San Francisco and La Vieja, Bilbao, the Basque Country, Spain.

Although Bilbao’s inner city districts of Casco Viejo, Indautxu, Abando and Iralabarri are overwhelmingly respectable in character, San Francisco and La Vieja, just to the south-east of the railway stations, are more edgy. San Francisco and La Vieja are more edgy because this is where some alcoholics, drug dealers, drug addicts, pimps, prostitutes and petty criminals hang around in shadowy bars, cafes and night clubs or on street corners. But San Francisco and La Vieja are also vibrantly multi-ethnic areas where people from South America, Central America, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Eastern Europe live because housing is cheaper than in other parts of the city. Shops, small supermarkets, cafes and restaurants, some of the latter alcohol-free with halal food for Muslims, meet the needs of people from about fifty different countries. There are even barbers for men and hair salons for women so people can look just like they do “back home”. Some social and private sector housing is in a poor state, but the streets are full of vitality. Moreover, interesting buildings exist wherever you look. Calle San Francisco, the main thoroughfare through both districts, is a must-see, but streets to the north and the south also repay careful examination. Streets leading from Calle San Francisco to the river have some trendy shops, cafes, restaurants and businesses, the latter run by artists, musicians and photographers, as well as an excellent marisqueria (a bar-restaurant specialising in seafood) and one of Bilbao’s best wine shops. A few shops sell secondhand clothes and bric-a-brac, and it is not unusual to see men, usually African in origin, pushing old prams full of scrap metal and broken electrical items. Because San Francisco and La Vieja are two of Bilbao’s most interesting districts, I often returned to walk and take photos.

La Vieja more or less peters out once you arrive in the area immediately south of Puerta de San Anton, but the interesting architecture continues for quite a while along the river’s west bank. Moreover, excellent views exist into the district of Atxuri on the far side of the river. I walked south for over a kilometre until a large concrete bridge carries a wide road over what is now a deep valley, and entered another suburb of predominantly working class housing, in this case housing in modern apartment blocks notable only for their size and location beside the river itself. But what San Francisco, La Vieja and this more distant district confirm is that Bilbao off the beaten track is endlessly fascinating. Moreover, it is in these more marginal areas of the city where you encounter some very dramatic murals.

Are areas of Bilbao such as San Francisco, La Vieja and the rundown riverside suburbs safe in which to walk? The biggest problem I had was with a heavy dog, pit bull in appearance, which charged up to me near the river, but it merely wanted to say hello. If careful about where you point your camera (concentrate on the buildings, not some of the people), you will be fine, I assure you.

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Bilbao, the Basque Country, Spain.

I need to briefly discuss whether Bilbao is an unusual destination or not. In some respects it is not, because Bilbao is a large and well-known city graced with Frank Gehry’s immense and iconic Museo Guggenheim overlooking the river to the north-west of the pretty Casco Viejo (Old Town), and because, a few miles downstream from the Guggenheim, the views are dominated by a UNESCO world heritage site, the equally iconic Puente Colgante, or the Hanging Bridge, the world’s oldest transporter bridge dating from 1893. But in other respects Bilbao is an unusual destination. Very few foreign visitors stay in the city (unless they are on business or watching a football match involving the home team of Athletic Bilbao) because, if you want to experience urban Spain, you are far more likely to travel to more famous (and prettier?) Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Seville, Granada or Cordoba. Moreover, if visitors seek something urban but less conventional than Madrid, etc., they will stay in Malaga, Salamanca or Santiago de Compostela before Bilbao, if only because the weather is more predictable in the three cities just identified (this said, it was the persistent November rain which, for me at least, helped make Bilbao such an enchanting city. The glistening cobbles and paving stones, and the grey skies overhead, ensured that Bilbao’s bold colours assumed an intensity not marred by extreme contrasts in light and shade). Another reason why Bilbao is an unusual destination is that, despite efforts in recent years to revive its fortunes by becoming a cultural and shopping destination that most cities in the UK can only dream of emulating, quite a lot of Bilbao’s rust-bucket and industrial past remains (Bilbao used to be Spain’s most important city for shipbuilding, heavy engineering and the manufacture of iron and steel. Enormous factories, warehouses and shipyards once lined the riverbanks, and the polluted air hung around the grim apartment blocks in which most working class families had to live). However, as a future post will reveal, what remains of the city’s rust-bucket and industrial past is the source of a lot of present-day Bilbao’s fascination (and, as I hope the same post will confirm, the source of a lot of its eccentric beauty).

