Eastern Turkey and Black Sea: The Trip of a Lifetime

Author: Art McHaffie
Photographs: Stanze Joy

On September 7, 2015 eight travelers from Santa Fe and two travelers from Evanston, Illinois met our Turkish-American guide in the Istanbul airport to embark on the trip of a lifetime through eastern Turkey beginning in Antakya and driving east in a van to visit many outstanding archaeological sites. After we reached Lake Van in far south-eastern Turkey we drove north to the Black Sea and returned to Istanbul 21 days after we first met at the Istanbul airport.

From left: Stanze Joy, John Burke, Dona Hoilman, Barbara Hadley, Jim Joy, Dennis Hoilman, Joy McHaffie, Art McHaffie, Jackie Grygotis, Dennis Grygotis.

Our guide, Graham Umit Dogan is the owner of Treasures of Travel, a travel agency in Seattle that specializes in tours to exotic destinations around the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Middle East. Umit, as we called him has been leading tours of Americans to Turkey for 32 years. Umit is very knowledgeable about the archaeological sites as well as current Turkish political developments.

Turkish cuisine during our visit was delicious with ample quantities of fresh bread, vegetables, meat, coffee and ayran yogurt drink. We enjoyed market towns such as Gaziantep with abundant pistachios, Giresun with freshly picked hazelnuts and Rize with flavorful Turkish tea.

Young Turkish baker in village near Göbekli Tepe

Grilling meat in Artvin

Fresh Turkish coffee

Just before we departed the United States, the U.S. embassy in Ankara issued a travel warning which instructed non-essential embassy personnel to leave eastern Turkey and advised U.S. travelers to avoid travel in the area, especially to tourist destinations. After we met Umit, he assured us that we would be safe because he had a spouse and three children living in the U.S. and he wished to return to them after our trip. We cautioned Umit that we were trusting him to keep the group out of harm’s way as our itinerary would take us close to the Syrian border and through Kurdish territory in eastern Turkey. As a result of the travel warning and the political uncertainty, we had most of the archaeological sites to ourselves.

The outstanding archaeological sites we visited included the new museums in Antakya and Zeugma that contain Roman mosaics, the UNESCO World Heritage site at Mt. Nemrut, Göbekli Tepe which is the oldest known site of worship from 10-12,000 BC, historic Armenian churches, the Urartian capital of Tushpa which is purported to be adjacent to the Garden of Eden, nineteenth century Armenian ruins in Van, Mt. Ararat which is thought to be the resting place of Noah’s Ark, and Ani the ancient capital of eleventh century Armenia.

Art McHaffie at Mt. Nemrut

Exterior detail of 10th century Armenian Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar
Island in Lake Van

Turkey was undergoing a political upheaval while we were there. President Erdogan’s party, the AKP did not achieve a majority in the June 7 parliamentary elections. The primary reason AKP lost the election was because the moderate Kurdish supported party (HDP) received 14 percent of the vote and was seated in the parliament for the first time. When Erdogan did not reach a political coalition with any other parties, he set a new parliamentary election date of November 1, 2015. Additionally, President Erdogan broke off the peace talks and cease-fire with the extreme Kurdish party (PKK) which previously had been considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States.

There was a suicide bombing in Suruç near the Syrian border on July 20 that claimed 33 lives which Erdogan blamed on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Kurdish militants blamed the Turkish government for either instigating the Suruç incident or at least doing nothing to prevent it. Several attacks on Turkish police soon followed in Kurdish areas.

Shortly after we arrived in Antakya, Erdogan’s party (AKP) supporters attacked and destroyed 400 offices of the HDP. We saw demonstrations in Antakya and Şanlıurfa in support of the AKP and Turkish nationalism against Kurds. As we continued across eastern Turkey there were additional incidents of violence between Kurdish militants and Turkish military although we did not personally see evidence of these confrontations.

By coincidence the leader of the HDP, Mr. Selahattin Demirtas was staying in the same hotel when we were in Van. Our group met him at breakfast and had the opportunity to wish him well in the upcoming election.

HDP leader Selahattin Demirtas is fourth from right, Graham Umit Dogan is third from right.

Our group was relieved that we had avoided any incidents so far when we started to drive north from Van. As we drove along the Black Sea coast we saw a few Syrian refugees, but when we arrived in Istanbul the Syrian refugees were very noticeable. So far, more than 2 million Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey. Many of them are waiting for the opportunity to migrate to Europe either legally or illegally in order to find a better life that will be free from the violence that they have experienced in Syria.

Turkey is at a pivotal point in a number of ways. Will the AKP win the November 1 election and continue to lead Turkey away from secularism towards a Sunni Muslim state? Will Turkey become more engulfed in the violence that has consumed their neighbors to the south? Many Turks yearn for a better economy and a peaceful secular society, while others want to remake the country in the image of a conservative Sunni republic. The November 1 election may foretell which direction Turkey will head in the future. If HDP does not achieve the 10 percent threshold in this election, HDP will not be seated in the parliament and their seats will be allocated to the leading party which probably will be AKP.

On October 10, there were twin suicide bombings in Ankara at an HDP rally that claimed 99 lives. Will this violence enhance or diminish HDP’s support among the electorate? At this time, it is impossible to predict which direction Turkey will choose.

October 14, 2015

Postscript: President Erdogan’s AKP party won the November 1, 2015 general election with 49.50 percent of the popular vote which resulted in 317 of the 550 seats in the parliament. The HDP party met the minimum 10 percent threshold to be represented in the parliament with 10.76 percent of the popular vote which translated into 59 seats in parliament.