A Tale in Red: Golden City, Mysteries of God, Meeting Friends, and Ancient Dara

Mardin, 11 – 12/07/2011

Mardin is a beautiful city in southeastern Turkey, and the town is famous for its rich cultural heritage and stunning architectural marvels. Situated on the rocky hilltops of the Mesopotamian plains, Mardin has a long and fascinating history dating back to ancient times.

Mardin has a rich history that spans thousands of years, and the region was once part of the ancient civilisation of Mesopotamia. Over the centuries, it has been ruled by various empires, including the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Seljuks, and the Ottomans.

During the Roman era, Mardin was an important centre for trade and commerce. The city was on the Silk Road, a significant trade route connecting Asia and Europe. The Romans built a fortress on the hilltops overlooking the town, which would later become the famous Mardin Castle.

In the 12th century, Mardin became a centre of Islamic scholarship and culture. The Great Mosque, one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, was built during this period. The mosque is a masterpiece of Islamic architecture and features intricate geometric patterns, beautiful calligraphy, and a stunning central dome.

In the 14th century, Mardin was ruled by the Artukids, a powerful dynasty that left a lasting impact on the region’s architecture and culture. The Artukid period was marked by the construction of several impressive buildings, including the Zinciriye Medrese, a religious school that features beautiful carvings and designs.

During the Ottoman era, Mardin thrived as a centre of trade and commerce. The Ottomans built several impressive buildings in the city, including the Kasım Pasha Mosque, which features stunning tilework and intricate carvings.

Today, Mardin is a city celebrating its rich cultural heritage and history. Its unique blend of architecture and culture reflects the influence of the many civilisations that have called the region home over the centuries. From ancient ruins to stunning mosques, Mardin offers visitors a chance to explore Turkey’s fascinating past and discover the secrets of this beautiful city.

One of the most impressive features of Mardin is its unique architecture. The city is known for its beautiful stone houses and buildings, adorned with intricate carvings and designs that reflect the blend of different cultures and religions that have influenced the region over the centuries. Walking through the narrow alleys and streets of the old town, you will feel like you have stepped back in time.

The most iconic landmark of Mardin is the ancient castle, which sits atop a steep hill overlooking the city. The castle was built during the Roman era and used by various empires, including the Byzantines, the Seljuks, and the Ottomans. You can enjoy panoramic views of the city and the surrounding countryside from the castle.

Another must-see attraction in Mardin is the Great Mosque, a magnificent example of Islamic architecture built during the 12th century. The mosque features intricate geometric patterns and beautiful calligraphy, and its central dome is a marvel of engineering.

Mardin offers plenty of opportunities for those interested in history to explore the region’s past. The city is home to several museums, including the Mardin Museum, which showcases artefacts from the ancient civilisations that once inhabited the area.

Foodies will also love Mardin’s delicious food. The city is also known for its delicious and unique cuisine, which reflects the region’s diverse cultural heritage. Arabic, Kurdish, Turkish, and Assyrian traditions influence the city’s cuisine, making it a delicious fusion of flavours and ingredients. They are found on the most traditional dishes like Soğan kebabı(onion kebab), Mardin kebabı (Mardin-style kebab), kaburga dolması (stuffed ribs), kibbe (stuffed tripe), dobo (stuffed lamb), zıngıl (Turkish doughnuts with syrup), irok (Mardin-style stuffed meatballs), alluciye (plum stew), firkiye (lamb with fresh almonds), sembusek (a savoury stuffed pastry), killice (Mardin-style scones) and harire (a type of flour pudding with grape molasses). However, you can find anything from Turkey in the city and many snacks and chocolates in the groceries. Please don’t be shy and taste them all. Choose a restaurant where locals usually eat and enjoy the natural taste of Mardin’s cuisine.

Religion is present-day life in Turkey. You can’t avoid the call for prayer that resonates in all cities, and Mardin is no different.

Three kilometres from Mardin in the Syriac cultural region known as Tur Abdin, you can find one of Mardin’s most notable religious sites, the Deyrulzafaran Monastery (Mor Hananyo Manastırı in Turkish), also known as the Saffron Monastery is a place where we are transported to the 5th centuries.

The monastery is located on the site of a temple dedicated to the Mesopotamian sun god, Shamash. In Roman times, the temple was converted into a citadel. After the roman withdrew from the region, Mor Shelmon transformed the fortress into a monastery (493 ACE). The monastery was renovated in 793 by the Bishop of Mardin and Kfartuta, Mor Hananyo.

From its name, yellow in Syriac, to the architecture, the monastery grows into you, taking your eyes and making you think about how faith could be expressed in many ways. Inside centuries of religious history is kept well-guarded. We visited a place that is said to be a pagan temple with a flat stone vault. In Beth Kadishé, we could see the tombs of the saints where the patriarchs were entombed, in full regalia, seated on a throne.

