Mardin: Turkey’s ancient treasure trove

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(CNN) – The donkeys pass through the narrow streets behind the gates and through the low arches, suddenly brawling around the corners at the astonished tourists as the inhabitants awkwardly make their way forward.

Old stone walls revolve around mild rumblings of conversation in Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Kurdish, Torani, Turkish and Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language believed to have been used by Jesus at one time.

This is Mardin, a city in southeastern Turkey with thousands of years of history in every corner.

Seen from above, Mardin’s glittering white gold buildings form a line of terraces overlooking the plains over present-day Syria, but the city was once part of Mesopotamia, surrounded by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

Located where major cultures such as Sumerian and Babylonian came to power, Mardin has a complex history.

Changing hands

Mardin has history and culture in every corner.

Mardin has history and culture in every corner.

mitzo_bs / Adobe Stock

At one time or another, almost everyone had a piece of Mardin. The Nabataean Arabs called it home from 150 BCE to 250 CE, but by the 4th century it was an important Syrian Christian colony, founded by the Assyrians. Then came the Romans and the Byzantines.

In the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks decided to make it their own, but failed with the arrival of the Ortukid Turkomans in the 12th century.

The dynasty, originally from northern Iraq (Diyarbakir in modern Turkey), managed to stay in control for three hundred years until the Mongols took control. They were in turn replaced by the Persian Turkoman monarchy.

Surprisingly, the town still had a Christian population when Ottoman Sultan Salem the Grimm took power in 1517. Due to this diverse ethnic and religious background, Mardin has a unique atmosphere and flavor today.

Despite its ancient credentials, Mardin is a vibrant and vibrant city where the past lives in the present.

Kirkler Kilici Law, also known as Mor Behnam, is one of the seven Syriac Orthodox churches. Originally built in 569 CE, the Church of the Forty Martyrs, as it is known in English, got its name in 1170 when the remains of 40 martyrs were brought here.

Architecturally the church itself is simplicity. Outside, there is a magnificent domed bell tower with a cross at the top, which sits in a rectangular courtyard surrounded by golden stone walls. Inside, regular services take place, part of an unbroken tradition that has been carried on by Aramaic Christians for over 700 years.

The queen of snakes

A few streets away, the Mardin Protestant Church, built by American believers more than 150 years ago, now has an active congregation after being closed for nearly 60 years, while the shop windows are adorned with Shahmaran paintings.

The mythical half-snake, half-woman Shahmaran is named after a Persian. Shah means king (or queen in this case) and Mar means snake so Shahmaran was the queen of snakes. According to Anatolian folklore, she lived in Mardin.

The decoration on the Abdullatif Mosque since 1371 is in dramatic contrast with the austerities of the churches.

Its two large portals are so delicately carved that it is hard to believe that they are made of solid stone. Recessed stalactite carvings form the centerpiece, surrounded by vertical and horizontal patterned stonework.

The monastery of Derulzafran (home of Saffron) is the original site of the Syriac Orthodox patriarchy.

The monastery of Derulzafran (home of Saffron) is the original site of the Syriac Orthodox patriarchy.

MehmetOZB / Adobe stock

The mosque is one of the finest examples of architecture from the Artuchid period, while the 1385 religious school, Zinsirie Madrasi is another. The seminary, also known as Isa Bay Madrasi after the last Artuccid Sultan, has an attractive door with excellent masonry technique. The ribs on the stone dome on the roof make them lighter than air. The beautiful gardens lead to a small mosque with an ornately carved mihrab, a distinctive feature of the direction of Mecca.

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The post office with good reason is also worth a visit. Adapted for public use in the 1950’s, it came to the attention of local tourists in the early 2000’s when it was used as a set for the hugely popular Turkish miniseries “Sila”.

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The building was originally designed as a private home by the Armenian architect Sarkis Ilyas Lole in 1890. The steps lead through a small pylon to a magnificent terrace that leads to the empty plains outside the Ahidi Mosque.

Lole also built a cavalry barracks in 1889, which now houses the Sakap Sabansi Mardin City Museum. The displays include life-like tablocks and contemporary displays that give a clear understanding of daily life in Mardin, both past and present.

The Mardin Museum, located in the former Assyrian Catholic Patriarchate since 1895, presents ancient history through artefacts from Mesopotamia and Assyria, Roman mosaics and Ottoman objects.

Underground sanctuary

Mardin is said to have derived its name from its mountain fortifications.

Mardin is said to have derived its name from its mountain fortifications.

Hüseyin Aldırmaz / Adobe Stock

Walk in any direction and the streets of Mardin offer beautiful views, nothing but the Ulu Kemi, the Great Mosque. Although founded by the Seljuk Turks, its current form is largely due to the Artukid ruler Bag II Ghazi II.

He undertook new works in 1176, further completed by the Ottomans in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The surface of one of the remaining minarets of the mosque is adorned with Seljuk, Artukid and Ottoman inscriptions. This passion for detail is reflected in the tailcare, filigree silver jewelry sold in many shops, although most of the pieces are made in a family-owned workshop in neighboring Midiyat.

Just a few miles outside the city is a magnificent yet majestic Derulzafran (Saffron’s house) monastery and the original seat of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarch. This huge wall complex was built on a place dedicated to sun worship.

Although destroyed by the Persians and later looted by the 14th-century Mongol-Turkish conqueror Tamerlane, the original underground sanctuary still exists.

Guided tours take visitors through exquisitely carved 300-year-old wooden doors, inscriptions from the past in Syriac, centuries-old wooden trash and thrones, hand-embroidered Bible scenes and other religious materials. The plain guest room is attended by devotees organized in Aramaic.

Meanwhile, excavations have been going on since 1986 at Dara, an important East Rome military town, about 19 miles outside Mardin.

To say the least, discoveries abound. The most recent was the Sixth Century Olive Workshop. This confirms that the city was an important olive oil production and trade center, as well as the site of numerous military conflicts.

Many underground tanks that survived the original irrigation system of Mesopotamia are open to the public. One is so huge that locals call it a prison, a dungeon, and tell stories of it being used as a prison. It descends 82 feet underground with the entrance to the basement of the village house, if you can find the man with the key.

Back in Mardin, another ancient attraction is the castle – during Roman times the city was called Marida, an ancient neo-Aramaic word meaning castle.

The fortress is very high above the city and when the road almost leads to the gates, it is not open to the public. Some find the effort (and the risk of summer heatstroke) worthwhile for stellar views.

Others may choose to stay in town and enjoy a glass of wine. Most local wine producers are Assyrians. They follow ancient traditions and use regional grapes to make wines that are completely different from those found elsewhere in the country. Definitely the right way to salute Mardin’s multicultural mix.

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