Turkey off the beaten track

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Istanbul, Ephesus, Cappadocia, Mardin. While the first three top many visitors’ Turkey wishlists, they probably haven’t even heard of Mardin. But if the Turkish government has its way, within ten years this small city and province will be attracting five million visitors a year.

Located in the far southeast of the country, on the border with Syria and in the middle of the Mesopotamian plain, this region has been at the crossroads of many different cultures. It’s where Romans and Persians clashed, where early Christianity flourished, where people still speak the language of Jesus, where the world’s first university was founded, where the Silk Road passed through, and where, after Islam arrived, the different peoples didn’t merely coexist but enriched each other’s lives. A few days exploration are enough to get a taste of the region’s attractions, starting in the capital, Mardin.

A view of Mardin's golden stone buildings. Photo by Clifton Wilkinson

Day one: Mardin city

A dramatic hillside setting, beautiful golden-stone buildings hiding mosques, churches and boutique hotels, jaw-dropping views across ancient Mesopotamia, and friendly, laid-back locals - the provincial capital has plenty of appeal. Start at the Sabanci Museum with its excellent displays on local history and culture (obligatory mannequins in various poses included). West from the museum, the town’s main street, Cumhuriyet Caddesi, passes numerous architectural highlights such as the 17th-century Post Office, the Emir Hamam that dates back to Roman times, and the restored 19th-century mansion that now houses the Mardin Museum and its collection of archaeological finds. Further west stands the Forty Martyrs’ Church, begun in the 4th century and one of many Syrian Orthodox churches in the area. South of Cumhuriyet Caddesi is the bazaar - hassle-free compared with those in other Turkish cities and specialising in silverware and soap. In among the shops a couple of mosques, Ulu Camii and Şehidiye, can be spotted by their centuries-old minarets. Southwest of the city centre the 1469 Kasimiye Medresesi (Muslim school) is worth a visit for its courtyard and pool, and fascinating timepiece.

Stay: Eroda Konakları Hotel, Cumhuriyet Caddesi; www.erdoba.co.tr - charmingly restored rooms in a great location in the heart of town.

Eat: Cercis Murat Kona-ı, Cumhuriyet Caddesi - make sure you book at this hugely popular place, housed in an old Syrian Orthodox home and serving great meze platters and the local speciality of rice cooked inside lamb.

Looking down on the domes and spires of Mardin. Photo by Clifton Wilkinson

Day two: around Mardin

Deyrulzafaran, one of the region’s Syrian Orthodox monasteries, lies just 6km southeast of Mardin. While most monks were driven out of the region over the last hundred years, this place, protected behind fortress-like walls, has been around since the late 5th century and is still a working monastery. A creepy underground room is the site of a former sun-worshipping pagan temple, while the chapels above contain the tombs of the ancient patriarchs who resided here until their seat was moved to Damascus in the 1920s.

Continuing southeast the Roman city of Dara has only been partially excavated but the awe-inspiring water cistern (like something from the dwarf city of Moria in Lord of the Rings) and ancient bridge over the dried-up river give a sense of what it was like.

Further south, on the border with Syria, is Nusaybin, a workaday place now, but with a history dating back 4500 years and the remains of arguably the world’s first university. Founded in the early fifth century by St Jacob (who’s buried in the university church’s crypt), the site is now a confusion of columns and walls and difficult to get a sense of, but ongoing excavations should eventually help give an idea of its former importance.

Deyrulzafaran, a Syrian Orthodox monastery southeast of Mardin. Photo by Clifton Wilkinson

Day three: Midyat and around

Midyat, around 60km east of Mardin, hides its secrets well. The old town is a labyrinth of golden-coloured walls with church towers and minarets visible at a distance but tricky to find up close. Head to the roof terrace of the cultural centre for a panorama over the whole town, then shop for jewellery in the bazaar.

A short 18km east of Midyat stands the monastery of Morgabriel. Founded in 397, it still retains domes built by the Byzantine empress, Theodora, in the early sixth century. St Gabriel himself is buried in the crypt, his tomb containing a niche filled with curative sand. As with all the other remaining Syrian Orthodox churches and monasteries in Mardin, this one is largely funded by ex-pat locals living in Europe and the US.

Stay and eat: Kasr-ı Nehroz, Işiklar Mahallesi Caddesi, www.hotelnehroz.com - this boutique hotel could hold its own against the best in New York or London. The engaging manager, fantastic regional food and chance to try ancient Assyrian wines add to its charms.