Bırkleyn Mağarası

Tigris Tunnel

Useful Information

Location: Abalı, 21700 Lice/Diyarbakır.
D950 between Merkez/Bingöl and Bağlar/Diyarbakır.
(38.5299634, 40.5459881)
Open: no restrictions.
Fee: free.
Classification: SpeleologyKarst Cave KarstKarst Spring KarstLosing Stream SpeleologyRiver Cave TopicGateway to Hell
Light: bring torch
Dimension: Cave 1: L=904 m, W=4-14 m, H=38 m. Upper Entrance: A=968 m asl.
Lower Entrance: A=948 m asl.
Cave 2: L=150 m, W=25 m, H=20 m.
Guided tours: self guided
Photography: allowed
Accessibility: no
Bibliography: Maria Six-Hohenbalken (2021): Reisen zu den Quellen des Tigris... ‒ Travels to the Tigris Springs..., Verlag der österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften; 1. Edition (27. Dezember 2021), 222 pages, ISBN-10: 3700185790, ISBN-13: 978-3700185796. Deutsch - German English
Andreas Schachner (2009): Assyriens Könige an einer der Quellen des Tigris, Archäologische Forschungen im Höhlensystem von Bırkleyn und am so genannten Tigris-Tunnel, Istanbuler Forschungen 51 (Tübingen 2009). Deutsch - German
A. C. Waltham (1976): The Tigris Tunnel and Birkleyn Caves, Turkey, British Cave Research Association Bulletin 14, 1976, pp 33–34. pdf
Ali Yamaç (2013): OLDEST DOCUMENTED CAVES OF THE WORLD: BIRKLEYN CAVES, 16. International Congress of Speleology. researchgate
C. F. Lehmann-Haupt (1901): Der Tigris-Tunnel, Verhandlungen der Berliner Gesellschaft für Anthropologie, Ethnologie und Urgeschichte 33, Berlin, pp. 226-244. Deutsch - German online pdf
As far as we know this information was accurate when it was published (see years in brackets), but may have changed since then.
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(1114–1076 BC) visited by the Assyrian King Tiglatpileser I.
852 BC caves first explored by the Assyrian King Salmanassar III.
1862 caves explored by Taylor, Assyrian reliefs and inscriptions discovered.
1898/99 detailed study on the caves by C. F. Lehmann-Haupt and W. Bleck.
1974 speleological exploration of the caves by Anthony C. Waltham from the BCRA
1977 three caves surveyed by the Speleo Club de Paris.
2004 archaeological research on the Assyrian Period reliefs and inscriptions by a team led by Andreas Schachner from the University of Munich (see literature list).


The Bırkleyn Mağarası (Birkleyn Caves) are five parts of a partly eroded cave system. The main branch is a river cave, so both passages have a cave river, and as they are through-caves, they are generally not considered springs. Nevertheless, they were thought to be the springs of the famous Tigris river, which is one of the two rivers of Mesopotamía, the "two-river-country". Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, stayed here with his army of 15 thousand people on his way to the Persian campaign. The place was known as "the place where the world ends" and as "the place where the water of immortality flows". Pliny thought it was one of the passages into the underworld.

The generally used Turkish name is Bırkleyn Mağarası and the river which flows through is also called Bırkleyn. Birkleyn means rising, swelling, boiling, but most of the year the river is quite calm and with an intensive turquoise colour. We guess it becomes quite boiling when the production increases considerably during snow-melt on the surrounding mountains. But actually the name of this river is Dicle Nehri’nin (Tigris River). Birkleyn Mağaraları is also called Şkeft a Bılkleyn which is the Kurdish version of the name, this area is actually Kurdish. But the Turkish cave cadastre lists it as İskender-i Birklin (Alexander Birklin). For unknown reasons, the name Dicle Tüneli made it into international publications, in english it is generally called Tigris Tunnel. This is not a tunnel, it's a natural cave, but the huge passage actually looks a little like a huge tunnel.

Part of the bronze gates of Shalmaneser III from his palace at Balawat, showing his visit to the springs of Tigris river, earliest known picture of a cave. Public Domain.

The official spring of the Tigris river is Lake Hazar near Gölardı, which is 100 km to the west. This is a main eastern tributary of the famous river. It was long thought to be the spring of the Sebeneh-su, but the Bırkleyn Mağarası is not a spring at all. It is a through-cave, there are three springs, the three rivers meet, form the Kara river, which is swallowed by the cave and reappears only 750 m down the valley. Nevertheless, the Assyrian King Salmanassar III made an expedition to the headwaters of the Tigris in 852. For this he had his army take a detour on its march back from inner Anatolia to Assyria. It seems he never crossed the cave, neither underground nor on the surface, so he also interpreted the resurgence as the actual spring. The source he found is the Bırkleyn Mağarası, and he placed inscriptions at the spring. This is considered the first hydrogeologic excursion made by man. The lower entrance of the cave has reliefs and inscriptions of Tiglatpileser I (1114–1076 BC) and Shalmaneser III (858–824 BC). Unfortunately, they are damaged and hard to find. This important commemorative event was also represented in detail on Shalmaneser III’s bronze bands at Tell Balawat. Dated to 850 BC, they are most likely the oldest pictures of a cave in the world. It is today on display at the British Museum in London. And in his annalistic texts, his visit to the place was retold on public monuments in Assyrian cities.