The beautiful altar in the chapel of Mother of God, with its carved wooden canopy over s simple cube of stone, is an older form of the traditional altar in Turabdin. The beautiful and straightforward throne of the patriarch is located in the main church, with the unbroken apostolic succession by which the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch trace the grace of their consecration back to Peter, the Chief of the Apostles. Another interesting piece was the litter for the journeys of the patriarchs, which horses carried.

I loved walking in the gardens, a mix between the earthly tone of the ground and the monastery contrast with the yellow of the saffron flower. It was an immersion in one kind of faith we did not see much today. Religion is pure and simple, where the luxuries of gold and majestic building give way to the land’s colours and the people’s religiosity.

From the monastery, we went to an archaeological site with the ruins of Dara.

The ancient city of Dara, also known as Anastasiopolis, was once a thriving metropolis in Mesopotamia, near the modern-day village of Oğuz in Turkey. Founded by the Roman Emperor Anastasius I in the 6th century AD, Dara was strategically situated on a hill overlooking the border between the Eastern and Sassanian Empires.

Dara was a significant military outpost, serving as a base for Byzantine troops who fought against the Sassanids in several key battles. The city was well-fortified, with walls up to 20 meters high and 5 meters thick, designed to withstand the attacks of enemy armies. It also had an extensive water supply system, which was crucial for the city’s survival during times of siege.

The city’s population reached around 50,000 at its peak, and it was a multicultural hub of trade, culture, and religion. Dara was home to various religious groups, including Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, who coexisted peacefully and contributed to the city’s vibrant cultural scene.

Despite its military might and cultural richness, Dara’s history was plagued by conflict and tragedy. The Sassanid army laid siege to the city several times, and in 573, they finally succeeded in capturing it, leaving the city in ruins. After the Arab conquest of Mesopotamia in the 7th century, Dara’s importance declined and was eventually abandoned.

Today, visitors to the site of Dara can still see the ruins of the city’s walls, gates, and towers. The city’s unique water supply system, which consists of tunnels, reservoirs, and aqueducts, can also be seen. The ruins of several churches and a sizeable Roman-style bathhouse provide a glimpse into the city’s cultural and religious life.

The ancient city of Dara stands as a testament to the resilience and ingenuity of its people. Its strategic location, military prowess, and multicultural character made it a vital centre of trade and culture during its heyday. Despite its eventual decline and abandonment, the city’s ruins inspire awe and wonder in visitors today, providing a glimpse into the ancient world and its fascinating history.

It was incredible to enter the city shown to us by a local guide — a boy of 13 to 14 with a big smile and many stories to tell. After the visit, we took a break at a nearby place where we had an ayran and many tales about the ancient Dara.

In the middle of the afternoon, we arrived at another monastery, Dayro d-Mor Gabriel or Monastery of Saint Gabriel (Deyrulumur), the oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world. We parked in a beautiful courtyard made of car parking with beautiful trees. The shadow they provided was welcoming since the temperature outside was around 45º C.

What captured my attention were the two towers I could see from the car. They were beautiful, and the colour of the earth was captivating. 

The visit was silent; only a few people were around. We visited the main church, and the altar enchanted us with its mosaics. Another touching place is the tomb of Saint Gabriel. Pious pilgrims have been taking handfuls of sand here for centuries (which is continuously replenished – but comes into contact with the grave).

Mardin is also home to several mosques, including the Ulu Cami or Great Mosque. The historic mosque was probably built in the 1170s under the Artuqids. Destroyed by an explosion during Rashid Pasha’s siege of the city in the early 19th century and rebuilt afterwards, keeping the same style as the original. The north wall and the minbar were the only survivors. The minaret was reconstructed in 1892 and had on its base an inscription that shows the date of the original one constructed. I could see the minaret from the balcony of my hotel’s bedroom.

Another place we visited was Kasım Pasha Mosque. The construction began with Sultan Al-Zahir Majd al-Din ‘Isā ibn Dāwūd (or İsa Bey), but he could see the final building having died in a battle in 1407. It was an intense visit; one of the men showing us the place refused to talk with me — a problem I would face in some places in Turkey.

After visiting the madrassa, we went to lunch in a restaurant. I ate all the most traditional food made in Mardin. It was an epiphany, but each bite was delicious.

The most impressive place, not religious or touristic, I had the opportunity to see was the hotel where I stayed in Mardin. It was a labyrinth of stairs, rustic and beautiful. The room has one of the most fantastic views I have seen. 
Mardin captivates my soul and is a place I want to return to one day.

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