The magnificent Deyrul Zafaran stands about 6km along a good 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 entering 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. 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. Nearby is a pair of 300-year-old doors leading 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 792. Past patriarchs are buried seated and facing east, wearing full robes so they’re ready and dressed for God.

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.

There's no public transport here so you must take a taxi or walk around 90 minutes from Mardin. Hopeful drivers wait outside the bus company offices in Mardin and will ask around TL50 to run you there and back.

Try and visit on a weekday or the monastic hush could be disturbed by busloads of Turkish tourists. You must visit the monastery in the company of a guide.