The world’s largest Kurdish-speaking city, Diyarbakir means the “Place of the Bakr” and takes its name from the Beni Bakr tribe that held the city in the seventh century. For hundreds of years, the city has been recognizable for its impressive and largely intact black basalt ramparts, running 5.5 kilometers around the city and giving it a unique and defensive quality, similar to other walled cities like Jerusalem. Historically, it was an important strategic point located near the Tigris River, ruled by Romans, Persians, Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, among others, before being taken by the Ottomans in 1515. The city was also an important center for monasticism; and by 525, there were already five monasteries in the city. It is perhaps not surprising that today’s city still holds remnants of the city’s Roman, Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, and Kurdish heritage.
Perhaps the most distinguishing feature of Diyarbakir is its black basalt city walls, originally built in 297 CE by the Romans. Then known as Amida the Black, the city was essential in Rome’s defense of its eastern frontier and was the most important city in the Roman province of Mesopotamia. The walls were built by the Seljuk Malik Shah in 1088 and have four main gates and 82 watchtowers. The city’s gates are inscribed with animal reliefs and intricate Arabic inscriptions; many of them, such as the Urfa Gate and the Mardin Gate, received their names because the roads from them continue on to those cities.
As a historical crossroads, Diyarbakir is fascinating for the way in which its buildings combine influences and materials from different periods. The city has a number of mosques worth visiting, such as the sixteenth-century Melik Ahmet Pasa Mosque, famous for the blue tiles of its mihrab, and the Nebi Camii Mosque of the Prophet, built in 1524. The most notable structure in the Old City, however, is the Great Mosque, or Ulu Cami, built in 1091 by the Seljuk ruler Malik-Shah and considered a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. The mosque, which is one of the oldest in the country, bears a striking resemblance to the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, with its impressive open courtyard; but it is unique in its use of the city’s black basalt rock. The builders also made use of the city’s Roman and Byzantine ruins: the columns in the mosque’s courtyard are striking for their Corinthian capitals, which one expects to find in a church or Roman structure.
The city still holds Chaldaean, Armenian, and Syrian Orthodox Churches, some with dwindling communities. One of the Old City’s most notable churches is the Syrian Orthodox Virgin Mary Church, first founded in the third century and also making use of the black basalt. The church is testimony to the importance the city held in early Christianity. Tradition claims that St. Ephrem, the poet, theologian, and most famous saint of the Syriac church, who wrote in the Syriac dialect of Aramaic, was baptized here. Later, his writings and hymns would become some of the most influential in early Christianity, translated into Greek, Georgian, Armenian, and Coptic.