"Free Girls" and a Taste of Kindness in Gaziantep

When I went to Hasankeyf and Mardin earlier this year in February, I thought there couldn't possibly be anywhere in the world where people were as unconditionally kind and welcoming. Turns out that in Gaziantep and its surrounding areas (geographically very close to Hasankeyf), people are cut from the same cloth of open-armed reception. You leave coated in a buzzing warmth from the interactions with people there, who seem to know intuitively how to make a stranger feel at home.

Gaziantep is known for its food and since we arrived right around lunch time, our first stop was at one of its famous eateries- Imam Çağdaş. This restaurant served a variety of kebabs and its front tables were stacked with towers of pizza-sized baklava take-away boxes for visitors to bring home their nutty and syrup laden treats that seemed to sell like hotcakes. We ordered homemade ayran, which came in a bowl with a ladle, salad, findik lahmacun (findik, or "hazelnut" just meant small sized), and two kebabs- antep and Alinazik kebab. The dishes were whisked to our table with impressive speed and with one bite we understood what all the hype was about. Everything was fresh and extremely flavorful. My favorite was the Alinazik kebab- lamb meat and minced beef served on suzme yogurt mixed with eggplant. We ate and ate until we didn't think we could eat anymore... and then ordered some baklava, just a taste.

Mel, drinking ayran like a lady


Antep kebab and Ali Nazik kebab- Imam Çağdaş

Three red motorcycles

Limonata, 50 kurus

After lunch, we went in search of a dolmuş to take us to the Zeugma Mosaic Museum. It had been rerouted due to the visit of Ahmet Davutoğlu, the prime minister of Turkey, who was in town to speak at an AKP political rally two days before Turkey's parliamentary elections, so we asked around, poking our noses into a bustling bakery and grabbing a glass of ice cold sugary limonata on the way. The political rally area was decked in thousands of orange and blue flags, and speakers blasted the military-style political songs that have been projected from vans in Istanbul in the last few months leading to the election. We continued on and hopped on the dolmuş, where we were quickly taken under all the passengers in our vicinity's wings to help us figure out the proper stop for the museum. The driver's voice was hoarse from speaking a mile a minute and yelling information to boarding passengers, the dolmuş jerked this way and that, and we were surrounded by smiling eyes and helpful faces. Before long, we had reached our stop.

The Zeugma Mosaic Museum was breathtaking. It holds the title of largest mosaic museum in the world and houses many large and well-restored mosaics from the ancient city of Zeugma, an important link on the Silk Road, connecting Antioch to China, that once prospered on the Euphrates River. The museum includes several famous mosaics, among which the iconic fragment called "The Gypsy Girl", whose image is ubiquitous in Turkey. Meticulously rendered sea and mythological scenes, once pool or residence pavements, covered the floors. The mosaics were discovered in the late 1980s and removed from the ancient city's site to protect them from the flooding which would result from the building of the Birecik Dam. Uncovering these mosaics is an ongoing project, as some are now under water.

We left the Zeugma Mosaic Museum and retraced our steps to find the dolmuş back to town. The neighborhood where we'd been dropped off was filled with small shops- bakeries, butchers, cay houses, carts piled high with the fruit of the season. I stopped in a butcher shop, drawn by the beautiful old scale sitting on the pristine marble counter and asked the butcher if I could take a picture. He told me to wait and rushed inside to pull a cut of meat from the freezer and hang it behind the counter, posing for a picture with a cheerful smile. I love his earnestness and kindness in wanting to give me a good picture. Walking a bit further, the color combinations of the fruit carts drew me in- the spring green of tart erik (unripe plums that Turks love) next to the soft warmth of orange apricots, and the whole spectrum of blushing found on the ripe erik cart. The fruit vendor was a whirlwind of activity, playful and talkative, cigarette hanging from his lips, inviting me to take his picture. Within minutes, his cart was surrounded by onlookers and friends, participating in the interaction and watching with delight. We filled up on fruit and continued on our way.

We found the dolmuş and rode it to the end of the line, cut short by the AKP political rally. By that time, a large crowd had amassed with children and adults waving flags, donning white caps in support of the party. Music was blasting and vendors- simit, sut misir, limonata- were out to feed the growing crowd. Later that evening, I read about another rally in Diyarbakır, but that one for the traditionally Kurdish HDP party, where two people were killed and over 100 injured by explosions from homemade bombs- a sobering reality of what was at stake in the country's parliamentary election.