Because Bilbao’s more conventional delights will be unknown to most people, this post concentrates on the city centre (although I take a brief detour to include Puente Colgante). In the photos I wish to convey something of the distinctive nature of Bilbao’s best-known buildings, of its attractive streets and of the views along the river. Inevitably, a few photos feature the Museo Guggenheim and the delightful Casco Viejo. At least one photo features a bar or a restaurant because Bilbao is justifiably renowned for its excellent food and drink.

By the way: if you want something genuinely foodie at half the cost it would be in the UK, with a very good bottle of Rioja wine included in the fixed price lunch, look no further than Bistro Guggenheim at the Museo Guggenheim. A Tuesday afternoon lunch made it onto my list of the five best meals anywhere in 2013 (the meal began at 2.30pm, a popular time for lunch to start in Spain). The bill for two, with a generous tip included, came to 65 euros. Back home, a wine of quality comparable to the Bistro’s Rioja would have accounted for almost half the bill (yes, I kid you not). When it comes to wine, UK restaurants rip you off as much as UK banks. Or privately-owned UK rail companies. Where did we go wrong?

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Gobekli Tepe, near Sanliurfa, Turkey.

We drove east through the old city of Sanliurfa, passed beside Bey Kapisi and a section of the city wall, and emerged in an ugly mixture of houses, apartment blocks, car sale rooms, factories and warehouses. Once on the Mardin road we made good progress for a few kilometres before taking a smaller asphalt road north and then east. The smaller road led to a dirt and gravel track and Gobekli Tepe itself. Gobekli Tepe stands among gently undulating hills covered in grass and wheat. The wheat was almost ready to harvest (it was mid-June), and the grass was turning brown in the unusually high early summer temperatures.

The taxi parked beside a portacabin, the temporary home for two men assigned to act as guards to protect the site. The portacabin had beds, cooking facilities, a TV and a fridge. Amazingly, it cost nothing to visit what is widely regarded as one of the world’s most important archaeological sites. Two German men and their Turkish guide were the only other people who visited at the same time as us. We walked along a dirt and gravel path toward the best-known part of the site where the largest T-shaped stones exist. To the south the hills give way to the northern edge of the plain which merges into the Syrian Desert.

Gobekli Tepe is astounding, so much so that I will quote at length from the Gobekli Tepe website. Although written with a non-specialist audience in mind, the text confirms the site’s importance:

“Welcome to the presentation of the world’s oldest known temple, Gobekli Tepe, a prehistoric site about 15 kms from the city of Sanliurfa in south-east Turkey. What makes Gobekli Tepe unique in its class is the date it was built, which is roughly 12,000 years ago, or 10,000BCE.

“Archaeologically categorised as a site of the Pre-Pottery Neolithic A Period (9,600 to 7,300BCE), Göbekli Tepe is a series of mainly circular and oval-shaped structures set on the top of a hill. Excavations led by Professor Klaus Schmidt began in 1995 with the help of the German Archaeological Institute. There is archaeological proof that these installations were not for domestic use, but predominantly for ritual or religious purposes. Subsequently it became apparent that Gobekli Tepe consists of not one but many such Stone Age temples. Furthermore, excavations and geomagnetic surveys reveal that there are at least twenty installations, which in archaeological terms can be called a temple. Based on what has been unearthed so far, the pattern principle seems to be that there are two huge monumental pillars in the centre of each installation, surrounded by enclosures and walls, and the outer enclosures feature more pillars.

“All pillars are T-shaped with heights ranging from 3 to 6 metres. Archaeologists interpret the T-shaped pillars as stylized human beings, mainly because of the depiction of human extremities that appear on some of the pillars. What also appear on these rocks are carvings of animals as well as abstract symbols, sometimes picturing a combination of scenes.

“Foxes, snakes, wild boars, cranes and wild ducks are most common. Most of these were carved into the flat surfaces of the pillars. Then again, we also come across some three dimensional sculptures, in the shape of a predatory lion, descending on the side of a T-pillar…

“Tests have shown that three of the temples belong to the same time period, which is around 10,000BCE. One thing became clear from the start: these monumental stone circles had never been roofed, but had served as open-air installations, with not just enclosures, but also several layers of walls surrounding the central pillars.

