So just what was it that brought me to Southeast Turkey? Well, I was standing in a small art gallery in Istanbul. Part of the gallery was dedicated to photography by contemporary Turkish artists. And, what caught my attention was a series of photographs depicting a town on the banks of the River Tigris. Some of the photos displayed were: the remains of a medieval bridge spanning the river; thousands of man-made caves carved into the steep limestone cliffs along the banks; a huge castle on one side of the river, and a towering mosque on the other. One of the photos was artistically taken as if through water, with the huge arches of the bridge shimmering through in the sun light. A true work of art, but what fascinated me even more were the written accounts of what was contained in the photos. The town and all its historic treasures were due to disappear forever under the waters of a huge hydroelectric dam. The gaps in the bridge started to look to me like accusing eyes, beckoning me to come and see it all for myself.
Knowing only the name of the town, Hasankeyf, and what I had just read about the impending construction of a dam, I made an instant decision: I had to visit. The question was, where is Hasankeyf? A look at the map showed me, that Hasankeyf is located approx. 100km northeast of the city of Mardin, Turkey, close to the border of Syria. Mardin, further research revealed, is also called the window to Mesopotamia as it is built on a sloping hill which overlooks the vast plain of Mesopotamia framed by the biblical twin rivers, Tigris and Euphrates.
A center of the Syriac orthodox faith, Mardin is the site of unequalled buildings adorned with intricate Syriac stone masonry , mosques as well as churches, a medieval bazaar and, as if that were not enough, it’s the center for the best filigree gold produced locally by highly skilled goldsmiths.
The next thing I knew, I was on one of my beloved Turkish long distance bus coaches to cover the over 1000 km between Didim on the Aegean Sea where I live part of the year, and Mardin in the far southeast corner of Turkey. The coaches are comfortable, cheap, with many stops along the way and, as they are used by few foreigners, providing for an excellent opportunity to meet the locals.
A bit tired, a bit cramped but full of anticipation, I alighted at the bus station in Mardin’s new part of town. A taxi took me uphill to the old town and my hotel, the Zinciriye. All fatigue was quickly forgotten when I set foot in the lobby. The boutique hotel is a converted ‘medrese’ ( an Islamic school) which was attached to an adjacent mosque and was once used to house and teach students. As I made my way to my room, I could not help admire the outstanding stone masonry and beautifully antique-furnished passageways. Upon entering my elegant room, I threw open my window and was rewarded with an incomparable view: the vast plain of Mesopotamia stretched out as far as the eye could see with the shimmering waters of the Tigris in the distance.
I was also quite hungry after my long journey and after freshening up, I climbed even higher up onto the roof terrace to sample the first of many culinary delicacies of Mardin: a Mardin kebab, made from minced lamb, mixed with spices, crushed walnuts and tiny pieces of dried apricot, all on a bed of a fresh salad.
Once fortified with a delightful meal, I climbed down for a foray into the medieval bazaar which lies just below the hotel. I came upon the workshops of the famous silversmiths and was hard pressed not to spend all my travel money there and then. The works of art produced from the thinnest threads of silver and gold are irresistible and renowned throughout Turkey and beyond. A somewhat cheaper option is the sweet smelling soap which is made in many a Mardin soap factory and sold by weight.
Thousands of years of civilization and over 20 cultures have left their mark on Mardin, all of which manifests itself in the mosques, palaces, churches and the fascinating Sabanci Mardin City museum. The Syriac Orthodox faith is still practiced by a good part of the population which is why Mardin is one of the few places in Turkey where you can hear the call to prayer from the mosque and the ringing of church bells simultaneously.
The next day, I decided to hire a car and driver to take me to Hasankeyf, a decision which I have not regretted because my driver was extremely knowledgeable and he showed me places I would otherwise not have known about.
Hasankeyf was all I expected and more! It’s an incredible feeling when something you only know from photographs appears in all its glory. The bridge is stunning and to think that it will all disappear soon is just so sad. I saw a flock of goats and their keepers lounging in the shadow of trees right down at the river bank and asked my driver if he could take me there. He did, and we spent some time playing with the goats, dipping our feet into the water, and chatting with the Kurds who guarded and milked the goats. It was a scene which could have played itself out, unchanged, hundreds of years ago. Although it was only the end of May, it was already very hot. So I dispensed with climbing up to the remains of the huge castle which gives the place its name: Hassan’s seat or Hassan’s delight. The blue tiled Hamam is currently being restored, so I could only see it from a distance. I did, however, get quite close to some of the caves.
I have to thank my driver for the visit to another marvelous place I didn’t know about as we made our way back to Mardin. Dara, an important East Roman fortress, played a crucial role in the Roman-Persian conflict of the 6th century. Basically a Roman settlement, Dara was fortified by emperor Justinian whose engineers also constructed a huge underground cistern which today is a sight to behold and totally unexpected.
Dara’s necropolis, part above ground and part below ground, is still being excavated. It is vast, decorated with mosaics, and composed of tombs for the kings and royal family. Few people come here, so I was glad that my driver took me.
The last stop on our way back was the massive Saffron monastery. Also known as Deyrulzafaran Monastery, until 1932 it was the seat of the Syriac Patriarch and today is the center of the Syriac diocese of Mardin. Located on a plain surrounded by mountains, the saffron colored monastery is composed of several churches and chapels. It was originally built upon the site of a pagan temple, the remains of which can be seen underground. Many of the monks and patriarchs were learned men and the library bears witness to their literary work. You can see orthodox Christian altars and art work as well as the throne of the patriarch. Nowhere is the proximity of Islam and Christianity so apparent as in Southeast Turkey. Here a small minority still speaks Aramaic, the language of the bible.
This ancient land offers so many more intriguing places to see. And, I will return, preferably in the Fall, because the summers in this region are so very, very hot.
Written by and photos by Inka Piesga-Quischotte for EuropeUpClose.com