Photos by Emel Ernalbamt
Mardin, located in southeastern Turkey, attracts tourists with its sandstone cityscape, historical and multicultural heritage—and wine.
Southeastern Turkey, a stone’s throw from the Syrian border, hardly seems like the most tempting destination for a city break. But Mardin is as safe as the rest of the country, and you will be rewarded for your journey with golden stone alleyways, astonishing views, a rich multicultural heritage, and surprisingly excellent wine.
Mardin’s old city, balanced on the hillside between an ancient castle and the sweeping Mesopotamian plains, offers a stew of influences from Assyrian, Arab, Turkish, and Kurdish cultures, expressed in unique architecture, food, and handicrafts. At the end of the day, watching the sun sink into the distant horizon over a copper cup of Syriac wine or a strong murra coffee, it is hard not to feel transported to another world.
Conflicts on both sides of the border have struck a blow to Mardin’s tourist industry over the past few years, but visiting is as safe and easy now as ever—the only difference being that you might feel you have the whole place to yourself. Now may just be the right time to visit.
Mardin’s sightseeing gem is most definitely the Deyr-ul Zafaran Monastery. This Syrian Orthodox monastery was established over 1,500 years ago and you will see evidence of its sacredness and importance. Historical relics on display, saffron colored stone, rose gardens, and peaceful courtyards fill the enormous space; the monks are happy to give tours. The monastery sits five kilometers outside of the city, a nice walk in pleasant weather or a quick trip by taxi.
Also just outside the city center, the Artuquid-era Kasimiye medrese (Islamic school) is worth a stop not only for its gorgeously simple design but for more views over the plains. It is a great spot for watching the sunset and can be reached by taxi or a short walk through the old town.
If you have not had your fill of religious monuments, the old city itself is stuffed with them. Check out the Great Mosque with its enormous, elaborate minaret; the Latfiye Mosque for its intricate carvings; and the Kirklar Church where, if you are lucky, the friendly priest will let you in for a quick tour. Another pretty sandstone building is the city museum, which is worth a visit for informative displays and artifacts dating back millennia. Half the fun of finding these sights is exploring the narrow streets, getting lost among the old houses, and seeing local life play out.
Things to take home
Mardin has some excellent shopping options; locally made copperware, filigree silver, soaps, and wine are the best buys, and there is a good chance of something interesting turning up in the antique shops. Look out for the Shahmeran, the queen of snakes, a local legend and symbol of female wisdom, who appears on everything from earrings to mirrors to bags. Make your way along Cumhuriyet Caddesi, the old city’s main drag, drop in and out of anywhere that looks interesting, and be prepared for many cups of tea.
Outside the city
With a bit more time and a sense of adventure, there are a few worthwhile day trips from the city. Midyat, another multicultural sandstone town, is just an hour away with regular dolmuş and bus services running throughout the day. It has a fascinating selection of churches, old mansions, and monasteries to visit and it is a nice drive through golden hills patched with olive trees.
With an early start—and ideally a taxi or your own wheels as public transport can be patchy—you can make it in the same day to Hasankeyf, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited settlements, now a lovely little village tucked under high cliffs by the Tigris river. Make sure to visit if you get the chance as it is expected to be flooded by nearby dam construction within the next few years. Check with your hotel for up-to-date transport and security information, but it is usually a safe and easy day trip.
If you prefer your history truly ancient, try taking a dolmuş or taxi to the village of Oğuz, 34 kilometers away, to visit the well-preserved ruins of the Roman city of Dara. The site is free to visit, but you may get offered a cheap informal tour by local youths.
Where to stay and eat
Mardin’s old city has an excellent collection of hotels; many fine old houses have been converted into boutique hotels at reasonable prices. Thick sandstone walls keep out the heat or cold, and there are usually terraces or courtyards where you can relax under medieval arches. One good option is Dara Konaği, which offers lovely old sandstone rooms with soft beds and silky drapes, a few minutes’ walk from Cumhuriyet Caddesi in the heart of the old town.
Cumhuriyet Caddesi is also the place to start the search for a good meal. Seyr-i Mardin is impossible to miss as you pass up the main street and we recommend that you don’t; it offers sumptuous décor, a summer terrace with some of the city’s best views, and deliciously unique local dishes as well as kebab and köfte standards. Try the tahini chicken with zucchini fries, or go all out and order the enormous two-person stuffed ribs. Alcohol is not available but you can finish up with coffee and nargileh as the city lights come on under your feet.
For the full kahvaltı experience head to Beyzade Café, where a friendly family serve up the usual spread with a few twists—bananas and walnuts in honey, or yogurt with homemade jams and kiwi fruit.
With its conservative southeastern Turkish atmosphere Mardin is not the place to go for a boozy night out, but it is worth trying the local Syriac wine. Assyrian Christian families have been making wine at home for centuries, and in the last few decades commercial organic winemaking has picked up around Mardin and Midyat. Cercis Murat Konaği serves the real thing in traditional copper cups along with inventive mezze platters, or you can pick up a bottle at one of several small wine shops along Cumhuriyet Caddesi.
When to go
Mardin’s weather can vary wildly from season to season, regularly rising above 40°C in summer and dropping well below freezing in winter. The best season to visit is spring, when the plains below are green and flowers are in bloom in the churchyards; if you visit around Orthodox Easter you may be able to witness some of the celebrations. Autumn can also be pleasantly cool, with long crisp evenings. If you are lucky (or unlucky) enough to visit during the occasional winter snows, navigating the frozen cobblestones can be a slippery challenge, but the reward is a view of sugar-coated, flat-roofed houses dropping off dramatically into pearly mists.
How to get there
Pegasus offers direct morning flights from Sabiha Gökçen, starting from 100 TL one way for the two-hour journey. If you are up for a more epic—and slightly rougher—journey, the Güney Express train departs Ankara at 11am every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, scheduled to arrive in Diyarbakır at 7.45am the next day (actual arrival time may vary), where you can link up with a bus, taxi, or dolmuş for the one or two hour drive on to Mardin. Check the latest security advice before trying this route, bring some food and drink, and definitely shell out for a sleeping berth if you want a good night’s rest!