“Evidently the walls were concentric in nature, but the chances are that there was a spiral path or stairway leading inside. Although still unclear, at temple C this seems to be the case. Other temples were built much later than the original structures, roughly a thousand years later…

“The planners and builders of Gobekli Tepe still remain a mystery and so far no one has been able to crack the code (about their identity). Archaeologists believe that the tail-end of hunter-gatherer societies were organized in a shamanic way, suggesting that some individuals were more influential than others and, perhaps, possessed a higher intellect or powers limited to only a few people. Perhaps this minority developed a calling for contact with the hereafter (or magical powers?) and, as such, became religious leaders. Such people may have presided over and organized their tribal, clan and/or social groups. But the question is this: ‘Did they maintain their shamanic characteristics, or were they propelled to the divine and powerful level of a priesthood, as seen later in other parts of the Middle East and Egypt?’

“Some hypothesise that Gobekli Tepe is a burial site. The excavations have not dug as far as any actual graves yet, but archaeologists expect to find them under the floor or behind the walls so far untouched. It is also surmised that, while Gobekli Tepe’s main function was probably for ritual burials, it could also have been used for big feasts and social gatherings.

“Only time will tell, but, as more and more of this fascinating discovery is unearthed, and layer upon layer of mystery is peeled away, perhaps we will have to readjust – or even be forced to change – our way of thinking about our ancestors and human history in general.

“Pre-dating Stonehenge by 6,000 years, Turkey’s stunning Gobekli Tepe upends the conventional view of the rise of civilization…

“The oldest man-made place of worship yet discovered, Gobekli Tepe is ‘one of the most important monuments in the world,’ says Hassan Karabulut, associate curator of the nearby Sanliurfa Museum…

“Schmidt believes the people who created these massive and enigmatic structures came from great distances. It seems certain that once ‘pilgrims’ reached Gobekli Tepe they made animal sacrifices. Schmidt and his team have found the bones of wild animals, including gazelles, red deer, boars, goats, sheep and oxen, plus a dozen different bird species such as vultures and ducks, scattered around the site. Most of these creatures are depicted in the sculptures and reliefs at the site.

“’There is still much that we don’t understand about religious practices at Gobekli Tepe,’ Schmidt cautions. But, broadly speaking, the animal images ‘probably illustrate stories of hunter-gatherer religion and beliefs,’ he says, ‘though we don’t know for certain at the moment.’ The sculptors of Gobekli Tepe may have simply wanted to depict the animals they saw, or perhaps create symbolic representations of the animals to use in rituals to ensure hunting success…

“To Schmidt and others, these new findings suggest a novel theory of civilization. Scholars have long believed that only after people learned to farm and live in settled communities did they have the time, organization and resources to construct temples and support complicated social structures. But Schmidt argues it was the other way around: the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.

“The immensity of the undertaking at Gobekli Tepe reinforces this view. Schmidt says that the monuments could not have been built by ragged bands of hunter-gatherers. To carve, erect and bury rings of  seven tonne stone pillars would have required hundreds of workers, all needing to be fed and housed. Hence the eventual emergence of settled communities in the area around 10,000 years ago. ‘This shows socio-cultural changes come first, agriculture comes later,’ says Stanford University archaeologist Ian Hodder, who excavated Catalhoyuk, a prehistoric settlement 300 miles from Gobekli Tepe. ‘You can make a good case this area is the real origin of complex Neolithic societies.’”

Very close to the most important excavated part of the site, on a low hill slightly above most of the surrounding area, a tree stands in splendid isolation. Strips of paper and plastic have been tied to the tree’s branches as votive offerings, in all likelihood by visiting Alevi or Sufi Muslims. As such, Muslims of certain persuasions regard the tree as a sacred site. It is interesting to reflect that people still engage in religious rituals at Gobekli Tepe.

N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.

Given that Gobekli Tepe is, by quite a few thousand years, the oldest confirmed site anywhere in the world at which religious rituals were once undertaken, anyone who wishes to provide a context for the religion they are studying with pupils or students (whether in school or university) will probably refer to this archaeological site in south-east Turkey.  Moreover, common sense suggests that some of the religions which emerged in the Middle East after Gobekli Tepe was abandoned may have been influenced by the faith which existed in what is now the Sanliurfa region about 12,000 years ago. Fascinating though all this inevitably is, to me the most remarkable thing about Gobekli Tepe is how it transforms our understanding of how religions emerged in the first place. Until the discovery of Gobekli Tepe it was assumed that religions emerged only after humankind had progressed from its hunter-gatherer stage to live in more settled communities in which different people were assigned different tasks, and life was more predictable and secure because of the emergence of basic agricultural practices. To put it another way, religions emerged only when humankind had sufficient time or leisure to invent them. But Gobekli Tepe suggests the reality is the other way around. As it says above:

“the extensive, coordinated effort to build the monoliths literally laid the groundwork for the development of complex societies.”

