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MARDİN

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A taste of Mesopotamia                            Population: 150,000
Other names: Marıdın, Matedin, Merdo, Merdin, Erdobe, Merdine (Kurdish)

In the half light of early evening a large white donkey wobbles down the street with two gas canisters draped across its back. Behind it another waits patiently while its saddlebags are filled with building rubble. Then two boys come careening down the street on their animals, and for a fleeting moment Mardin seems more like the Wild West than the wild east of Turkey, only with donkeys taking the place of the broncos.

The donkeys are a symbol of one of modern Mardin’s biggest problems.

Carved into the sides of a hill, it’s rightly famous for its lovely honey-coloured houses with frilly carvings around their windows, and for minarets with huge stone tears dropping down their sides. But getting to and from the houses involves much struggling along narrow alleyways and up and down stone staircases.

In the circumstances, how are the authorities to collect the rubbish? Their solution has been to licence a team of rubbish donkeys to spend their days fetching and carrying.

DSC03678Through the lost years of the 1990s Mardin was a city more talked about than visited; a place which, with its arched passageways (abbaras) and colourful market, reminded its infrequent visitors of Old Jersalem.

But as the troubles in the east have quietened down so it is experiencing a welcome new lease of life as Turks pour in to soak up its charms. For foreign visitors this boom is something of a two-edged sword since it can mean that reasonably priced bedrooms, not to mention tables at the best restaurant in town (the tiny Cercis Murat Konagı) are unexpectedly hard to come by.

So what does Mardin have to offer?

Increasingly this is a very two-faced town. As you drive towards it your heart may sink at the sight of yet another hideous new settlement built to accommodate a burgeoning population, and you may find yourself mouthing a silent parody of John Betjeman’s famous condemnation of Slough: “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Yeni Mardin (New Mardin)...” Then you glimpse the old city and all is forgiven.DSC03670

One of the most surprising developments in this once blighted city is the blossoming of cafe society. In a town where until quite recently it was hard to get anything to eat after eight o’clock at night there are now plenty of places where it’s possible to while away as much time as you like over tea or coffee, be you male or female.

If it was Asmalı Konak that first turned Turks on to the beauty of Cappadocia, it was probably the Berevan and Sıla television serials that stamped Mardin on the mental maps of most Turks.

Warning In mid-2015 the political situation once again drove tourists away from Mardin. Hopefully the hotels and cafe society will soon be up and running again. 

Around town

Old Mardin sits on terraces on the hillside. Here Birinci Caddesi (First Road) straggles along one side of the hill with fine old buildings rising up and dropping down on either side of it. Up above stands the magnificent building that houses the local museum and what was once the most beautiful post office in all Turkey, worth visiting even if you had no urgent mail to despatch.DSC03579

Down below stands the superb 12th-century Ulu Cami and a set of tea gardens offering stupendous views over the undulating Mesopotamian Plain to distant Syria.

There are a few other specific sights to see around town, some of them ancient medreses and mosques, some of them delicate Assyrian churches that attest to the two religious traditions that have co-existed in varying degrees of harmony over the centuries.

Recently restored, the 15th-century Kasımıye Medresesi, with its cool courtyard pool,  is tucked away on the outskirts of town, but to find the twin-domed 14th-century Sultan İsa Medresesi you need only scramble up a few staircases from Birinci Caddesi. Don't miss the mihrab in its mosque which incorporates some pieces of onyx apparently brought from Iran. 

MardineasterEaster at Kırklar KilisesiOf the churches perhaps the most interesting is the Kırklar Kilisesi (Forty Martyrs Church), worth visiting to glimpse the extraordinary hand-painted altar curtains that look as if they’ve strayed from Ethiopia. The last maker of these curtains is now in her eighties and sustained in her endeavours by a grant from the European Union. 

Mardin’s chaotic and colourful bazaar rambles along the streets immediately beneath Birinci Caddesi. Here, amid the usual stalls touting fruit and veg, cheap clothes and household goods, are far more exciting ones selling hand-stitched saddles, hand-beaten copper and fine carved chairs.

DSC04271Even more intriguing are the shops where you can watch craftsmen painting colourful camaltı (under-glass) images of the Şahmaran, an enigmatic local monster with the head of a woman and the body of a snake.

The town now has two museums: the state-run archaeology and ethnography museum housed in what was built in 1895 as a beautiful home for the Syrian Catholic Patriarch; and the privately-owned Sabancı Museum (both closed Mondays). Taken together they offer an insight into many aspects of local life, including the drinking of bitter mırra coffee.

Sleeping

Unless price is unimportant to you finding somewhere suitable to stay in Mardin can be very problematic. During the 1990s very few people came here and so there was no point in anyone investing in the hotel stock. When that situation changed almost overnight in the 2000s a couple of boutique hotels put in an appearance and were quickly overwhelmed by the demand.

Now new hotels are opening all the time but all of them are aimed at the well-heeled Turkish holidaymaker which might not matter but for the fact that standards of service and cleanliness are not always as high as you might expect for the prices.

If you don't book ahead you may arrive and find everything full. On the other hand if you do book ahead you risk arriving and finding that you have been given a room in a substandard annexe.

The magnificent building at the east end of Birinici Cadde that used to serve as the post office now operates as an Uygulama Hotel (Training Hotel). You can stay in it although the impression I had was that standards might not be all that high and that you could have to endure loud noise from wedding parties using the same venue. 

If everything is full it's worth remembering that there is an Öğretmen Evi in the new town. 

Antik Tatlıdede

Artuklu Kervansaray. Tel: 0482-213 7353

Buday Butik Otel. Tel: 0482-212 8586

Büyük Mardin Hotel. Tel; 0482-213 1047

Dara Konağı. Tel: 0482-232 3272

Erdoba Hotel

İzala Boutique Hotel. Tel: 0482-212 7474

Otel Bilen, Yeni Mardin. Tel: 0482-213 0315

Reyhanı Kasr. Tel: 0482-212 1333

Zinciriye Otel. Tel: 0482-212 4866

Eating

Cercis Murat Konağı. Tel: 0482-213 6841DSC03611Cercis Murat Konağı Restaurant

Transport info

The least stressful way to get to Mardin is to fly there from İstanbul or Ankara. On a longer trip there are plenty of buses from Şanlıurfa or local buses from nearby Diyarbakır and Midyat.

Local buses trundle along one-way Birinci Cadde, the main street of the old city, dropping passengers off along the way. This is fine if you're heading east from Diyarbakırkapı towards Meydanbaşı, not so good if you want to go the other way as you'll have to go all the way round via the new city first. 

The main dolmuş station is at Meydanbaşı in the old city. There you can pick up dolmuşes to Midyat, Ömerli, Savur and Diyarbakır. Dolmuşes to and from Kızıltepe leave from Yenişehir (New City). 

Day trip destinations

Dara

Deyrulzafaran

Diyarbakır

Kızıltepe

Midyat

Şanlıurfa

Savur

Read about cafe society in Mardin: http://www.todayszaman.com/newsDetail_getNewsById.action?load=detay&newsId=255642&link=255642

Read about mırra coffee rituals: http://www.todayszaman.com/news-110449-make-mine-a-mirra-please.html

Read about a recent visit to Mardin: http://www.turkeyfromtheinside.com/blogbloggingaboutturkey/entry/12-in-mardin-to-home-stay-or-not-to-home-stay.html

 

 

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