The Tigris-Euphrates Basin
We drove east from Sanliurfa through the Mesopotamian plain between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The plain of Harran was to the south, but to the north we could see mountains. A few miles further the terrain changed to rolling hills. All day we passed a number of tells (huyuk is the Turkish term; mounds burying the ruins of cities) indicating that the area was well populated in ancient times. In many instances the modern village is built on or adjacent to the tell. Most villages have a sheepfold made from branches, stones, mud bricks, or dung cakes. Fences for livestock are unknown in Turkey, making the job of a shepherd or herdsman important. Some of the villages in the area had a rock fence around the orchard and/or garden to keep the animals out. The green, likely irrigated, orchard was a beautiful contrast to the dry fields which surrounded them. I have seen similar gardens in the Sinai peninsula.
About 30 miles south of Viransehir, inside Syria, is Tel Halaf. The ruin is situated on the Habur river and is the site of ancient Gozan, the place where the Assyrians settled some of the exiled Israelites in 722 B.C. (2 Kings 17:6).
There is considerable evidence of past volcanic eruption throughout this region. In these areas the soil was much darker and in some villages the houses were made of the basalt stones. The temperature in the Tigris-Euphrates basin was in the low 90s, while in the mountains to the north at Erzurum it was in the mid-70s.
We continued on highway E90 past Kiziltepe for about 15 miles when we turned northwest toward Mardin. At this point we were about a mile from the Syrian border; we could see the fence separating the two countries. We were about 75 miles from the border of Iraq and less than 150 miles from Mosul, the site of ancient Nineveh. This was Assyrian territory in the ninth to seventh centuries B.C.
The Syrian Orthodox Monastery
Mardin is positioned high above the Tigris-Euphrates basin and along the northern edge of the Fertile Crescent. We stopped at the Syrian Orthodox monastery. Only two monks and a few children and workers live in the monastery. Much to our surprise, we met a monk who spoke excellent English and showed us the property. The earliest part of the building had originally been dedicated to the sun god. A fifth century portion had served as a medical school. In the church, which dated to the fifth century A.D., we were shown an old Syriac Bible. The oldest Syriac manuscripts date to the fifth century A.D., but are kept at another place where the bishop lives. We saw two baptismal fonts where the Syrian Orthodox immerse infants. From the roof of the building we saw the caves in the mountain above the monastery where monks have lived in the past. We also had a magnificent view, looking toward Syria, of the plain below.
Christians of the third and fourth centuries conducted heated discussions concerning the nature of Jesus. The Council of Chalcedon, A.D. 451, stated that Christ had both a human and a divine nature. Many of those associated with the Syrian Orthodox church held that Jesus had only a divine nature, a view called Monophysitism.
The Tigris River: Was Eden Near?
We continued from Mardin to Diyarbakir which has a position high above the Tigris flood plain. This city has seen the passing of successive kingdoms - Hurrians, Urartians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, Seleucids, Romans, et al. Not many towns can make such a claim. From a walled portion of the city we looked down on the Tigris river; the Turkish name is Dicle.
From the morning at Sanliurfa to the evening at Diyarbakir we saw a great difference in culture. Here, the city seems more like a typical American city - more activity, more life, the people seem much more active; their clothing is more western style. This city is the center of Kurdish activity and the police/military presence was much more evident. The road from Diyarbakir to Van is the northern boundary of the Kurdish rebels. Altogether on our trip we were stopped by the military about 30 times. Each time we showed our passports, explained where we had been, where we were going and why we were there. We were always treated courteously and never sensed any danger. We did make it a point to do all of our driving during daylight hours. Along Lake Van the guns on several tanks were manned and pointed toward the mountains from which rebels might come.
The Tigris river is mentioned only twice in the Bible. The Bible says a river flowed out of Eden and then divided into four rivers. One of these rivers, the Tigris, is said to flow east of Assyria (Gen. 2:14). Could Eden have been situated in this region, rather than in southern Mesopotamia, we wondered. The only other reference to the Tigris is in Daniel 10:4. Daniel saw a vision on the banks of the river in the days of Cyrus the Persian king.
Van: Center of the Urartian Kingdom and the Mountains of Ararat
On day six, after making pictures of the Tigris, we headed for Van. Passing rolling hills of beautiful fields of grain we began to see high, snow-capped mountains to the north. We crossed several small tributaries to the Tigris, saw many tells and some settlements of tent dwellers. In some areas the scenery was magnificent.
Lake Van is a large inland body of water of about 1400 square miles at an elevation of 5737 feet. The lake is fed by a number of rivers and is highly alkaline. It is said that folks sometimes wash their clothes in the lake. We drove along the south side of the lake where the elevation reaches 7324 feet at one point.
In Assyrian records this area was called Urartu. In the Bible it is called Ararat. The English term Ararat is a transliteration of the Hebrew term. The four references where the term appears are Gen. 8:4, 2 Kings 19:37 = Isa. 37:38, and Jer. 51:27. The King James version uses the term Armenia in 2 Kings 19:37 and Isaiah 37:38 because that is what the territory was later called. The Septuagint uses Armenia only in Isaiah 37:38.
The ark of Noah is said to have "rested upon the mountains of Ararat" (Gen. 8:4). Note that it does not say "Mount Ararat" but the "mountains of Ararat." The assassins of Sennacherib, after killing the king of Assyria at Nineveh in 681 B.C., escaped into "the land of Ararat" (2 Kings 19:37; Isa. 37:38). Jeremiah called upon the kingdom of Ararat to fight against Babylon (Jer. 51:27).
Paul Zimansky, in a recent article on Rusa II, the seventh century B.C. king of Urartu, describes the extent of the territory: "The kingdom that Rusa controlled in the second quarter of the seventh century BCE stretched across the mountainous terrain of eastern Anatolia approximately eight hundred miles from east to west and five hundred from north to south" ("An Urartian Ozymandias," Biblical Archaeologist, June, 1995, 94). Dr. Oktay Belli says the name Urartu is not an ethnic term but a geographical one meaning "mountainous terrain" (The Capital of Urartu: Van, 20). Prior to the Urartians, this region was the home of the Hurrians.
At Van we stayed in a fairly new hotel called Hotel Urartu. The lobby was decorated with scenes reminiscent of the kingdom of Urartu. The people in Van were of a darker complexion than we had noted in other parts of Turkey and the dress was more typical of mountain attire.
On the seventh day we visited the museum. On display were many inscriptions in the cuneiform language which the Urartians borrowed from the Assyrians. There were several pieces of gold jewelry and works of bronze on exhibit. After having a leaky tire repaired, we drove around the castle or rock of Van.
Tushpa, the ancient city of the Urartians, was built on this rock, which provides a commanding view over the lake, and at the base of the rock. At the beginning of the 20th century the city of Van was built over the ancient ruins, but was destroyed by the Russians in 1916. The area now is nothing more than a grassy knoll. On the side of the rock and at the top there are inscriptions, the tombs of eighth and ninth century B.C. Urartian kings, and ruins of a temple. A short distance from Van is another site called Toprakkale which marks the Urartian fortress of Rusahinili.
We know that the Assyrians were a threat to the kingdoms of Israel and Judah for about two hundred years. It is impressive to know that they also maintained an active engagement with the kingdom of Urartu closer to home.
One more part to the adventure. I had hoped that part four would complete this series, but it will take one more to tell you about Mount Ararat.
Index of Articles on Biblical Sites in Eastern Turkey.