This theory suggests that, due to humankind’s desire to create religious centres such as Gobekli Tepe, it became necessary for humankind to develop more substantial and complex societies in which people were assigned different roles. Consequently, crop production and animal husbandry did not precede the creation of sites such as Gobelki Tepe; they were a product of such sites.

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Mercimekli, near Midyat, Mardin, Turkey.

To find Mercimekli, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Midyat, Turkey”. From the centre of Midyat, follow the road to Mardin to the westernmost extremity of the town (you will be directly north of the nearby Ulu Camii in the suburb of Estel). From here an asphalt road leads north to Mercimekli. Mercimekli is only 5 kms from the road to Mardin. Public transport to Mercimekli is non-existent, but regular minibuses run between Midyat and Mardin and the driver will know where to drop you for Mercimekli. Once on the road to Mercimekli, almost everyone with a motor vehicle will provide you with a lift all or part of the way.

Mercimekli (this is the Turkish name for the village. Syriac Christians know it by one of the following names: Habsus, Habsnos, Hapisnas or Hapsenas) is a gem. A few concrete and breeze block buildings exist, but most houses are stone structures of considerable age. The church is in very good condition and has a bell tower of typical Syriac Orthodox design. The church stands at the northern extremity of the village on a low hill, which means that it is the first thing you see if approaching the village from the north. A modern mosque has been built closer to the centre of the village, just above a slope facing east, but it has been built in typical Ottoman style with local stone and has a pretty minaret. The oldest part of the village lies south of the mosque around and just beyond a house built over a narrow road so that the road passes through a short tunnel. Immediately to the west of this small area, in a barren, rock-strewn hollow that leads toward fields and rough pasture, is another area of old stone housing. Because the village has a slightly elevated location, the views in all directions are extensive. Although some houses have been abandoned most are occupied, albeit by families that do not have much disposable income (based on their appearance, only four or five houses seem to be owned by families with a substantial income, and such families have moved into new houses or old houses with large modern extensions. One house combining old and new stands within a high walled enclosure, an enclosure which mirrors the compound in which the church is located). There are hens, cockerels, donkeys and a few horses, and dry stone walls surround gardens, dusty yards, fields and orchards. The fields and orchards are within easy walking distance.

I had a wonderful time in the village, partly because the local people, male and female, are so friendly; partly because the vernacular architecture is so interesting; partly because the church is in such good condition; and partly because large flocks of sheep and goats make their way through the dusty streets. Even the tall water tower standing about 100 metres from the church adds an interesting dimension to the village (I was to find during the few days ahead that many villages in and around Tur Abdin have water towers. There were times I thought I had strayed into parts of Texas).

I knew from past experience that many Tur Abdin villages are very picturesque, but Mercimekli is one of the region’s most photogenic.

N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.

Along with the Coptic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church played a key role in the early development of Christian monasticism. The Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Mor Gabriel near Midyat, Turkey, can claim to be one of the oldest still functioning Christian monasteries in the world, roughly contemporary with the four ancient Coptic monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun, Egypt, whose origins also lie in the late 4th century. Mor Gabriel’s foundation precedes Mar Saba Monastery in Palestine by about 80 years, St. Catherine’s Monastery immediately below Mount Sinai by about 150 years, and the earliest monastery on Mount Athos by at least 400 years. Thus, Mor Gabriel is one of a handful of monasteries carrying on a tradition that has continued, apart from periods of desertion, for over 1,600 years.

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Izbirak/Zaz, near Midyat, Mardin, Turkey.

To find Izbirak/Zaz, access Google Maps and in the search engine type “Midyat, Turkey”. From the centre of Midyat, follow the road north for about 6 kms to the junction for Dargecit on the right. Take the road to the right for about 15 kms. Izbirak/Zaz is about 500 metres to the north of the Dargecit road. Public transport exists between Midyat and Dargecit and the minibus driver will know where to drop you for Izbirak/Zaz. However, hitching from Midyat to within sight of Izbirak/Zaz is relatively easy. It takes only ten minutes to walk from the Dargecit road to the village itself.

