Mardin: Turkey’s ancient treasure trove

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Donkeys meander through narrow streets past doorways and through low arches, suddenly braying around corners at startled tourists while residents continue on their way, unperturbed.

Old stone walls reverberate with the gentle murmur of conversations in Arabic, Syriac, Armenian, Kurdish, Torani, Turkish and Aramaic, an ancient Semitic language once believed to have been used by Jesus.

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

Seen from above, Mardin’s shimmering white gold buildings form a line of terraces built on a hill looking across the plains to present-day Syria, but once upon a time the town was part of Mesopotamia, a region bounded by the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

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

Changing hands

There's history and culture around every corner in Mardin.

At one time or another just about everyone owned a piece of Mardin. Nabataean Arabs called it home from 150 B.C.E. to 250 C.E., but by the 4th century it was an important Syriac Christian settlement, established by the Assyrians. Then came the Romans and Byzantines.

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

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

Surprisingly, when Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim took over in 1517, there was still a Christian population living in the town. Today Mardin has a unique atmosphere and flavor due to this diverse ethnic and religious background.

Despite its ancient credentials, Mardin is a lively and dynamic town where the past lives on in the present.

Take Kırklar Kilisesi, also known as Mor Behnam, one of seven Syriac Orthodox churches. Originally constructed in 569 C.E., the Church of the Forty Martyrs, as it’s known in English, took its name when the relics of 40 martyrs were brought here in 1170.

Architecturally the church is simplicity itself. Outside, an elegant domed bell tower topped with a cross sits in a rectangular courtyard bounded by golden stone walls. Inside, regular services take place, part of an unbroken tradition carried out by Aramaic Christians for more than 700 years.

Queen of the 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 shop windows are adorned with paintings of the Shahmaran.

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

The decorations on the Abdullatif Mosque from 1371 contrast dramatically with the austerity of the churches.

Its two large portals are so delicately carved it’s hard to believe they’re made from solid stone. A recessed stalactite carving forms the focal point, with vertical and horizontal patterned stonework surrounds.

The Deyrulzafaran (House of Saffron) monastery is the original seat of the Syriac Orthodox Patriarchate.