Hidden Gems of Turkey

Updated: Oct 14, 2021

My fascination with Turkey continues as I try to uncover hidden gems that deserve to be visited, so let’s venture off the beaten path.

Turkey’s mere mention will conjure up images of Istanbul with the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, and the Bosphorus. Sea lovers will rush to mention Antalya, Bodrum, Fethiye, and Marmaris. Cappadocia has garnered a good following with its rock formations, but does this mean this is all Turkey has to offer? The answer is a definite no! I will highlight a few cities located in Turkey’s southeastern region that are definitely worth a visit, but please keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list. There is so much more.

M a r d i n

Located a mere two hours away by plane from Istanbul, Mardin has withstood the test of time. The history of Mardin bears traces of humanity’s history from the Palaeothilic age to our modern times. Mardin has the cultural heritage and archaeological sites to be dubbed an “openair” museum. It is tentatively listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, and no new construction is allowed in the old city of Mardin to maintain its past heritage.

Artuk, the Artuqid Dynasty founder, was appointed as the governor of Jerusalem in 1086, and his sons continued to govern Jerusalem. In the year 1098, they were expelled from Jerusalem by the Fatimids, and they proceeded to settle and establish themselves in Mardin and the surrounding areas. During their reign, construction was done in pretty much the same way as in Jerusalem, and that is why the streets in the Old City of Mardin are a replica of the streets in Jerusalem. (Efforts are underway by the Artuklu University in Mardin to officially declare Jerusalem and Mardin as sister cities.)

The old streets of Mardin are to this day navigated by donkeys and mules. The streets are made up of so many stairs, and a tour of the ancient city is an excellent way to shed calories. The old town has a network of passageways or tunnels called “Abbaras” which are interconnected and sometimes have houses built on top of them. A sea of beige captures your eye since the buildings are made from limestone mined from nearby quarries.

Masha’Allah different religions have co-existed in Mardin for centuries. It is pretty common to hear the Athan and the Church bells ringing, which exhibits Islam’s respect and tolerance of other religions. It is also a melting pot where Turks, Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Yazidis, and many more live together in harmony and with ultimate respect for each other’s way of life.

Patriarchal family structures are prevalent in Mardin, where the men may get married but still stay with their parents. Keeping strong familial ties is an integral part of family life in Mardin. It is impressive to come across a city that implements the verse

“And fear Allah through whose medium you ask one another (for your rights) and be mindful of your relatives.” (Quran 4:1)

The people of Mardin are notorious for their generosity. Locals speak of times when early traders would be allowed to spend the nights free of charge at the various inns because it was too dark for the traders to travel back to their villages or towns. This mercy that has been instilled in the people of Mardin is still right there for people to see and appreciate.

Great sites to visit in Mardin are as follows:

  • Zinciriye Medresesi

  • Kasımiye Medresesi

  • Ulu Camii (Grand Mosque)

  • Mardin Museum

  • Mardin Castle

  • The Ancient City of Dara

Artisans exhibiting their work made from Silver, Copper, and Tin are challenging to miss once you set foot into the markets of Mardin. Master jewellers in Mardin make exquisite jewellery pieces, often with precious metals, called Telkari. There are few craftsmen who can continue this very old tradition so if you come across Telkari pieces, it is a very good idea to get some as the perfect souvenir from Mardin.

The existence of perfumers, spice dealers, and traditional pharmacists makes the markets very interesting. One such conventional pharmacist is Ramzi Mohamed Ismail Sayid Matar, who uses a reference book that traces back its origin to Ibn Baytar, an Andalusian Arab who was a pharmacist, botanist, physician, and scientist. Tourism has revived the soap-making industry of Mardin. These handmade soaps boast a lot of benefits, particularly for the skin and the hair. The most popular are the Almond soap and the Bittim/Menengic soap (made from olive oil and wild pistachio seeds).

An opportunity presents itself to connect with your inner child when you partake in Mardins’ favorite pastime - kite flying. Kites of different sizes and colors dot the Mardin skyline, and its location on a hill is perfect for this.

A trip to Mardin is not complete without a visit to Kimkim to experience Mardin coffee, a mixture of 9 coffee blends, and to try sugar-free pastries called Suryani Coregi - Assyrian buns made with butter, 12 kinds of spices and stuffed with dates.

G a z i a n t e p

Gaziantep belongs to UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network recognized in the field of Gastronomy. I like to call it the capital city of delicious food located a mere 90 minutes away from Istanbul by plane. Gaziantep has become a magnet for foodies from all over the world. They not only make the traditional Turkish foods with extra finesse, but they continuously innovate new recipes. It is not surprising to hear about a museum, Emine Gogus Culinary Museum, solely dedicated to present Gaziantep’s food choices.

Gaziantep is famous for its pistachios, olives, peppers, and vineyards, but pistachio takes precedence over everything. So, don’t be surprised to see a dash of pistachio on a lot of the meals. Considering the health benefits of pistachios, I doubt anyone will complain.

The odds are we have all heard about Baklava. Still, Gaziantep’s Baklava is so unique; the European Union registers it on its list of “protected designations of origin and geographical indications” under the name “Antep Baklava.” You may ask what makes Gaziantep’s Baklava special? The secret lies in a combination of 3 factors: their pistachios have a unique taste, they use very pure butter, and their syrup is made with sugar. Imam Cagdas and Celebi Ogullari are notable for representing Gaziantep’s Baklava in the best possible way.

To savor the delight of eating Gaziantep’s Baklava, please do follow the etiquette for eating Baklava. It is best to forego the usual knife and fork and delve in by picking it up with two fingers and making sure the wet side touches your palate.