Izbirak is the Turkish name for a village that Syriac Christians have always called Zaz. I had seen Zaz from a distance four years earlier just as the light was failing at about 4.00pm on an overcast afternoon in early November. Even in such conditions Zaz looked somewhere very special. Most of its houses clustered compactly on and around a low hill, and on top of the low hill was a Syriac Orthodox church. From where I stood, it appeared as if the church was in the centre of the village.

The lorry driver dropped me at the point where a dirt road leaves the asphalt road heading north in the general direction of Zaz. However, you must take a right turn to enter Zaz itself because you otherwise arrive, after a walk or a drive of about 6 kms, in the village of Nurlu, itself a settlement not without its attractions.

Up close, Zaz is every bit as beautiful as it looks from a distance, but, with over half its houses abandoned, there is a sad air to the place. Almost every house in the village is old and made with stone, but very little of the stone is dressed or carved (I saw only one house with a carved stone facade, but the facade and the quality of its carved stone reminded me of far grander houses in Midyat and Mardin), which suggests that the families who built the houses were quite poor or had priorities in life other than flaunting their economic well-being. This said, some of the houses are substantial structures which spread over at least two storeys. Some of the larger houses have, or used to have, courtyards. A few houses have no windows at the ground floor level, and some two-storey walls are devoid of doors and windows. In fact, some houses resemble fortified houses. It is safe to conclude that, in the past, people living in Zaz felt that their location on such a low hill close to a relatively important road in gently undulating countryside made them vulnerable to attack by hostile neighbours.

The church, with its characteristically attractive slim bell tower, is situated at the highest point in the village. Up close you realize that the church is not in the centre of the village at all, but at its easternmost extremity. Although I could not access the interior, it is obvious that the church is in excellent condition. This is confirmed by the wall enclosing the compound, the large gateway leading into the courtyard and the bell tower above the nave, all of which are in remarkably good shape. T. A. Sinclair writes that Zaz’s church is named after Mor Dimet and that:

“The grim exterior is a product of more recent additions. A tower was added to the sw. corner (s. face) probably in the early 20th century, though any date from the 17th century on is possible.”

The houses that cluster around the church immediately to the west are in better condition than many in Zaz. A lot of the oldest and least sophisticated houses have external flights of steps leading to the second storey or the roof. I ascended to the roofs of some of the buildings from where excellent views of the village exist. At the lowest point in the village is a shallow pond almost oval in shape. Quite a lot of buildings encircle the pond, but most are abandoned and in very poor shape. In August the pond has only a little water, but it must fill for most of autumn, winter and spring. A few donkeys and horses were tethered close to the stagnant water.

Other than a car with a driver and two passengers making their way slowly up the dirt road to Nurlu, the only people I saw in or around Zaz were a nun who must have been living in the church compound (the nun’s presence made me think that the church might be part of a small monastery) and a young woman inside her walled garden. Despite the heat, the nun worked among the crops growing on a small patch of fenced-off land just to the north of the church compound. When a dog within the fenced-off land sensed my presence, it began to bark and continued to do so until I had walked about 200 metres away. The young woman saw me walking among the houses around her garden, but was too shy or too scared to acknowledge my existence.

I walked to the main road from where I was soon offered a lift all the way to Estel (a town which is now an extension of Midyat where a lot of hotels exist) by a family of Syriac Christians living in Sweden. The family own a house in Tur Abdin and live in it for a month every summer. When mum and dad retire from work in Sweden they will live in Tur Abdin permanently. Their sons and two daughters intend to remain in Sweden, but they would consider retiring to Tur Abdin if peace and security can be guaranteed.

N.B. Here is some useful background information for teachers (and, indeed, others) who may wish to use the post for educational purposes.

Along with the Coptic Church, the Syriac Orthodox Church played a key role in the early development of Christian monasticism. The Syriac Orthodox Monastery of Mor Gabriel near Midyat, Turkey, can claim to be one of the oldest still functioning Christian monasteries in the world, roughly contemporary with the four ancient Coptic monasteries of Wadi al-Natrun, Egypt, whose origins also lie in the late 4th century. Mor Gabriel’s foundation precedes Mar Saba Monastery in Palestine by about 80 years, St. Catherine’s Monastery immediately below Mount Sinai by about 150 years, and the earliest monastery on Mount Athos by at least 400 years. Thus, Mor Gabriel is one of a handful of monasteries carrying on a tradition that has continued, apart from periods of desertion, for over 1,600 years.

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