time, it will roar long after us.
Below are photos of the Citadel with the towering minaret of Solomon’s Mosque (photo 1), a shot of part of the outer city walls with a minor gate and two towers built during during the Kurdish Marwanid-era (photo 2), part of the city walls with elderly men chilling (photo 3), a detail of the outer city walls (photo 4), view from a balcony located inside the Citadel’s gardens (photo 5), and remains of the city’s ancient water cisterns (photo 6).
It was difficult to get better shots of the immense city walls simply because of its sheer size. I recommend you watch the video on the right sidebar of this page, titled “Flight over Amed, Kurdistan”. Near the end, you will see the entirety of the Old Town and city walls.
The Turkish dictator Atatürk was aware of the Amed’s historic significance. His henchmen made serious attempts to demolish the city walls completely in the 1930s, unironically reasoning that “the walls are preventing the good people of Diyarbakir from getting fresh air”.
Some parts were demolished, but French archaeologist Albert Louis Gabriel managed to convince the Turkish fascists from completing their wicked plans by appealing to their desire to be seen as part of Western civilization, a desire that likely stems from their aggressive inferiority complex.
Unfortunately, this only temporarily halted the Turkish State’s destruction of historic sites in the country’s Kurdish region. Tens of thousands of monuments, such as archaeological sites, cemeteries, historic villages, and buildings have been deliberately destroyed since the Turkish Republic’s inception.
I encountered many scars of this savagery during my road trip. With pain in my heart, I have to say I was “fortunate” enough to have seen ancient Heskîf (Hasankeyf) before its destruction by the Turkish State in early 2020. “Fortunate” because the city’s unfortunate fate was unnecessary; more about Heskîf and other scarred places follows later in this travelogue.
About a third of Amed’s Old Town was demolished by the Turkish State between 2015 and 2017. Over 800 monuments, including churches and mosques, were demolished by the Turks as part of their century-long de-Kurdification process. Thousands of Kurds were expropriated (forcibly displaced and their properties condemned).
The resentment among the Kurds is high and the Turkish State’s deliberate destruction has been criticized by UNESCO and various human rights organizations. The Turkish State awarded contracts for the Old Town’s “reconstruction” to businessmen with close ties to Erdogan. The new buildings do not conform to the city’s historic architecture and are not affordable for the displaced Kurds. All of this is by design.
Fortunately, many monuments remain within the Old Town. I have fallen in love with the city’s distinctive architecture, with black volcanic basalt stone as its primary building block–often contrasted with limestone and white mortar.
A traditional courtyard house consists of four sections, each dedicated to and built for a different season. The courtyard is the central gathering place. Here, one can find fountains and sometimes a well. Trees provide shade against the scorching Mesopotamian sun.
The only exterior ornaments, that is, what you can see when you walk the Old Town’s narrow alleyways, are bay windows (also known as oriel windows). Otherwise, and very unlike Europe, the street-side exteriors are sober and simple: plain black walls. When you finally cross the threshold and enter a lavish courtyard, it is like having a secret paradise revealed to you.
Around 2,000 of these historic homes remain, over 500 are nationally registered. Many have been renovated and repurposed to serve as cafés, restaurants, or cultural centers. I visited several of these repurposed historic houses and was served delicious Kurdish terebinth coffee. I took some photos, which you can find below.
I shot these clips at two different historic houses to give you a better impression of the atmosphere. Very unique.
Interactive Courtyard House
I also created an interactive image of a traditional courtyard house. The interactive image highlights the different sections and features of a historic Amed house. These houses are considered to be some of the best examples of ecological architecture: the city’s natives knew how to built environmentally friendly buildings long before it was a hot-topic.
Click on the button below to view the interactive image and learn more about these extraordinary buildings.
Alleys of Amed
The structure of Amed’s historic alleyways has been the same for centuries: that is, until recently. As previously stated, one-third of the historic city was deliberately demolished by the Turkish State between 2015 and 2017. The natural structure of the alleyways was completely erased, and with it, the traces of many generations that thrived there.
Fortunately, many alleyways remain. The alleyways are in bad shape, but the fact that they remain is a miracle in itself. It is also very fun to get lost in them. The few tourists that visit Amed don’t dare wander the alleyways because of the Turkish State’s propaganda about Kurdish people. However, this has changed in recent years, with famous travel bloggers like Drew Binsky going as far as describing Amed as “Turkey’s best and most hospitable city”, completely shattering the Turkish State’s lies and propaganda.
I went into the alleyways and took videos and photos of a rarely ventured space; of alleyways older than Rome’s.
Below are some photos of Amed’s historic alleyways and one clip. The clip’s background song is “Bircên Diyarbekir” (Towers of Diyarbakir), sung by Ciwan Haco.
