The southeastern city of Mardin, home to a rich mix of cultures with their heritage prevalent in its narrow alleys and splendid manors, enjoyed a fivefold increase in tourists. This boost comes in the wake of security operations that weeded out PKK terrorists from flash point districts. Three years ago, 113,000 people visited the city, but the latest figures show some 600,000 tourists visited Mardin in the first 11 months of 2018.
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 as curio
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.
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.
It is better to know that there are 49 hotels with 6,500 beds accommodated 113,000 tourists in 2016 and increased to about 600,000 in 2018. Local authorities expect to increase the number of visitors per year to 5 million in four years. So this number of hotels and accommodations is amazing for those people who want to stay in this historic and cultural place of Turkey to spend their time in the heart of Middle East history.