Mardin: Turkey’s ancient treasure trove

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(CNN) — Donkeys roam the narrow streets past doorways and through low arches, suddenly bellowing around corners at frightened tourists as the residents continue on their way, unperturbed.

The old stone walls shake with the low murmur of Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Kurdish, Torani, Turkish and Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language believed to have been used by Jesus.

This is Mardin, a city in southeastern Turkey where thousands of years of history are visible around every corner.

Seen from above, the gleaming white gold buildings of Mardin form a line of terraces built on a hill overlooking the plains towards present-day Syria, but the city was once part of Mesopotamia, a region bordered by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

Located where major civilizations such as the Sumerians and Babylonians came to power, Mardin has a complex history.

Change of hands

Mardin has history and culture on every corner.

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At one time or another, almost everyone has owned a piece of Mardin. The Nabatean Arabs have called it home since 150 BC. to 250 AD, but by the 4th century it was an important Syrian Christian settlement founded by the Assyrians. Then came the Romans and the Byzantines.

In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks set about making it their own, but they were thwarted by the arrival of the Artuqid Turks in the 12th century.

This dynasty, originally from northern Iraq (Diyarbakir in modern Turkey), managed to maintain control for three hundred years, until the Mongols took over the reins of power. They, in turn, were replaced by the Persian Turkmen monarchy.

Surprisingly, when the Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim came to power in 1517, the Christian population still lived in the city. Today, Mardin has a unique atmosphere and color due to its diverse ethnic and religious origins.

Despite its ancient reputation, Mardin is a lively and dynamic city where the past lives in the present.

Take Kyrklar Kilisessi, also known as Mor Behnam, one of the seven Syrian Orthodox churches. Originally built in 569 AD, the Church of the Forty Martyrs, as it is known in English, got its name when the relics of 40 martyrs were transferred here in 1170.

Architecturally, the church itself is simple. Outside, an elegant domed bell tower surmounted by a cross sits in a rectangular courtyard bounded by golden stone walls. Regular services are held inside, part of an unbreakable tradition that Aramaic Christians have followed for over 700 years.

snake queen

A few streets away is the Protestant Church of Mardin, built by American believers over 150 years ago, after an almost 60-year break, it has an active parishioner, and shop windows are decorated with paintings by Shahmaran.

The mythical half-snake-half-woman Shahmaran got her name from the Persian. Shah means king (or in this case queen) and mar means snake, so Shahmaran was the Queen of Serpents. According to Anatolian folklore, she lived in Mardin.

The decoration of the 1371 Abdullatif Mosque contrasts sharply with the austerity of the churches.

Its two large portals are so skillfully carved that it is hard to believe that they are made of solid stone. A recessed stalactite carving forms the focal point, while vertical and horizontal patterned stonework surrounds it.

Deirulzafaran Monastery (House of Saffron) is the original seat of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate.

Deirulzafaran Monastery (House of Saffron) is the original seat of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate.

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The mosque is a magnificent architectural example of the Artuqid period, and the Zinchiriye Medresesi, a religious school built in 1385, is another. The seminary, also known as the Isa Bey Madrasah in honor of the late Artuqid Sultan, has an imposing doorway made using exquisite masonry techniques. The ribbed stone domes on the roofs make them lighter than air. Beautiful gardens lead to a small mosque with a richly carved mihrab niche indicating the direction of Mecca.

You should also pay attention to the post office, and for good reason. Converted to public use in the 1950s, it caught the attention of local tourists in the early 2000s when it was used as the backdrop for the highly popular Turkish mini-series The Power.

The building was originally designed as a private home by the Armenian architect Sarkis Elias Lole in 1890. Steps lead through a small archway to a large terrace overlooking the Shekhidiye Mosque and the desert plains beyond.

Lole also built the 1889 Cavalry Barracks, which now houses the Sakip Sabancı Mardin City Museum. The displays include realistic paintings and contemporary exhibitions, giving a clear picture of Mardin’s daily life, both past and present.

Housed in the former Assyrian Catholic Patriarchate since 1895, the Mardin Museum displays ancient history with artifacts from Mesopotamia and Assyria, Roman mosaics and Ottoman objects.

underground sanctuary

Mardin is said to have taken its name from the hilltop fortifications.

Mardin is said to have taken its name from the hilltop fortifications.

Hussein Aldyrmaz/Adobe Stock

Walk in any direction and the streets of Mardin offer great visuals, nothing more than the Ulu Camii, the Great Mosque. Although it was founded by the Seljuk Turks, its current form owes much to the Artuqid ruler Beg II Ghazi II.

He commissioned new works in 1176, with more completed by the Ottomans in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The surface of the only surviving minaret of the mosque is decorated with Seljuk, Artukid and Ottoman inscriptions. This obsession with detail is reflected in the tel kare, filigree silver jewelry sold in many shops, although most of the pieces are made in family workshops in nearby Midyat.

A few miles outside the city, the grim but majestic Deirulzafaran (House of Saffron) Monastery and the original seat of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate is a must-see. This large walled complex was built on a site dedicated to sun worship.

Although the original underground sanctuary was destroyed by the Persians and then sacked by the 14th-century Mongol-Turkic conqueror Tamerlane, it still exists.

Guided tours take visitors through exquisitely carved 300-year-old wooden doors, old Syriac inscriptions, centuries-old wooden litters and thrones, hand-embroidered biblical scenes and other religious paraphernalia. The simple guest rooms are suitable for pious worship conducted in Aramaic.

Meanwhile, excavations at Dara, an important Eastern Roman military town about 19 miles from Mardin, have been ongoing since 1986.

There were a lot of finds, to put it mildly. The most recent of these was an olive workshop dating back to the sixth century. This confirms that the city was an important center for the production and trade of olive oil, as well as the site of numerous military conflicts.

Many underground cisterns left over from the original Mesopotamian irrigation system are open to the public. One of them is so huge that the locals call it a zindan, a dungeon, and tell stories that it was used as a prison. It descends 82 feet underground with access through the village house’s basement if you can find the person with the key.

Back in Mardin, another ancient attraction is the castle. During the Roman period, the city was called Marida, an ancient neo-Aramaic word for a fortress.

The fortress is very high above the city, and although the path leads almost to the gate, it is closed to the public. Some may feel that the effort (and the risk of heatstroke in the summer) is worth it for the stellar views.

Others may simply prefer to stay in the city and enjoy a glass of wine. Most local winemakers are Assyrians. They follow ancient traditions and use local grapes to produce wines quite different from those found in other parts of the country. Definitely the right way to welcome Mardin’s multicultural mix.

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