Kurdish Dengbêj Tradition
It’s easy to get lost in the complex labyrinth of alleyways, but getting lost is really just a different kind of path. A path that can lead to interesting people and places, such as the House of the Dengbêj. Dengbêj are Kurdish storytellers who recite epics, love stories, and tragedies through song–unaccompanied by instruments. The Kurdish Dengbêj tradition is centuries old, but it was, along with the Kurdish language, criminalized by the fascist Turkish State in the 1980s
In recent years, the Dengbêj tradition has experienced a revival. Anyone can visit Mala Dengbêjan (The House of Dengbêj House) free of charge and listen to the powerful, emotions-evoking voices of these talented artists and culture preservers.
Sometimes, the Dengbêj challenge each other by reciting the same story in succession. It was a privilege to listen to these men. I also saw Seyidxanê Boyaxci, one of city’s legendary Dengbêj. Unfortunately, it was recently reported that he is tired.
Update July 6, 2020: Seyidxanê Boyaxci, “the Nightingale of Amed”, passed away on 5 July 2020. Today he became a legend. Rest in peace.
The video below was shot at Mala Dengbêjan. The historic building has been transformed into a gathering place for traditional storytellers. Here, the tradition is preserved and passed on to new generations.
Besides civil architecture, the city is also rich in religious architecture. The city is home to many historic mosques and churches. The most significant are the Grand Mosque and the St. Mary Church.
The Grand Mosque was first used as a mosque in 639 AD and is thus one of the earliest mosques in Islam. The St. Mary Church dates back to the third century and is a contender for world’s oldest church. Another significant church is the Surp Giragos Armenian Church, but this church is located within the destroyed area of town and was unfortunately inaccessible. The Surp Giragos Armenian Church was restored by the city’s Kurdish municipality just a year before it was, just like during the Armenian Genocide, destroyed and plundered by the Turkish State. It was the Middle-East’s largest Armenian Church.
The photos below are of Mizgefta Shêx Muteher (Sheikh Muteher Mosque; photos 1, 2 and 3), Mizgefta Behram (Behram Mosque, photos 4, 5 & 6), The Grand Mosque of Amed (photos 7 & 8), and of a hand-written bible kept at the St. Mary Church (photo 9).
Behram Mosque was built in 1565. It is built in Amed’s distinctive architectural style with alternating layers of limestone and black basalt stone, contrasted with white mortar. I used a black and white filter on the sixth photo because the limestone has turned yellow: the building is in need of a good power-wash.
I love the mosque’s double-gallery with its massive pillars. The mosque was designed by Mimar Sinan, for a period the Ottoman Empire’s chief architect. There are more significant mosques and churches, but I won’t get into detail about those.
The bazaar was another place I frequented a lot. Amed has four historic caravanserais. Caravanserais are the ancient Silk Road’s equivalents of hotels.
Amed’s largest and oldest caravanserai is Delîlan Caravanserai, built around 1200 AD. But the most interesting and exciting is the Hesen Paşa Caravanserai, built 375 years later. The caravanserai has been turned into a social gathering space. There are many cafes, restaurants, breakfast bars, and cultural places (e.g. libraries and bookstores). If you ever found yourself in Amed, I highly recommend getting an extensive Kurdish breakfast here! It is simply amazing.
The photos below are of the Hesen Paşa (photos 1, 2, and 3) and Delîlan Caravanserais (photos 4 and 5).
Final Thoughts on Amed and Further Reading
Amed was my favorite destination by far. The people who live here have endured and continue to endure, but they are a proud and unbreakable people, indomitable.
Expressions of Kurdish culture and identity are everywhere, something the Turkish State has attempted to erase for a century (and which it is still trying to). Fascists believe they can break the peoples’ desire to live freely with force, but everything they have tried only hardened the people. A country (Turkey) built on lies, genocide, and deceit has weak foundations and bound to collapse sooner rather then later. As the famed Kurdish writer and activist Musa Anter (assassinated in Amed by the Turkish State on September 20, 1992) once said:
“If my native tongue is shaking the foundations of your state,
it probably means that you built your state on my land.”
Below are some final photos of Amed, namely: two photos of an elderly Kurdish man in traditional Kurdish outfit sitting on a bench, one photo of Kurdish children (one of them was very shy), and two photos of a traditional nuts & sweets shop with Kurdish and other Middle-Eastern delicatessens.
- UP NEXT: Heskîf / Hasankeyf, Kurdistan
Road Trip Destinations & Route
|City, Town or Village||Amed (Diyarbakir)|
|Year(s) Visited||2004, 2007, 2019|