The first one who visited the "spring" and performed sacrifice rituals was Tiglatpileser I (1114–1076 BC), but the exact date is unknown. It was during his reign, but the exact year was not noted. The only remains from this tour are the reliefs and inscriptions at the cave.

There are five separate caves, which all have the same name, so they are generally numbered. On top of the river cave is a dry valley, where the river flowed before the drainage moved down one level to the cave. The entrances of caves 2, 3, and 4 are located on the right side of the valley, cave 5 is higher up on the left side. Actually on the steep cliff between the lower entrance of the tunnel and the dry valley. The caves are higher levels of the same cave system, but they are not connected.

Cave 1 is the main through cave which is 904 m long and quite huge, 4 to 14 m wide and up to 38 m high, with an average height of 20-25 m. The upper entrance is the sink of the river, while the lower entrance is the resurgence. This is contact karst, after the tunnel the river flows over volcanic bedrock. The last section of the cave is collapsed and forms a 114 m long unroofed cave or gorge. The cave passage comprises a phreatic tube with a vadose canyon cut into its floor, which results in the typical keyhole shape of the cross-section. In other words, the tube was formed underwater when the groundwater was still higher, which resulted in chemical dissolution and a round tube. When the groundwater lowered, the tube was not any longer water-filled, there was now a river on the floor which started to cut into the floor erosionally. Due to the river its necessary to swim in some sections, while other parts have a solid floor.

Cave 2 is located on the western edge and the northern slope of the dry valley. Tony Waltham called it Swifts’ Great Cave. It is a dry, horizontal and quite straight passage with a length of 150 m, an average width of 25 m and a height of 20 m. As a result, it was more suitable as a shelter than the river cave, and there are numerous archaeological remains in the cave sediments. During excavations, remains from Stone Age, Bronce Agen and Iron Age were found. Unfortunately, there are also many traces of many illegal excavations. At the entrance to this cave, on the right side, there are two more inscriptions and another relief that belong to Shalmaneser III.

Cave 3 is located 200 m to the east, also on the northern or right side of the dry valley. Tony Waltham called it Stalagmite Cave. It is much bigger, with a total length of 600 m, but the passages are winding and a little smaller. Still it is horizontal, dry and easy to explore. It is notable for a huge amount of speleothems, hence the name, but there are also many archaeological remains, notably ceramics.

Cave 4 is located above the upper entrance of the tunnel, on the right or northern side. It seems Tony Waltham did not find this cave. It is a huge chamber with some small side passages, the entrance is small, probably the result of a collapse. Again there are many archaeological remains, mostly terracota fragments from the Iron Age.

Cave 5 is a cave ruin, a short through-cave or natural bridge, which is located above the lower entrance of the tunnel, on the left or southern side of the dry valley. Tony Waltham called it Arch. Several explorers missed it and did not explore it.

İskender’i Zülkarneyn (Alexander Dhu al-Qarnayn), lit. "The Two-Horned One", appears in the Quran, Surah al-Kahf (18), Ayahs 83–101 as one who travels to east and west Some think he is Alexander the Great, but most scholars differ. Actually there are about half a dozen historic people which could be him. Some are the South-Arabian Himyarite king Sa'b Dhu Marathid and the North-Arabian Lakhmid king al-Mundhir ibn Imru al-Qays. The story in Surah 18 of the Quran, al-Kahf ("The Cave"), tells how he imprisoned Gog and Magog. The name "He of the two horns" obviously inspired the following legend, though it is probably a mistranslation, it could also mean “He of the two Ages”, the Arabian word qam means both "horn" and “period” or “century”. It is as well interpreted as the horns of the ram-god Zeus-Ammon, as it may mean that he traveled to the east and the west, from one extremity ("horn") of the world to the other.

According to this legend, İskender’i Zülkarneyn was going on an expedition. Two horn-like tumors grew on both sides of his head and began to cause great pain. One day, Alexander was told in his dream that if he washed in the water of the Birkleyn caves in Lice, his horns would disappear. İskender-i Zülkarneyn came and conquered Lice. When he drank the water emerging from the caves and washed his head with the water, one of his horns immediately disappeared.

Access to this place is not restricted in any way, you are free to visit, and most of the tour is rather easy. While there is no speleological danger, the area is quite dangerous in a political manner, see the page of the Southeast Anatolia Region for more info. However, the number of visitors to this site has increased considerably during the Corona pandemic, as people were not allowed to travel, so they frequented domestic places.