For travelers, Hakkari is the most alluring province in Turkey. Hidden way in the extreme southeast corner, barred to most foreigners for nearly 50 years, it has acquired the irresistible aura if a forbidden land, and stories of its exceptional beauty—of soaring peaks and murmuring gorges, of glaciers on the edge of the desert, and of a rich flora and fauna—have circulated among mountaineers ever since the visit of a German expedition in 1935. The stories lave gained added interest from Hakkari's curious history and its long link with the unhappy Nestorians.
Thus, when restrictions were relaxed and the area temporarily opened to Foreigners about two years ago, it was four more than usual enthusiasm that :our of us set out to explore Hakkari, scale some of the higher peaks in the dramatic Çilo-Sat mountains and collect plants for the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Above all we looked forward to :raveling in the magnificent mountains of a little known country and to seeing something of the famous Kurds.
We started from Van, having first :limbed the deserted citadel, examined the cuneiform inscriptions 4,000 years aid, swum in the mild blue waters of immense Lake Van and visited the 10th-century Armenian church so wonderfully preserved in its isolation on the island of Aght'amar. It was a morning in late June, and we took the road southeast to Hakkari. It was empty country: a maze of hills and shallow valleys, with shepherds and their flocks beside the watercourses and a village perhaps every twenty miles.
Our base, the road-head at Yuksekova, east of the Çilo-Sat range, was only some hundred miles from Van, but with a long hah at Hoshab it took us the best part of a day. Hoshab has a long history and its dramatic castle, raised on a formidable rock-bastion, once guarded the western approach to the Great Zab River and Hakkari. Antedating the vast Crusader strongholds of Syria, it is almost as impressive and assumed its present form under the admirable Seljuk builders of the 11th century. It still dominates the landscape.
About sunset we got our first breathtaking view of the Çilo-Sat mountains in the heart of Hakkari. They rose to the southwest beyond arid steppe and burnt foothills in a series of long white curves. In summer, barely a hundred miles from the warm Tigris, there was a quality of magic in such generous expanses of snow. Early next morning, with six ponies laden with supplies and two genial Turkish pack-drivers, we set out from Yuksekova to reach them.
The Çilo-Sat mountains, some 50 miles long and 20 broad, run roughly north from the Iraqi border. On the east they are flanked by a curious basin, known as Gevar Ova, a flat green plateau whose level, marshy expanses lie at some 6,000 feet. A deep divide, through which the glacier-fed torrent of the Green River carves its way westward, almost splits the range in half. Çilo, the northern half, is the higher, rising in Mount Resko to 13,680 feet. Sat, the southern half, is nearly 1,000 feet lower, but the peaks have a dramatic quality suggestive of the Dolomites; there are small lakes cradled in the high valleys, and, in summer, masses of flowers: white hollyhocks and huge poppies, and yellow umbellifer and purple vetch that grow six feet high. Our tents on the high pastures were pitched among tulips, primulas, and gentians, and from our climbs we brought back a variety of drabas and other small rock plants growing sometimes at over 12,000 feet.
The wildlife is equally varied. Among birds we saw wheatears, snowfinches, smartly dressed black-headed buntings, and Alpine choughs. We flushed quail, partridge, and the cumbersome snowcock (Tetrogallus Caspius) more usually associated with Iran and the Himalayas, and saw eagles and vultures sailing on the seas of air between the peaks.
We also found mountain hares, ibex, and bears—both the brown bear and the little honey-colored Syrian bear—more than once at uncomfortably close quarters. There were so many, in fact, that we came to recognize their acrid smell, in time, fortunately, to permit us to give a wide berth to the places where they lay. On one occasion, in a narrow snow-filled gully between broken cliffs, a young Syrian bear, probably curious at the unfamiliar sound of human voices, appeared above us, lost his balance and slid on his back down a snowy couloir to land, visibly shaken, almost at our feet. In autumn the brown bears are a menace to the villages that skirt the range, coming down after sunset to gorge on the fruit and vines. Men and boys, scaring them off with rattles, make the night hideous until dawn.
It is from these villages that a local migration takes place after the long, snowbound winter. The villagers, seminomadic, bring up their flocks to pastures as high as 11,000 feet, and for three or four months establish their tented encampments in the heart of the range. The economy is almost wholly pastoral and before they move into the Çilo-Sat there are sometimes as many as 10,000 sheep, goats and cattle on the width of the Gevar Ova.
