Let’s continue our virtual journey around Turkey. Today we are visiting the south-east of the country – the very heart of Mesopotamia and a cradle of human civilization. Mardin, a scenic city of honey-coloured stone, clings to the slope of a mountain, reminiscent of an Arabian Nights illustration.
The ancient city of Mardin, a real open-air museum, is located far in the south-east of modern Turkey. Despite its turbulent history, the city has carried down through centuries its unique architecture and diversity of cultures, languages, and religions.
Walking down the streets of old Mardin one can hear people speak Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish, and even Turoyo, a local dialect of Aramaic that miraculously preserved in this area. Arabs, Armenians, Assyrians, Yazidis, Kurds, and Turks live here peacefully side by side, regardless of being curiously subdivided into clans and tribes even within their communities.
For thousands of years, Mardin was an important trading centre in the Upper Mesopotamia and the caravans traveling up and down the Great Silk Road would stop here for rest, finding shelter within the city walls. The main street of the city served a colourful Bazaar offering merchandise from the world over. By the way, it is still like that today.
Time seems to be stopping in Mardin occasionally. Here a donkey is carrying away rubbish baskets; a fabulous old man with a long grey beard and a white gown is walking down one side of a narrow street and a Kurdish woman in a traditional dress on the other; and a few hundred metres later, a hospitable Arab offers me a tiny cup of strong coffee called “mirra”.
Mardin can not be mixed up with any other city in Turkey. The old part of it, with an impregnable citadel, stretches down the southern slope of a flat-topped mountain (1083 m above sea level). The city layout looks chaotic at first glance, but in fact it isn’t so: the maze of narrow streets is laid out according to local winds, which keeps the city well aired in summer as if by a natural air conditioner.
Mardin initially grew almost exclusively down towards the south and sideways, absorbing small villages around it. The new Mardin, however, appeared to the north of the mountain along the road to Diyarbakir in the second half of the 20th century, with modern houses and even a shopping centre Mardin AVM. The University of Mardin is also located in this new town.
Depths of history
Who and when founded Mardin is not known. Its name originates from the Aramaic “Merida”, meaning “fortress.” And In fact, there is a very old fort on the flat top of the mountain in Mardin. It is believed to have been founded by the ancient Hurrians in the 3rd millennium BC.
The flat mountain top resembles a glass, surrounded by steep cliffs serving as a natural fortification, and the ancient builders only needed to reinforce its weak sections. In this regard, the Mardin fort closely resembles the legendary Israeli Masada.
The fortress has seen numerous invaders – Elamites, Akkadians, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians – almost all characters of the Ancient History book. It had been occupied by Persian Achaemenids, Alexander the Great, Seleucid rulers, and Armenian kings.
Situation changed radically with the Roman expansion. Mardin was a part of the Osroena kingdom, which served as a buffer between the Roman Empire and Parthia. Later on Romans eliminated the independent status of Osroena and incorporated Mardin. Local culture showed surprisingly more traces of the eastern influence than that of the Rome.
Christianity penetrated Mardin in as early as the 1st century AD and quickly spread among its residents. Most of the citizens of Osroena spoke Aramaic, which is considered to be the native language of the Christ and his sermons. Due to this early Christians of Mardin could receive the Christ’s teachings directly, without the mediation of Greek or Latin.
The Church of Mor Behnam (St. Behnam and his sister Sarah) is one of the evidences of the early penetration of Christianity into Mardin. Built in the 6th century AD it bears features typical of early Christian basilicas. By the way, there are more than a dozen churches in the city, most of which still belong to local Christian communities*.
Mardin is the centre of the Tur Abdin (“Mountain of worship”) historical region, which remained the largest Christian enclave in the Middle East even during the Arabic period. Dozens of monasteries and parishes kept on functioning here, supporting a very special cultural life.
Mardin reached its heyday in the Middle Ages, when it became the capital of the Artukids – a dynasty of Turkmen origin. It was when key attractions were erected in the city forming its unique architectural style that has continuously reproduced itself up to the present day:
- Grand mosque of Mardin
- Latifiye mosque – considered the most beautiful in the city
- Zinciriye madrasah with carved “marshmallow” like domes
- Shehidiye madrasah with an ornate minaret
- Kasymiye madrasa (completed under the Akkoyunlus)
- Savurkapi Hamam
The Artukids were wise rulers who both increased the wealth of Mardin and managed to survive countless invaders of the region: the Seljuks, the crusaders, the Mongols, the Mamluks, and even Tamerlane. According to a legend, Tamerlane spared the city because his grandson was born right before the final assault.
Aromas and tastes of the East
Our narration about the history and attractions of Mardin could go on almost infinitely, so we’ll move on to the most delicious part. We have already mentioned that the central street of the old city serves like an Impressive oriental bazaar, where one can find practically anything.
One can start with an incredible wealth of oriental sweets. The local number one would probably be almonds in sky-blue glaze, de facto a sweet highlight of Mardin. Another must-try delicacy would be sweet Assyrian cookies with dates, almonds, onions, saffron, or numerous other flavours.
Then I would proceed to coffee tasting, opting for the fragrant version with cardamom, called “dibek” (the best I tried was in the “Artukbey” shop), or the bitter Arabic “mirra” brewed by the Bedouin descendants since their settlement in the city.
The next specialty would be the Assyrian wine (“Suriani” in Turkish) made from local grapes according to centuries-old recipes.
By the way, archaeological evidences reveal that scaled winemaking existed here before Romans, during the Babylonian Kingdom. Thanks to the influence of Christianity, Mardin is distinguished by an unusually liberal for the region attitude to alcohol.
Let’s proceed to silver and gold wares. Of all the lush variety in shop windows I would recommend paying special attention to “telkari” – ornate pieces woven by local jewelers from fine silver wire.
The fifth recommendation would be for the natural soap with various additives made by hand just like ages ago. It is traditionally produced by ethnic Arabs, who can also offer scores of Oriental perfumes, both local and imported.
When in the old town, be sure to also try the local lakhmajun (a sort of tortillas with spicy meat sauce), “kaburga dolmasy” (made from mutton and rice, not quite the same as the usual type of dolma), “ichli kefte” (bulgur cutlets stuffed with minced lamb), and the Mardin kebab (different from the traditional type by a specific mix of spices).
This really is but a fraction of what we can share about Mardin. Should we leave the rest for the future and discuss any questions you may have in the comments.
* Mostly Assyrians, members of the ancient Syriac Orthodox Church of the East. Other groups would be Assyro-Catholics (also known as Chaldeans), Protestants, and Armenians, who have their own churches.