Travelers lured by Deyrul Zafarin Monastery to this hilltop city of elegant stone houses perched at the edge of the Syrian desert will discover there is much more to Mardin. Though a perennial hotbed of Kurdish separatist activity, this frontier town lies dormant again, allowing tourists a glimpse of one of Turkey’s most intriguing populations. A 10,000 year heritage has woven a patchwork of different cultures together in this upper Mesopotamian city. Even today, Syrian Orthodox goldsmiths and Muslim copper workers beat out their trades side by side.
Mar-Soy (212 95 95), with offices on Birinci Cad., is the only major bus line operating out of Mardin. Buses leave every hr. to Gaziantep (51u, $9), Diyarbakır (1hr., $2), and Şanliurfa ($5). One bus per day leaves for Adana (8hr., $12), Ankara (13hr., $18), Antalya ($23), Bursa (20hr., $25), Eskişehir (18hr., $9), İstanbul (20hr., $25), Konya (12hr., $18), and Mersin (9hr., $13).
Mardin clings to a rocky hill on the border of the Syrian Desert. The east-west light way runs 500m below Birinci Cad., the main street. From the central Atatürk statue, dolmuş stops are located 1km in both directions at either end of Birinci Cad. From these, a servis bus will shuttle you to intercity buses around town. Services include: the tourist office, set back from the main highway (follow the yellow signs left and up the hill); banks on Birinci Cad. with 24-hour ATMs (open 9am-5:30pm); the police on Yeni Sehir Cad. (open 24hr); Devlet Hastanesi (state hospital), next to the PTT on Meydan Cad; the Yakamos Internet Cafe; and the PTT (open 8:30am-noon, 1:30-5:30pm.) Postal code: 47000.
ACCOMMODATIONS, FOOD, AND SIGHTS.
The most desirable accommodations in Mardin arc not in town at all: the Deyrul Zafarin Monastery is happy to host guests just be sure to get there before the gates lock at sundown. Quality rooms are almost impossible to find in the town’s center; the only lodging option is the decrepit Hotel Bayraktar (212 13 38) on Birinci Cad., by the Atatürk statue. The showers are cold and the beds are old, but the view out back over the Syrian desert is astounding. (Singles $5, doubles $7, triples $9.) For much more, there is hot water, and air conditioning at the newly renovated Hotel Bilen (212 55 68), downhill on the east-west highway. (Singles $20, doubles $40.)
Dining options are limited, but the Turistik Et Lokantasi (212 16 47), on a terrace at the Atatürk Meydani, goes to great lengths to preserve Mardin’s unique cuisine. Try içli köfte, kiymali lamacun, cacik cucumber yogurt, and the local bitter coffee called mirm. Ask to sample the local wine from the Monastery it’s not for sale.
The Mardin Museum, on Cumhuriyet Meydanı, is housed in an 1895 building constructed by the patriarch of Antakya, Ignatius Bentham Benni. It boasts a collection spanning 4000 years of Mardin culture, including Roman statuary, Selçuk glasswork, Assyrian urns, and jewelry and pottery dating back to 4000 B.C. from the Gimivaz excavations. (21 16 64. Open Tu-Su 8:30am-noon and 1-5pm. $1.) Follow the signs on Birinci Cad. from the museum to find the Kirklar Kilesesi, the Syriac cathedral and center of the city’s Christian population. Mardin’s other churches can be found by their bell-towers—you may even stumble across a service in Aramaic. Just downhill on the west, side of town, signs point the way to the exquisite Ottoman Kasimiye Medresi, a seminary built in 1457 with high vaulted domes and a central courtyard whose pool is filled by a hillside spring via elaborately carved stone channels. Bring a flashlight to explore the dark and twisting stone stairways, which lead to the upper floors and rooftop.
DEYRUL ZAFARIN MONASTERY
This monastery is the key reason to visit Mardin. In 451, the Monophysitic congregation of the Syrian Orthodox Church (Jacobites) split from the Byzantine Church after the Council of Chalcedon’s debate about the true nature of Christ. It served as the seat of the Syrian Orthodox church from 493 to the 1920s. The hardy Mardin Christian community has dwindled from 2000 to 200 over the past 30 years. The church still uses Aramaic, Jesus’ language, as its liturgical tongue. Services are held daily, led by one of the two remaining monks. To the right of the entrance, down a few steps is a prayer room originally used as a temple to Baal in 2000 B.C. Above it is an old mausoleum formerly used as a med¬ical school; the wooden doors are inlaid with lions and serpents. The main chapel still retains patches of its original turquoise coat, and houses a 300-year-old Bible, a 1000-year-old baptismal font, and a 1600-year-old mosaic floor. (1.5km east of town. Town buses go to within 1500m (a 20min. walk); buses may detour for an added fee. Taxis $9. Open dawn to dusk. On weekdays, the monks tend to be more hospitable than on weekends, when masses of Turkish tourists descend. Though a few basic cells are available for visitors to stay in, those with a specific religious interest are preferred.)
In Kiziltepe, 25km south of Mardin, the 13th-century Ülü mosque with mihrab reliefs and a beautiful portal is a fine example of Artukid architecture. The Öztopraklar Hotel , on the highway, has spotless new rooms with A/C and private bath. (312 33 86; singles $10, doubles $20.)
MİDYAT AND THE TUR ABDİN PLATEAU
One hour due east of Mardin, the hilltop city of Midyat is perched at the entrance to the Tur Abdin Plateau, the spiritual center of Turkey’s tiny Syrian Christian community. Midyat is home to seven Syrian churches, and the surrounding plateau holds several monasteries, including Mar Gabriel, the oldest monastery in the world, founded in 397 AD.Midyat itself is a dusty town divided in two: the newer half, closer to the highway, houses the hospital (462 11 06), police station (462 20 56), and the PTT (open 7am-llpm), while the older side of town holds the only place to stay, the Otel Metro , which offers clean budget options with balconies, bathrooms, and hot water. (464 23 17; singles $4, doubles $8.) The restaurant downstairs offers decent mezes for $1 apiece.Midyat’s skyline is littered with old stone bell towers, and it is easy to explore the Aramaic churches in town. A bit more effort will get you into the heart of the Tur Abdin plateau itself; the most worthwhile sight is the Mar Gabriel Monastery. 20km east of Midyat, the mothership of the Tur lash Syrian church was founded in A.D. 397 by St. Samuel. Mar Gabriel has withstood centuries of isolation and persecution and continues to thrive as a large monastery/fortress, with many gardens enclosed by its thick stone walls. The gate is flanked by stone lions, while the main chapel contains a breathtaking array of Byzantine mosaic in turquoise and gold. To the rear of the courtyard is a domed hall supported by eight smaller domes, ordered by the Byzantine empress Theodora. Underground, in the mausoleum, the grave of St. Samuel is open for display. Visitors may be lucky to receive an audience with the bishop, who speaks excellent English. For other local monasteries, such as the nearby Meryam Ana; ask at Mar Gabriel for advice and directions. A donation is customary for visitors to any monastery.