By evening, we were spent, but still made our way to Bakırcılar Pazarı- the coppersmith's market. Although it was late, some craftsmen were still working, carving designs into copper trays that shone like rivers on a more tarnished landscape. The market had a few antique vendors with beautiful old pitchers, ornate metal hamam toiletry cases with holes at the bottom for the water to flush out, scales, door knockers shaped like hands- big ones for males to use and smaller ones for females (there were similar types of knockers in Kapadokya- different sizes for different sexes, to alert the household of who their guest might be), kilims, and hand-cut copper lanterns- mini museums in their own right. At each place we entered, we were offered tea or coffee, so that by the end of the evening, we were each well-caffeinated. Since many vendors had very little English, I was able to use my çok az Turkish, and was happy to find out that I understood a lot more than I expected to and was able to communicate a lot more as well. I found out that it takes 10 years to become an usta (master) in the trade of copper work and enjoyed the light back and forth chit chat that is the precursor to bargaining.

Once we left the Bakırcılar Pazarı, we came upon a small han with inviting seats and thought we'd stop for a bite to eat, but were soon distracted by another antique shop on its perimeter. I walked in to admire the rows of antique bulbous samovars and pitchers that lined the shelves. Before long, the shop owner came to join us in the shop and we began the pre-buying dance, exchanging conversation. This man was particularly bubbly and friendly and insisted that I must show him my drawings so that we could collaborate on designs (although I'm not sure my drawings would work for his type of designs).  At one point in the exchange, he disappeared below the level of his shelves only to return, like a diver who'd found a pearl, with a glass of milky rakı. He offered us some, but we declined, opting instead for the wild pistachio drink menengiç found in this area that is nutty and much like Turkish coffee, but non-caffeinated. The samovars were sadly out of my price range, but Melody got a few hand-cut copper lanterns. The shop owner told us about a place with live music and wanted to extend the evening, but, feeling the burn of sleep in my eyes, I declined and after a quick dinner, the evening came to a close.

Fresh lahmacun

Oceanus and Thetis Mosaic. This mosaic depicts Oceanus and his sister and wife Tethys, from whose union, all forms of water on earth came to be (lakes, rivers, etc). Oceanus is the sea, personified. He is half man and half serpent. Tethys is a sea goddess. 

Eros and Psyche Mosaic- 3rd Century AD

Detail from the Eros and Psyche Mosaic, 3rd Century AD.

Nar-Detail from the Eros and Psyche Mosaic, 3rd Century AD.

Metiochus and Parthenope Mosaic- 2nd Century AD. The story behind this mosaic is quite lovely. It depicts the eternal lovers Metiochus and Parthenope, who, like Romeo and Juliet, fall in love at first sight. The mosaic was plundered and the portraits removed. Later, portraits in the Menil Collection of Rice University in Houston, TX, were found to be the missing pieces in the larger mosaic. So, once again, the lovers were united. 

Woman in red from the Theonoe Mosaic, 2nd-3rd centuries AD- Her gaze follows as you walk back and forth in front of the mosaic. This mosaic was submerged due to the Birecik Dam, but was rescued due to a technical problem  with the dam in 2002 and an ensuing decrease in the water level.   

The Gypsy Girl

The butcher

The baker
The baklava maker

Fruit vendor friends

Ripe erik!

Young rally goers

Erdoğan supporter

Watching the political rally

Simit truck

Hanging out, Gaziantep

Coppersmith at the Bakırcılar Pazarı

Copper work

The next day after breakfast, we departed for Mount Nemrut, a 3.5 hour drive from Gaziantep, stopping in the city of Adıyaman for another taste of the regions flavorful kebabs along the way. As we got closer to Mt. Nemrut, the roads got smaller, winding through green and yellow hills covered in wheat fields, with small villages tucked in their valleys, their white mosques shining like a smile against the hills' earthier tones. We passed several other ruins, but didn't get to stop- the Karakuş ruins, where the royal tombs for women of the kingdom of Commagene, the Cendere Bridge dating from 193-211 AD, and Yenikale, the ruins of an old castle built on a steep rock.

After several dips and turns, we finally reached Milli Parkı, which houses the ruins of Arsameia along with the Nemrut tombs. We stopped first at Arsameia, the ruins of an ancient city founded in the 3rd century BC by Arsames, an Armenian king, where the royalty of the Commagene Kingdom lived. What remains of the city consists of three sites that include two well-preserved bas relief sculptures used to decorate Hierothesion, or holy royal burial tombs. The best preserved of the two bas-reliefs depicts either King Antiochus or Mithridates and Herakles (Hercules). A visitor can get close to these sculptures and observe the detailed carvings of the king's headdress and clothing, stand by their side and look out at the view below- the silver snake of the Kahtaçay River weaving through the patchwork of yellow and green. The site also includes two caves, thought to have been used for burial and a large tablet inscribed with Greek, detailing the history of the founding of the city and the rituals for burial.

