The City Sleeps

Mardin exists outside of time, and almost outside of Turkey. But will the Syrian conflict and UNESCO disrupt the border city's slumber?

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I wander through the narrow passages and quickly lose my sense of direction. The limestone buildings are completely closed off from the outside world. They seem built to last forever. My presence, in turn, excites nothing more than an occasional passing glance. A young boy squats in a window framed with stone blocks. The framing is nearly perfect, as if he were a painting. I hear the ezan, the call to prayer. Here and there a church tower is visible. Behind the walls, I sense courtyards with small irrigated gardens. A few dozen pigeons perch on the dome of a mosque. Many of the surfaces are decorated with designs — some purely geometric, others that suggest plants, animals, or drops of water. Arabic lettering on doors and ceramic signs, heavy wrought-iron door handles; Archways laden with complex ornaments.  One of them shows Şahmaran, queen of the snakes. She has the upper body of a woman with long hair and a crown, and the lower body of a snake, with small feet. For the Kurds, the snake queen is a symbol of wisdom and fertility. With the exception of a men’s hair salon plastered with stylized roses, there is no sign of the colorful, loud, kitsch-laden atmosphere we so often associate with Turkey. When a business does sport modern advertising signs, they look remarkably out of place — like signposts showing the way to an alternate reality. Almost nothing in this city resembles western Turkey. Istanbul is about 700 miles away; Baghdad is just half the distance.

Located at the northern edge of historical Mesopotamia, the ochre-colored historic center of Mardin clings to a mountain ridge a thousand meters above sea level. On the plain below, the fields are already turning a delicate green. The mountain here is the last prominent tributary of the Tur Abdin range, which stretches to the west and north. The name “Tur Abdin” is Aramaic — the language of the Christians in the region — and means “Mountain of the Servants of God.” An old castle perches over the city. Today, it is a military facility, but is currently being restored and will eventually be opened to the public. It also bears the name “Eagle’s Nest” and houses a 900-year-old mosque. The buildings that spread out below the castle are positioned so that no house casts a shadow on another one. Each old house has its own well, and is constructed to prevent all but the tiniest sunbeams from penetrating the walls. Even during the day, the inhabitants have to turn on the lights inside. The solid stone walls, which keep the houses somewhat cool in the summer and relatively warm in the winter, will surely survive for many generations to come. However, as is typical for the whole region, many of the inhabitants of Mardin sleep on wooden beds on top of their buildings to find relief from the sweltering heat during the summer, a practice that goes back centuries. Hard to believe but true: Many residents of this city and beyond suffer injuries related to rooftop falls every year. People are also exposed to a higher risk of being bitten by poisonous snakes and scorpions up there. Some of the houses feature an architectural oddity: abbaras, an Arabic term meaning underground passageways that provide shortcuts between the streets. They lend the city an air of mysteriousness, of underground life. On broad terraces opening to the Mesopotamian plain, students and visitors drink tea and enjoy the phenomenal view. Unlike the historic districts of many European cities, Mardin’s old town has so far withstood the pressure to become a kind of open air museum. It sounds like a cliché, but Mardin really is a magical place.


Houses in Mardin.

Located about 20 miles from the Syrian border and 125 miles from the border to Iraq, the city has seen many peoples come and go. Accounts of it stretch back 7,000 years. Mardin was known as Maride to the Romans, Marde to the Persians, Mardia to the Byzantines, and Merdi or Merdo to the Syrian Christians. The Arabs called it Meridin. The city was a stop on the historic Silk Road. The legendary traveler Ibn Battuta, a native of Tangier in Morocco, who passed through the Tigris valley in 1327 on his return from Iran and Iraq, supposedly declared Mardin to be “one of the most beautiful Islamic cities.” The Artuqids were in control here until 1408. During this time, the city gained a number of Koran schools and hamams, as well as the grand Ulu Cami mosque. The Ottomans conquered Mardin in 1507.

