We set off for Siirt through the hills and the mountains, stopping only once to take a few photos of a village built in the mouth of a deep gorge. It was a pretty drive, and the prettiness was accentuated by the yellows, oranges and russets of the autumnal trees. Only as we entered the suburbs of Siirt itself did ugliness intrude. A dire mixture of industry, commerce and drab housing, the latter in Soviet-style apartment blocks, created a blot on the landscape, a blot exaggerated by the rain and the grey skies.
In Siirt itself, we stayed in the excellent Erdef Otel on Cumhuriyet Caddesi where our enormous room with its large bathroom and superb breakfast cost only 70TL (about £24) a night. It was lovely having a bathroom as large as all our accommodation in Bitlis! The owners of the hotel ensured that a matching colour scheme enhanced every room. Also, there was a bath in the bathroom. Nowadays baths are quite a luxury, showers being deemed less wasteful of water (additionally, showers take up less room than a bath, so, if you provide a shower but no bath, you can build bathrooms that are much smaller). To top off the hotel’s delights, the heating worked all day and there was constant hot water (because we were travelling in late October and early November, it was often chilly).
It was still raining, but I was determined to see some of the town while Hilary enjoyed the excellent hotel amenities. I looked first at the lively but compact pazar, then went to the Ulu Camii to examine the interior of the prayer hall and the recently restored tapering brick minaret. The minaret has a square ground plan. Ceramic tiles set among the bricks create attractive patterns, some of the best being star-like motifs. Progress was slow because I was detained twice to drink tea. Next, I wandered into the area of old and gecekondu (built overnight) housing which ascends the hill to one side of the pazar. It was mostly children and women I encountered, the former playing in the increasingly wet conditions and the latter engaged in various chores in and around their homes. Other women were shopping, cooking bread at communal tandirs or sweeping away the rain which threatened to enter doorways and courtyards. Returning to the town centre, I passed a pretty Muslim cemetery with a large tomb belonging to someone who had obviously been highly respected when alive.
By now quite wet, despite an anorak zipped up to my throat, I returned to the hotel and urged Hilary to come out: it was time for lunch. We left the hotel and, less than a minute later, were asked by a well-dressed man if he could help us. After I had said that we wanted to eat lunch, he led us to Ali Buryan Lokanta, a restaurant which lies along a covered alley just off Cumhuriyet Caddesi. We were ushered through the busy downstairs male-only dining area and up some stairs into the family room above. The man who had led us to the lokanta ordered our meal: three salads, ayran, and coarsely sliced and diced roast lamb. The roast lamb was served between two flat-breads oval in shape. The juices from the lamb seeped into the bottom loaf of bread making it even more tasty than would otherwise have been the case. The man stayed just long enough to confirm that we were delighted with the food, then left. We ordered tea to extend the meal. Imagine our embarrassment when we went downstairs to pay, but were not allowed to do so. Whether the man who had recommended the lokanta had paid for us, or staff were providing the meal for free, we never found out. But the food was sublime. The main course had a distinctly primitive quality to it, but the meat was outstanding in flavour and texture.
We returned to the hotel and leapt into the car for the short run to the small town of Aydinlar, still known locally by its old name of Tillo. The rain had at last stopped, so, although the sky was still overcast, we paused twice to watch the mist and low cloud caught in the folds of the hills below the road. In Tillo itself we visited the tombs which are the town’s main claim to fame, but also had a lovely walk through the pretty cemetery and the narrow cobbled streets that meander among the old stone houses. Tillo looked even better the second time than the first (I had been before in 2001). Some of the old houses have been restored. A few such houses, some with three storeys, are tall and slim in a way I have encountered nowhere else. Walking around were some of the young males who come to Tillo to train as the next generation of mullahs in Turkey’s mosques. There were also a few soldiers from the nearby barracks. The soldiers looked very bored.
At one of the tombs we met a man who said he belonged to the Huseyni Sufi sect. He alleged that he was related to one of the sheyks buried nearby. Whether this was true or not, he was very knowledgeable about the town and the people whose bodies lay in the tombs.
Earlier in the day, at Veysel Karani’s tomb in the small town of Ziyarat, men and women who wanted to pay their respects were restricted to their own entrances. In Tillo, men and women use the same entrance to each tomb, thereby paying their respects together. As is so often the case, Sufism emphasises gender equality and integration of the sexes.
Driving out of Tillo we saw a signed asphalt road for the kale (castle). We followed the road for about 4 kms until it terminated at a relatively new and well-designed picnic area. However, more impressive than the picnic area and the few remains of the kale was the location itself; we were on the top of a mountain with uninterrupted views in every direction. In one direction we looked over massive buttresses of rock into a valley far below, and in the opposite direction toward Tillo itself, which stood on a flat hill with larger hills and mountains behind and around it. After a car set off in the failing light, we had the place to ourselves and found it very hard to leave. This was an unexpected treat, one which confirmed the remarkable beauty of these remote and mountainous parts of eastern Turkey.
N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.
In classrooms in schools, and even sometimes in classrooms in universities, it is rare that much attention is paid to Sufi Muslims because content about Islam is dominated by the beliefs and practices encountered in the Sunni and the Shia traditions. This is unfortunate because, if more attention were devoted to Sufi Islam, some of the negative stereotypes that prevail about Islam in the non-Muslim world might be more easily challenged. Why? Because Sufi Muslims are the mystics of Islam. Consequently, Sufi Muslims are, as a general rule, far less rigid than Sunni and Shia Muslims in the way that they interpret the Qur’an. To explain matters a slightly different way, Sunni and Shia Muslims emphasise the importance of orthodoxy (right belief), but Sufi Muslims emphasise the importance of orthopraxy (right practice). Moreover, within the Sufi tradition there is immense diversity of practice, so much so that Sunni and Shia Muslims have frequently condemned specific Sufi groups as heretical.
Two of the most interesting Sufi groups, the Mevlevis and the Bektashis, have their origins in what is modern-day Turkey, but have been in existence for hundreds of years. The Mevlevis, better known in the West as the Whirling Dervishes, use music, song and dance to create an appropriate atmosphere or state of mind to connect, albeit fleetingly, with Allah. Their founder, Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, is regarded in the Islamic world (and elsewhere, in fact) as an outstanding poet of international renown. The Bektashis retain in their beliefs and practices aspects of Paganism and Christianity, so much so that worship usually unfolds in remote but beautiful locations far from population centres and mosques; communal meals involve the ritual consumption of bread and alcohol (in an echo of the eucharist in Christianity); and members of the sect are encouraged to believe in the “trinity” of Allah, Muhammad and Ali (moreover, based on the evidence of his lovingly executed pictures, it looks very much to the outsider as if the most popular “person/being” in the “trinity” is Ali, not Allah or Muhammad).
As noted above, Sufis have often found themselves the victims of persecution perpetrated by the numerically larger Sunni and Shia populations among whom they have lived (most scholars suggest that Sufis make up about 10% of the Muslim umma, or community of believers). However, as a general rule, because Shia Islam has aspects of mysticism in its belief system, Sufis have fared better in predominantly Shia nation states than in predominantly Sunni nation states (nonetheless, Turkey, and the Ottoman Empire before it, although both predominantly Sunni, to some degree contradict what has been the norm in relation to the persecution of Sufis for the last thousand years).