Mardin: "Hasankeyf on the Tigris"

Southeastern Anatolia
21 October 2009

Dear Family and Friends,

Talk about last minute decision making:

On the bus from Tatvan, I re-read my guidebook for the entry for Diyarbakir (pop 665,000): mostly city walls and gates. Haven't I seen enough of them for the moment? Besides, I am avoiding the big cities. I looked at my map and explained to the bus driver's assistant (yes, there is always extra staff on an intercity bus - they serve drinks and snacks and help with luggage and tickets) -- I explained that I want to go to Mardin.

I was dropped off at the appropriate spot outside Diyarbakir where the taxi drivers were waiting like sharks. I was scooped up, ripped off for the short ride to a small suburban bus station where I immediately boarded a minibus for Mardin.

It was dark when I arrived. After checking in at the hotel, I wandered down the street and found Kebapçı Yusuf Usta.* I was greeted by Yusuf the young, handsome host:

Yusuf: Iyi akşamlar. Sen yemek istiyorsunuz?

Jan: Smiling, slightly puzzled.

Yusuf: Surprised. You are not Turkish?

Jan: Still smiling. No

Yusuf: Curious. Where are you from?

Jan: Sincerely. USA.

Yusuf: Astonished. What? What are you doing here? Don't you know we are all terrorists?

Jan: Laughing. Yes, of course. I know. You look very dangerous. I think I will go home now.

Yusuf: Also Laughing: Please have a seat. Welcome to Kurdistan. Welcome to Mardin.

Since the 5th Century, Mardin has been occupied by a series of contentious warlords: Assyrian Christians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Kurds, Mongols, Persians and finally the Ottoman Turks. Not so long ago, the Syrian Orthodox communities were "encouraged" to leave the area. The most recent "troubles" involves the PKK (Kurdistan Worker Party). The PKK has given this area the reputation that discourages travelers from visiting. The troubles seem to have largely disappeared as the Turkish government is now active in building infrastructure and other projects aimed at improving the standard of living for the Kurds. It must be working. I never felt uncomfortable here. On the contrary, everyone here in Mardin, everyone in "Kurdistan" is friendly, courteous, and helpful.

The old city of Mardin is built on the upper slopes of an extinct volcano that rises from the endless Mesopotamian plain far below. An ancient castle sits on the broad peak - a castle still used by the Turkish Army. Along the narrow, winding, steep, cobbled streets I wander back in time through the bazaar and to the craftsmen shops - tinsmiths pounding out pots and pans; fruit and vegetable stalls - I have never seen so many olives in my life...barrels and barrels of them; and the clothing markets where I am gently persuaded to buy a keffiyeh or shmagh - my perfectly becomingcheckered scarf. The reliable, sure-footed donkey is still the chief mode of transport and haulage.

I wander back in time to find the cool and inviting 15th Century Reyhanyi Mosque, the 12th Century Ulu Mosque with its minaret adorned with delicate reliefs, the 14th Century Sehidiye Mosque and Madrassa with its slender fluted minaret, and the oldest madrassa in Anatolia - the 12th Century Sitti Radviyye Medressi with two stories surrounding an open courtyard. And finally I wandered into the Emir Hamami, the century's old Emir Turkish bath. With all that steam and with all that pounding, I chickened out.

I met Luca at the Ulu Mosque. Luca is a PhD candidate at the University of Venice. His specialty is Islamic history of the Middle Ages. Luca lives in Istanbul and speaks fluent Turkish. We decided to share a taxi for two side trips: Hasankeyf and the Zafaran monastery.

On the way to Hasankeyf we stop in the small city of Midyat. A large mansion has been restored and is now a museum of local culture. From the roof, the spires of several Orthodox churches are visible in the distance. On the grounds I spot a large stone with an inscription of a vaguely familiar alphabet. It looks like Hebrew, but it's not. Luca explained that the lettering is in Syriac, an ancient dialect of Aramaic.

Midyat and Mardin share a common history and have similar architecture, but Midyat lacks the charm of Mardin's hillside location.

Hasankeyf is what travel is all about for me. An ancient town and fortress (1800 BCE), the honey-colored ruins sit atop the rocks of a gorge overlooking the Tigris River. The Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Artukids, the Ayyubids, the Mongols, the Ottomans and now, Luca and I, we modern travelers agree that Hasankeyf is a "don't miss" spot for climbing over ruins, and for superb views of the Tigris River and the remains of a stone arch bridge built by the Arabs in the 7th Century.

Across the river, in an open field, sits Zeynel Bey Turbesi, a turquoise tiled tomb built in the mid 15th Century. This style is rare here, but I smiled since I recognized the colors and Mongol tile work that I had seen much further east in Uzbekistan in Central Asia.

I am often asked, "Jan, what do you do in your retirement?" This is one of the things I do - I climb up rocky paths to castles and gaze below to rivers or plains or mountains or to other rocky monuments; and then I gaze some more. And then I stroll down the rocky path; and then I eat lunch.

Reclining on a mound of cushions at a riverside restaurant with the stone archways and the modern steel spans behind us, Luca and I are served a lunch of salad, minced lamb kebaps and fresh fish from the Tigris. The river flows by our fingertips, the bridges form the backdrop and the Hasankeyf ruins loom overhead.

Leave this scene? Can we stay for dinner? **

The Syrian Orthodox monastery Deyrul Zafaran, the saffron monastery (or the monastery of Mor Hananyo, Saint Ananias) sits on a rocky hillside outside Mardin. The stone façade in the afternoon sun glows gold - hence the Zafaran nickname. Inside the monastery are the sanctuaries, tombs and underground chambers. There are 365 rooms - one for each day. The chapel has a beautifully carved archway and apse. One wall hanging in the chapel depicts the Last Supper. There are twelve cups of wine with the thirteenth cup overturned - the wine spilling on to the table. Jesus stands and presides over the disciples. The seamstress-artist decided that Jesus have a perfectly becoming Turkish mustache.

Was my own decision equally inspired, to avoid the big city and come directly to Mardin? And my choice of hotel? The Erdoba Evleri? A restored mansion in the old town. The guest rooms have vaulted ceilings. The outdoor terrace overlooks the Mesopotamian plain.

And the buffet breakfast? Don't ask! Nine kinds of cheese. Six kinds of olives. Five kinds of bread. Bowls of jams and preserves - my favorite is cherry. Fresh vegetables: tomatoes and cucumbers that actually taste like tomatoes and cucumbers. Fresh fruit: have I ever seen such huge peaches? Dried fruit: dates, raisins, cherries, apricots, figs. Yogurt. Cereals. Eggs. Juice. Coffee. Tea. All served in a vaulted stone dining room. ***

Mardin. A fine place to dine. An invigorating place to stroll. Just a great place to be. Shall I stay another day?

Gaining weight,


* Yusuf, the Kebap Master. Kebops or kebobs have never been my favorite food. I have found them dry and unappealing. But here in Turkey, the lamb is minced and combined with generous additions of herbs and spices. Then grilled. Juicy. Savory. I'm sold.

** For dinner, Luca and I found the Antica, a new restaurant in Mardin. The hosts and owners were gracious and generous. The dining area is an outdoor courtyard that is surrounded on all sides by galleries and balconies and indoor rooms for the winter.

*** Erdoba Evleri. Sold out every night, and for good reason:

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