We climbed back down the hill and stopped at the site's picnic benches to grab a sade soda to cool off, and were soon joined by a large group of families traveling together from Adana and towns closer to Gaziantep. They invited us to join them, opening up containers filled to the brim with dolma, borek, lahmacun, and cake. Before we could blink, we were sitting with a lahmacun in one hand and a homemade dolma in the other, and were being handed cups of homemade ayran. Most of our new friends were teachers, two of whom were English teachers, and so we began to swap biographical information.

One woman, who was especially vibrant and eager to communicate with us asked us if we were traveling with anyone, to which we replied that we were in fact just traveling alone. "Ah!" she exclaimed, "You are free girls!!" She followed it up by saying, "I would do this too, but... unfortunately," jokingly patting her husband's back and giving him a sideways glance. Throughout her conversation, she continued to pepper in "unfortunately"s when referring to her husband, "I went to university, where I met my husband... unfortunately. Then we were married.... unfortunately..." Finally, laughing, he burst out and said, "Why do you always say "unfortunately"?!" to which which melted into a wide smile and admitted that she was quite happy to be with him, something that was obvious in their sweet interactions. Then she turned to us and asked, "Are you single?" to which, still laughing I replied, "Unfortunately!"

We sat a bit longer and then decided to start heading to Nemrut, in spite of their efforts to convince us to sit and continue the leisurely lunch. On the small road to Nemrut, we encountered an adorable young goatherd leading a pack of baby goats behind her. "Kids leading the kids," I thought to myself smiling. She strode, arms swinging, with jet black shiny curls and a beaming smile to match, taking large steps with her sky blue rain boots, proudly guiding the train of goats behind her. I got out of the car to take her picture and she smiled brightly, not stopping in her stride eventually disappearing around the bend with her father close behind her.

Cendere Köprüsü



View from Arsameia



Arsameia, overlook

Kids leading the kids!

Adorable little goat herder

View from Nemrut Dağı
Finally, we arrived to the base of Nemrut and hiked the short trail to get to the eastern terrace, where we were greeted by the remains of a royal tomb and temple- decapitated throned figures with their large heads laying at their feet- built under the reign of King Antiochus, who promoted himself to be god-like. In an astute and practical political move to unify the kingdom at the time, he promoted a religion with an assortment of gods from the various religions of the people under his rule, with himself amongst them. This merging of gods is seen in the diverse heads at Nemrut which include those of eagles, humans, and a lion and whose origins were Armenian, Greek, and Persian.

We walked to the western terrace, where more heads lay near the rubble that had once been their bodies. Several people had gathered there and were awaiting sunset. We stayed for a bit and then headed down the mountain, knowing that our trip back to Gaziantep would be long. We set off on the dimly lit road and after driving for a while sleep weighed down on our eyelids, and we decided to stop at a gas station for some caffeine and snacks to keep ourselves awake.

We pulled into a desolate gas station to make our purchases and, when one of the attendants saw that I was buying coffee, jumped to offer that he make us some for our journey. He prepared two cups of joe and set them out at a small table adjacent to the pumping area. He then asked if we were hungry, offering to make a full Turkish breakfast and adding that it was a gift from him, since he loved foreigners. Minutes later, he arrived with a delicious spread of cut tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, and cheese, dusted in thyme, bread and jelly, and scrambled eggs. He sat and chatted with us and didn't speak English, so I was happy to be able to practice my Turkish. He spoke slowly and supplemented his speech with gestures, so that I could understand what he was saying. We swapped questions and answers like trading cards, getting a small glimpse of who he was.

Although we could have stayed much longer, knowing that we'd be fighting sleep on the road and that we had over an hour to go pulled us away from this fun and light exchange. As we pulled away, they jokingly waved at us with paper handkerchiefs, pretending to wipe their eyes. Setting out on the dark road with barely a light outside of the short beam coming from our headlights, we blasted Dar Williams to sing along to and stay awake, and the warmth of the interaction coated my heart. The young man's unhesitating welcome and immediate kindness, his desire to give what he had to give and to make a connection with us was truly a gift. I felt humbled at at a loss as to how to express what such genuine kindness from a stranger had meant. "I could stand to be more giving," I thought.

And that, in essence, is the beauty of travel- that it is a catalyst of self- reflection. Every interaction is a mirror, a chance to observe yourself as much as you observe and learn about others. In my time in Turkey, I have experienced kindness like I have never experienced anywhere else- kindness with no strings attached, the impulse to share what one has to share. It has caused me to reflect upon my own kindness and openness in giving of myself- my time, my skills, my friendship, my things... to think about the energy that I am putting out into the world. In many ways, I fall short, but these interactions provide reminders. Reminders in tasting these small kindnesses, to be more kind and a better person.

Nemrut Dağı

Nemrut Dağı

Nemrut Dağı

Nemrut Dağı

Nemrut Dağı

Nemrut Dağı

Sunset on Nemrut

Sticksiz sunset selfie

View from Nemrut


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