Mardin was long a trading hub, thanks to its position at the crossroads of the routes from the Mediterranean to Mesopotamia and from the Black Sea to Syria. The city was known for plums and gallnuts, manna, and the sparkling jewels from the nearby mountains. The surrounding region also produced ample food. But in the 19th century, the caravans began to bypass the difficult mountain path that leads to Mardin, and the city gradually lost its luster. In 1840, British geographer William F. Ainsworth noted the mix of quite disparate peoples that populated the Mardin and frequently fought one another. The Europeans who sometimes witnessed the resulting acts of savagery during their travels in “wild Kurdistan” found refuge in the missions. In the 19th century, the city’s population was almost evenly split between Muslims and Christians, but this balance shifted in the early 20th century when many of the Christians were driven out or killed. When the Treaty of Lausanne was signed in 1923, the city suddenly found itself on the border of the new republic of Turkey, cut off from half of the surrounding area. This isolation further hastened its economic decline.  In the 1980s and 1990s, a wave of emigration carried many Aramaic Christians (also called “Syriacs”) and Kurdish Yazidi away from Mardin, often to Germany and Sweden. The region’s last Jews, often Kurdish ones, also left the area — usually bound for Israel — during this period. In recent years, a few Christians have returned from Europe now that Turkey has to some extent taken a stand against ethnic and religious discrimination. Every day during my stay, I went to Mardin’s main street as a way to establish a routine and become more comfortable with the locals. There I met Aziz, a baker, who answered my question about which language he speaks with a smile:  “Turkish, Arabic, Kurdish — everything together.”  Turkish is the lingua franca here, though often spoken with a strong Arabic or Kurdish inflection, and very few people can speak English. The people are friendly and helpful, but reserved and never pushy.

The bazaar branches off from the main street. A passage weaves through it, little light finds its way inside, and the sandy floor is uneven. The shops are stocked solely with products meant to meet day-to-day needs. One of the proprietors is sleeping on a bench in his workshop. The entrance of the Emir hamam beckons; its fascinating interior, which I saw on a previous visit, includes a dome where you can relax after the ordeal. I feel a bit out of place and turn back. Back on the main street, many of the shops offer products targeted to visitors. Mardin is famous for its soaps, which contain a mixture of oils and fragrances. A few shops run by Christians offer tasty red wines made by some Syriac families in the surrounding area. Here and there, craftsmen busily hammer copper or create bracelets and jewelry boxes. A few streets away, two small boys are driving a donkey up the stone steps in an alleyway, hitting him to drive him onward. This cruelty toward an animal disturbs me. Donkeys are still occasionally used here to transport refuse and water, lending the city an almost archaic air.

Even after several return trips in a small bus, the winding road between the old town and the new part of the city at the foot of the mountain remains a blur: faceless cement buildings and empty lots follow one another, interspersed with halls bathed in blinding white light where men sit together and play tavla, or backgammon. The new part of Mardin looks just like any Middle Eastern city, so I’m always relieved to come back to my charming guest house in the historic part of town. And it only adds to the charm to know that a part of the little money I give for my room will go to needy women and children.

The lovingly restored Deyrulzafaran Monastery is located a few kilometers outside the city. This Syrian Orthodox Christian site has its roots in the fifth century and serves as the residence of the archbishop of Mardin. The taxi ride takes just fifteen minutes. Although I don’t ask, the driver — a Turkish Kurd named Ahmet — volunteers his view on the political situation: he’s happy with the way things are going, and isn’t interested in an autonomous Kurdistan. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that I am encountering a Turkey that I never knew before I first came here. I want to come back a third time to understand it better. My fellow participants on this Sunday tour are not Christians in search of their roots, as one might expect, but Muslims. I wonder if the atmosphere in the monastery chapel, with its beautifully colored images painted on cloth, touches them differently than it does me and how. Some of the women in the group wear a türban, the headscarf favored by Turkish conservatives and those who are religious. They appreciate the scenery, that’s for sure. The visitors take many pictures, positioning themselves in front of the altar. I light a candle and wish for something as I always do in a church or chapel. Ahmet is still there with his car and takes me back to the city.


The Deyrulzafaran Monastery, Mardin.

Ten years ago, travel guides mentioned Mardin in passing, if at all. Frequent confrontations between the outlawed Kurdish party PKK and the Turkish military made the region a no-go area. At that time, the city petitioned UNESCO for recognition as a World Heritage site, but then withdrew its application, realizing that the time was not right. The requirements are certainly difficult to meet. The problem is that the city’s modern concrete buildings interfere with the appearance of the historical district. As a result, 150 concrete structures have already been torn down, and another 400 are slated to follow them. But while it’s true that the new buildings are a step backward in aesthetic terms, they are still people’s homes. A professor from the new university — who prefers to remain anonymous — explains that some of the inhabitants are Syrians who have found refuge in Mardin, where their Turkish relatives live. Is UNESCO’s demand that a city’s historical appearance retain its “integrity” even realistic? Thanks to its history, Mardin certainly possesses “outstanding universal value” — the most important of the selection criteria — and the imposing original complex remains clearly recognizable despite all the cardboard-box-like concrete structures. But Mardin, home to approximately 90,000 people, is no Turkish Sana’a (the capital of Yemen with its ethereal architecture). While my opinion is unlikely to sway the decision makers, I think that UNESCO should see the whole picture in such cases rather than cling to an inflexible concept. The city definitely deserves worldwide attention even if it’s not the “perfect” historical city. Thanks to the Mardin Sustainable Tourism Project, which was signed off on last year by Turkey and the EU, some of the storefronts on the main street that cuts through the old town received a facelift: the metal blinds were replaced with wooden shutters. Whether or not such a measure makes sense is debatable. The agreement also calls for more advertising for the city, both within Turkey and abroad.