If you are traveling to Gaziantep in July - November, you are very likely to tumble into rows of colorful vegetables that are being sundried, and pepper takes precedence here. A dash of pepper is to be expected in Gaziantep’s cuisine, even in their ice cream. Agacalti, a drygoods store in Gaziantep, markets these sun-dried veggies and other local produce in a very appealing way.

Gaziantep had a very convenient location on the Silk Road trade route, making it very popular with early traders. You will see many inns converted into modern-day bazaars and restaurants like Hisva Han and Anadolu Han. The markets have impressive displays of textiles, copperware, and leather products. A pair of Turkish “Yemeni” shoes have to be added to anyone’s shopping list. Long known for keeping your feet cool in summer and warm in winter, these shoes have been made famous by Hollywood in movies like Troy, Harry Potter, and others.

To work up your appetite for very delicious food, visits to the following sites are recommended:

  • Gaziantep Zeugma Mosaic Museum

  • The Citadel

  • Gaziantep Archaeological Museum

  • Gaziantep Mosques

  • Gaziantep City Museum (they sell local handicrafts here)

  • Hasan Suzer Ethnography Museum

A memorable day excursion by boat to Halfeti from Gaziantep is recommended. Halfeti is a city that was partially submerged in water when a dam was built on the Euphrates. The partially submerged minaret of the Savasan Koy Mosque is a truly iconic image. The Rumkale fortress located nearby is another iconic site to visit.

A visit in summer to Halfeti gives you a rare experience of naturally grown black roses. The weather, soil, and the ph level of the water in Halfeti have given it exclusive ownership rights to this rare black rose. SubhanAllah! Various attempts were made to grow this black rose in other places, but all were unsuccessful.

A trip to Gaziantep is best concluded with some Katmer, a sweet pastry, and a cup of Menengic Pistachio Coffee.

S a n l i u r f a

Sanliurfa, commonly called Urfa, is nicknamed the City of the Prophets and is less than 2 hours away from Istanbul by plane. Prophet Ibrahim (AS) was born in a city called Ur, believed to be modern-day Urfa. Many Muslims and non-Muslims come to visit Urfa since Prophet Ibrahim (AS) is revered by the three monotheistic religions, namely Islam, Christianity, and Judaism.

The Cave where Prophet Ibrahim (AS) was born, called Mevlid-i Halil Magarasi, can be accessed by a visit to a mosque with the same name - Mevlid-i Halil Mosque. Prophet Ibrahim (AS) spent his early childhood in this Cave with his mother away from King Nimrod, who like the Pharaoh, was also on the lookout for newborn male babies that could threaten his reign.

Closeby is Balikli Gol, the fish pond that is also associated with Prophet Ibrahim (AS). When King Nimrod built a huge bonfire to hurt Prophet Ibrahim (AS), the flames turned into water by Allah’s swt command, and the fire logs changed into carps. Feeding the carps is highly encouraged, but fishing them is prohibited.

Beautiful gardens surround both the Cave, the Mosque, and the pond. The Rizvaniye Vakfi Mosque is another site close to the fish pond that is worth a visit.

The Cave where Prophet Ayub (AS) waited patiently for Allah’s swt mercy and the spring that gushed by Allah’s swt command to heal Prophet Ayub (AS) are also claimed to be in Urfa.

There are several worthy sites to visit in Urfa like:

  • Gobekli Tepe

  • Urfa Castle

  • Ulu Camii

  • Salahaddin Al Ayubi Mosque

  • Sultantepe

  • Archaeology and Mosaic Museum

A 40-minute drive from Urfa takes you to the city of Harran. Harran was an ancient city of Northern Mesopotamia and was also the government’s seat during the reign of the Ummayyad Caliph Marwan ll. The town lost its previous glory thanks to Hulagu Khan’s conquest of 1260.

What is left of this city is the kindness of the local people and their beehive houses that represent an engineering marvel. These adobe houses made of mud and clay bricks are constructed without wood and are suitable for the climatic region they are found in. These conical mud houses happen to be very spacious. They are connected through arches with excellent ventilation that allows the retention of warm air in winter and allows for cool air bliss during the summer months. You can visit models of these traditional houses at the Harran Cultural Center.

The Great Mosque of Harran and the ruins of the 8th century Islamic University, deemed to be the first of its kind, are worth a visit. Natural sciences, Mathematics, Medicine, Philosophy, and Astronomy, were actively translated and studied at this University. Some notable scholars from Harran are Ibn Taymiyyah, Al Battani, who developed the science of trigonometry, and Thabit Ibn Qurra - a physician, astronomer, and mathematician.

Just like its neighboring town of Gaziantep, Urfa is also famous for perfecting another dessert, namely the Kunafa, but Urfa has made a name for itself with its pepper.

Urfa Biber, translated as Urfa pepper, has become very popular with chefs all over the world. You can add this chile pepper to anything, and it is bound to elevate it. Urfa peppers change color as they ripen from dark green to bright red to a deep maroon red. After the harvest, the locals sundry them during the day and cover them tightly with plastic or fabric at night to preserve their natural oil. They are then crushed and packed with salt.

This spicy, salty, smoky, sweet pepper can be sprinkled on roasted meat, vegetables, pizza and is also used to prepare desserts like chocolate brownies and cookies. Urfa Biber is an antioxidant with very high levels of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Potassium, and Iron. This miracle chile pepper flake is spicy, so no one should hesitate if presented with Ayran, a very refreshing and healthy yogurt drink, to cool down.

With Urfa Kebabs’ aroma in my mind, I am left to think about the human connections that we establish as we travel. It is effortless to bond with the locals who are excited to explain what makes their city unique, and with food this good, Mardin, Gaziantep, and Sanliurfa will have anyone coming back for more. Till next time Insha’Allah, I have to end with my favorite word, tesekkurler Turkiye, translated as, thank you, Turkey! You never cease to amaze me!


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