The magnificent Deyrul Zafaran stands about 6km along a good but narrow road in the rocky hills east of Mardin. The monastery was once the seat of the Syrian Orthodox patriarchate but this has now moved to Damascus.
In 495 the first monastery was built on a site previously dedicated to the worship of the sun. Destroyed by the Persians in 607, it was rebuilt, only to be looted by Tamerlane six centuries later.
Shortly after you enter the walled enclosure via a portal bearing a Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic) inscription, you'll see the original sanctuary, an eerie underground chamber with a ceiling of huge, closely fitted stones held up as if by magic, without the aid of mortar. This room was allegedly used by sun worshippers, who viewed their god rising through a window at the eastern end. A niche on the southern wall is said to have been for sacrifices.
A guide will then lead you through a pair of 300-year-old doors to the tombs of the patriarchs and metropolitans who have served here.
In the chapel, the patriarch's throne to the left of the altar bears the names of all the patriarchs who have served the monastery since it was refounded in 792. To the right of the altar is the throne of the metropolitan. The present stone altar replaces a wooden one that burnt down about half a century ago. The walls are adorned with wonderful paintings and wall hangings. Services in Aramaic are held here.
In the next rooms you'll see litters used to transport the church dignitaries, and a baptismal font. In a small side room is a 300-year-old wooden throne. The floor mosaic is about 1500 years old.
A flight of stairs leads to very simple guest rooms for those coming for worship. The patriarch's small, simple bedroom and parlour are also up here.
Try and visit on a weekday or the monastic hush could be disturbed by busloads of Turkish tourists.