Siirt is a city and province in Southeast Turkey where legend and fact are mingled in the colorful story of its past. According to a legend told about the founding of the city, a local lord had a beautiful daughter whom he had decided to give in marriage to someone from another clan. The girl was in love with a shepherd named Ali, but her father did not listen to her objections and she was obliged to give in to his wishes. The wedding day came and the wedding procession, with the bride riding on a horse, set out for the bride & groom village.
On the way, the mournful strains of a flute were heard. The girl realized that it was Ali playing and called out to him, ‘Run Ali! Take me away.’ The shepherd galloped up beside her on his horse, pulled her onto the saddle behind him, and the couple was soon out of sight. Sometime later, a village was built on the spot where the elopement had taken place, and it was called Seyirt, meaning ‘run’, after the girl’s cry to her beloved on her way to the wedding. In time Seyirt became Siirt.
In fact, it is a city of great antiquity, home to many different civilizations, beginning with the Hurrians, who were succeeded in turn by the Medes, Persians, Parthians, Romans, Byzantines, Arabs and finally the Ottomans. It was battled over and invaded time and again, and as a white-bearded old man in Ulu Mosque said, has perhaps survived ‘out of respect for the memory of saints, great men, and mystic scholars.’
Only the minaret of Ulu Mosque, which dates from the 12th century, has been preserved in its original form. The minaret, which is decorated with turquoise tiles, is slightly tilted. From the mosque, my guide took me to Aydinlar Caddesi, the main street known locally as Tillo Road, which leads in one direction to Cumhuriyet Square in the city center, and in the other to the junction where roads branch off to the towns of Sirvan, Pervari and Aydinlar. This street marks the boundary between the old and new districts of the city.
Minibuses from surrounding villages and towns set their passengers down on Aydinlar Caddesi. Many of them bring cheese, eggs, honey, nuts, terebinth seeds, terebinth soap, fruit, and vegetables to sell and vie for a pitch on the pavement. People wearing caps, turbans and the headdress known as pusi consisting of a length of cloth with the end hanging down behind, and young boys carrying loads on dilapidated hand carts complete the scene.
It is built upon seven hills, at the top of almost every one of which is a mausoleum belonging to dervish leaders known as şeyhs. These mausoleums give their name to the hills on which they stand, and people come here to offer up prayers. Two other tombs which attract large numbers of visitors are those of Veysel Karani in the town of Baykan to the northwest of Siirt, and that where Ibrahim Hakki and Ismail Fakirullah are buried in the town of Aydınlar just east of the city.
Streets off to the right from Tillo lead to the old-fashioned shopping center, where the narrow streets are covered by canopies of canvas and plastic. Here there are all kinds of shops selling carpets, cheese, cereals, stoves, clothing, wool, and furniture, mixed up with the workshops of craftsmen like blacksmiths, weavers, leather workers and repair shops. There are also many Turkish Kebab houses selling the famous local specialty buryan, which my guide enthusiastically described. It is a pit roast cooked in a tandır oven (a relation of the Indian tandoor). The meat, always young lamb, is hung in the tandır and the cover sealed tightly with clay so that it cooks in its own steam.
The old quarter of Siirt is the place to see the traditional houses, unique to this province, known as cas, the term for the gypsum limestone of which they are made. These houses are brown in color with ornate doors and window frames. Unfortunately, those that remain are falling into disrepair.
The city was once famed for its copperware, but this craft is on the decline, and just a few coppersmiths such as Nasri Bakirci are still to be found working here. The mainstay of the local economy is agriculture and animal husbandry. The remote location of the city and mountainous terrain have impeded industrial development in the area and many people have moved away in search of work over recent years. The main crops are cereals, cotton and the large local pistachio nuts which have the highest oil content of all varieties.
The pistachio trees produce their first crop seven years after they are planted. Stock farming is mainly confined to sheep and goats, particularly the angora goat. The fine glossy hair from these black and brown goats is used to make the special blankets which are so famous throughout Turkey.
Local wool and goat hair are hand woven into various textiles. At one time the main product was the tents used by semi-nomadic tribes like the Alikan, Duderan and Garisi, who spent the summers on the mountain pastures with their flocks, but this custom has now died out. However, the traditional herb cheese made with a species of wild garlic gathered in the mountains is as popular as ever and can be found in delicatessens in Turkey’s major cities.
We were invited to one of Siirt’s foremost beauty spots, Tasbasi, by provincial tourism director Yasar Baran. This is a gorge with intriguing rock formations through which the River Ulucay races along its winding course. The view is spectacular.
From here we went to Billoris Thermal Spa, where the large pool is open to men and women alternately every hour. The spa is open seven days a week, and people of all ages come here for cures in the hot sulfurous water. After bathing in the water you feel revived and energetic.
The smoke wafting from the chimneys had laid a gauzy veil over the city as the setting sun reddened the sky. I walked through the streets for the last time. Scents I could not define mingled with that of the earth. Under the melancholy spell of the evening, I said my private farewells to this fascinating city with its warm-hearted people.