It remains to be seen what take the newly elected mayors will have to say about all of this. Mardin is one of the few places in Turkey where the AKP, the party of Turkey’s prime minister Erdoğan’s party, was voted out in the recent local election. And the city made world news, because it now sports the first Christian elected as co-mayor of a metropolitan municipality in a country that has a population of 99 percent Muslims. Februniye Akyol who is 25-years-old and still a student at the local university, is the daughter of a silversmith. She was born under the name Fabronia Benno, but given restrictive language practices assumed a Turkish name as well. She will govern the city together with Ahmet Türk, a well-known Kurdish leader who is 71-years-old and who apologized to the Armenian and Syriac communities for the killings of 1915.

While Mardin’s Turkish Arab residents are concentrated in the old town, the Turkish Kurds are found primarily in the new section of the city. Despite the city’s sometimes violent past, a desire exists to see the coexistence of people with different ethnic and religious backgrounds here as a model for the region. Yet five years ago, this image suffered a blow when 44 people were killed at a Kurdish wedding celebration in a village just 20 kilometers from the city. The incident was the result of a feud between two enemy clans. But Mardin today appears peaceful. Except for construction in the new part of the city, not much has changed since my last visit here two years ago — except for our awareness of the atrocities happening in neighboring Syria.

The city has long been taking steps to adjust to the new times. Three years ago, the mighty Turkish industry group Sabancı restored a former army building and opened a museum — named for founder Sakıp Sabancı — dedicated to the region’s multifaceted history. Its exhibits reveal just how much the groups who lived next to and among one another here over the centuries — whether Muslim, Christian, or Jewish — resembled and still resemble one another culturally. To this day, celebrations involving the religions are recurring events. At this time, the first graduates of Mardin Artuklu University (“Artuklu” is Turkish for “Artuqid”), which was founded just five years ago, receive their degrees. The university’s programs focus on the social sciences, and it even offers a course of study in Kurdish language and literature — something highly unusual in this country. The Mardin Biennial has taken place twice already, and this May the film festival SineMardin, which shows both Turkish and international films, will celebrate its ninth year. The remaining cultural opportunities are limited. At the moment, many posters hang around town advertising an upcoming concert by Mabel Matiz, a young Turkish superstar celebrated for his unusual voice and a use of rhythm that doesn’t really fit into any known category.

The Turkish government has set up an economic program to encourage companies to relocate to the Mardin region, and of course there are some political motives in play: the goal is to strengthen business ties to the western part of the country. But the frequent power outages that still plague the area are an obstacle. A number of lovingly restored buildings in the historic district now house boutique hotels designed to leave no upscale traveler’s wishes unfilled. The new airport terminal on the road that connects Mardin with Kiziltepe, further to the southwest, is practically ready. When I first came here two years ago, the airport was a tiny building just a twentieth of the size of the new one.

Even though the city has such a rich history, fascinating and unique architectural heritage, and splendid views, most of the tourists who come to Mardin are from other parts of Turkey. The few foreigners around, at least at this early time of the year, are American or Japanese, and work in the region for nongovernmental organizations that attempt to aid Syrian refugees — both Muslim and Christian — in camps in nearby cities such as Kiziltepe, Midyat and Nusaybın. But it’s becoming clear that Mardin will soon awake from its slumber — with or without UNESCO’s blessing.

In the evening I sit on the terrace of a restaurant with the somewhat puzzling name “Café del Mar”, enjoy the delicious Mardin kebap, and look to the south, where the plain spreads to the horizon. The air is clear. From this spot, the sharp point of the Arabian Peninsula is 1,500 miles away. Where exactly is the Syrian border? Which lights below lie within Turkey? Am I really looking at land, or is it the sea after all? • 8 May 2014

Translated by Lori Lantz.

Bernd Brunner writes books and essays. His most recent book is Birdmania: A Particular Passion for Birds. His writing has appeared in Lapham’s Quarterly, The Paris Review Daily, AEON, TLS, Wall Street Journal Speakeasy, Cabinet, Huffington Post, and Best American Travel Writing. Follow him on twitter at @BrunnerBernd.

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