In the arid gorge there was such absolute silence I found myself thinking I was the only person alive in the world; diagonal cliffs and mountains slashed away from me in every direction, and so forceful was the heat and the light of the summer day that I could not hear the wind.
Tonight as I write these words in Korea, listening to Afrocubism in the cozy warmth of my one-room apartment, a Turkish rug on the floor, an electric guitar in the corner, a camera on the table, stacks of unread books on the fridge, with the pale green lights of forty-story high-rises flickering on and off like little televisions outside my window, and the dim roar of engines seeping in through the walls and the glass—as I sit here in the midst of my civilized life—the quiet and the stillness of that moment in Hasankeyf still overwhelms me.
The ancient city is built into and hollowed out of several massive soaring cliffs, which look like enormous beehives from a distance thanks to the thousands of caves that people made there over thousands of years—most of the last inhabitants moved out about five decades ago, but I still found a few places here and there that were locked from the inside, with beautiful red carpets hanging on the rock walls and lining the floor which I could see through a rounded window or two.
Then there were whole villages built on top of the cliffs, out of sight of the tourist town below, and all of them were built entirely out of the mountain rock—some of the richer manors had at least two stories and several large rooms, but all of them were deserted, so far as I could tell. At one point I was scared off by a ghost or a homeless person who, in the terrible silence, was making the sound of one stone grinding against another in the depths of an enormous stone palace, which indeed is quite terrifying when you are alone and imaginative in a strange ancient place. Many rooms and homes were still charred black from when the Mongols came and destroyed the city hundreds of years ago; on the other side of the planet, at around the same time, Korea was occupied by the same people, and Busan was probably used as a base for the Mongols’ failed attempts to conquer Japan.
I had worked my way up to these abandoned clifftop villages, which even possessed a large ancient Seljuk-style mosque (its rectangular minaret differing significantly from the typical rounded Ottoman spears you see poking at the sky everywhere in Turkey) and a vast ruined graveyard with beautiful Arabic inscriptions on the smashed tombstones, by squeezing inside a little hole in the bottom of the cliff that I found just by wandering along the riverside; I climbed quite a long while up a long stone stairway and was periodically plunged into absolute blackness; all of the stone steps were solid and worn out of the rock, but in some places there were windows opening out onto a steep drop several hundred feet down to the hungry rocks and pebbles clacking about like fish in the rapids; sometimes the stairs were so close to these windows that I had to do some serious maneuvering to keep moving forward; these might be called ‘birdshit acrobatics’, as they involved scraping my bare hands in huge piles of stale, stinking, barnacle-y guano. I was able to wash my hands when I got back to the hotel, but my dignity remained tarnished forever. Still, to use the favored English phrase in Turkey, it was no problem.
Incidentally, at this hotel, which was the only hotel in Hasankeyf, I found myself arguing with a random Frenchman about who could have the only single room in the place to himself; he wanted it, I wanted it, but by some rare and very atypical luck, I had the key, and no force on Heaven or Earth, not even the three-pronged lightning bolt of God himself, was going to deprive me of it; the Frenchman’s really amazing English philippic was lost on the ears of my Turkish host, whose comprehension of the language was best illustrated after both of us simply walked away from the Frenchman in the middle of his endless and very intellectual exploration of why he deserved the room and not me—striding through the last sun of the evening, the Turk said of the Frenchman, “He is many problem”, sighing and shaking his head. That night, after so many vicissitudes, I slept alone.
Speaking of keys, the adventure with the dogs has already been enumerated, but I should say that, along with my two canine companions, I was locked inside the ancient city and really unable to escape; the vast half-medieval / half-steel gate was surrounded by scaffolding and steep death drops on all sides, and the lock seemed to require a key that I did not have; after much shouting toward the deserted road and town of stone beneath, and a brief encounter with a helpless but very pretty Istanbulite, I was resigned to spending the rest of the (still) very early morning locked in Hasankeyf, parched, dying of thirst, but I wasted much of my youth playing video games, and didn’t bore my way through countless Tomb Raider-style door puzzles for no reason; the time indeed came when video games saved my life; eventually I somehow figured out that there were some latches or levers you had to pull or push to open the door; I pulled them, or pushed them, I don’t remember; something clanked, screeched, rolled; the door swung open; the dogs rushed free without thanking me for anything—like most people—and I was able to run back to the hotel and the annoying Frenchman and guzzle down enough water for ten Ians and ten rabid dogs.
Of course that same day I think I left for Van, and, eventually, Kars, where I would make the acquaintance of my first Nazi.