These shepherds, a branch of the Hakkari tribe after whom the province is named, arrived in the 14th century. Though their language has strong Iranian elements, they claim Arab blood and Abbasid descent and for centuries maintained a good measure of independence. It was only after 1925 that their feudal and tribal system began to disintegrate, and that they submitted to effective control of the government. They seemed reconciled to change and have shown little disposition to make common cause with the neighboring Kurds of Iraq.
When we had first set out from Yuksekova, the kaimakam had warned us against two things—mountain Turks (Kurds) and bears—and had insisted that our pack-drivers carry arms. "Kurds and bears," he said, "are unpredictable." Since he had been right about the bears —they stampeded our ponies several times—we were more than a little uneasy when, at last, we came across a Kurdish encampment. We approached warily, watching their huge, white, morose dogs out of the corners of our eyes. Our fears were groundless. The men welcomed us and the women, dressed like peacocks in saffron, red, and indigo, their long skirts glinting with sequins, laid out a kelim for us to sit on and offered their simple fare: thin round loaves of native bread, onions, yoghurt, and ayran —the Turkish milk drink—chilled in a nearby stream. Though they were very poor, we found this unfailing hospitality whenever we chanced on their encampments, a hospitality that flatly rejected our offers of payment. We did give them chocolate, but even the children, who had never tasted it before, spat it out.
The Kurds usually camped in a wide semicircle. Some of their shelters were stone walls roofed with yellow umbellifer, but most were the Bedouin goat hair tents. In front of each hung a tripod from which they slung skins to churn milk in and cradles for the children. My inadequate command of the Turkish language inadvertently furnished proof of the kindliness of these shepherds. In the heat of noon one day my inept instructions dispatched our ponies and drivers to the wrong pass—along with our sweaters, anoraks, and all our provisions. Hours later, hungry and growing steadily colder, we reconciled ourselves to an unpleasant night in the open at 9,000 feet. As darkness fell, and we huddled together trying to keep warm, we saw, a mile or two away, the flickering fire of a Kurdish encampment. Then, as I was dropping into a chilly and fitful sleep, I felt a sudden sense of unaccountable well-being. Tactfully and silently, emissaries from the encampment had spread an immense palliasse over us. We slept warmly and well, and woke at dawn to find our benefactors crouched at a discreet distance round a fire brewing our morning tea. We drank it out of vessels whose traditional form the Seljuks would have recognized.
Strangely enough, the Kurds, though long established in the Sat, are relative newcomers to the Çilo. The fastnesses of the Çilo were for centuries the home of the Nestorians, in primitive days the most widespread of Christian communities. When the Nestorians were declared heretics, they found a retreat, with virtual independence under their patriarch, in this remote area, and developed it into green, productive farmland. For hundreds of years they divided the Çilo-Sat uneasily with their Muslim neighbors, but in 1914, encouraged by the Russian advance from the Caucasus, decided to throw in their lot with the Allies. It was a disastrous decision. The patriarch mobilized his people, but Russian help failed to arrive and the Nestorians were faced with annihilation. With no alternative but flight or massacre, the whole community withdrew—it seems to have been a brilliantly executed military operation—by forced marches through the mountains into Iran, never to be a united community again. Scattered groups still retain their religion and identity beyond the Turkish borders.
For more than 20 years the Çilo remained uninhabited and although in the last generation Muslim shepherds began to move into the old Nestorian territory, half this green terraced area is still uninhabited. In summer, however, Kurdish flocks now range the pastures of the whole Çilo-Sat, and the memory of the Nestorians with their stone-built houses and terraced orchards is rapidly fading. Though we regretted the passing of this ancient Christian minority, our contacts with their successors were among the happiest memories that we brought away from Hakkari. It will be some time before the West changes these simple and hospitable people. With its mountains, unlike the deserts of the Middle East, impervious to the motorcar and all it brings, Hakkari thus may retain its wild untamed character for years to come.
Robin Fedden has traveled widely in the Middle East, is the author of several books on the area including Syria and Lebanon and Crusader Castles and now works with Great Britain's National Trust, helping in the care of historic buildings and collections.